History to the Public (in Real Life)
Approximately half a year ago, I decided to take a break from my academic career and travel the world. I had no particular aim in mind besides experiencing what happened along the way. Inevitably, people ask whether I am traveling for work or school, and while I answer, “no,” I also feel that I cannot separate my academic interests from what I experience.
As a historian of science, I have often been asked what exactly I do, and have had to find a way to explain my work succinctly while doing it justice. If people express interest, I have also found this to be a fruitful jumping off point for exploring the theoretical grounding of my work, the philosophy of science. Often people have thought about the types of questions the field attempts to address: how do we know what we know? Who creates knowledge? How have things changed over time? But they don’t always consider concrete examples of history. I then explain how history is often written by the “winners,” usually leaving out the voices of individuals. Expanding people’s perview beyond the simple, landmark events often taught in secondary education to stories they were never taught often intrigues people.
While I do discuss my specific research, the social controversy surrounding contraceptives in the 20th century, I have often found myself exploring the broader themes of my work: patient activism and medical knowledge and dissemination. People want to hear about the forgotten “stories” of history: the forced sterilization of black women in early 20th century America, for example.
These insights are not limited to those I speak with, but I have found myself learning more about topics I have previously written about. Through my international travels, I have a gained a more tangible understanding of the global interactions between developing and developed nations, leading to a deeper grasp of the intricacies of the population control movement and its effect of contraceptive technology in the second half of the 20th century. Further, living in different countries and experiencing firsthand the different views on contraception has expanded my grasp of their social implications. I have thought about the various ways different historical decisions about contraceptive use and dissemination have influenced today.
Beyond these specifics, however, I have realized what an engaged audience many people are when discussing epistemology. While sometimes as historians we become entangled in the specifics of our research, this time away from my work has helped me take a wider lens on the issues pervading my research. Further, traveling and speaking informally with people has allowed me to discuss both my specific research and the field generally to those beyond an academic audience, outside of a classroom or conference setting. These experiences have reminded me of the importance of engaging with a wider audience on a personal, everyday level, suggested by the intent of this blog.