Talking Critical History With Sarah Pickman

Last February, graduate students at Yale University hosted a conference entitled “Critical Histories, Activist Futures: Science, Medicine, and Racial Violence.” To kick off our summer blog series I spoke with one of the organizers, Sarah Pickman. Sarah is a PhD student in History of Science at Yale. Her research centers on the history of exploration, anthropology, and natural history of polar regions in the long-nineteenth century. In our conversation, we discussed the goals and outcomes of the conference and continuing activism among Yale graduate students in history of science. Below is an edited portion of our interview followed by links to resource and communities Sarah recommended for further reading.

Sarah Naramore: Could you give us a quick introduction about the conference?

Sarah Pickman: The full title was, “Critical Histories, Activist Futures: Science, Medicine, and Racial Violence, Critical Histories” as shorthand, which took place February 24 and 25 at Yale. Most of the conference occurred at the School of Medicine at Yale in the Medical Historical Library, our unofficial home of the history of science and medicine program (HSHM). The speakers were a mix of current graduate students, faculty, and healthcare providers and the moderators were all Yale faculty. There were a mix of history of science and medicine professors and also instructors and clinicians from the medical school. And in addition to the five panels, we also had a lunch session that focused on combining scholarship and activism, moderated by one of my colleagues in HSHM, Maya Sandler. The discussants were current medical students and PhD students in history and history of science and medicine.

We found that one of the perks of putting out a wide call for papers and asking for people from different backgrounds was that the attendance was really mixed as well. We had about 150 people over the course of the weekend. Yale has a medical school, a public health school, and a nursing school, so there were people who registered from all of those schools. There were also some undergrads. And we had a lot of non-Yale attendees. So that was one benefit. And in terms of how it actually went off, we tried to put people together thematically, rather than based on what field they represented.

SN: Did the conference foster cross-discipline dialogue and what was the value of such dialogue?

SP: Yeah. One of the things that we found out in the process of organizing this conference—and I should also say that the official conference organizations are a group of HSHM grad students who are doing something called the History of Science and Justice Collective. The HSJC website has a section for the conference, but we’re a group of students in the program who want to bring social justice into our work and what we do as young scholars. That was the official organizing body for the conference. One of the things that we found when we were putting together our CFP, we really wanted to get a broad spectrum of people and we wanted to bring people in from outside of academia. But once we had to do that, it was more challenging than we had naively assumed, because as an academic program, we don’t have a lot of links to the immediate community outside of Yale’s walls. In fact, Yale has historically had a really bad relationship with the larger New Haven community, based on things that have come out of the medical research that Yale has done and services that it has provided to the community, which is not a story that is unique to Yale. So one of the challenges for us, thinking about our role, is that we’re graduate students at this very privileged university. How do we go about doing something that has social justice in the name? What’s our position in that? We really had to do some soul searching in the process of putting this conference together

The whole idea started about a year ago, this past spring. There were a group of us in HSHM who were inspired by the activism that came out of the undergrad community at Yale. Things like Next Yale and people may be familiar with the protests around Calhoun College and the imagery around campus and certain aspects of Yale that undergrads really led the charge in trying to change. We were inspired by that, and a group of us sat down together and said, “What can we do as grad students in this institution?” So that’s where the History of Science and Justice Collective came from. The first thing that we did was call the Fall Forum, which is a group of speakers that we brought to campus this past fall semester, and then the conference. So now that the conference is over, we’re trying to figure out what our next steps are and ways that we can kind of carry those conversations on.

There was a group of us within the Collective who signed on specifically to handle some of the logistics. I did local arrangements. My colleagues, Tess Lanzarotta and Marco Ramos, headed up the programming committee,  and we wrote a CFP together. They read all the abstracts with some of our other colleagues and put the program together. And then we’re very fortunate here that we have wonderful program administrators who helped me pull together the logistics of a conference for 150 people.

SN: Yeah! It’s no joke!

SP: Yeah. I’m happy to talk individually about the steps of putting together something like that. In fact, one of our pieces of follow-up, we’ve been putting together a document to help others. We had this idea that we would like to take this Critical Histories, Activist Futures lens on the road and maybe use it as a template that other universities can use when they’re hosting conferences. We could have Critical Histories, Activist Futures 2 hosted by another school, so one of the things that we’re doing is putting together a document with everybody’s experiences that we hope will be useful for whoever takes this up next, and we hope that somebody does.

SN: So much of what we do as historians is solitary, each in our own little box. It is so singular, and it seems like what a lot of this is doing, the idea of groups like this and collaboration, is really sort of breaking down some of those walls as well.

SP: One of the things that came out of this conference, and which for a lot of us was one of the most exciting parts was the lunch panel on combining scholarship and activism. We had two discussants from Yale medical school—Maya Sandler, my colleague who is in my cohort kind of moderated. We had two of our colleagues from the broader history department, Viet Trinh and Amanda Joyce Hall, and a student from the medical school at Brown. Also it should be mentioned that Viet wrote an open letter published on the blog Conversation X. And that was one of our inspirations. He talked about a high-ranking Yale administrator who at an open house that happened about two years ago and made a dismissive comment basically saying that, “Diversity awareness is the purview of people in the humanities and social sciences, but that it’s not really relevant or easy to teach it to people in the sciences or the medical fields.”

The idea was to get them talking and then get the whole room talking about how we could combine scholarship and activism, because a lot of the pushback that people who are passionate about these things have gotten is that activism is the sort of activity that you could do on the side. But really, as a graduate student, the focus needs to be on your work. It’s like the activism part is separate from the scholarship, and so we wanted to get people to think about the really practical ideas about how they see combining this things, whether it’s—somebody brought up a great idea, a great insight, that if you are working on a particular community, but you don’t produce work that that community is familiar with, if you only write in English, and let’s say you’re working on populations that aren’t majority English-speaking, that is one way that your work is isolated from those people and kind of replicates some of the power dynamics that we don’t want to replicate.

But you don’t have to have as dramatic examples of that in your work to bring, to have a justice-minded scholarship, whether it is acknowledging where the absences are in your work, that you’re only working on certain communities while other voices haven’t been recorded in the historical record or things like that. I mean, I, on a personal level, I work on dead white men. In the nineteenth centuries, and they’re American and British white men. So this is something that I have been trying to think about a lot and sort of you know, not just saying, “Oh, my historical actors are all white dudes, so my project can’t be activist in some way,” and trying to think through how to challenge that.

SN: To start wrapping up, do you have anything coming up in the pipeline that you would like to share?

SP: Definitely the listserv. We’re going to start with the Google listserv and then see where that goes, so that is We’re [the History of Science and Justice Collective] also on Facebook and Twitter, and we’re also thinking about more traditional academic ways to follow up the conference, so we’re pitching conference reports. That will be good to have a permanent record of that weekend. What we’re most interested in doing is following up the conversations that happened with actual further steps and not just saying, “Oh, this was a great academic event. Let’s memorialize it in text somewhere and do something else.” But that part is going to take a little bit of figuring out. Again, that’s part of the process of trying to integrate scholarship and activism, figuring out exactly how we’re going to do that in a way that people find useful and how we’re going to connect with our colleagues at other academic institutions and outside academic institutions.

Want to learn more about social justice and scholarship? Check out the following:

Contact the History of Science and Justice Collective:
Twitter: @shjcollective 


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