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 


Summer Blog Series Launch

Happy summer GECC members and readers! With temperatures rising and most classes taking a hiatus it’s time to add something to your reading list in the form of our summer blog series. Last year, under the direction of Emmie Miller (now GECC co-chair), the blog profiled early career scholars working in fields outside academia. If you haven’t read the interviews, check them out here. In taking up the mantle as communications co-chair I wanted to continue in a similar vein and use the blog to highlight some of the excellent work being done by historians of science as graduate students, traditional academics, and those branching out in new directions.

The first half of 2017 has brought current events into the forefront of many of our academic as well as non-academic lives. On the national and international stage coping with the fallout from the US election and Brexit, immigration, and activism including the Women’s March, Science March, and ongoing social justice advocacy by groups like #blacklivesmatter fill headlines and twitter feeds. Within the community of higher ed campus activism, funding concerns, and local politics continue to draw deserved attention. Personally, I have found myself asking what graduate and early career historians of science can bring to the table at this time. What platforms are there to express our concerns? How can our work reflect the times we live in? What is the role of historical criticism and how does it escape the academic bubble? These questions pre-date 2017, but with increased awareness and active commentary from organizations as large as the AHA and National Parks Service the time seemed right to look at the opportunities within our own house.

To that end, we will post three interviews over the next month (look for them on Thursdays!) addressing projects intended to break history of science out of a narrow academic box. In short, how historians of science are making a difference. Sarah Pickman co-organized a conference at Yale University on social justice issues which reached out to medical practitioners aw well as historians. The digital magazine Lady Science, co-edited by Lelia McNeill and Anna Reser brings critical historical assessments of science and gender to a broader audience. Finally, I spoke with co-editors-in-chief of the journal Endeavour, Richard Bellon and Joseph D. Martin, about its “In vivo” section, a dedicated space for historians to write about history and public policy. Each discussion is edited, but even with editing they are quite lengthy so please be patient. I hope they serves as both useful and entertaining reading over the weeks to come.

Happy Reading,
Sarah Naramore, GECC communications co-chair

About the author/editor- Sarah Naramore is a PhD candidate in the History and Philosophy of Science Program at the University of Notre Dame. Her research looks at the development of the American medical profession and medical theory from the American Revolution to the early nineteenth century.

CFP: Midwest Junto

Call For Papers:

2016 Midwest Junto for the History of Science

The 59th annual meeting of the Midwest Junto for the History of Science will be held April 1st-3rd , 2016, at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The 2016 Junto is hosted by the University of Oklahoma Department of the History of Science and the History of Science Collections, a truly world class collection. 

We welcome submissions for fifteen-minute presentations on any aspect of the history of science, technology, the environment and medicine. Graduate students are especially encouraged to participate. 

A short abstract of between 250 and 300 words of your proposed paper should be submitted electronically by February 1st, 2016 to Rienk Vermij ( Please include your name, institutional affiliation, the degree (MA/Ph.D) towards which you are currently studying, or faculty status, if that is the case, as well as your email, and phone number with your abstract.

CFP: History of Recent Economics Conference

History of Recent Economics Conference

University of São Paulo, Brazil – March, 14-15 2016

The tenth History of Recent Economics Conference (HISRECO) will be held at the University of São Paulo on March 14-15, 2016. HISRECO, which was launched in 2007 by an organizing committee comprised of Roger Backhouse, Philippe Fontaine and Tiago Mata, brings together researchers from various disciplines to study the history of economics in the postwar period. It is the organizers’ belief that this period, which witnessed crucial changes that helped establish economics as one of the dominant discourses in contemporary society, is worth studying for its own sake. The increasing availability of archival materials, along with the development of new methods inherited from the larger history and sociology of knowledge, have helped produce insightful contextual histories of the development of recent economic ideas. In particular, this topic offers good opportunities to young scholars who are interested in interdisciplinary approaches to the history of economics but also want to address the current community of economists.

This is why the History of Economics Society (HES), as part of its New Initiatives program, is sponsoring a small number of young scholars who would like to participate in the next HISRECO conference, and we are trying to secure additional funds for young scholars, who will have their travel, accommodation and meal expenses covered. Accordingly, we invite all PhD students as well as researchers who have obtained their PhD over the past two years (from July 2013 to September 2015) to submit by email a paper proposal of no more than 500 words (as a pdf file, containing your current affiliation and the university and year of your PhD, if this is the case) to Pedro Duarte (pgduarte [AT] usp [DOT] br) by September 30th 2015. Selected participants will be informed by October 26th, 2015.

For those who want to know more about HISRECO, a list of past conferences and contributors can be found at

The organizers, Pedro Duarte (University of São Paulo) and Yann Giraud (University of Cergy-Pontoise).

Midwest Junto for the History of Science

The 58th annual meeting of the Midwest Junto for the History of Science will be held April 17-19, 2015, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The 2015 Junto is hosted by the UW Department of the History of Science, one of the largest and oldest academic programs of its kind in the United States. Reflecting the program’s broad interest, we welcome submissions for 15-minute presentations on any aspect of the history and philosophy of science, medicine, and technology. Graduate students are especially encouraged to participate and, by Junto tradition, lodging for graduate student presenters will be partially subsidized.

A short abstract (100-150 words) of proposed papers or sessions should be submitted electronically by January 31, 2015, to Molly Laas at Please include your name, institutional affiliation, email, and phone number with your abstract.

Additional information on registration and accommodations will be added to the 2015 Junto website as it becomes available.

For further information, please contact Molly Laas at

The UW Department of the History of Science is pleased to host the 58th annual meeting of the Midwest Junto for the History of Science on April 17-19, 2015. Our location is the scenic and historic University of Wisconsin nestled between Lakes Monona and Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, home to over 40,000 students pursuing studies in 132 undergraduate majors and well over 100 graduate degree programs. Here in the land of beer and cheese, the Midwest Junto will have no trouble holding to its founders’ vision that it should be informal and congenial. We look forward to your participation.