Earlier this year, I submitted papers related to different parts of my dissertation work to three different conferences: the History of Science Society, the American Historical Association, and the Joint Meeting of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America. These meetings were originally scheduled to take place in New Orleans, Seattle, and Washington, DC, respectively. As the realities of the year set in (at different times for different people in different places), the organizing committees of each of the three conferences made different decisions about how to proceed. The directors of the Joint Mathematics Meeting, scheduled for Jan 6-9, 2021, decided to shift the original program to a virtual format. The American Historical Association decided to cancel the meeting outright. The History of Science Society, jointly convened with the Society for the History of Technology, decided to postpone the in-person meeting until next year and to host a "Virtual Forum" instead, which took place over the past few days.
In addition to the Forum for the History of Mathematical Sciences business meeting (keep an eye out for upcoming books from Karen Parshall, Joan Richards, and Michael Barany!), the main sessions that I tuned (Zoomed) in to were part of a roundtable series on "HSS Futures." The first roundtable in the series, "What Do We Do about the Future of Scholarship?," was a continuation of a discussion published in the Open Conversations section of the June 2020 Isis called "Diversifying the Discipline or Disciplining Diversity." In her introduction to the discussion, Myrna Sheldon Perez offers a remarkably compelling call for historians of science to actively promote justice, in part through the promotion of diversity. This led to a discussion of whether and how to collect demographic data about those who submit to and whose work is published in Isis, the flagship journal of the History of Science Society. As Perez notes, there is a need for scholars who study the production of knowledge and data to consider how they themselves are producing knowledge and data. "How can our knowledge about the history of the measurement of bodies, race, intelligence, and the like inform how we think about measuring the bodies of our own membership?" The discussion that follows interweaves the historical work of leading scholars with their concerns about the field. Front and center are the histories of violence wrought by the forced categorization of people and the power imbalances that undergird various forms of data and statistics. The discussion interrogates exclusionary practices like binary gender categories and geographically situated practices like asking people to self-identify as one among a set list of races. As Ahmed Ragab writes: "To be sure, I stand firmly on the side of collecting information and conducting surveys. However, I question the trappings of a statistical rationality that only admits the worth of lists, percentages, and graphs and that understands diversity as a goal-oriented endeavor where one can reach a magic number of “sufficient (read: enough) diversity.” Instead, I argue for open-ended surveys that interrupt these rationalities and the archives they build."
Planning for this open discussion began more than a year ago, but it seems to have taken on new urgency in 2020. More explicit discussions about the current pandemic and long standing traditions of anti-black violence took place during the second "Futures" session, which asked What Do We Do about the Future of the Profession? Ayah Nuriddin, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, spoke eloquently about how recent events have disproportionately affected those who were already marginalized within the academic community. She asked us to reimagine what it means to be historians and the ways in which our workspaces are and are not welcoming to different communities. Patrícia Martins Marcos, a graduate student at the University of California San Diego, mentioned the particular challenges faced by international students and the lack of structural preparedness at institutions that have been stumbling through recent events. Elaine Leong, Lecturer at University College London, reflected on the privileges of having access to archival resources that have become inaccessible for many scholars, particularly those whose work brings them to places outside the United States and Western Europe. Alexandra Hui, co-editor of Isis and assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University, presented data regarding article submissions. As the session description notes: "Recent statistics from Isis show that submissions from women have declined over the past several months with a presumed link to COVID-19. Additionally, a recent article in the Chronicle notes that 40% of research universities in the US and Canada do not provide paid parental leave. The numbers alone are reason for concern but also open a window to talk about the systemic challenges women (at all career stages) face, including (but by no means limited to) disproportional caretaking responsibilities, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Another impact on publishing also directly affects early career scholars, whose ability to travel, access archives, and engage the academic job market is unusually constricted."
The third and final "Futures" session asked What Do We Do about the Future of the Society? How can professional organizations become more representative of diverse scholars and scholarship, and how can they better support the scholars and scholarship they represent? After "attending" these sessions by sitting in front of my computer screen, I realized how drawn in I had been by a grid of talking rectangles. Although I tend to find in-person conferences compelling and energizing (as well as exhausting...), I would not often describe Zoom conversations as such. The fact that these were speaks to the talent and eloquence of the participants. The challenge remains, however, of transforming discussion among rectangles into action beyond the screen.
On the topic of conferences, I wanted to note the upcoming Black Heroes of Mathematics Conference hosted by The British Society for the History of Mathematics, The International Centre for Mathematical Sciences, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and the London Mathematical Society on October 26th. Registration is free (as it should be for an event like this). Hope to see you there!