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Graduate Student Working Groups

Natura: Science and Epistemology

This working group will serve as an interdisciplinary forum to foster conversations about the historical and theoretical transformations in science, epistemology, and knowledge in Britain.


Students in the humanities working on science, epistemology, and knowledge inevitably engage in interdisciplinary work. Historians of science as well as literary scholars working on science have always been influenced by and drawn from the works in science studies, anthropology, analytical philosophy, and a range of other fields. Thus, “history of science” is no longer a monolithic subject under the purview of a single modern discipline. In spite of this, graduate students often construct their research projects focusing on a single topic in a single discipline. The lack of an interdisciplinary forum at Rutgers that interrogates these topics from the perspective of students’ research projects makes it harder for them to engage meaningfully in cross-disciplinary work in ways that can enhance the theoretical and methodological focus of their research. In order to provide a forum for students to formally engage in cross-disciplinary research, we would like to propose the formation of an interdisciplinary working-group that interrogates the study of science and epistemology in the humanities from the sixteenth-century to the present. The working group will examine various topics, including but not limited to literary, historical and philosophical engagements with science across a broad historical span, the relationships among epistemology, science, medicine and technology. While the working group will primarily focus on these developments in Britain, we will also examine how changes in the Continent and the development of scientific knowledge across the globe have and continue to transform our understanding of what constitutes objective knowledge.

Some of the questions the working-group will attempt to address: How has the study of “science” changed in the last 30 years in modern disciplines? How do different disciplines in the humanities uniquely complicate our understanding of scientific knowledge? Which epistemologies shaped the emergence of distinct disciplines within humanities and sciences? How do modes of knowing – certainty, probability, possibility, for example – enable the construction of scientific knowledge? What is elided when we term a method “scientific”? What happens to the techniques (like hypothesis) or particulars (like experiments) that become part of a probabilistic scientific method? How do other pre-modern and modern ways of knowing, such as prophecy or astrology, respond to or even resist newly authoritative epistemologies? How do standards of objectivity and truth, and the status of proof and verification, change from the sixteenth-century onward? How does the study of technology fit in with and historically change with shifts in the study of science?

The working group will help students develop their research projects by presenting them with various methodologies and theoretical frameworks of inquiry and also, more practically, provide a space to discuss and revise their ongoing work. It will also foster a community for discussion within the university, and allow members of the working-group to engage with leading scholars in their fields of interest.

Organized by:

Organized by Erin Kelly (English), Miriam Diller (English)

Breakdown of plans:

The working group is active for the 2013-2014 academic year. We conduct the following activities:

  1. Reading Group and Internal Workshops: The reading-group will serve as the primary forum for the students’ development of their own topics of research, by providing them with other theoretical frameworks and by helping them revise their own ongoing writing projects. Each semester, we plan to meet as a reading-group to discuss issues and questions through a series of focused readings drawn from the fields of the groups' members: history, English, science studies and philosophy particularly. Each semester, this reading-group will workshop a dissertation chapter or a work-in-progress that a student is revising for publication.
  2. Invited Lectures and Workshops: Each semester, the group will invite one speaker, either for a lecture or to workshop a pre-circulated paper. The two different formats will enable students in the working-group to engage with the work of scholars at different stages of completion, and understand not only the content of these works but also engage with works-in-progress. Ideally, we will invite one historian, one literary scholar, and one philosopher, so as to explore the diverse range of approaches to the study of science in the humanities.
  3. Graduate Student Conference (Spring 2014): We are organizing a graduate student conference developed from the interests of the students in the working group. For this event, we have invited a keynote speaker and will organize graduate student panels, with participants from different disciplines outside as well as inside Rutgers.
Fall 2013 Update:
Natura has planned out the following activities for 2013-2014:
  • Thursday, September 26: Introductory Meeting. 
  • Monday, October 14: Interdisciplinary Faculty Roundtable. Natura hosted a roundtable and reception featuring four Rutgers faculty doing interdisciplinary work: Joanna Kempner (Sociology), Leah DeVun (history), Nicholas Gaskill (English), and Pamela McElwee (Human Ecology).
  • Wednesday, October 9: Brunch with Larry Shapiro. We hosted a brunch with the CCA speaker, philosopher of mind Larry Shapiro, with open discussion and questions on cognition & philosophy.
  • Tuesday, November 5: We co-hosted a discussion of the poem "Seasons" in preparation for a talk given by Tobias Menely, professor of English at Miami University (OH) and scholar of animal studies and climate change.
  • Thursday, November 12: We are planning to hold a graduate student article workshop.
For Spring 2014, we are planning the following:
  • Friday, February 28: We are planning a conference on the topic of "Scientific (R)evolutions"! Our guest speaker is John Tresch, science historian at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information, please see our conference page:
  • Monday, March 3: We are hoping to host a lunch with Steven Shapin, historian and sociologist of science.

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