STS.030 Forensic History: Problem Solving into the Past
Professor Kate Brown
How widespread was the bubonic plague? What caused the fall of Rome? Who introduced rice cultivation in North America—European colonists or African-born enslaved? How many people did Chernobyl radioactive contamination kill?
Forensic history marries the tools of scientists to the research agenda of historians to solve mysteries buried in the past. This course serves as a workshop to explore forensic history (a developing discipline) by following new pathways to research and write history in the 21st century.
For centuries, historians have largely worked in archives and libraries using texts as the main catalyst to understand the past. This method has its limitations. Historians could only reach people who left behind a written record. What about people who were illiterate or too poor to preserve a record of their existence? Also missing from traditional historical method was the history of animals, plants and any other object that did not speak the way humans do. This shortcoming has become increasingly apparent as we realize in new ways the interconnected qualities of humans with the environment around them.
This course will serves as a workshop where students explore new science and technologies to open wormholes into a past which had long been considered inaccessible. Students will investigate how researchers deploy forensic technologies to confirm or dispute controversial events in history. Drawing on a large palette of techniques—from, for example, science on climate change, geology, molecular biology, proteomics, DNA testing, carbon dating to big data analysis—students will invent their own research techniques to understand histories of previous centuries.
One premise of this course is that with new sources and research methods, historical narrative will also transform. Students will explore narrative voice and writing techniques that elucidate a growing awareness of the shared properties of the human and natural worlds and of the general problem of the planet in a state of ecological distress.
Explore: Students will solve a mystery or crime in the past by coming up with a unique methodology to crack their case. The format of the course is collaborative. Workshopping ideas, swapping and borrowing from one another, teaming up and collaborating, we will seek to create new research techniques and hopefully solve some mysteries. In this course, it’s the process, rather than results, that are most important.
As the workshop develops research priorities, we will make field trips to labs and other sites to learn more, ask questions and gather information.
Writing the path to exploration. Like the great adventurers of the 19th century, students will log their journey into the past and practice how to describe their quest and explain complex technologies and science in plain language in order to bring readers along with us.
A sample of readings include some of the following:
– Joanna Radin. Life On Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood (Chicago, 2017)
– Marianne Sommer, History Within: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms and Molecules (Chicago, 2016)
– Lorraine Daston (ed). Science in the Archive (Chicago, 2017)
– Susan Lindee and Dorothy Nelkin. The DNA Mystique (Michigan, 2010)
– Robert C. Williams, The Forensic Historian: Using Science to Reexamine the Past
– Timothy LeCain, The Matter of History