History of science and technology, environmental history, “envirotech,” science and technology studies, agricultural and rural history, U.S. cultural and intellectual history, 20th-century U.S. and transnational history, history of development, history of home economics, history of food and food studies, digital humanities and public history.
My dissertation, entitled Cultivating Modern America: 4-H Clubs and Rural Development in the Twentieth Century, explores these ideas in the context of the youth agricultural and domestic science clubs known as 4-H. As an important part of the USDA Extension Service, 4-H aimed to shape the farming of the future by educating the farmers of the future, equipping them with the latest scientific methods and tools, ensuring the development of both American agriculture and American youth. I argue that 4-H implemented progressive, biological ideas about the proper development of crops, livestock, children, landscapes, and communities to achieve a type of modernity for rural places that was separate and distinct from the urban-industrial modernity scholars of the Progressive Era have emphasized. This rural modernity was based on science and technology, but also on farming as a way of life; on a belief in the improving power of scientific research as well as on an intimate, working understanding of the processes of growth and maturation innate in living things. Following this strain of thinking — which wedded biological ideas of development at the level of both organism and community, agricultural production and cultivation, and the application of scientific research on biology as well as society — illuminates the rural roots of American-style development as implemented by the Extension Service, and sheds light on a cultivationist strand of development thought that remains understudied.
A more complete overview of the project is available.
For my book project, I have conducted archival research at the following institutions:
- Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY
- Ford Foundation Archives, New York, NY (now housed at the Rockefeller Archive Center, Tarrytown, NY)
- Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections, Montana State University Library, Bozeman, MT
- National Agricultural Library, Special Collections, Beltsville, MD
- National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD
- National Museum of American History, Archives Center, Washington, DC
- Special Collections, Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS
- University Archives, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
- Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Madison, WI
My research has been supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the Cornell Dean’s Fellowship in the History of Home Economics, and an American Council of Learned Societies/Mellon Foundation Dissertation Completion Fellowship, as well as the John Neu Distinguished Graduate Fellowship and travel grants from the Center for Culture, History, and Environment and Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wisconsin. I am working on revisions to the dissertation as a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution.
My next research projects span the history of science, technology, and environment; and the history of material artifacts, technologies of organization, and knowledge production. The first builds on my dissertation research to explore the history of what I have come to think of as the “sciences of rural life” in the United States: a set of disciplines in the natural and social sciences that saw the betterment of rural living as their primary concern. These areas — including home economics, agricultural economics, agricultural engineering, rural education, rural sociology, and a host of fields within crop and animal science — largely professionalized around the turn of the twentieth century, during a period of political and social upheaval in farming and country life, and were concentrated at the land-grant colleges established by the Morrill Act of 1862. Together, these fields offer a fascinating lens on how knowledge about agricultural and social conditions, and the technological and economic systems that supported them, were created and modified through the interactions of local people, county agents, and land-grant specialists. They also help us see a cooperative scheme for scientific research practice that extends beyond the boundaries of the university, laboratory, and research institute, and that enrolls citizens and other participants in the processes of knowledge-making.
A second project relates to the history of office technologies and information management in the age of paper, focusing on stenography, shorthand, typing, and clerical activities from the late-nineteenth through the late-twentieth centuries. A third project explores the history of slate mining in North Wales and the southern Lake Champlain Valley of the United States.