Crunch Time


Well, five years and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears later, my dissertation is ready to be defended. I sent it out to the committee, we booked the room, scheduled the transcription service (aka real-time closed captioning), I checked out a pile of books from the library…and now, time to write my presentation.

Which means, dear Readers, I’m taking a 3-week hiatus from blogging. I’ll likely still be active on Twitter and on the FTHOQ facebook page.

Wish me luck–and I’ll meet you on the other side!

A Report on Disability & the Victorians: Confronting Legacies Conference

From July 30 to August 1, 2012, I had the pleasure to participate in the Disability & the Victorians: Confronting LegaciesConference, hosted at the Leeds Center for Victorian Studies at Leeds-Trinity University College. Over the course of three days, the conference brought together delegates from Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Uganda, Belgium, Australia, and many more, in hopes of integrating the disciplines of Victorian Studies and Disabilities Studies together. With three keynotes and sixteen sessions, as well as a visit to the Thackray Museum, the conference presented an abundance of energetic discourse on the topic of disability—as many of you already know from my Tweets on the conference!

As disability studies has emerged as a significant aspect for revealing key histories in Victorian culture (see: Martha Stoddard-Holmes, Fictions of Affliction (2006), Julia Miele Rodas, “Mainstreaming Disability Studies,” Victorian Literature and Culture 36.1 (2006), and the Special issue on “Victorian Disability” in the Victorian Review (2009)), one of the agenda of the conference was to uncover new avenues for a revisionist approach to disability studies, outside of the social construction model. Various speakers at the conference challenged traditional histories of disability that pinpointed the Industrial Revolution and nineteenth century social reforms as a period in which disability was conceptualized, classified, and marginalized; rather, as some of the presentations have revealed, disability has a rich history, and new creative disability narratives are revealed by seeking out non-traditional sources (e.g. police reports). In particular, the Plenary Roundtable session held on the last day and led by Iain Hutchison (University of Glasgow), Fred Reid and Nancy Hansen, focused on how to offer new directions for scholarly discourse on disability studies, especially directions addressing the testimonies of the disabled themselves. Hutchison acknowledged the fact disability is important for understanding the landscape of nineteenth social history, for it overlaps important historical areas—economics, medicine, politics, society, etc—and a focus on cultural approaches can possibly challenge the (perhaps outdated?) social model of disability.

A key issue discussed during the Roundtable, which sought to integrate the dominant themes of the conference, was how to create an interdisciplinary perspective from multiple sources, an issue reflected in the three keynote presentations, which stressed the importance of looking at sensitive and neglected histories. Martha Stoddard-Holmes (California State University), the first keynote, presented “Desiring Cognitive Difference in the Victorian Novel: The Case of Anne Catherick,” discussing the eroticization of madness as presented in Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White (1860). Can intellectual deficiency be sexually desirable? Stoddard-Holmes made a strong case for confronting critical discomfort, pushing towards challenging approaches for conceptualizing disability in relation to the history of mentality and moral management—particularly in the Victorian novel.

David Wright (McGill University), also spoke of Victorians and mental disability, in his keynote “Did the Victorians Invent Disability? A Case Study of ‘Mongolism.’” Examining the emergence of “Mongolism” (taxonomy of mental illness grouping individuals with Down’s Syndrome), Wright argues that the Victorian preoccupation of taxonomy was not about the perseverance of the dominant cultural motif, but rather a devotion to the Enlightenment ideals of betterment of mankind. As certification of “idiots” were largely undertaken by non-medical persons, the presentation challenged the “invention” of disability by medical experts in the nineteenth century—showing that disability in fact, needs to be historically re-evaluated for its roots are far more diffusive and complex.

The third keynote was presented by Vanessa Toulmin (University of Sheffield) , founder & director of National Fairground Archives, Sheffield, which holds over 6000 images relating to the history of the freak show—records, as Toulmin contends, that can be either “interpreted as both a history of exploitation, or a record of performance genres.” In the keynote, “’To Show or Not to Show’ the Victorian Freak Show: Issues of Contextualization, Cataloguing and Interpreting for Modern Researchers,” which contained controversial material that was actually approved by an ethics committee, Toulmin discussed how forms of illegitimate entertainment actually became institutionalized over time—including exhibitions, museums, circuses, world fairs, and side-show traditions. The display of disability as entertainment was actually quite widespread, and far from being displayed in the margins of society, it was actually assimilated into culture and society. As suggested in the keynote, we can clearly draw parallels between the culture of curiosities that emerged in the 16-17th centuries, and the “freaks of nature” exhibits; moreover, Toulmin argues that these entertainment environments forces us to rethink traditional histories about the “freak show,” in light of histories of performance and display—as evident with Toulmin’s narrative about learning lessons about curating and displaying these exhibitions following media controversy and outraged response. Modern media representation is something that needs to be considered when dealing with sensitive materials, for media misrepresentation actually can undo careful historical contextualization.

Even though there were some amazing papers being presented at the conference, due to my own research interests, I stuck to the sessions on d/Deafness. Traditional histories on the deaf argue that until the 1860s, deafness was often described as an affliction that isolated the individual from the Christian community, the tragedy being that the affliction denied the deaf the reach of the gospel. After the 1860s, deafness was redefined as a condition that isolated the deaf from the national community; being cut off from communicating with others was a tragedy. The papers in the first session argued that contextualization and deaf narratives actually revise this history; different perceptions on deaf history concentrating on race/ethnicity, policies, or religion, speak towards a performance of disability, emphasizing the cultural construction of disability? Esme Cleall (University of Liverpool) spoke of disability as defined within cultural contexts of colonialism of nineteenth century British empire, as narrated through John Kitto, the “Deaf Traveller,” whose privileged status as a white, British male contradicted with his marginalized position as a deaf man. Martin Atherton (University of Central Lancashire) discussed how the 1834 Poor Law categorized the deaf as part of the “deserving poor,” allowing them to be seen, for the first time, as disabled; and yet, these restrictions also gave the deaf, for the first time, something to rebel against. Toni Morgan (Leeds-Trinity University College) finished off the session by questioning n whether the deaf had “true personhood” as defined by religion, focusing on William Sleight’s voice from the Dumb (1849): promotion of sympathy and benevolence as an aspect of Christianizing deaf to hear the world of god, at the same time, deafness also portrayed as innocence or as messiahs.

The second session on deafness continued with recurring themes of charitable benevolence humanitarianism, and performance all wrapped with social controls and institutionalization. Mike Mantin (Swansea University) presented on the letters children at the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea sent home; these letters were printed in the annual reports of the institution to showcase its success as well as to solicit donations from subscribers. However, the letters are also another instance of display and performance, praising the marvels of education, while at the same time, speaking volumes about the perceptions of deaf children, who are usually silenced in history sources. Mantin also raised an important point about being wary of the kinds of motives behind these letters. Sofie de Veriman (University of Ghent) also spoke of motives, criticizing the “golden age” of deaf employment that coincided with education, with an economical case study of deaf employment in eighteenth and nineteenth century Flanders. Literacy and education may have helped the deaf obtain jobs before 1830, but after that, education did not guarantee employment. Nicola Gauld also discussed charity and institutions with an exploration to the archives of the Birmingham Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.

The last session on d/Deafness (other than my own) carried multiple themes relating to my own work: assistance and technology. Jennifer Esmail (Wilfred Laurier University) presented on the prosthetic companion of the blind man: companionship raising issues of dividing line of human and non-human animals—obviously ties to Aristotelianism—speaking on how perspectives on companion dogs as bodily extensions further enhances dividing barrier of human/non human beings. Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds) and Karen Sayer (Leeds-Trinity University College) presented on the “(dis)appearing hearing aid,” covering themes of the invisibility of hearing loss, stigmatization and conflicting authorities—the “culturally hearing”. Oralism, telephony, national efficiency concerns, and advertising all played a role in constructing the hearing aid. As Sayer explained, “When people think of hearing loss, they may or may not be resisting the kinds of visual association of technology.” Their presentation posed important questions of social history of technology and disability, questions which in part overlap identity narratives and taxonomies. Caroline Lieffers’(University of Alberta) paper on the making and marketing of B.F. Palmer’s artificial leg nicely rounded up the session, with discussions on authenticity and authority, and display and performance. This session raised questions of how versatile technology aimed to normalized disabilities, but yet contributed to stigmatization (e.g. concealing devises to hide disability and increase social participation), which suggests that the problem of disability is not so much about infirmity per se, but about ready access to technology.

Delegates were also invited to visit the Thackray Museum, which was one of my favourite parts of the conference. Below are some photos I managed to take with my iPad (with absolutely poor resolution!):

Thackray Museum
19th Century Auricles
Various Hearing Aid Instruments & Devices
Various hearing aid devices
Delegates inspecting various artifacts

This conference was simply wonderful. I truly enjoyed the many conversations with a wonderful group of scholars—particularly Graeme Gooday, John Hay, and Jill Jones, who offered me indispensable advise for my own work. I look forward to hearing more from the delegates as we take away some of the lessons of the conference. I would like to finish off my report with gratitude. Thank you to the organizers of Disability and the Victorians, especially Karen Sayer, for all their hard work in putting together a fantastic event, and for inviting me to participate. Thank you to the Review Committee and the Board of Disability History Association for selecting me for the 2012 DHA Graduate Student Award and to the Institution for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at University of Toronto, for funding that made this trip possible.

My presentation, all set up!

Off to Leeds!

I’m headed out to Leeds, UK for the Disability & the Victorians: Confronting Legacies Conference to be held at Leeds-Trinity University College. This should be an interesting conference for me, for it’s the first time I’m presenting a paper to an audience composed of historians and other scholars of deaf and disability studies. I’m really looking forward to engaging in an extremely diverse and unique dialogue on the history of the deaf and Deaf communities. The conference’s mandate:

The nineteenth century was the period during which disability was conceptualised, classified, and defined. The industrial revolution, advances in medicine, emerging taxonomies and categories of disability, all played their part in creating what today’s society describes as the medical model of disability. Disability can betraced through many forms: in material culture; literary genres; scientific, medical and official inquiries; art; architecture; the history of philanthropy and disabled charities; disabled people’s experiences and testimonies; the types created withinphrenology and physiognomy; events and legislation.

This conference will explore conceptualisations of disability in the Victorian period,and their (real-world) legacies down to the present day. Those with an involvement in disability, through work, research, teaching or direct experience, and papers that adopt a comparative frame, shifting across the disciplinary boundaries of history, literary studies, the history of medicine, the history and philosophy of science, art history, etc. are especially sought.

The full conference programme can be viewed here. Here’s my paper abstract:

“Not to Become a Breeding Ground for Medical Experimentation:”
Examining the Tensions between Aurists and Educators for the Deaf, 1815-1830

The dramatic rise of institutions for the deaf in Britain during the early nineteenth century were largely driven by charitable concerns and founded on the basis of private benevolence and public donation. These institutions, which emerged first in France and then Britain in the late eighteenth century, situated deafness in the realm of language and communication; from this standpoint, educators resisted the attempt to integrate deafness into the medical world. Educators and social reformers such as Charles Baker (1803 1874) claimed medicine’s long history of ineffective cures and treatments undermined the efforts of sign-language instructors, by distracting them from the language-oriented goals of the asylum. Moreover, they argued that aurists—medical practitioners providing specialized treatment for ear diseases— practiced in a “field of quackery” and were ill-disposed for dealing with the complicated pathology of the ear. Several aurists, however, believed an alliance with educational institutions for the deaf was necessary for reforming the “miserable” state of the deaf in society. This paper examines the interrelationship between two aurists—John Harrison Curtis (1784-1852) and William Wright (1773-1860)—and the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (est. 1809) and evaluates how institutional policies commingled with the production of medical authority. By tracing the interplay between Curtis, Wright, and the Asylum, this paper argues the tensions between education and medicine emphasized the necessity and responsibility for treating the deaf, and raised questions as to who had the authority to care for this marginalized section of the population.

Wi-Fi permitting, I’ll be tweeting the conference and will follow up with a blog post. Hope to see you there!

Philadelphia Bound!

Like hundreds of other scholars, I’m headed to Philadelphia for The Three Societies meeting: a joint meeting of the  History of Science SocietyBritish Society for the History of Science and Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science. It takes place every four years, so I’m excited for my first ever participation in this meeting. And of course, to visit Philadelphia!

I’m in a session titled “Novelty in Medicine,” taking place on Thursday July 12 at 4pm. Here’s the full list of the panelists:


Michael Finn, University of Leeds
“Constructing a Diseased Mind: Testing Animals,Studying Patients, and Mapping Brains in a Victorian Asylum”

Jonathan Simon, University of Lyon
“Serotherapy in Lyon: The Local Reception of Innovation”

Jaipreet Virdi, University of Toronto
“Inquests into a Surgical Procedure: Creating Public and Professional Trust in Aural Surgery, 1830-1845”

Daniele Cozzoli, Universitat Pompeu Fabra
“Ranyard West’s Research on the Effect of Curare in the Central Nervous System Diseases”

Chair: Nola Semczyszyn, Franklin & Marshall College

My paper will narrate some of the public and professional responses to the coroner’s inquest into the death of two patients within a few days, at the practice of one Dr. Alexander Turnbull. Some of the responses questioned the very nature of aural surgery’s surgical authority and their lack of consensus regarding Eustachian Tube Catheterization. I’ve given a different version of this paper at the 2010 Annual CSHPS meeting before, though not in much detail as this presentation.

See you soon!

Visuals & Representations

Oh. It’s really been a while.

I didn’t think teaching and writing and conferencing would take up so much of my time.

I was prepping for next week’s lecture, on Darwin in Caricature and was reminded of my first post for Giant’s Shoulders, posted almost exactly a year ago, on Visuals and Representations in the History of Science. It’s perhaps fitting that the graduate journal, Spontaneous Generations: A Journal in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology just issued a new call for papers:

Spontaneous Generations Call for Papers for Volume 6: Visual Representation and Science

Spontaneous Generations is an open, online, peer-reviewed academic journal published by graduate students at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto.

Spontaneous Generations publishes high quality, peer-reviewed articles on any topic in the history and philosophy of science. For our general peer-reviewed section, we welcome submissions of full-length research papers on all HPS-related subjects. Scholars in all disciplines, including but not limited to HPS, STS, History, Philosophy, Women’s Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, and Religious Studies are welcome to submit to our sixth (2012) issue. Papers from all historical periods are welcome.

In addition to full-length peer-reviewed research papers, Spontaneous Generations publishes opinion essays, book reviews, and a focused discussion section consisting of short peer-reviewed and invited articles devoted to a particular theme. This year’s focus is “Visual Representation and Science.”

Submission Guidelines The journal consists of four sections:

1. The focused discussion section, this year devoted to “Visual Representation and Science” (see below). (1000-3000 words recommended.)
2. A peer-reviewed section of research papers on any topics in the fields of HPS and STS. (5000-8000 words recommended.)
3. A book review section for books published in the last 5 years. (Up to 1000 words.)
4. An opinions section that may include a commentary on or a response to current concerns, trends, and issues in HPS. (Up to 500 words.)

1. Submissions should be sent no later than 24 February 2012 in order to be considered for the 2012 issue. For more details, please visit the journal homepage at

Focused Discussion Topic: Visual Representation and Science

How do scientists use visual representations? A cursory examination of scientific practice suggests that images are used extensively; from textbooks to lab books, from private notes to public lectures, images are often researchers’ and educators’ favorite tool in understanding and explaining the objects of their inquiry.

However, it is only recently, with scholars’ turn towards examining scientific practice, that the cognitive and social implications of scientific imagery have come under investigation. Historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science have begun to ask how scientists use visual techniques to assist in their reasoning, embody their theories, frame and control debates, and convince their publics. From adaptive landscapes to Cayley graphs, from drawings of early hominids to medical imaging, the pictures that scientists use every day to illustrate, deduce, and understand have come under investigation.

In this issue of Spontaneous Generations, we invite papers for a focused discussion that will explore and give new perspectives on the relationship between science and its visual representations, from antiquity to the present.

Some questions that may be addressed by papers submitted for the focused discussion section include, but are not limited to:

– What are the role(s) of visualizations in scientific practice?

– How should we understand the relationship between schematic images and the complex, natural objects they represent?

– What validity should be ascribed to scientific mental pictures and/or thought experiments?

– How do images reflect and influence scientific values? How do images affect the content of science?

– How have scientific representations contributed towards particular conceptions of the objects and theories of science?

– How have changing visual technologies affected scientific theory and practice?

– How have certain visualizations come to signify and embody specific scientific entities and theories?

– How should we understand the visual decisions taken in the design of scientific models, instruments and apparatus?

– Which factors determine how scientists visualize “invisible” entities, such as biological processes, subatomic particles, or chemical states?

– What is the epistemic status of visual models and simulations?

Please distribute freely. Apologies for cross-postings.