A Tale of Two Chemists


I was thinking more about my post last week that discusse the publication record of Theophilus Wylie, and was wondering how his record might compare to other scientists of his time.  One of the scientists I have also written about in relation to the American Chemical Society, is J. Lawrence Smith, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a founder of the American Chemical Society, professor, and writer of an address on how science should be practiced.  I thought it might be interesting to compare their respective scholarly publication records.  Needless to say, they are very different.  I think there is something important about what these two records of publication tell us about scholarly communication (such as it was in the nineteenth century).  These two scholars address very different audiences, and clearly have divergent views on the role of an academic in society.

Smith published about 145 articles in his lifetime.  A full listing of them can be found in a tribute to Smith published by Benjamin Silliman (editor of Silliman’s Journal/the American Journal of Science).  In reviewing these publications, they seem to be the kind of publications one would expect from a scholar (even today). They are research articles, and they are published in journals intended to be read by other scholars.  Most of the publications appear to be in Silliman’s journal (which would make sense because it was the only major American scientific journal at the time).  Smith also published in some other chemistry journals and some international journals as well.  Thus, in many ways, J. Lawrence Smith seems to be publishing in ways that might be similar to a modern chemist.  Importantly, the audience for which Smith seems to be writing is primarily other chemists, most likely those employed at other universities.

Theophilus Wylie was also a chemist; yet, his publication is very different.  Altogether, Wylie published just 7 items (at least that I could track down) including:

  1. Catalogue of the Library of Indiana State University (1842)
  2. Letter on gold found in Indiana read by Prof. John Frazer, Journal of the Franklin Institute (1850)
  3. Teeth and Bones of Elphas Primogenius, Lately Found Near the Western Fork of the White River in Monroe County, Indiana” in American Journal of Science (Silliman’s Journal) (1859).
  4. Baccalaureate Discourse to the Graduating Class of Indiana State University” Indianapolis Journal Company, Printers (1859)
  5. Andrew Wylie, D. D., First President of Indiana University” in the Indiana School Journal (1860)
  6. Interesting Report of Prof. Wylie of the State University.” Indianapolis Journal (1869)
  7. Indiana University: Its History from 1820, when Founded to 1890 (1891)

The catalogue is not attributed to Wylie, but is likely his work.  Only two of the articles were distributed in scientific journals, but seem more similar to his article in the Indianapolis Journal than they do to any kind of research article (like what Smith was publishing).  All of Wylie’s  articles in both the academic journals and the Indianapolis Journal are really geological reports (keep in mind that mining and geology were linked to chemistry in the nineteenth century, many of Smith’s articles are also on geology) that could be of interest to a fairly broad audience.

Is it possible to draw any conclusions from this very different publication record between Wylie and Smith?  I think it is, Wylie seems to be writing for a very different audience, the public.  In this case, Wylie seems to be writing for an audience that would include those interested in using the library (library catalog), all people interested in geology (academic and newspaper articles), students at Indiana University (Bacalaureate address), and all people interested in the history of Indiana University (book on the history of Indiana University, and biography of Andrew Wylie).  On the other hand, it would seem that  Smith sees the role of a scientific author as one which reports only to fellow scientists (which would be in line with what Smith advocates for in his address to the AAAS), Wylie seems to see his role of scientist as a person dedicated to the public.

Therefore, one might question whether these two chemists have competing views about what “scholarly communication” (in this case meaning dissemination of their ideas) should be.  Perhaps as we think about reform of the scholarly communication system currently, it might be worth thinking about the seeming division of roles exemplified by both Smith and Wylie.  What is the role of the scholar to the public?  As I said in my post last week, I am not advocating for a return to Wylie’s point of view, but I do think that scholarship should play a more public role.  The publication of Theophilus Wylie shows that prior to the formation of the current scholarly communication system, others thought that way as well, and can perhaps serve as a way for modern academics to think about the role of publicly disseminating their ideas.

Image Credit: (Left, Theophilus Wylie, image from https://wyliehouse.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/t-a-wylie-4.jpg and right, J. Lawrence Smith, image from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/John_Lawrence_Smith_by_Tony_Rogue%2C_1854.jpg)

Teaching vs. Research in Scholarly Communication

As I was thinking about the idea of “purity” of research topic last week, I’ve begun to draw some rather tenuous connections to another project I’m working on over the summer about Theophilus Wylie and his role as scholar and librarian in the nineteenth century.  In my discussion of purity, I mentioned Andrew Abbott and in Chaos of Disciplines Abbott specifically discusses higher education in relation to the trend of “purity” in research.  Abbott states “Professions are organized around abstract knowledge” particularly “those who exercise the profession’s knowledge in its most pure form” (p. 145). He then goes on to state that “In general, professionals who are doing what the public imagines to be the most basic professional functions are of relatively low status in the eyes of professionals themselves” (p. 146).  In the very next paragraph Abbott talks about university professors and their aversion to teaching.  Furthermore he describes their preference for teaching graduate vs. undergraduate students as a preference for “pre-professionalized votaries rather than demanding dilettantes.”

Certainly, the J. Lawrence Smith presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science fits this pattern.  Smith says that teaching “unfits him [the teacher/scientist] for that free exercise of the mind which leads to new ideas and discoveries. He becomes an educational drudge instead of an intellectual scientist.”  At the end of the post on the “purity” of research I mentioned that there must have been another tradition that opposed these viewpoints. I think some of my work on Theophilus Wylie who would have been ending his career about ten years after J. Lawrence Smith’s speech.  Coincidentally, Wylie was also a professor of chemistry so may have been aware (though I of course cannot prove it) of Smith’s views.

From what I know about Wylie, he was the very definition of what Abbott might term a “dilettante.”  He was a Presbyterian minister, professor of ancient languages, natural philosophy, chemistry, and other disciplines.  Additionally Wylie seemed to put a stress on teaching.  I have only so far been looking at his role as a librarian.  Even within that, however, he clearly feels that libraries should help to aid the teaching mission of the university.  When President Lemuel Moss tried to move the library into a more research oriented position, Wylie made a note in his diary about how much he objected to Moss’s actions.  Also, in his 1865 library committee report, Wylie spends roughly a third of it talking about how students in the sciences need to learn ancient languages both to better learn the scientific nomenclature and to broaden their minds.  In all, it seems that Wylie represents kind of view of a professor as a generalist interested in many subjects who dedicates himself primarily to teaching. This is the very conception of a professor that Smith is arguing against.  Smith is advocating for the kind of professional that Abbott suggests later dominated universities.

Abbott goes on to say that “the intellectual consequences of academic regression [focus on the pure science that Smith advocates] of this kind are considerable. . . . It is rather the general public and above all undergraduate students who now find that the social sciences give less compelling interpretations of social life than do the less technical humanists” (p. 146).  That Abbott quote is in the context of a chapter about a push toward interdisciplinarity and professional norms within the social sciences.  Though Chaos of Disciplines is about 15 years old at this point, it seems that his points are no less valid today.  Furthermore, I wonder about whether higher education needs to think about ways of re-professionalizing university professors.  Later in the chapter, Abbott discusses how academics are incentivized and suggests that “a change in academic hiring and/or in career structures could easily transform the system” (p. 149). I wonder what those norms might look like.  I also wonder if the kinds of activities that incentivized Wylie such as an emphasis on multi-disciplinarity and teaching would be beneficial for the university of the future.  Certainly the scholarly communication system as it is incentivized now is very similar to the kind of “pure science” that Smith envisioned.  I wonder if that structure is best suited to the needs of modern universities.  Should researchers become better teachers and communicators with the public?  Personally, I think that they should.

Should Academic Research be “Pure?”

In doing some reading about professionalization, and some research on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, one of the forbears of the American Chemical Society), I came across the presidential address of J. Lawrence Smith, a chemist and president of AAAS in 1873.  The discussion covers several topics, but prior to reading Smith’s lecture, I was reading an article by Andrew Abbott, “Status and Strain in the Professions,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Jan., 1981), pp. 819-835 where Abbott states, “Over time, professional knowledge develops a system of such relative judgments of purity and impurity. . . the accretion of such judgments produces a social structure in which these judgments are loosely associated with positions in a division of labor” (p. 13).  In other words, professionals within a field eventually determine what is “pure” professional practice and what falls outside of that.  Overall, this is not a particularly controversial statement, what I found in my reading in AAAS though, is that it reflects a moment when the exact process Abbot describes happened.

The first part of Smith’s address is about the division between application of research (specifically inventors) and “pure science” (Smith’s words), meaning research without specific practical application.  Smith goes on to argue that such pure science is the basis for the inventions that follow.  Again, nothing particularly surprising here since such arguments were not unique to Smith.  He goes on to say though in a discussion of why science in America is less respected than that of Europe that “What can a physicist, a chemist or a naturalist, do who has three or four classes to teach, usually in the most elementary part of their studies ? This very labor unfits him for that free exercise of the mind which leads to new ideas and discoveries. He becomes an educational drudge instead of an intellectual scientist.”  Toward the end of the address, in a reflection about science and religion, Smith states that “any chemist who would quit his method of investigation, of marking every foot of his advance by some indelible imprint, and go back to the speculations of Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and other alchemists of former ages, would soon be dropped from the list of chemists and ranked with dreamers and speculators.”  Overall, Smith seems to be arguing for two characteristics of a scientist.  First they should be free to do research and not be burdened with teaching.  Second, they should stay within a narrowly defined area and not move into philosophical speculations of previous eras.

From a modern viewpoint there is nothing controversial here.  Smith is basically arguing for what is more or less the current definition of a tenure track professor.  I am more interested in what the contrary view might have been.  It would seem that people like J. Lawrence Smith were arguing against a different viewpoint which, hypothetically, would state that teaching in universities should be more important and that philosophical speculations are a part of the job of a professor.  Clearly Smith here is reflecting the kinds of trends that Abbott identifies in which “purity” becomes an important part of professional identity.  Additionally, Smith himself went on to help found a professional society in which chemistry arguably became more pure because it was not mixed in with other sessions about the other sciences.

Why is all of this important?  Today debates about interdisciplinarity have become more important as we seek to understand issues such as climate change, social phenomena occurring on the internet, or the interdependencies between economics, politics, and culture in a global context.  Harvey Graff in his book Undisciplining Knowledge, however, suggests that “Throughout this history, and still today, efforts to understand interdisciplinary are marked by a signal failure to scrutinize definitions, disciplinary and interdisciplinary relationships, and the locations, organization, and institutionalization of declared or developing interdisciplines” (p. 215)  Furthermore, Graff argues that “What is at stake is nothing less than the framing of efforts to make progress on major intellectual and social problems; issues of public policy; expectations and anticipations; the allocation of resources, including the time and efforts of people and institutions; the articulation of organizations and structures; and professional careers and human lives” (p. 214).  Perhaps in light of modern debates it would be helpful to think about this earlier debate in which one side (that of creating a “pure” professional discipline) won.  The question is whether the forces that allowed them to triumph are similar today, and whether it might be time for a different framework (that of a less pure and less professionalized discipline) might be valuable in modern universities.