Q&A with our new faculty

September 18, 2017
This academic year the History Department welcomes four new full-time faculty members, Deborah Coen (History of Science and Medicine), Samuel Moyn (Law), Sergei Antonov (Russia) and Carolyn Roberts (African American Studies/HSHM). Get to know our new professors by scrolling through below and click on the picture to visit their individual bio pages. Special thanks to History graduate student, Adrián Lerner Patrón for interviewing and compiling the questions and answers.



Deborah Coen

Your research has explored the links between science, society, and politics. In what ways are histories of everyday life and the history of science connected?
Science demands extraordinary dedication. Whether we’re talking about running a lab today or becoming a learned practitioner within an earlier tradition of natural knowledge, scientists are often expected to organize their lives around their pursuit of truth. So, we can think of science not just as an intellectual activity but as a way of life, and it’s that complete way of life that I’m interested in reconstructing as a historian. Take family relationships, for instance. One might think that’s a subject with no relevance to the history of science. But, in fact, success in the sciences has often depended on particular arrangements of family relationships, with wives and children providing not just assistance but actively fostering the material and intellectual environment in which exploration and experimentation can thrive. In this sense, modern science can’t be fully understood without studying the history of private life and the history of the emotions.
What do you see as the most fruitful links between intellectual history, environmental history, and the history of technology?
The boundaries between these three fields have become fluid today, and yet it seems to me that there remains some tension between the methodology of environmental history and that of the history of science and technology. It’s understandable that environmental historians want to be able to rest their accounts on the latest science. They might, for instance, draw on studies by ecologists and epidemiologists to understand how human activity has transformed a landscape and how those changes have in turn impacted the health of living things. As a historian of science, though, I always want another piece of this story. I want to know where that scientific knowledge came from. Who drew those conclusions, on the basis of what evidence, to what ends, and what other forms of knowledge might have been left out? Only by historicizing our own knowledge in this way can we arrive at a rigorously historical understanding of the human relationship to a landscape. 
Can you tell us more about your forthcoming book about the science of climate change?
Most histories of climate science focus on the postwar era in the U.S. and attribute advances in knowledge to the power of digital computers and satellites. I’m interested in the foundations of our understanding of climate change that were laid well before the computer age. Specifically, I argue that a critical turning point in the history of climate science came in the nineteenth century. Until then, next to nothing was understood of the relationship between “climate” as an empirical description of local atmospheric conditions, on one hand, and the mathematical theory of the planetary-scale circulation of the atmosphere, on the other. No one seemed to care how the small scale and the large were related! But this is precisely what matters if you want to understand how human activities can have planetary impacts. So, my project was to understand how that gap came to be recognized and how methods to bridge it were developed. The short answer is that it came out of the tight relationship between science and the state in nineteenth-century central Europe and the peculiar ways in which science was organized in the multinational Habsburg Empire.
How can historians fit into contemporary discussions of the present and future of climate change? 
The climate discussion has already been shaped in key ways by contributions from historians—including Naomi Oreskes, John McNeill, Sverker Sörlin, and Yale’s own Paul Sabin. In fundamental ways, addressing climate change depends on thinking historically. Taking appropriate action hinges on understanding how industrialization has rewritten the earth’s history. It requires us to recognize how sensitive human history has been to changes in climate in the past. And it depends on our capacity to imagine a future world whose viability will depend on the choices we make today.

Samuel Moyn

You join the Yale Faculty with a double appointment to the Law School and the Department of History. What can you tell us about the potential for collaboration between legal scholars, and historians?
Law is a topic, not a discipline. It is also a pre-professional track — so at Yale and most other universities, it has its own school and faculty teaching in it. But as a topic like many others, anyone can study it from any disciplinary perspective, including historians who don’t happen to be employed teaching pre-professional students. All this is a roundabout way of avoiding the question. There are historians who teach in law schools and historians who do not, and people from other disciplines who teach in law schools and not. We might have good reasons to collaborate and engage with our fellow historians regardless of their specialty, or to profit from an interdisciplinary space around a specific topic like law. More concretely, there is a Legal History Forum at Yale Law School that ought to be of interest to unaffiliated historians — and they are more than welcome to come! Conversely none of my law colleagues should think that “history” is exhausted by the scholars who happen to study it within legal academia rather than outside.
As a leading figure in the thriving field of Human Rights history, what do you see as the field’s main achievements, shortcomings, and possibilities?
I have written that this is a field that probably should have a short lifespan. It was a new topic and provided for some interesting debates about how to take it up. Most of those debates are of declining interest — though I hope there is still time to make at least one more bid for rethinking its basic parameters, since I have tried to do so in my forthcoming last contribution to the field. Probably the field has represented a way for historians to reflect, indirectly, on the viability of a certain post-Cold War idealism. Even if this mattered in its time, the ongoing history of recent years suggests there are more compelling themes to think about now.
A significant portion of your research offers critical accounts of the histories of the idea of Human Rights and of the contemporary Human Rights movement. Why do you think this is an important research agenda?
I would say my accounts are not critical so much as deflationary, and only in response to untoward enthusiasm that swept many people, including early historians in the field, into seeing human rights as a kind of final lingua franca - the morality of the end of history. I am a big fan of human rights, for the important but narrow work they do. Locally, they are one language among others for citizenship politics. Internationally, they stigmatize evil regimes, rarely changing them. Human rights movements, as we know them, are good at stigma but bad at solutions. And they are selective in deciding what to stigmatize in the first place. I do not see these as critical points: no one would say it is a critique of a hammer to say that it is not the only tool you need. I have been writing some realistic histories that grant human rights their uplifting idealism, which the world needs, and accounts for why it became attractive in this form, before going to stress that the rise of human rights has left lots of room for the invention of other ideologies and programs.
Can you tell us about your forthcoming book on the relationship between Human Rights and social rights?
I talk about economic and social rights in my new book, coming out next spring, but the main goal is to understand how human rights work distributively. The basic question in history is who rules whom and how they do so; the distributive version of this question is who gets what. The field of human rights history has lately been about the rise of the concept in politics since the 1970s, but if this is correct then the field needs to reckon with the fact that human rights became exigent in the same period that so-called neoliberalism won out. The new book looks back before the 1970s at how human rights were originally a language of the welfare state, with its distributively egalitarian impulses, before going on to examine how in our own political economy human rights have become standards for sufficient provision that can coexist with the endurance of global inequality and the explosion of national inequality. Once again, my conclusion from this study is not to drop human rights, but to recognize their limits and selectivity in the face of the range of problems humanity has and the solutions it might need to find to those problems.

Sergei Antonov

What can the history of debt teach us about life in time periods different than ours, and even about the present day?
Debt affects our life in so many ways that learning about it allows us to recreate a remarkably well-rounded picture of daily experiences in the past, especially of individuals who did not leave any written record aside from their debt documents and debt disputes. Most of us understand the basic concept of being in debt, but did borrowing indicate prestige or desperation? Who did you turn to for a loan and on what terms, how did the lender decide where to place her capital, what happened if the borrower could not repay, what role did the government play as opposed to other power structures? Not too long ago the solutions to these familiar issues were surprisingly different from our present-day experience. In my research, I looked at nineteenth-century Russia, at the cultural, legal, and financial underpinnings of a rapid capitalistic and industrial take-off that started in the 1860s and lasted until many forms of private property were abolished after 1917. Stalin’s industrialization in the 1930s bore some strong resemblance to its imperial antecedent, but the differences were quite considerable as well, especially in the importance given to private entrepreneurship and private discretion.
In terms of contemporary significance, I believe that learning about the culture of money and private property in the past is potentially very helpful. It’s important to remember that 150 years ago (or 1,500, for that matter), people faced many of the same challenges – what to do when you get sick, how to educate your kids, how to buy a house or start a business, how to deal with a personal disaster of some kind – and it’s helpful to see what options people had and how they exercised them. For example, in a pre-WWI civilization – not just in Russia – none of our familiar crutches were available, such as easy consumer credit, credit cards, reporting agencies, etc. But today, especially after 2008, these large capitalist credit structures are suddenly no longer quite as reliable as we thought, and it may be helpful to give another look at some of the older “traditional” practices – which I discuss in my book – that were based on informal connections and personal acquaintance. We might not immediately like the idea of borrowing from our parents or neighbors, for example, but at this point it’s not all that hard to imagine a world in which we may have to rely more on friends, relatives, or our immediate community more generally.
Your recent book examines the uses and impact of law in the everyday life of ordinary people in nineteenth-century Russia. How do your findings about law aim to reshape existing understandings of Russian history?
The older and very influential consensus was that law was historically weak and underdeveloped in Russia. This perspective came largely from imperial-era lawyers and politicians who escaped the Bolsheviks after 1917 and were reflecting on what went wrong. I am obviously not claiming that everything was perfect in tsarist Russia. I do say, however, that the disaster narrative leaves out some really important aspects of Russian life, namely, that pre-Soviet Russia was remarkably legalistic, that private property was at the center of Russian life, and that private property functioned primarily through legal norms and institutions, however imperfect. Unlike Russia’s infamous robber-capitalism of the 1990s, I found that during Russia’s first capitalist transformation in the mid-nineteenth century people overall would rather go to court than, for example, hire some thugs to collect a debt – and that’s despite the fact that other personal violence of all kinds was very common.
Can you tell us more about your current research projects on the history of criminal justice and the history of serfdom in Imperial Russia?
These two projects continue to explore the role of law in Russia’s history and culture, something we still know relatively little about. Both rely on close readings of unpublished court cases and the individual experiences of Russians from all backgrounds, women and men, rich and poor, young and old. To give you some sense of the issues I am working on, one of my forthcoming articles explores “commercial” crime in imperial Russia, such as swindling and forgery. Another draft article focuses on physical attacks by serfs against their masters and how the imperial system of criminal justice handled such cases, which were, in a sense, its “moment of truth.”
The Bolshevik Revolution took place almost exactly a hundred years ago. How have historians engaged the centennial anniversary, and what remains to be done? What opportunities does the centennial bring?
There have been many conferences and other events, at many institutions. At Yale there will be a yearlong film series sponsored by the European Studies Council’s Russian Studies Program, and I know that Anna Arays, our Slavic librarian, is planning a series of concerts and other events that take full advantage of Yale’s wonderful library and museum collections related to Russia. The centennial gives us a great chance to bring attention to the enduring importance of Russia and its former empire both in terms of twentieth-century history but also for understanding today’s world. Moreover, the massive turmoil that Russia and many other countries experienced in the early twentieth century is still relevant because many of the underlying conflicts of that time – from economic inequality and militarism to ethnic strife – have not gone anywhere.  

Carolyn Roberts

Could you tell us about your current book project on the history of medicine in the Atlantic slave trade?
To Heal and to Harm: Medicine, Knowledge, and Power in the Atlantic Slave Trade is an Atlantic history of medicine that represents the first study of the history of medicine in the British slave trade and the first from both West African and British medical perspectives. 
The book’s narrative is centered upon the intercontinental medical management of the slave trade and the medical labors of a largely unknown group of West African and British women and men, both enslaved and free.  I explore Liverpool apothecaries who became rich through slave trade drug supply and entered into the upper echelons of civil and political life.  I study Scottish surgeons who struggled to save their families from poverty and distress by working in the slave trade.  I examine eight-year-old enslaved West African boys like Jack who studied medicine in the slave trading zones and became a doctor in his own right.  I analyze communities of enslaved West African women medical practitioners like Deddie, Abinnebah, and Amenah, whose daily labors at British slave factories helped knit together broken bodies and fractured minds.  As a collective, their knowledge of pharmacy, surgery, and herbalism was mobilized to manage this odious form of human commerce and to stench the wastage of human life. 
I argue that the eighteenth-century British slave trade was a critical site of West African and British pharmaceutical and medical knowledge production in the Atlantic world.  This project investigates how pharmaceutical and medical knowledge advanced in the midst of, and because of, the terrors of the eighteenth-century slave trade.  I argue that the slave trade influenced the rise of the global drug industry, the modernization of medicine, and the development of natural history and botany. 
To Heal and to Harm is also about the meaning of medicine itself.  Like the oceans being crossed, medicine was in flux, in motion, acting and being acted upon.  From the perspective of British medicine, the slave trade upends comfortable notions that link curing with caring and healing with doing no harm.  The commodification of medicine and health in the eighteenth century British Atlantic world occurred alongside of, and in relationship with, the cruel and violent commodification of human life in the context of the slave trade.  With chilling frequency in the historical record, medicine – in the form of drugs, theory, praxis, or knowledge – has been responsible for wielding great harm.  This book manuscript invites readers to pause, dwell, and wrestle with such a reality.
How do transnational perspectives, such as those usually associated with Atlantic History and Global History, add to existing knowledge about the history of medicine and early modern history?
One of the things that most excites me about transnational, transatlantic, and global approaches to the history of medicine is how a broader gaze enables us to envision new relationships between seemingly disparate people, cultures, knowledge, geographies, and material objects.  I am particularly inspired by the rich historiography on the circulation of natural knowledge in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.  However, one of the critiques about Atlantic history in particular, is the relative absence of African historical perspectives.  Our knowledge of Africa during the era of the Atlantic slave trade has had little engagement with the history of medicine and my research adds West African medical and botanical knowledge to this robust literature.
I am also inspired by scholars who write about the sociology of knowledge and illustrate that the way information is arranged, ordered, and sorted is a powerful indicator of what can be known about a particular topic.  By weaving together the fragmented perspectives of different historical actors and putting them into relationship, new knowledge can be produced.
For example, when I write about slave trade pharmacy and the rise of larger-scale pharmaceutical manufacturing because of the slave trade, I make the experiences of the enslaved on slave ships a critical part of the discussion.  In doing so, business and economic history becomes infused with the very real consequences of living and dying in the slave trade.  Both the slave ship and the burgeoning pharmaceutical industry take on new dimensions by being read alongside of, and in relationship to, one another.
What have been the main contributions of the history of medicine to the history of African slavery and the slave trade?
As I mentioned earlier, my book project is the first to put the history of medicine into extended relationship with the slave trade.  However, in the context of slavery in the Americas, the history of medicine, broadly conceived, has been contributing new knowledge since the 1970s in regard to questions of nutrition, health, disease, and epidemiology.  Particularly fascinating to me, however, are what we learn from books like Sharla Fett’s Working Cures, which, in part, details connections between medicine and resistance in plantation societies in the Americas.  I am very interested in how medicine not only functioned to abuse and violate African and African-descended peoples but also represented a site of resistance.  The medical cultures, therapeutic interventions, and health traditions enslaved people erected in the Americas were often mobilized to resist the terrors inflicted upon soma and psyche, body and mind. 
What roles have the enslaved historically played in the history of science and medicine? How did their participation in these realms affect their status in their societies?
This is a huge and fascinating question – perhaps too dense to address in the space remaining!  Such topics are part of an exciting new wave of scholarly production.  I will be offering a graduate seminar in AY 2018-2019 that explores these themes in a comparative study of medicine and slavery in Africa and the Americas.  There is such terrific material to delve into and think through!