HIST 306, History of Numbers in America
Dan Bouk, assistant professor of history
TTh 9:55–11:10 a.m., 432 Alumni Hall
Numbers — like the SAT, BMI, or credit ratings — have extraordinary power in modern society, but we seldom ask where they came from. Investigating the history of important numbers opens up new ways of thinking about how we allocate power, wealth, and risk in American society, as well as questions about how modern Americans use numbers to think about themselves and others. Through this course, students learn the methods of cultural historians: how to digest big and important books, understand scholarly articles, and wrestle meaning out of obscure primary sources. Along the way, they develop new conceptual tools for understanding U.S. history, the history of science, business, and the modern state, as well as a bit about Colgate’s own history.
On the reading list: Ann Fabian, Skull Collectors; Scott Sandage, Born Losers; Sarah Igo, The Averaged American; Jonathan Swift, “A Modest Proposal”; Nick Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” American Historical Review 112; and Howard Williams, A History of Colgate University 1819–1969
Exams: In lieu of a midterm, students answer individual exam questions at the beginning of every few course meetings; two papers; and a final project to be presented publicly.
The professor says: “The history of numbers offers a great opportunity to cross disciplinary lines. I come by my fascination with cross-disciplinary work honestly — my father was a physicist and my mother taught college English. I majored in computational mathematics, then went on to earn a PhD in history. I am writing a book about the centrality of life insurance companies to developing the infrastructure for collecting statistics about people in America.”
Live and learn
During the winter break, I was lucky enough to spend a day shadowing Crissy Shropshire ’92 (left), executive producer of Food Network advertisements. This opportunity was offered to me as part of Colgate’s Day in the Life program, which matches students with alumni who work in fields that the students are interested in learning more about. As a sophomore, I know I will soon have to choose a major that best suits my dream career in television and advertising, and Crissy gave me a taste of what such a career entails.
During my eventful day at Food Network, I went on a location scouting trip to Brooklyn to find a space to do interviews and videos for an upcoming advertisement. I also watched an editor facilitate small changes of sound bites almost instantly, as instructed by a producer. In addition, I was given a tour of the Food Network studios, including the famous test kitchen and the room where they tape most of their in-house cooking shows.
One of the producers I met during my visit told me that producers are like the conductor of an orchestra — they don’t play an instrument, but they make sure everyone else is playing and in tune. After watching Crissy field countless calls and e-mails from co-workers, tweak sound bites, and run from meeting to meeting, I understand how much effort, time, and creativity goes into every ad. I was so glad to have this opportunity to visit with such talented people and get a behind-the-scenes peek into what we see on television every day.
— Carlie Lindower ’14