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This episode features Dr. Samantha Muka, whose enthusiasm for her work is pretty much guaranteed to improve your day. Sam’s first book is Oceans Under Glass: Tank Craft and the Sciences of the Sea, in which she investigates how a community of aquarium users have created and shared knowledge about how to take care of marine life in captivity. Sam is an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and she is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters about the history of marine science, including essays in Slate and The Atlantic. We talked about how her enthusiasm translates into her writing voice, keeping track of non-traditional sources, and what Sam has in common with a horse (you’ll just have to listen to know what that’s about).
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
- Hermit crab expert Mary Akers’ website and Etsy shop
- Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM)
- Stephanie McCurry
- Robert Kohler
- Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences journal, including the recent issue on archival problems
- Margaret Atwood
- Lauren Groff
This is Drafting the Past, a show all about how we write history. And I’m your host, Kate Carpenter. This episode features Dr. Samantha Muka, who’s enthusiasm for her work is pretty much guaranteed to improve your day.
Thank you for having me.
Sam’s first book is Oceans Under Glass: Tank Craft and the Sciences of the Sea, in which she investigates how a community of aquarium users have created and shared knowledge about how to take care of marine life in captivity. Sam is an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and she’s also the author of numerous articles and book chapters about the history of marine science, including essays in Slate and The Atlantic. We talked about how her enthusiasm translates into her writing voice, keeping track of non-traditional sources and what Sam has in common with a horse. You’ll just have to listen to know what that’s about. I hope you’ll enjoy my conversation with Dr. Samantha.
I started out when I went to undergrad, which I’m going to start with my trajectory here just because it is important to me. I was a literature major and I was really a literature major because when I went to college, I was a first-generation student and I was like, that’s the skill I have. I’m a really good reader. I was especially good for a Floridian, right? We’re not known for our literacy. But I think you learn to write in this highly flowery way, and then someone comes in and they just say, chop it all to death.
And so when I got to graduate school, my first degree in graduate school is in history and philosophy of science. And so I then learned to write a philosopher, which is brutal. The first time I got a philosophy paper back, I was like, “Are you telling me I can’t use a single adverb like ever?” And they were like, “Yeah, you got to write what you mean.” I’m married to a philosopher, and sometimes in the middle of an argument he’ll say, “I don’t think that you mean that.” And he means it in a very kind of philosophical way.
And so when I entered my dissertation phase, I was really quite torn about what type of writer I wanted to be. And I took a class actually with Stephanie McCurry, who is a American historian, and she said, first of all, she scares the daylights out of me. I’m sure I can say that on a podcast, it’d be fine. She’s like the scariest person to sit in a classroom with, I respect her so much. And she said, “You go to graduate school to learn how to sound more like yourself. You just go to graduate school to learn to write yourself. So we break you down and then you at some point figure out what your voice sounds like.”
And so when I transitioned into my dissertation and then eventually into my book writing, I started to think about what I wanted to sound like. And it was a little bit more conversational than maybe other historians might like sometimes. We’re trained at Penn as historians and sociologists. And so sociologists have a tendency to write from the first person a little bit more. They’re a little bit more conversational, and they place themselves in the story. And while I was pitching my book, people would be like, “I don’t really know what you’re going for here. This is a weird sort of writing.” And I knew that it made pitching the book a little bit uncomfortable because everything sounded a little muddled. What am I trying to do here? And so it was in the process of writing the book that I think I found my voice, which is somewhere between really kind of pedantic historian and hyper party girl sociologists. I smashed them together into really excited historian.
And I started to, I would do interviews with the newspaper people who had read my writing and instead of calling me a historian, they would call me aquarium enthusiast. And I was like, oh, that’s a problem. But I guess I come across as extremely enthusiastic and I really, I’ve tried to tone that down, but the truth is that is my voice.
And so in some sense, I think that my writing voice has developed to be very similar to my speaking voice. And Penelope Hardy who reviewed my book, she wrote to me and she was like, “God, it’s just listening to you out loud.” And I was like, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I think it’s the thing that I felt that I was really chasing when I started writing was that very particular voice. And so I’m glad at least that people think that my writing matches my speaking in that sense. So it’s taken a long time to get there.
You mentioned just before this, that this book isn’t your dissertation. Why did you decide to go a different direction?
My dissertation was so boring, actually. People were like, “You should publish that.” And I was like, “I don’t even want to read it again. No.” When I started my dissertation, I used to be a historian of medicine, when I got into graduate school, I came in as a historian of public health, actually, religion and syphilis was my specialty. And then I transitioned. I got really interested in this group of people who learn about the ocean, and I thought that I would write a dissertation on how it formed. And so, using historical methods, my dissertation was very history of biology. I thought space, like laboratory space was the thing that was really important. There are lots of great things about writing a dissertation, but when I got to the end of my dissertation, which I do like, and I loved it, I still hadn’t answered my question.
And my question was kind of like, why is marine biology so different than other? Why is it not transitioning into this hyper professional stage that we see with really firm boundaries like physics and other things like that? Why is it maintained in this porous boundaries? And I hadn’t answered that question. And so everywhere I went, when I worked on my dissertation, the archives were usually in an aquarium or near it, and so I would just go scoop up everything. And I was lucky enough to have a pre-doc at the Smithsonian, and so they have all of these archives from other things.
And so when I went back to really look, what I found is that I thought it was the tanks that were creating this structure. And so I just thought I would rather write about the thing, which I find my kind of mobilizing question, instead of pursuing a book that would probably be quicker and better for my professional trajectory in some ways. And I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’m certainly not the only person that has not published their dissertation first. And actually one of my advisors, Fritz Davis, published his second project before his dissertation. And so, it wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy, but I think that the fact that I was so interested in the question made it really just something I wanted to do badly. And so that’s kind of how I got to it. I had all the documents. I really didn’t have to do a lot of other research, and there are bits and pieces because most marine laboratories had public aquariums, and so a lot of that was just naturally built in. It was a perfect second project, but first book.
Well, let’s talk practically about how you write. When and where do you like to do your writing?
Hopefully, maybe I’m the only person that’s ever said this. When I started writing my book, I finished my dissertation and my husband had just gotten a tenure track position in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I was still teaching in Philadelphia, so I was taking a commuter bus two hours and 40 minutes south, every other day. So I was on that bus for a little over five hours, and that would be if everything was on time, which has never happened. I wrote the majority of the first draft of my book on a bus, and I got really used to doing that. There was no internet, there was nothing to do. So I would load everything onto my computer and I would just write with all of my archives digitally put on the computer. And then I still commute. So I commute by New Jersey Transit, it is a dream, two hours. So beginning of the line to the end of the line. And so I write from two to four hours. When I was doing my book, I would do edits.
There is something very useful about that. I find it very difficult to write anywhere. I can’t write in coffee shops, I cannot write in open spaces, I really can’t write in a space that has a high ceiling, which is a weird thing. So if I’m in, I need a super low ceiling, and also I’ll often put a hoodie on. So I often say I’m like a horse. I have to block out all outside information and all, and for some reason the train does that for me. There are a billion people, they’re all over, but if I can put in headphones that I have a hoodie on, I’ll just write the whole time. And so that’s what I got used to doing. During the pandemic it was really hard for me to not be able to go on public transportation and write. It was so hard. I can edit pretty much anywhere, but I can only write a new thing in a very particular environment, and it has to be very small.
This is what you get from being on a commuter bus. And I also, I feel so bad for the drivers of that bus because I have really bad motion sickness and it’s caused by reading, so it’d sit right next to them and just type. They were like, “Oh God, this one’s got to leave me alone.” And I type really loudly because I learned to type on a typewriter, so I spare a thought occasionally, these poor bus drivers who I annoyed for four years on the Martz bus from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia every other day.
I have a hunch that they have endured far worse than that.
Oh, yes. Sometimes when you listen to them, they’ll tell old stories and I’m like, oh gosh, this is a problem. It’s an issue.
Talk to me about how you organize then. You mentioned that you have your sources digitally as you’re writing. How do you like to put all that together?
I really have to write in subsections, and they have to be very bounded, so my writing is super chunky. I used to get super stressed about this. You read some writers and they’re just beautiful long form. Their chapters just flow together and it’s this really beautiful narrative, and that is not how I write. And it took me a long time to figure out that part of that is how I am mentally organizing the writing, and part of that is just not my voice. The organization is such that usually I have an enormous amount of documents. When I started trying to put them together, I did a couple things that I found really, really important, and one of them was to build databases that were searchable.
It takes a really long time, and I was really lucky when I lived in DC for my pre-doc. My husband lived in Utah because he had a postdoc there, and so I was all alone in a basement. I didn’t know anyone in DC. And so I spent all that time creating these databases at night. And basically I made all of the letters, all of the images, and actually all 50 years of the first science articles searchable on a database. That really helps when I’m writing to be like, oh, I think I remember this article from science. And then to just quickly be able to put in quotes, because I have them all loaded on there. I’m going to say the worst thing ever out loud, which is that I don’t do my citations until the end. Every time I think, oh, gosh, I really should do those citations during, but it really ruins the flow of writing for me. And so I have a tendency to want to just put in kind a shortened citation and then go back and do it.
And then most of the time when I’m doing big chunks of writing, it is like a week at a time. So I will use part of that time to, because I have these very clear kind of demarcated times for writing, I’m going to get on the train at this moment. I can spend a couple of days saying, what am I going to write? Kind of outlining it, pulling up any archives that I might need on my computer, and then just have them set for when I sit down to do that.
So sometimes you can write super quickly if the subsection lends itself, and sometimes it’s weeks and weeks for a couple hundred words and you feel really stupid about it. And I have tried to rely maybe less on my digitized archives than I used to. And part of that is because some of my field work got erased and I was just terrified. So now I keep a lot of notebooks too, which I didn’t previously, but the shock of the old notebook still works. So I take those a lot and will use them. And I also take long form notes on paper when I’m reading, so that the quotes that I think are really useful or the pieces, the chunky pieces that I’m going to stick into the writing are already there and I’m kind of just putting them back into the piece that I’m doing.
Is there a database software that you use?
Oh, no, I built it out of an Excel spreadsheet. It was dumb. I am not good with computers. I told another scholar I did this, and they were like, “Oh, that’s a choice. That is a thing you did.” I’m not good with computers but it was a thing that I first started to do when I went into archives that didn’t have the ability to take pictures. So the first archive that I worked in was the APS, and they don’t let you take pictures, and I’m the cheapest person in the whole world. And so I was like, forget it, I’ll just sit here and I’ll write everything out. I don’t even care what you want from me. And so I started to build these super large Excel sheets, and I have one for archives, one just specifically for letters and one for a piece that I use all the time, the New York Aquariums Directors log books are really huge chunk of my work, not necessarily in the book, but in other things that I use. And so I cataloged them all so that I would be able to look at them later.
And then of course, the journals, so the US Bureau of Fisheries and Science, and so I just cataloged every single one of them for the time period that I was looking at. And they’ve come in really handy, but that’s the type of thing that you do either as a very early graduate student or you end up doing as a graduate student for a professor who can pay you to do it. But at this point in my life, the thought of doing something like that again is just, yeah, I would drive myself crazy, basically.
Where in the research process do you like to start writing or do you feel ready to start writing?
It really depends for me, when I… It’s so weird. It’s so hard to look back and be like, why did I do that? Because once you have pieced it all together, it ceases to exist as parts anymore. There was just a certain extent where my advisor used to say, “You just got to sit down and write something.” So do it. Just sit down and write something. And so in my process, I think once I thought that I had somewhat of a timeline, I could go ahead and try to write something down, whether it was a chunk of that timeline.
So there were two chapters in my book that just came really easily. And ironically, they were the ones that needed, and it’s not ironic at all, it makes total sense. They were the ones that needed the most work to fit them into the book, which was the jellyfish tanks, the kreisel tank chapter, and the photography chapter. Both of those, the reason is because they dovetail really nicely with my dissertation. They were the ones that I had studied with my dissertation. Everyone knew that I had been working on jellyfish tanks for a really long time.
And so I was prepared to sit down and write those, and I did really quickly. And then they were the ones that I spent the most work on at the end trying to fix. So they both helped me think about what I had been, why I thought this was an important thing, kind of put it down on paper, and then also to realize that I didn’t have everything.
The ones that I feel the least comfortable writing and always the things that I feel the least comfortable writing are probably anything that has to do with current practice. So I’m still pretty tentative about dealing with live people, even though I do all the time. And so I always want to make sure that I’ve got it right, and that makes me so nervous. Maybe I feel more concrete in historical methods and more comfortable, and so I’m much more comfortable writing a history of something, but when I start to get to the recent history, I get nervous.
Well, let’s talk a little bit about that just because I know that you used a wide variety of sources for this book, and because it deals so much with enthusiast practitioners, you were often dealing with archives that weren’t in traditional archive spaces or trying to assemble them. How did you bring all those things together? How did you think about collecting material?
Yeah, it’s super interesting because when I started working on this piece, I really didn’t know how I was going to get at the hobbyist. I mean, I knew that they existed. And what happened was I got a postdoc at the Smithsonian, and part of the postdoc was to go to Florida and work with a tank there to watch people do it or whatever. And I ended up, when I was in DC doing all this archival work, I ended up just asking around, I was talking to people and I said, I think that I need to talk to real people about the stuff that they’re doing. And I ended up basically learning that once you talk to one person in any community, hobbyist community, the public aquarium community, they’ll just pass you on to the next person.
There are not written documents for the hobbyist community. There are some, but they don’t get archived. They’re like people collecting National Geographics in their basement. And so anytime I get any grant money, I’ll be like, “I bought all these magazines. It’s so exciting.” And people are like, “Ooh, that’s not what we meant by research materials.” And I was like, “Now I have them forever.” So the biggest way that people share information in my communities is through word-of-mouth. And so when I went to go do interviews with them, it’s a little different than oral histories, because it’s not sitting down and asking them their history. And sometimes I’m trying to follow both what they’re doing and where they learned to do it. And the great thing about the people that I work with is, like I said, they’ll just pass you on to the next person.
You could think you’re going to do a 30 minute interview for the day and you end up doing six hour long interviews because someone says, “Why don’t you just go down to that office and ask them about when they studied with this person and how they learned, and why don’t you just look at all my books while you’re here?” And so all of that stuff is interesting. Knowing how to fit it together in some sense was about figuring out what I thought was the center of every story, the center of the network. And most of the time that would be what I thought was a pivotal historical moment. So in some chapters there’s three. So the jellyfish chapter, there’s three historical moments that are pivotal. And in the breeding chapter, it’s almost just five years ago, the pivotal, I was like… Trying to anchor things historically is what helps there.
And then I think giving yourself a lot of ability to know that you’re never going to, you can’t name everyone. Sometimes the work that I do is slippery because you also have to know that when you’re asking people about very recent history, it’s so colored by so many different things. What they think the history is, how they’re building their own perceptions of that history, who they’re fighting with, who they’ve had fights with in the past, et cetera. And then there’s these geographical histories. Obviously a lot of this work was done in the American system, it always ends up that way, and it’s very hard not to most of the time just because that’s where I’m stationed. And so, I had to decide where to cut things off and then give myself the grace to do that.
This is the nature of their field, their work, and so I just have to get over myself, right? There are billions of people who are doing billions of things with tanks. I think that’s awesome, and I’m trying to emphasize that. These are the people that I think are historically at those epicenters when the work changes. So I kind of shoved them together in a weird way. And most of that was just through a general feel. So I had the historical timelines, and then when I was in the field, most of the time what I was listening for was not confirmation that I was right, but it was very rare for someone to say something that proved me wrong. And so, after I had been in the field long enough, I started to feel more confident that putting that historical timeline together was the right way to put it together.
And I would have these hour long conversations with people and they would say like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that now, this is the thing.” So I would start to test my timeline with this community and see how confident I felt in the story that I was telling. There’s a lot of, I talk about in the book that tank work is about craft work and kind of its feedback mechanism, but writing in that particular way, it has a real feedback too.
Now that I’ve moved on to another project, I’m more confident in having these conversations with public aquariums and hobbyists, and it makes me feel even more confident because they are confirming to me this thing, which I know now. And I often say, “Oh, I know your history, I know it now.” And it’s not perfect. There’s obviously things, but I think when you work so closely with a community, you’re tentative about being too engulfed by them. But at the same time, that’s part of the writing process is to recognize that you’re writing for this community and within it in a very particular way.
This is a deeply selfish question ’cause I’m also working on a project that deals a lot with a sort of enthusiast community up to the present. So I may delete this, but it might be useful for others too which is that, in my research I run into a problem where so much of the communication of this community took place, especially in the 90s and early 2000s, unlike message boards and forums that no longer exist or that at least I don’t have access to. Did you encounter this, and how did you deal with that gap?
What’s really beautiful about the hobbyist community, I mean they’re literally my favorite group, is that they probably just like your group as well. The internet was perfect for them, they loved it. There are some message boards that are missing, but in my particular group and community, there is a continuance of people. And what’s more interesting about my people is, no matter how much information that you can give someone online, there really is touch memory. So someone will just say, “Well, just come to my lab or come to my house.” And that’s the way they have a tendency to communicate. It’s interestingly easier to do those tracings because those people leave ripples in that particular way. So as I started to do interviews, people would just say the same names over and over again. And there are some people I just can’t find because of that.
There’s a guy, I just finished a paper yesterday and every time I give this paper, people would be like, “I want to know more about that person.” And I was like, “Listen, I’ve tried to find them and I am angry because I want to put their name in a paper. I want them to be historically kind of relevant.” And at the same time, they don’t exist on paper anymore. It’s this guy from Baltimore who invented the plastic bag to carry fish in, right?
Oh my gosh.
This is the most exciting thing in the whole world. But he did everything offline and he’s a guy, he’s like a fish dealer in Baltimore. It’s not like people thought, “I’m going to save my dad’s business dealings about fish bags.” So in that case, it is very difficult. I started to run into this problem. One of the men that I work on, Walter Adey is at the Smithsonian during the 80s and 90s, and he designs the oceans for Biosphere Two. And the whole community, it’s really hard to get into those records if you’re going into the Biosphere Two records. But Walter, Adey’s records are available because they’re publicly available. And they were all on Netscape. And the way that they printed them out is original email response, I mean, it’s like 20,000 pages of someone being like, and then there’s a point where they start talking about how amazing Internet Explorer is, and they’re all going to switch. And I was like, whoa, this is like, it’s crazy.
And so I realized that was a hard thing. I have all those archives, I haven’t done anything with them because it’s such a disaster, really. But luckily my fish community people, they are so interested in personal communication that they during COVID, immediately switched to Zoom and they would include me because I’ve been creeping them on Facebook for a really long time. And so I ended up doing hours and hours of observation of these meetings that they were having, they have to talk face-to-face. But unlike other groups, that you know that, that data is missing, again for me because most of their stuff is verbal and face-to-face, I just have to admit, sometimes it’s only so much I can do. I have to go by what they are telling me or what they have put in print. And I do love the internet, it’s fantastic, but things disappear.
There’s a lot of things when I was writing my book that I would cite that now don’t exist, that were there just 12 years ago. So I mean, one thing I would say is if it exists at all, to archive it. And I’ve talked to other scholars about this, what do we do with our own personal archives? I have thousands of screenshots of things that don’t exist anymore. And so, those are the questions for future historians in some sense. Is it just ephemeral or useless? And those are hard questions to answer, but I would say just try to grab it, grab everything. And again, extend yourself the grace of knowing that you can’t know everything. That’s what the training is for, to make a good guess.
And that’s why I said, and then you go into the community and you’re like, “I made this good guess. Does that sound right to you?” And you don’t say it in that way, but you have these conversations and they’ll be like, ah. It becomes a seamless way that you are getting this feedback, that you’re not making stuff up. And that’s really, the community is useful to me, not just because they are historically useful to me, but also because they’re a good sounding board for the things, so that I know that I’m not off track.
I asked Sam to read a passage from Oceans Under Glass so that we could talk more concretely about how her approach works out on the page. Here’s Dr. Samantha Muka reading from chapter one of Oceans Under Glass: Tank Craft and the Sciences of the Seas.
Mary Akers, you probably don’t recognize the name, but her story is amazing. Akers is a crab enthusiast and one of only five people worldwide who’ve managed to breed land hermit crabs, megalopa. Transitioning them from eggs into water dwelling juveniles and back onto land to live as mature hermit crabs. This is the type of accomplishment that I mention at parties and wait for people to get excited. She closed the cycle on hermit crabs. Cool, huh? The blank stairs don’t deter my excitement and usually lead me to offer more information. Akers isn’t an academic biologist, in fact, it is reported that she struggled in freshman biology, decided that science wasn’t for her and became a pottery artist. She returned to breeding crabs out of curiosity and obsession, after her children left for college. She has an Etsy store where she sells quote products for the well-fed, fashionable hermit crab, including homemade ceramic pool ramps, food dishes, and dried mealworms and other food stuffs for hermit crabs. Mary Akers is so awesome, right?
Okay. I love this opening for a bunch of reasons. For one, it surprised me. And then two, I already love you as a writer reading it, I love Mary Akers having read it. And I love how much your enthusiasm for this project just comes through immediately. I was curious, and maybe having talked to you, maybe the answer is just this is who you are, but how do you maintain that kind of enthusiasm through a long project?
I think part of it is just the people I work on. And part of that I think is, I was really trained in a really super interdisciplinary way. There are no boundaries to the idea that you have to write this way, you have to do this. And I think that helps with long-term enthusiasm because you don’t feel as if you’re transgressing anything by enjoying it in a different way. And so I chose this project because it was a project that I wanted to pursue. I thought it was important. And I think part of that is just so often, and I heard this a lot during COVID, specifically, historians would say, “I just don’t know if this is important anymore.” Or even academics in general, it wasn’t just historians. Is this esoteric thing which I’ve dedicated my life to, and I can’t even explain to my parents the importance of is that it?
And I think over time, my enthusiasm has grown partially because it feels that my field is so incredibly important. It’s not as important to historians of science. I mean, I think that it’s interesting, it raises really important questions, but climate and climate change and the coastal infrastructural issues and coral farming and these things, they just continue to be more important every year. So I started writing about coral tanks and people weren’t doing anything with them. It was pretty rare. By the time I was done, it felt like front page of the New York Times and all of these things. And so to me that says my work, while it might not be the most serious thing in some ways, I mean obviously I’m very enthusiastic for a reason, is important. I value it, and I value the people that I write about. And I think that they are awesome.
I think that they do truly amazing things, which is why I think some people call me an aquarium enthusiast sometimes. I can’t, when you un-black box a system, you become privy to their secrets in this way that you get to be an enthusiast too. I don’t have to keep an aquarium. People always ask me if I keep an aquarium, and I said, no, because I get to really, I can go to a public aquarium. I’m taking my Girl Scouts this coming week to sleep in a public aquarium. And that experience will be very different for me. Because to me, it’s about I am appreciating your craft in such a gorgeous way. And maybe other historians of science get to do this, but it’s great on a rarer thing. How many times do you find yourself in an astronomy tower or at a large collider or something?
But for me, I can feel that enthusiasm at the mall, when I go to the dentist, when I look at the lobsters at the grocery store. And so in some sense, it just feels like a secret that I get to share with really cool people, and it feels like socially and important to the future, to reconstruct these networks, to make them visible so that we know how to get the work done. I was trained in history of medicine and in labor history, and while it doesn’t always show in this work, those two fields are often very oriented towards usefulness and value in our world. We’re here to show people how to navigate systems and how we got here. And so I think in some sense that’s what I really want to bring to this kind of history of biology and history of technology, is this enthusiasm for the people who are alive now and how history can be valuable to them.
But I am naturally just an enthusiast, and I think that’s how I knew to switch to pursue this book because when I feel enthusiasm about something, I will continue to just chip away at it. And I never get bored. I still love this project. I still am pursuing it in a certain way. I’ve kind of veered a bit, but most of that is just me doing what people have allowed me to do, which is to pursue things at my own pace and to trust the training in some sense that you’re not going to just say kooky stuff, even though sometimes it feels that way. You’re just like, “Oh, I’m just writing this. I’m just writing that down there.” And so that’s why I’m enthusiastic about it, I think, is that people just giving me the room to be enthusiastic without being like, “You got to write this thing the way that I want you to.”
And also, Mary Akers, she wrote thousands and thousands of blog posts. She’s so interesting. And she, as you is enthusiastic, she’s a beautiful writer. She talks about these hermit crabs as they crawl into the shore with their little naked hermit crab butts, it’s so cute. How can you not be enthusiastic about naked hermit crabs? There’s something, I don’t know. I find a lot of joy in the work.
So the answer to this may also have to do with your sort of interdisciplinary background and some of the things you just talked about, but part of the reason I like this opening so much is because very different than what a lot of historians do. We often start with an anecdote to the point that it has become a subject of mockery. But here you start with someone contemporary. I can go read her blog and check out her Etsy shop right now. How did you think about and decide on the narrative structure for this book?
I think that, that’s a really hard question. It’s really difficult. I got a lot of writing advice, and when I started the book, it was maybe a little bit more history biology. And then I went to Woods Hole a couple of times with Jane Maienschein and her group. And Jane specifically is just really focused on how we as historians can be helpful, how we can be thoughtful about the audience that we’re looking to write for, be that scientists or other historians, or who did I want to write for? And so in some sense, I started to structure the book more towards hobbyists and public aquariums and maybe a little bit further from historians. I don’t think there’s anything out that historians won’t read, because we’ve been trained to read some pretty long form stuff so you don’t have to convince us to read it, right? We’ll sit here and we will read it.
And so with the advice of Jane and other people, their advice was largely find your hook, find the thing that makes you feel useful. And the thing that made me feel like things mattered is that these historical narratives had a continuance. And so for each chapter, I started with a first person, and most of that is from the present day. And a lot of that is just to be like, look, I’m going to tell you some really boring stuff in the middle.
And a lot of it might be really technical too. I mean, there are chunks of my chapter that are just about filtration. And if you never thought that you cared about the difference in tank filtration, think again because interesting. But it’s probably not. But I want you to know going into it into each chapter that there’s a reason you should care. And that reason is upfront, and it’s because these people are still doing this work. And most of this stuff is still a mystery, which I think is really beautiful. When I give talks to students or about my writing, I think that there’s a point where you don’t want to be teleological. And I’ve been yelled about this before where people are like, “Oh, you’re too focused on getting this historical narrative perfect.” And so maybe I felt also that those introductions were way of me saying, we still don’t know. We’re still working on this stuff. And I think that that is probably a kind of really viable way to do that. But in the long run, it was just my writing style, I think in some sense.
And I was happy that people let me keep that in there. There were kookier anecdotes that I had to take out. But yeah, I mean, when living people invite you into their homes or into their lives, I spent a lot of time, like I said, watching three hour long meetings and conferences on Zoom for two years. I think that demands a little bit of enthusiasm and respect. And so to center people’s current stories seems important to me.
I want to shift gears here a little bit and talk about your own sources of encouragement and inspiration as a writer. I saw on Twitter recently that you’re part of a writing group, and I’d love to hear how people’s writing groups work. So could you tell me about yours and how it’s been helpful?
I wasn’t part of a writing group for a long time, and now I am. And there are a bunch of goofballs, I think they’re meeting right now. So it is a group of five. Let’s see. Yeah, I think there’s five of us. And we’re all kind of different places in our career. We spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what our name is supposed to be so that we can cite each other. We have some kooky ones. But it’s interesting, I’ve been in some writing groups previously. So I’m part of two. One is the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicines Oceans’ Group. And then this other one is with a group of, I would say Junior Scholars, but I guess we’re mid-career scholars now, whether we want to be or not, maybe early to mid-career scholars. And so basically each week we give a piece of writing and then we just grill each other about it, right?
Yeah, everyone has totally different writing styles. They’re different location. What’s really nice is we usually let people know what we want. What do I want to do with this piece, and what do I want you to tell me about it? I feel like generationally, this is something you get online where you’d be like, “I’m just venting right now.” We could send someone a grant proposal and we’d be like, “I’m just writing this right now. I actually don’t want feedback. If you could just tell me I’m amazing, that’d be really useful.” And eventually it all works out. So I have had, I guess four pieces either through the Consortium and through the writing group, and sometimes I double them up. So the Oceans’ Writing Group is all people who know about ocean stuff. Obviously they’re amazing. They know what’s out there. They’ll tell me if I’m just missing something big.
And the other writing group, which is a history of biology, an environmental history writing group, they’ll just tell me on the bigger scale if the work seems relevant for everyone. If you want to be a hyper specialist, be a hyper specialist and that’s fantastic. But sometimes you want to show people that your subfield is just dramatically part of a larger history graphical conversation. And so that writing group is really helpful to that extent. But they’re also just people that I’ve known. There comes a point, and I’m sure this is not surprising to anyone, where you realize that you’ve been an academic for a really long time. You always feel young and you’re like, “We are so young.” And then you’re like, “Oh, no, we’re old.” We’ve been hanging out together for a really long time. There’s so much joy in that, I think.
So writing groups are this moment where you realize that you’re part of this cohort, that you’re part of this history of the history of science, and that you understand each other in a unspoken way. And none of us went to… I guess a few of them went to graduate school together. I didn’t go to graduate school with any of these yokels. And so it’s also interesting to see in that writing group and in any writing group that you’re in, how training changes how you approach things and your methods and what you do. And so getting to be in a group of people that none of them were trained by the same people that I was trained with are really useful because they’ll be like, “I don’t know what you’re doing. Please stop. No one wants to hear about [inaudible 00:44:15] as much as you think that they do. Please stop doing that.” And I’m like, “I don’t know. Sociologists love it. They’re super into it.” So it’s a useful group, and I find it joyful.
What’s some of the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
I mean, Stephanie McCurry, she gave me two, and not to me, she wasn’t like, “Hey, Sam, listen up.” She was talking, the one which was to find your own voice. And the other, she used to say, “Some projects have a special quality of doneness.” And I say that all the time. This paper has got a special quality of doneness to it. It’s not perfect. It’s not nice. It just is done. And so I often think about that. What would it take in this moment for this thing to be done for me? Not that I’m tired of working on it, but what is the moment in which I think something is finished and how do I get to that point? Whether it’s mentally being able to live with the flaws or knowing that someone else is going to tell me what’s wrong.
When you get out of graduate school and you don’t have your advisor anymore, you need these writing groups. And part of that is just to figure out that quality of doneness for you. No one’s going to tell you when to stop. And then Rob Kohler used to say, “Don’t waste your words. You only get a certain amount of time, make it ridiculous. Swing for the fences.” Is basically what he used to say. I’m not sure he would ever remember even saying that, but for me, it was a big moment because I thought I could sit around and I could write small papers, and sometimes every paper seems small, four people are going to read it or whatever. But you’d be surprised how many people don’t care that much. And so it’s about what you think that you should be writing. And I think with my writing style in my book, I really tried to follow the advice of you just do what is going to accomplish the goal that you want to do.
And hopefully, I mean, people will help you smooth it down and get rid of those rough edges, but give them the thing that you want to give them, right? Don’t lowball it just because you think that people don’t want to hear how you write or that your topic is not great or whatever. So don’t waste your time thinking it all the time about what other people want. And I think that that was a really useful form of advice.
And it doesn’t always work out. People will be like, “This is dumb.” Like, “Duh, no one likes this.” And I’ll be like, “Oh, that was your ole miss, right?” And so yeah, those are my favorite. I tell my students all the time to have that special quality of doneness, just get it done. Not everything’s a masterpiece. She said that she got that quote from Christine Standstill, who I think is her special quality of doneness is very high quality. So I think about it a lot.
Are there writers who you read for inspiration, people you look to?
I mean, you know what? So I am the Twitter-er, I think it’s called Social Media Editor is my title for Historical Studies and Natural Sciences. And so I read that back to back every volume. And I think that the way people write in that journal is just beautiful. I think it has a lot of enthusiasm. I love forums or any kind of special volume. So Osiris, really it makes me happy. And partially it’s just about seeing a bunch of people come together to just geek out on the thing that they thought was cool. So this volume in historical studies was on archival problems. And the things that people say in it are so fascinating and cool.
I like it when people are talking just out loud about things that usually we talk about at conferences and whatever. But in general, I read just about anything. I read a lot of history of medicine. I teach an enormous amount of history of medicine, and I always come back to that field just because I think that there’s such a coherent understanding of multiple actors and value in finding agency in those actors. And sometimes that’s hard to do in science, we get really caught up in this academic science and institutional situatedness. So you just forget that there’s all this commercial science or just people doing stuff in their basements and whatever, because it’s hard to track down. And so I think I continue to learn so much from the methods, people who do disability studies, those scholars are just doing stuff that it just keeps pushing forward, the kind of use of scholarship that we haven’t had. So I have a tendency to read them, try to stay up-to-date because I’m not so integrated in that field anymore.
And then, I am so attracted and attached to reading apocalyptic literature, any kind of literature that I think is back to the future, telling these future historical narratives makes me think about my own craft and how I write it. Margaret Atwood has so much thoughtfulness about the way that she imagines history and the holes that exist in it. I find that just gorgeous. And Lauren Groff, who writes these historical narratives to the future, I think that you can see the impact of reading those particular things in the way that I write, which is this kind of weird thing. So I read a lot of those. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction because it makes me nervous. It feels like I’m working. So mostly I read future historical fiction, most in which most of the earth has been destroyed. That would be what happens. So all of those things make me think more about how I’m playing with my own craft and situating myself in the stories that I choose to tell.
Before I let you go, can I ask you what you’re working on now?
Oh yeah. Oh my God, I’m so excited. So during COVID, and I know I mentioned COVID a lot, but for me it was this really intense thing where I was finishing my book and there’s always this sense, what are you going to do next? So I was really trying to stick closer to home. I was like, God, I had this huge project and it was multinational and whatever, and then I was like, forget it. I’ll never study anything outside of New Jersey ever again. And so I decided to shrink this project, and I’ve been working on artificial reefs and coastal engineering in the New York bite, but all the way down the Atlantic coast. And so I’ve been slowly building a digital database of every artificial reef off the continental United States. I’ve been learning to scuba dive, which is very-
I’m very scared. When I say that I need a small space to write, part of that is I’m very terrified of open spaces, and so the ocean is the most terrifying thing in the whole world. They had to give me a special mask, so I cannot see around me, again like a horse. But yeah, it’s super cool because basically the history of artificial reefs has gotten very exciting. There’s a bunch of other people working on this stuff, Dolly Jorgenson is working on it, and Jeremy Green in Baltimore is working on medical waste and things we throw in the ocean. So there are all these people that are doing this work. And my take on it is looking at this kind of engineering schools and what they’re doing at this time, they’re developing what are really industrial forms of artificial reefs, and they’re working with local governments to do it. So right off the coast of the United States, New Jersey, New York are these things which no one knows exists, and they’re made out of boats and old train, cars and all of these things.
And people might say, “Oh, we used to do that.” No, we do it every day. We are throwing things in there every day, and we don’t keep very good track. You don’t have to have a lot of legal permits. And even now, the coastal engineering that we do that seems more natural, it’s still very kind of commercial. It’s still very focused on fisheries or making sure rich people’s houses don’t get washed away in a hurricane, those types of things. So I’m studying the history of what started out as the history of artificial reefs and has now morphed into the history of trash, garbage studies, and how we use this trash to treasure type of thing when we throw things into the ocean. So it’s still in really early form and it’s kind of all over the place, and I love that. This summer I’ll be archive hopping. Yeah, I’m super excited and I hope again to do participant work, but luckily closer to home.
So Stevens, my university, they have a whole Coastal Engineering Program, New Jersey in general, like Monmouth and Princeton, all of these places are intricately involved. And so I’m super excited, my book was very wide open space like geographically, and I’m super excited to just think about Jersey, my adopted state, the state that I love the most.
Well, that’s awesome. I look forward to it. Dr. Sam Muka, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation. This has been wonderful.
Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Thanks to Dr. Samantha Muka for joining me for this episode of Drafting the Past. And as always, thanks to you for listening to our conversation. You can find show notes and a complete transcript at draftingthepast.com where you can also find past episodes, merchandise for sale and more. If you have a minute, I would love it if you could help support the show by telling a friend about it or leaving a review on your favorite podcast app. Until next time, remember that friends don’t let friends write boring history.