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I’m at Harvard all this week, which is overwhelming in its own right. I’m here to research B. F. Skinner’s papers, housed at the university archives – even more overwhelming knowing that I have 30 hours and that there are some 27+ cubic feet of materials to go through.

I am just going to jot down a bunch of thoughts from today. I haven’t yet really gone through all the photos I’ve taken – and I should be clear of my process, I guess. I take photos of interesting papers with my iPhone when a name or a topic catches my eye. But I also take notes by hand about impressions I get, even about the things that I don’t necessarily document with a snap.

One of the things at the forefront of my mind as I move through B. F. Skinner’s materials is “what was he like?” I feel like I was so caught up in documenting the saga about Sidney Pressey’s attempts to commercialize his teaching machine, that I missed those cues when I was going through his materials at OSU. (I’ll need to go back.)

Skinner’s personality shines through, and I think, in part, it’s because what’s in his archives: everything. I think about this a lot with my own curation processes – deleting old tweets and emails, not really caring to leave much of a digital record behind. As I went through Pressey’s papers, I wondered too: what’s been curated here? What letters did he keep and what did he ditch? I’ve approached Skinner’s the same way, knowing of course that a person’s gift of their papers to a university is already a certain cultivation of their image – a purposeful effort to craft how future scholars will remember them.

B. F. Skinner’s papers craft an interesting picture indeed.

He wrote a lot of letters to the editor, correcting the scientific record, if you will. He wrote a lot of letters to businesses, complaining about salespeople and ethics. He filed a lot of complaints with “higher-ups.”

He received a lot of letters too. I guess you’d expect that if you wrote about “a baby in a box” in a popular women’s magazine. Some people were fans. Some people were not. If you’re the guy associated with animal training, it’s no surprise, I guess, that you’d get letters about how to train pets, or how to craft science fair projects about training pets. If you’re the guy associated with pigeons and the war effort, it’s no surprise that you’d get a lot of letters about how to train birds, how to capture birds, how to breed birds, how to kill birds, and so on.

So far, I’ve seen one letter from Patrick Suppes (another character in Teaching Machines). I’ve seen nothing from Sidney Pressey – perhaps it’s in the box of correspondence more clearly labeled “teaching machines.” There’s a letter that Norman Crowder’s company wrote to Skinner in which Skinner said he didn’t want to work with them. (The correspondence between Pressey and Crowder was quite friendly, by contrast. And I don’t think Suppes reached out to Pressey ever. I do not really know yet if any of these connections or non-connections matter.)

I’m seeing some hints in some of the letters about how quickly the (commercial) promises of teaching machines faltered. But right now, based on what the Skinner papers contain, I only see tons and tons of interest in teaching machines. And in pigeons. Everyone loved the pigeons.

Audrey Watters


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Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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