(I’m at Harvard this week, going through B. F. Skinner’s archives. You can read about Day 1 here.)

So I greatly miscalculated how many boxes of materials I can get through this week. I made progress today, but I am definitely going to have to come back to Cambridge again.

And that’s okay. I already know I’ll have to return to the Pressey archives at OSU, too. It’s hard to know, I think, going into an intensive research project like this – decades of someone’s personal, professional papers – what exactly you’re going to find that will become “the story” about them. And then when you figure out what “the story” is going to be, you surely discover that you’ve missed some of the details in your first pass through all their personal letters and such.

I mean, I think I know what I want my chapter on Skinner to say. Perhaps it’s obvious – something about teaching machines, right? But reading through all these folders worth of letters, I see new angles, I find new leads, and I’m not sure. His work on the air crib, for example. His book Walden Two and how that shaped his politics (and his scholarly practice) – and how these shape “programmed instruction.”

Some of what I have found going through his papers is clearly outside the purview of this book. No doubt. Or… actually… some doubt. Or maybe it’s another book. Or maybe it’s a separate article.

I found today a bunch of correspondence, for example, between a very young Temple Grandin (she must’ve been about 19) and Skinner. In them, she talks about her usage of programmed instruction materials. She speaks of her work at a children’s hospital with patients who are (her words) “the ‘quote’ problem child.”

I found a bunch of correspondence between Skinner and Sargent and Eunice Shriver about the use of operant conditioning as part of the War on Poverty. (Eunice seemed particularly keen on Skinner’s “air crib” too.)

I haven’t even got to the boxes on teaching machines yet – I’ve re-arranged the order I’m going through materials so I’ll get to those tomorrow. In some ways, I can follow up in my chapter on Skinner on the story I will tell about Sidney Pressey – that of a psychologist who failed to commercialize his teaching machine. But Skinner was so far from obscure. And his ideas about behavioral conditioning are so much more pervasive than I think we want to recognize…

(I need to figure out how to reconcile some of Skinner's politics too. Among the papers I read today was a letter in support of a former student's application to be a conscientious objector. There was another letter from a former student who'd been arrested as a member of SDS. How does Skinner's activism here – or his support of his students' activism -- fit with his writings about Freedom and Dignity, for example, and his rejection of the idea of free will and human agency?)

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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