I’m out of the archives early today. B. F. Skinner’s papers are housed offsite, so I have to put in a request a day in advance to have materials brought to the reading room. I plowed through everything I’d requested for today in record time.

There wasn’t much of interest in today’s boxes to do with teaching machines. (I did get an idea for another book though. Dammit, it still involves Skinner’s work.)

One noteworthy item in the items I looked at today: an audio recording made by a former student “concerning personality characteristics of B. F. Skinner.” There wasn’t a date on this, but clearly it was made when Skinner was still alive. There was a lot of praise for Skinner in it – his “warm camaraderie”; the open invitation he had with members of the department to come by on Sundays and swim in his pool; his love of “good quality materials” like the mahogany and brass in one of his early teaching machines. That sort of stuff. He was described as a “strategist” – is that a personality trait? Are any of these things? I don’t know. In the final moments of the recording – and it’s quite short – the person describes Skinner’s current status as “cloudy” and starts to condemn the trajectory that his work has taken. Something about becoming too entrenched, too philosophical. And the recording ends abruptly.

Skinner remains, in so many ways, a mystery to me (as far as how I want to characterize him in the book, to be clear). I am having a hard time reconciling his work, his politics, and – whatever this thing is – his personality. I mean, nothing says “warm camaraderie” like designing a box for your baby or an automated teaching machine for your students.

I’ve got a few more boxes to go through tomorrow before my time at Harvard (this week, at least) is up. I’ll be looking at some newspaper clippings and a few more boxes of correspondence. One of the things that’s striking: how little correspondence I can find between Skinner and certain figures. (Crowder, namely.) Perhaps the letters are in a later box. I guess I will have to come back…

(If you’re interested in what I’ve I’ve discovered during my week here, here are updates from Days 1, 2, and 3.)

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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