A Social History of Your Car’s ‘Check Engine’ Light

Kevin BorgCritical Connections Public Lecture and Mini-Seminar
Kevin Borg (James Madison University)

Public Lecture: January 22, 2015 / 5:00 p.m. / Peter Graham Scholarly Commons / Bird Library

Mini-Seminar: January 23, 2015 / 10:00 a.m. – Noon / Special Collections Research Center / Bird Library

(Both events are free and open to the public, but advanced registration is required for the mini-seminar. To register, contact scrc@syr.edu or at 315-443-2697)

Rare is the motorist today who is not baffled by what to do when their automobile’s “Check Engine” light comes on.  We depend on our cars yet have little understanding about how they work or what to do when they fail.  So when that light comes on, even though we can detect no new noise, vibration, or other sensorial manifestation of trouble, we take the car to a mechanic.  But what does this light mean? Why is it there and why is it not more helpful?  This presentation will explore the interwoven social, technical, political, and environmental histories that converged to create this ubiquitous and ambiguous warning light, and in the process will show that the social, personal, political, and economic meanings of complex consumer goods do not end with their creation or with their use.  Their repair is also fraught with meaning.

For more than a decade Dr. Borg has been studying and writing about automobile repair, auto mechanics, and the creation and maintenance of sociotechnical hierarchies in American auto repair shops. In these shops consumers have interacted with workers whose technological knowledge is crucial to motorists’ needs but whose social status has long been stigmatized.  By the latter half of the twentieth century the social friction caused by this asymmetry of social class and technical knowledge between consumer and mechanic was layered over with increasing consumer frustration with the poor quality of the cars manufacturers sold them in the first place.  At the same time politicians responding to the growing consumer and environmental movements brought new, very public, attention to the business of repairing cars, ultimately mandating new cars display a “Check Engine” light in the instrument panel.  This presentation will argue that the “Check Engine” light is a symbol of the limitations of late-twentieth century consumer and environmental advocacy.

The presentation will close with a call for additional histories of the cultures surrounding the maintenance, repair, and durability of other artifacts and products as a means to help shift attention from our myopic fascination with the inventors, producers, and consumers of new things.  Understanding how we make things continue to last and work—and the social meanings we construct around those processes—might help us glean some wisdom for approaching our current global environmental situation.

Critical Connections Mini-Seminar:

“Using Geospatial Technologies to explore the history of Automobility in Syracuse, New York”

Lately, Dr. Borg has been exploring ways to use geospatial technologies such as Google Earth and ArcGIS to research and teach local and regional history in the late 19th and early 20th century.  This mini-seminar will explore how we might apply these techniques to the history of automobility in Syracuse NY in the early twentieth century by digitizing, georeferencing, displaying, and analyzing Sanborn insurance maps, city directory data, and other sources.  Participants are encouraged to bring their laptops, loaded with Google Earth, to the session and work with the spatial data provided.

Specialists in media preservation visit Syracuse University for three-day event

There are tens of thousands of audio and videotape recordings in storage all over the Syracuse University campus–speeches and lectures, performances, athletic events, WAER and Orange TV programs, original faculty and student research, and archival recordings in the SU Libraries’ Belfer Audio Archive and Special Collections Research Center. Many of these tape recordings are rare or unique, and they document sounds and images of significance to the University and to our greater cultural heritage. Professional media specialists predict that such fragile formats have, on average, only about 15 years of playtime left.

Please join us in a series of events focused on media preservation and scholarship. A Syracuse Symposium panel discussion on November 5 from 2–4 p.m. in the Peter Graham Scholarly Commons in Bird Library will center on the challenges and looming crisis of media preservation, with perspectives from Mike Casey, Chris Lacinak, and Grace Lile, three leading experts in the field. A Critical Connections Lecture and Mini-Seminar features Tim Brooks G’69 (Newhouse) examining African American artists at the birth of the sound recording industry. His work highlights the impact of media preservation on 21st-century scholarship.

Syracuse Symposium Panel Discussion
Witnessing Archival Preservation: Perspectives on Preserving Tape-based Media Recordings

November 5, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.
Peter Graham Scholarly Commons, Bird Library, First Floor
Reception to follow

Mike Casey, Director of Media Preservation Services, Media Preservation Initiative, Indiana University
Chris Lacinak, Founder and President, AVPreserve
Grace Lile, Director of Operations and Archives, WITNESS

This event is co-sponsored by Syracuse Symposium™ in the SU Humanities Center

Critical Connections Lecture and Mini-Seminar
African Americans and the Birth of the Recording Industry

Public Lecture: November 6, 5:00 p.m.
Peter Graham Scholarly Commons, Bird Library, First Floor

Mini-Seminar: November 7, 10:00 a.m. to noon
Lemke Seminar Room SCRC, Bird Library, Sixth Floor

Both events are free and open to the public, however advance registration is required for the mini-seminar. To register, contact Barbara Brooker at bbbrooke@syr.edu or at 315‐443‐9763.

About the speakers

Tim Brooks G’69 (Newhouse) is a former television executive and a researcher of early recording artists and phonograph history. His multi award-winning book, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, was the first to document this subject, and the companion CD, Lost Sounds, won a 2007 Grammy award for “Best Historical Release.”

Mike Casey is the Director of Media Preservation Services for Indiana University’s Media Preservation Initiative. He has authored or co-authored a number of vital documents outlining best practices for audio preservation. He authored the “Indiana University Media Preservation Survey” report and was principal author of the follow-up report.

Chris Lacinak founded AVPreserve in 2006 to enable organizations to maximize the usability of their content. He is a former Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of VidiPax, a moving image and sound preservation reformatting facility. For six years, he taught at NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation graduate program.

Grace Lile is an archivist with over 20 years’ experience working with film and video collections. Prior to joining WITNESS in 2003, Grace spent nine years at CNN and two years at the Worldwide Television News Archive. Grace is actively engaged in efforts to support human rights archiving and documentation.

Lecture by visiting scholar Mary Freeman

Mary FreemanMary Freeman will present Letter Writing and Politics in the Campaign against Slavery on October 29 at noon in the Special Collections Research Center on the sixth floor of Bird Library. Her presentation is part of the CNY Humanities Corridor Visiting Scholars Brownbag series.

Freeman’s doctoral research focuses on letter writing as a form of political action in the decades leading up to the Civil War. For people in the mid-nineteenth century United States, letter writing was more than simply a means of transmitting information from point A to point B. Letters were crucial venues for intimate discussion, self-reflection, and, in certain instances, political action. During this period, Americans of many different backgrounds joined a national collective in opposition to slavery. Letter writing provided a space for abolitionists to trade information, articulate their organizational vision, and, most importantly, to stake claims as participants in this national political collective.

The correspondence of prominent abolitionists like Gerrit Smith and Samuel May as well as the letters of lesser-known activists including members of the Post and Porter families of Rochester, New York equally shed light on the question of what opponents of slavery thought their letter writing could accomplish.

Mary Freeman is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University studying nineteenth-century U. S. history. She received her BA from Williams College. Her research interests include letter writing, the history of slavery and abolition, women’s history, and the American Civil War. She also works as a research assistant and processing intern at the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library and as a tour guide at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Alexander Nemerov to lecture on Faulkner and Margaret Bourke-White

NemerovAlexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, will present the lecture “Lightness: In the Air with William Faulkner and Margaret Bourke-White” on Wednesday, October 1, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. in Peter Graham Scholarly Commons in Bird Library. He will also conduct a mini-seminar on Thursday, October 2, 2014 from 10:00 a.m.–noon in the Special Collections Research Center on the sixth floor of Bird Library. Both events are free and open to the public, but advanced registration is required for the mini-seminar. To register, contact Barbara Brooker at bbbrooke@syr.edu or at 315-443-9763.

Professor Nemerov will examine two great figures of the 1930s who do not seem to go together, the novelist William Faulkner and the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Considering aerial moments in Faulkner’s novels Absalom, Absalom!, The Wild Palms, and Pylon, he will also speak of Bourke-White’s cult of heights, her dizzying vantages far above the streets of Manhattan.

A scholar of American art, Nemerov writes about the presence of art, the recollection of the past, and the importance of the humanities in our lives today. Committed to teaching the history of art more broadly, as well as topics in American visual culture—the history of American photography, for example—he is a noted writer and speaker on the arts. His most recent books are To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America (2011), the catalog to the exhibition of the same title he curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War (2010). His latest book, Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s, was published by Princeton University Press in 2012.

The Alexander Nemerov lecture is co-sponsored by the Syracuse Symposium™ in the SU Humanities Center.

CNY Humanities Corridor Visiting Scholars Brownbag Presentation

Jenn ThomasJenn Thomas (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
“Researching Nineteenth-Century Insane Asylum Landscapes of New York State”
Brownbag Presentation: September 5, 2014 / Noon / Tolley 304 / SU Humanities Center

Between 1843 and 1890 New York built state run insane asylums in Utica, Ovid, Binghamton, Poughkeepsie, Middletown, Buffalo, and Ogdensburg.  With the passage of the New York State Care Act of 1890, six more local asylums were brought into the state institutional fold, bringing the total to thirteen.  Most asylums required large amounts of acreage to treat hundreds of patients.  Land to farm, access to natural resources and picturesque settings were considered essential for treating the mentally unwell.  Moral treatment, the Quaker inspired psychiatric practice of the age, combined spiritual guidance, behavior modification, and labor activities to administer patient healing.  Regimented daily routines aimed to adjust mind, body and spirit back to a reasoned state.  Male patients cultivated crops, tended livestock, and constructed formal gardens, grounds and buildings.  Domestic tasks, like cleaning, sewing and laundry were done by women.  Patients participated in a variety of recreational activities including supervised strolls, carriage rides, theatrical performances, and sporting events.  Although asylum histories often focus on specific doctors, treatments, or exceptional circumstances, this project emphasizes how landscape-related activities reinforced expected normative behaviors, reflected contemporaneous landscape theories, as well as paralleled social and state concerns related to mental illness, gender, class, and race in New York.

Jenn Thomas is landscape architecture PhD candidate in the history/theory track at the University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign and was a 2013‐2014 graduate fellow at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Oregon and a Master of Landscape Architecture with a certificate in Historic Preservation from the University of Colorado Denver. Her master’s thesis (2009)—The Education of Jane Silverstein Ries at the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture for Women, Groton, MA, 1928‐1932—explored gendered pedagogy in professional training of women landscape architects through Ries’s schoolwork.