Tenner's approach opens the realm of research

Oct. 28, 2002 11:26 a.m.

Few academics have written papers on such diverse topics as the history of the German shepherd dog, the proliferation of paper in the computer age and the way in which the chair has come to dominate the way we sit. But then again, not many have carved out as unique a place in academia as Edward Tenner.

Tenner is a visiting research collaborator in the English department, and was once a visiting researcher in Princeton's geosciences department. He was a book editor at Princeton University Press for 16 years, and also held a visiting appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study while a Guggenheim Fellow. The eclectic path of his career was inspired by an encounter with an applied mathematician at the Harvard Society of Fellows, where Tenner spent three years while finishing his Ph.D., which he received from the University of Chicago.

Tenner's colleague didn't study a discrete subject; he studied problems. "What really impressed me was that there was another way to approach research," said Tenner, whose original subspecialty was 19th-century German history. (He earned his bachelor's degree in history from Princeton in 1965.) Instead of delving into a narrow field of knowledge, Tenner reasoned, he could pursue scholarship by having a unique way of looking at things, no matter what the subject or century. His field of concentration has become the interaction between objects and society.

To that end, Tenner has weighed in on the social and biological history of the German shepherd dog -- sometimes treated as a symbol of virtue -- and is at work on a history of the handshake. Several years ago he explored the reasons why the so-called paperless office that the computer age was supposed to introduce in fact led to the proliferation of paper in offices. And he has studied why the chair -- rather than, say, mats on the floor -- came to dominate the way Westerners sit.

The spirit of his work, according to Tenner, is unexpectedness. "How can we break out of ruts and change our thinking?" Tenner asked.

Most notably, he has examined the way technological advances frequently end up harming us or making our lives more complicated. His work on that topic was published in 1996 in a book called "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences." As he started to delve into the unintended consequences of technology, Tenner noted how ironies can often occur.

The full story is available in the Weekly Bulletin.

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601