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James Elwick

Associate Professor
Department of Science, Technology and Society
313 Bethune College

I study the history of written science examinations, focusing on the historical 'arms races' between examiners and the people trying to beat their tests. This includes everything from instructors 'teaching to the test' to unlikely exam coaches such as H.G. Wells; from students desperately 'cramming' for exams to candidates finding inventive ways to cheat on them. The project is guided by three questions. First, how were exams - physical documents and the invisible routines used to administer them - standardized to make them trustworthy "daguerreotypes of the mind" (Horace Mann), able to circulate on an industrial, eventually global, scale? Second, how did exams allow credentials to become important as signs of a person's competence and trustworthiness? Third, how did both standardization and credentials contribute to the belief that exams fostered transparency, accountability, and selection by 'merit'?

I also work on the history of the life sciences, situating technical research in its cultural and social context. Specific topics include science education, biological individuality, the work of the evolutionary polymath Herbert Spencer, and common methods found across the life sciences and neurosciences of the early-to-mid nineteenth century.

Making a Grade: Victorian Examinations and the Rise of Standardized Testing (University of Toronto Press, 2021).

How examinations spread across the British Empire and worked as 'cameras' to assess achievement or 'engines' to drive educational change...and sometimes both.

  • One discussion of the book is here.
  • An animated presentation of some of the book's main conclusions is below.

Styles of Reasoning in British Life Sciences: Shared Assumptions, 1820-1858, Book 1 of the Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain series (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007); reissued as paperback, 2020.

How biological individuality moved from being a 'hot topic' in biology and medical a forgotten one.

Co-Editor (with David Amigoni). The Evolutionary Epic. Volume 4 of the Victorian Science and Literature reprint series, edited by Gowan Dawson (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011). 

"Distrust that Particular Intuition: Resilient Essentialisms and Empirical Challenges in the History of Biological Individuality," for Biological Individuality: Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives, ed. Scott Lidgard and Lynn Nyhart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

"Containing Multitudes: Herbert Spencer, Organisms Social, and Orders of Individuality," for Herbert Spencer: Legacies, ed. Mark Francis and Michael W. Taylor (Routledge, 2014), pp. 89-110.

"Economies of Scales: Evolutionary Naturalists and the Victorian Examination Mania," for Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity, ed. Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman (University of Chicago Press, 2014).

"Layered History: Styles of Reasoning as Stratified Conditions of Possibility," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (A),  43, 2012, 619-627.

"Styles of Reasoning in Early to Mid-Victorian Life Research: Analysis and Palaetiology," Journal of the History of Biology 40, 2007, pp. 35-69.

"The 'Philosophy of Decapitation': Analysis, Biomedical Reform, and Devolution in Bodies Politic, London 1830-1850," Victorian Studies 47.2, 2005, pp. 174-187.

"Herbert Spencer and the Disunity of the Social Organism," History of Science xli (2003), pp. 35-72.

Review of Peter J. Bowler, Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin (Chicago, 2013), in Review of Metaphysics 70:1, 2016, pp. 123-124.

Review of William J. Reese, Testing Wars in the Public Schools: a Forgotten History, in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 50:3, Summer 2014, pp. 323-324.

Review of Steve Jones, The Darwin Archipelago: the Naturalist's Career beyond Origin of Species (Yale, 2011), in Victorian Studies 56.2, Winter 2014, p. 346-348.

Review of Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life, in Isis 99, 2008, p. 423.


Faculty of Science Excellence in Teaching Awards, 2011, 2017

Courses taught in 2021-2022:

SC/NATS 1765 6.00, Science, Experts and Citizens
SC/STS 3780 3.0, Biomedical Science in Social & Historical Context
SC/STS 2411 3.0, Introduction to Science & Technology Studies 

Past courses taught include:

SC/NATS 1690 6.00, Evolution
SC/STS 3740 3.0, Life Sciences in Modern Society
GS/STS 6309 3.0, Objectivity and its Alternatives