Category Archives: Academia

Leave the Blogging to Us

The history of genres is filled with curious transformations, such as the novel’s unlikely evolution from wasteland of second-string prose to locus of Great Literature. One of the founding notions of this blog was that despite its inauspicious beginnings and high-profile overcaffeinated incarnations the genre of the blog has always been well suited to the considered pace and output of the scholar.

Original functions of the blog (and the stereotypical blogger), like the transcription of the day’s minutiae or logging of interesting websites (thus the inharmonious neologism, weblog), have, in the last two years, swiftly emigrated to other platforms and genres, such as “microblogging” services like what-I’m-doing-right-now Twitter (with its one-sentence “tweets”) and gee-look-at-me social networks like Facebook. If you’re a trend-seeker, this makes it seem like blogging is passé, abandoned by both the masses and the digerati.

But to me, it’s simply confirmation that the genre has found its most appropriate writers and readers. It reinforces my initial view of the genre, which is that personal content management systems (what blogging platforms really are) are, despite the genre’s early, unpromising forms, perfectly suited for serious thought and scholarship. With blogging, there is no requirement for frequent posting, and I subscribe to many scholarly blogs that have infrequent, but substantive, posts. Put us in the slow blogging camp. As Barbara Ganley puts it: “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect.”

And while we’re reflecting, it should be rather obvious at this point that thoughtful, well-written blogs can rival other forms of publication. For instance, a baseball statistician and political junkie armed with little more than a free Blogger account and considerable intelligence and energy was able this year to rival the election analysis of most professional newspaper reporters. What are the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blogs than op-ed columns by another name? As I said in the Journal of American History earlier this fall, good writing and analysis rises and makes an impact, no matter the medium or editorial or peer-review system—or lack thereof.

Digital Humanities and the Disciplines

On Thursday and Friday, October 2-3, 2008 (that is, starting tomorrow, if you’re reading this immediately from my feed) I’ll be at Rutgers University for the conference “Digital Humanities and the Disciplines,” sponsored by the Center for Cultural Analysis. If you’re in the area, please stop by—the conference is open to the public. If I can find some wifi I’ll also do my best to blog the conference and send brief updates via my Twitter feed (which I’ve been neglecting lately; sorry, been a little busy).

Mills Kelly on Making Digital Scholarship Count

If you haven’t already been reading Mills Kelly’s outstanding series “Making Digital Scholarship Count,” (part 1, part 2, part 3) you should put it on your must-read list. Mills finished the series today with a perfectly sensible conclusion about how academia might assess digital work for promotion and tenure. I completely agree.

Oh, and yes, even though Mills published this work on his blog rather than in a journal, it is scholarship. And it should count.

The Pirate Problem

Jolly Roger FlagLast summer, a few blocks from my house, a new pub opened. Normally this would not be worth noting, except for the fact that this bar is staffed completely by pirates, with eye patches, swords, and even the occasional bird on the shoulder. These are not real pirates, of course, but modern men and women dressed up as pirates. But they wear the pirate garb with no hint of irony or thespian affect whatsoever; these are dedicated, earnest pirates.

At this point I should note that I do not live in Orlando, Florida, or any other place devoted to make-believe, but in a sleepy suburb of Washington, D.C., that is filled with Very Serious Professionals. When the pirate pub opened, the neighborhood VSPs (myself very much included) concluded that it was strange and silly and that it was an incontrovertible fact that no one would patronize the place. Or if they did, it would be as a lark.

We clung to this belief for approximately 24 hours, until, upon a casual stroll by the storefront, we witnessed six pirate-garbed pubgoers outside. Singing sea chanteys. Without sheet music. The tavern has been filled ever since.

Such an experience usefully reminds oneself that there are ways of acting and thinking that we can’t understand or anticipate. Who knew that there was a highly developed pirate subculture, and that it thrived among the throngs of politicos and think-tankers and professors of Washington? Who are these people?

My thoughts turned to pirates during my experience at a workshop at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a week ago, which was devoted to the digitization of the unparalleled Southern Historical Collection, and—in a less obvious way—to thinking about the past and future of humanities scholarship. Dozens of historians came to the workshop to discuss the way in which the SHC, the source of so many books and articles about the South and the home of 16 million archival documents, should be put on the web.

I gave the keynote, which I devoted to prodding the attendees into recognizing that the future of archives and research might not be like the past, and I showed several examples from my work and the work of CHNM that used different ways of searching and analyzing documents that are in digital, rather than analog, forms. Longtime readers of this blog will remember some of the examples, including an updated riff on what a future historian might learn about the state of religion in turn-of-the-century America by data mining our September 11 Digital Archive.

The most memorable response from the audience was from an award-winning historian I know from my graduate school years, who said that during my talk she felt like “a crab being lowered into the warm water of the pot.” Behind the humor was the difficult fact that I was saying that her way of approaching an archive and understanding the past was about to be replaced by techniques that were new, unknown, and slightly scary.

This resistance to thinking in new ways about digital archives and research was reflected in the pre-workshop survey of historians. Extremely tellingly, the historians surveyed wanted the online version of the SHC to be simply a digital reproduction of the physical SHC:

With few exceptions, interviewees believed that the structure of the collection in the virtual space should replicate, not obscure, the arrangement of the physical collection. Thus, navigating a manuscript collection online would mimic the experience of navigating the physical collection, and the virtual document containers—e.g., folders—and digital facsimiles would map clearly back to the physical containers and documents they represent. [Laura Clark Brown and David Silkenat, “Extending the Reach of Southern Sources,” p. 10]

In other words, in the age of Google and advanced search tools and techniques, most historians just want to do their research they way they’ve always done it, by taking one letter out of the box at a time. One historian told of a critical moment in her archival work, when she noticed a single word in a letter that touched off the thought that became her first book.

So in Chapel Hill I was the pirate with the strange garb and ways of behaving, and this is a good lesson for all boosters of digital methods within the humanities. We need to recognize that the digital humanities represent a scary, rule-breaking, swashbuckling movement for many historians and other scholars. We must remember that these scholars have had—for generations and still in today’s graduate schools—a very clear path for how they do their work, publish, and get rewarded. Visit archive; do careful reading; find examples in documents; conceptualize and analyze; write monograph; get tenure.

We threaten all of this. For every time we focus on text mining and pattern recognition, traditionalists can point to the successes of close reading—on the power of a single word. We propose new methods of research when the old ones don’t seem broken. The humanities have an order, and we, mateys, threaten to take that calm ship into unknown waters.

[Image credit: &y.]

Project Bamboo Launches

Project Bamboo LogoIf you’re interested in the present and future of the digital humanities, you’ll be hearing a lot about Project Bamboo over the next two years, including in this space. I was lucky enough to read and comment upon the Bamboo proposal a few months ago and was excited by its promise to begin to understand how technology—especially technology connected by web services—might be able to transform scholarship and academia. Bamboo is somewhat (and intentionally) amorphous right now—this doesn’t do it justice, but you can think of its initial phase as a listening tour—but I expect big things from the project in the not-so-distant future. From the brief description on the project website:

Bamboo is a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary, and inter-organizational effort that brings together researchers in arts and humanities, computer scientists, information scientists, librarians, and campus information technologists to tackle the question:

How can we advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services?

A good question, and the right time to ask it. And the overall goal?

If we move toward a shared services model, any faculty member, scholar, or researcher can use and reuse content, resources, and applications no matter where they reside, what their particular field of interest is, or what support may be available to them. Our goal is to better enable and foster academic innovation through sharing and collaboration.

Project Bamboo was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

A Quartet of Open Access Arguments

On the day that Harvard’s faculty votes on a strong open access proposal (I’m still looking for the actual text of the proposal; please add a link in the comments if you are aware of it), here are a few of the better arguments this week about the open access movement:

Errol Morris Understands What Academic Blogging Could Be

I’ve been catching up with some reading over break—reading both online and off, despite the NEA’s recent dismissal of the former. And nothing dismisses the NEA’s dismissal of online writing as lesser than print better than the destined-to-be-a-classic series of blog posts by Errol Morris in the New York Times, “Which Came First?” Better written than most novels, more insightful than most academic articles, and more of a (virtual) page-turner than most mysteries, you should do yourself a favor and read the entire series (go ahead, print it out if you must, it’s long), and subscribe to Morris’s blog while you’re at it.

“Which Came First” begins with Morris simply trying to figure out which of two stark and riveting Crimean War photographs by Roger Fenton was taken first—the one with cannonballs strewn across a deserted road or the one with the cannonballs clustered to the side. But the series of blog posts quickly devolves into a discussion and debate about truth in photography and history. Along the way we get pointers about the nature of sunlight, warfare, and Photoshop.

Beyond the series itself, I was impressed by Morris’s conversion to blogging during the writing of the series. (Before “Which Came First?” he only blogged sporadically.) Morris began to realize that open access to his writing online led not only to a large and engaged audience, but also to critical feedback from readers. Some of the reader comments are as shrewd as Morris’s narrative.

I’m at work on a longish series of blog posts of my own tentatively entitled “The Tyranny of the Monograph,” building on my original call for professors to blog. Morris’s conclusion fits with the spirit of my series and with the need to think of new ways of academic publishing in a digital age:

A number of readers have claimed that I am not producing a blog—that I am producing a series of essays. Nomenclature aside, the idea of publishing the responses of readers to a given text (and even to including an author’s responses to those responses) goes back at least to the 17th century…So what is going on here? I believe it should appropriately be called…”Cartesian Blogging.”