18.345 recording angels

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 10 Nov 2004 07:27:36 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 345.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois (13)
         Subject: Re: 18.334 recording angels

   [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk> (64)
         Subject: crossing the disciplinary beach

         Date: Wed, 10 Nov 2004 06:07:54 +0000
         From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
         Subject: Re: 18.334 recording angels


I just want to point out that your preliminary posting on the topic of
ethnographic documentation may have overlooked the role of the oral
historian. Post-hoc, the interview is a valuable genre. Are not some of
the researchers you wish had left more documentation still living? Would
they not be available for a series of interviews?

Alongside the recording angels, is there room in your heaven for the
stenographic seraphs or the chatty cherubim? Or a devilish interviewer?

Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large

A calendar is like a map. And just as maps have insets, calendars in the
21st century might have 'moments' expressed in flat local time fanning out
into "great circles" expressed in earth revolution time.

         Date: Wed, 10 Nov 2004 07:17:09 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: crossing the disciplinary beach

Vika Zafrin, in Humanist 18.334, usefully bridges the topic of an
ethnographic history of work in humanities computing to that of
collaboration. The common problem she identifies is going public with ideas
while they are still in formation. "As frightening and unusual as it is to
put unpolished ideas out there," she comments, "documenting ideas in
public... needs to be done, I think. The excitement that comes with the
inevitable participation in such endeavors of interested oparties external
to the project is well worth the risk of sounding like a fool." My first
experience of collaboration as the senior person confirmed my fears. It was
very difficult at first to expose what I thought to be half-baked ideas to
the (post)graduate student I was employing and to be told they were not
even half-way there yet; they were in fact plainly wrong. But we became
friends, and the project turned into an exhilirating collaboration.

So far, so good. But Vika goes on to quote a report by Ray Siemens et al.
to the effect that humanists "tend to work as solitary scholars, rarely
collaborating with their own graduate students and do not see the need for
collaborating with other scholars." She goes on to comment that, "Until
this mindset changes and humanists see real value in collaboration,
documentation won't happen either: why document your progress if you have
no intention of showing the progression to others?" While there is truth in
what she says, there's an easy slide here past some genuinely interesting
and significant problems we need to bring out into the open.

The essential problem I see is the organic relationship between what Karen
Knorr Cetina calls an "epistemic culture" and its manner of work and ways
of publishing that work. The principle I want to invoke is simply put by
Tony Becher and Paul Trowler in Academic Tribes and Territories :
Intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines (2nd edn, 2001): "the
ways in which particular groups of academics organize their professional
lives are related in important ways to the intellectual tasks on which they
are engaged." (p. 23) Scholarship is often a solitary labour not because
scholars are afraid of being caught out (although they may be) but because
that's the kind of work it is. This is certainly not to deny that fine
opportunities for collaboration are waiting to be picked up or that
scholars employed as teachers should engage with their (post)graduate
students. But it certainly is to say that the myth of the "lone scholar" is
potentially dangerous nonsense.

A revealing question to ask as one surveys the disciplines is, Where is the
real work done? or, What's the medium in which the real work is done? In
some disciplines, such as the laboratory sciences, the real work is done in
one place and medium, then communicated in another. In some, such as
history, it may happen partly in the field (e.g. archive), partly in the
synthesis that happens in writing the essays and books which follow. In
many of the humanities, the field-work is important but preliminary; the
real work happens in the actual writing, which by nature is solitary -- the
scientific practice of multi-authored papers notwithstanding (for which see
Biagioli and Galison, Scientific Authorship). The best piece of writing I
know that actually makes the comparison from personal experience is Thomas
Kuhn's "The Relations between the History and Philosophy of Science", in
The Essential Tension (Chicago, 1977). He worked in physics, history and

I put it to you that the better way to proceed is first to understand how
humanistic scholarship works in its communities of practice, then to ask
how collaborative practices might fit into these communities. It's also
healthy to ask, How do we want to change the way things are done? But to
get a good answer, we first need to know what we're talking about. Before
getting off the boat and walking across the beach to meet whomever lives
beyond it, would it not be a good idea to have a clear notion of the
culture one is about to encounter -- and abundant respect for its integrity?
(Yes, I am thinking of Captain Cook.)



[NB: If you do not receive a reply within 24 hours please resend]
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk
Received on Wed Nov 10 2004 - 02:32:42 EST

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : Wed Nov 10 2004 - 02:32:45 EST