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Edited Volumes June 13, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

Doing a little self-educating, and preparing for the canon-building series, (and procrastinating on some manuscript revisions), I thought a good idea would be to take a look at the collected works of Simon Schaffer. Everyone agrees he’s an enormously important scholar in the field, but I’ve never really heard any discussion of his approach beyond the fact that he likes to talk about experimentation and instrumentation. I don’t dispute the notion (as a grad student I had the pleasure of a one-on-one pub lunch with him and was as blown away by his grasp of the issues as anyone I’ve ever talked to), but I would like to have a little bit more of a discussion about his, erm, “shtick”, as in, what is it? That’s for a day far off.

Of course, he’s never written a solo book, which makes tracking his work down a little bit of a task. And, actually, it’s worse than that. It turns out a very significant portion of his work is in the format of entries in edited volumes, which brings me to today’s topic. First a straight-out gripe: edited volumes are a little annoying, particularly because, unless you happen to enjoy doing JSTOR searches of the Isis cumulative bibliography (which I try to avoid if at all possible), edited volumes are a good way of hiding scholarship from the uninitiated. If you don’t happen to know that an edited volume exists, it may as well not.

What do edited volumes accomplish? I get the impression that if people put together a good conference, they feel the contributions ought to all be published together, which means that there’s never more than a cursory effort to pull it all together (and the effort that is put in is usually pretty ponderous, because conferences rarely result in much that can be pulled together in any coherent way). This is especially trouble in vague, “thematic” conferences–“science and wooden boxes” or something. These always sort of hint at a broader significance, but are always more suggestive than conclusive. Not only is there no “end” to the work, there’s never any beginning. The old saw “read it for the footnotes” applies, of course.

And of course, there are also summary volumes like the Cambridge History of Science series, or 1990’s Companion to the History of Modern Science, to which major scholars also contribute. I’ve never been encouraged to sit down with these–probably I should. Are these our canon? Should they be taught in classes, or is that considered a waste of time in favor of more advanced material? They’re certainly not anything that’s ever “discussed”. It strikes me as smacking of German romanticism or something to want to discuss the adequacy and the “feel” of an overarching view of a topic without knowing what I mean by that. But it’s still probably worth addressing, because frankly I’m not sure how I should feel about this corner of the literature; which makes it a good topic for further blog inquiry.

But, here’s another thing with edited volumes. As a quick look at the edited volumes Schaffer’s contributed to indicates, there are also those edited volumes that seem to be the playground of the elite. Is it the case that the edited volume format is also where the vanguard issues of our field are defined? If so, what are the consequences of defining a vanguard within a format that emphasizes neither cumulative knowledge nor conclusive results? How are our readings of this vanguard literature changed if we do not have ready access to the background knowledge the contributors already possess? Maybe not being a master of this background knowledge is all just part of being a younger scholar, but I always like to be reform minded…

So, is there a more efficient way of proceeding with all of this? I have zero problem with the publication of intermediary thoughts and results–in fact, I think it should be done more often and more publicly, even if the thoughts aren’t entirely original (thus this blog). Wouldn’t it be nice if scholarship on topics could all be intertwined, so if you wanted straight-up facts, or a summary of argumentation, or access to the lines of scholarship on a given topic, or a given methodological approach, you could use a centralized gateway to access the collected literature and summaries thereof? As usual, I think the internet will be transforming. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but getting access to accumulated knowledge in the most compact way possible has always been a lever to better scholarly contributions.

*This post was edited from its originally posted version, mostly to take into account the summary literature.



1. Michael Robinson - June 15, 2008

Hi Will,

I agree with much of what you say about edited collections. They are rarely as coherent as the editor’s introductory remarks make them out to be. In most there also seems to be a great deal of unevenness in research and writing. Occasionally you get a golden nugget but it’s tough digging. I applaud your interest in intertwining scholarship. I think that this is very common in the sciences where it is more common than not to have 8 or 9 names on a research paper – but history still holds to the sanctity of the single authored monograph. I was at a conference of scientists and historians at Woods Hole two years ago and one of the scientists tried to figure out what advantage was gained from trying to do a comprehensive history of anything by yourself. I’ve adopted a similar philosophy to yours in my own blog – a way of forcing myself to see my work as both public and “in progress” Its difficult sometimes but I’m learning. Nice site – I was reading Galison’s piece this morning after looking at your write up – perhaps I’ll put up some of my own reactions to it on my own blog.


All best,

2. Will Thomas - June 15, 2008

Thanks for the comment, Michael. I’ve added Time to Eat the Dogs (great title!) to the blog roll. And I agree with the multiple author point. I think I might have edited some more commentary on this point out of this post when I added the bit about the summary literature.

I know the editors of edited volumes are usually put-upon enough just to get all the submissions in and the final product put together; but it would be great if it were possible to put together more synthetic work by integrating contributions from many individuals, as they do in the sciences. I’m working on a couple of two-author collaborations at the moment, and it’s really tough to get everything to come together, even when the bounds between authors are pretty clearly delineated. That said, it does seem to make the work a lot sharper by being forced to bring everything together in a coherent whole.

3. Michael Robinson - June 15, 2008


Thanks for the blogroll link. I have another question for you which is related to the issue of collaboration: I was thinking about starting an exploration wiki – an open source database for people working on the subject, but one that would include (perhaps even focus on) issues that were too wonky or obscure to be of interest on Wikipedia.

For example, I wrote a post last week on the historical connotations of exploration. This seems a bit too precise for the wikipedia discussion on exploration (which deals with it in nuts and bolts, lists of explorers, regions, etc). At the same time, my 500 word blog is only the tip of the iceberg on ideas about exploration – I would love to know what others think about this: anthropologists,
geographers, lit critics, etc. as well as other historical references to the subject that I don’t know about. It also seems to me that a lot of us work on fairly obscure figures or ideas in the history of science and exploration – why not have a place for all of this esoterica to live?

At the same time, I don’t want to be pouring my energies into something that should be done through wikipedia, a blog carnival, or some other medium. Or, whether such a project should come under the heading of a larger wiki (e.g. the history of science) In any event, I was wondering what your thoughts were on this sort of thing.

All best,

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