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Online Humanities Scholarship beyond the Digital Humanities July 13, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I have been working a lot on revising my book this summer — its second major overhaul — and so I have had ample opportunity to reflect on (gnash teeth, rend garments over…) how truly heinous the process of publishing in the humanities is, and what alternatives/additions might be preferable.

Basically, I like history books.  I am very eager for my work on the “sciences of policy” (operations research, management science, decision theory, systems analysis…) to appear in book form.  I think the strength of the material comes out most clearly when it is presented as a synthetic picture, and I think a book might be bought by those involved in these sciences who are interested in the history but would never read historical journal articles on the topic.  Plus, books are crucial to professional advancement.

However, I think the publishing process for both books and papers is incredibly stultifying to scholarly work.  The key problem is delay. 

When you’re writing a book, you spend lots and lots of time clarifying pages upon pages of prose.  You have to choose what order to put the material in, and you have to choose arguments that you can play up in an introduction, and which ones you have to play down, relegate to footnotes, etc.  When you have your friends and colleagues criticize your work — and they can mainly only help you with stylistic matters — you can wait weeks or even months for them to get back to you on even a slim fraction of the material, because naturally they are very busy, and your stuff is very peripheral to their particular interests.

And, of course, the publication process itself can take a couple of years from submission to publication.  I do tend to think that referee reports are one of the more functional parts of the profession, but, then, you can’t really interact with your referees because they’re anonymous.  Once this arduous process has reached its end, the most likely fate for the work is burial in the archives.  This wouldn’t be bad if we published lots of short articles like scientists, but it can be frustrating when you put a lot of effort into making a 30-page article just right so it can pass through the publication process.

My main complaint is not with the injustice of it all (annoying as it is), but that enormous amounts of research and argumentation are temporarily suppressed, and even ejected during the publication process.  Much of the reason for suppression is to maintain originality and respectability.  You can publish a limited amount of the book material as papers, and you can let some of the material glimpse a precious beam or two of sunlight at conferences, where people are maybe interested in talking a detail or two.

But, in the main, you are hiding your material, because (or so I am told) it can negatively affect the prospects of publication by the people who have to deal with the finances of publication.  Further, I have to imagine that, say, simply making material available on the internet before it has been vetted by referees would diminish perceptions of its scholarly quality.  It’d be like using a vanity publisher — you’re basically signalling your lack of seriousness.  This is why I don’t talk in more detail about my “real” work here at EWP.

What all this seems to amount to is quashing scholarly debate for the sake of making sure the material reads nicely in long form, so that you can publish, so that the profession will reward you.  If you want to speed the process up, you’d better make sure you don’t try anything too complex.

But I think we can have it both ways, particularly now that we have the internet.  The so-called “digital humanities” have taken some advantage of this technology, but this seems to have mainly replicated old forms in new venues.  Some print and archival resources are now easily available and searchable, which is incredibly helpful.  And some scholars have devoted some attention to putting together web-based exhibits.  A lot of blogs seem to be used to put out randomly selected, bite-sized nuggets of history.  Social science techniques have been applied more to humanities-type data, mapping correspondence networks and such, but I am yet to see anything really new and wonderful crop up (though I am quite open to seeing good data-crunching work).

Some blogs are taking advantage of the possibility of using the internet to carry on near real-time discussion, but this rarely rises above general hand-waving on issues that have been discussed hundreds of times — I’d include a lot of EWP posts here!  This is better than journal-based methodological hand-waving, since each entry in a journal “debate” can take a year or more to go back and forth, and, frankly, most of it is not of much higher quality than what you find online.

What I have in mind is something like if scholars studying similar topics set up open forums for limited communal workWikipedia serves as a partial precedent here, but the object would not be to create a single product, nor would I want to conceal the efforts of the individual scholar.  Certainly, scholars could contribute communally to stripped-down biographical databases, or compile documents from different sources.  In fact, this could nicely help integrate the work of archivists and historians.  However, these would also simply be places where issues could be discussed between spatially and socially separated scholars whose interests overlap.  (I don’t hang around with military historians, and we probably would bore each other if we did, but we would also probably have a lot to learn from each other if we could collaborate when convenient.)

Basically, there could be any number of forums, and historians wouldn’t have to adopt a particular one as their own.  The book I am putting together deals with military history, the history of mathematics, the history of the social sciences, business history, government history, history of World War II and the Cold War, British and American intellectual history, etc., and I think it would be nice if I could interact with these communities more regularly and easily, since it is difficult to interest scholars interested in a part of my project in the whole of it.

People in these forums could provide introductions to the available and recent literature for novices and experts, and write short pieces about new archival discoveries, or possible interpretations of evidence.  (Looking through old journals I’ve found pieces that were only a few pages in length; I don’t think it would be a bad idea, in any case, to de-standardize the academic paper.)  New books could be discussed in detail, rather than in the truncated, non-interactive review format.

I think this sort of thing would also be handy for making scholarship more personal.  You could see the various areas that individual people are interested in without having to actually be their drinking buddy, or reading their entire oeuvre.  Of course, people would be encouraged to comment openly on their own work and its relationship to others’.  Scholars could put up FAQs, so they don’t have to correct the same misunderstandings of their work again and again.  Oftentimes scholars simply come to loggerheads over interpretive issues, and if this were the case, it would be simpler to tell a) that that is the case, b) what the best available statements of their differences are, and c) whether you have to worry about it.

It would also be easier to cultivate new or secondary interests, if you could eavesdrop on a community’s discussions, ask them questions, or even participate in their scholarship in a strictly limited way.  Here at Imperial College, a number of us  are getting interested in agricultural history, but nobody here (save our historian of veterinary science, Abigail Woods) is really publishing anything just yet.  It would be nice if there were an agricultural history forum where we could just pop up and introduce ourselves, and figure out what people already know and where we could be most of service given our interests.

Since knowledge would be assembled in these domains piecemeal, they would aid authors in assembling their ideas for books, but books would still represent coherent and novel distillations and commentaries, which stand separate from the hubbub of the online forums.  People’s contributions would be identified and time-stamped, meaning there would be no danger of losing priority and credit.  These contributions could thus be cited in published works where appropriate.

The forums could attract interested outsiders, but some areas would probably want to mark off their forum as a professional workspace, by limiting contributions to people who had published in particular refereed journals.  (I imagine there could be a sort of “outside the fishbowl” comment board.)  In this way the published piece would stop serving its dual role as an information resource and marker of professional seriousness.  It could take up a clearer role by serving mainly as the latter, leaving the serious business of the former to forums structured to handle it.

File under: think piece.

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