Thoughts on Scholarship

December 23, 2011

There was an advice article in the Chronicle by Lynn Worsham recently that caught my attention. Worsham observes that an increasing number of articles and manuscripts submitted for publication in the journal where she works and other presses that she reviews for are, what she calls, “Fast Food scholarship.” Fast food scholarship aims to fulfill the publishing requirement but is not carefully researched, not well developed, and not in conversation with other recent scholarship.

It strikes me that, while I agree that the prevalence of quickly written and substandard scholarship is problematic, this type of writing is what graduate school pushes us toward. While the ideal student would structure their work so that they could write multiple drafts for seminar papers and the like, that ideal is challenging if not impossible. The reading load is such that “skimming” is the preferred from of graduate reading, but it seems to me that this limits our ability to engage deeply with other authors’ arguments. We read widely so that we can sound intelligent but we do not read deeply. Our writing is done quickly, often with little feedback and there is no requirement to revisit it or improve upon it.

If graduate school is for professional development and is there to teach us how to engage in the academic world, then I think the problem identified by Worsham is a problem that begins in the structure of our education. I would love to have time to think deeply about my arguments, to revise and restructure, to read thoroughly and really engage with other scholarship on the topic. But what is rewarded is being prolific and quick, and the writing style that we learn results in quantity but not quality. Since the work load and publishing requirements are just as heavy after graduate school, how does one create the space and time to do the deeply engaged scholarship that is worth reading?


My work has led to a lot of reading and talking about digital humanities, the role of theory, and the possibilities for the shape of digital scholarship in the years to come. There are a variety of opinions on these topics (about as many as there are people practicing digital scholarship), but it is still a very open question. Because it is still so open, I thought I might add my two cents to the conversation.

Much of the conversation about theory has taken place around whether the creation of digital tools, databases, archives, visualizations, etc, are theoretically informed practices, whether those practices need to be given an additional layer of theoretical reflection for them to count as scholarship, and other well articulated questions. I would like to move in a different direction.

First, I think part of the trouble here is the attempt to discuss theory in terms of digital “humanities.” Having studied in English, Philosophy, Religion, American Studies, and now History departments, I know from experience that, while there are similarities between these fields that have allowed me to move between them, there are rather large differences in terms of questions asked, the uses of “theory” (scare-quoted because of Philosophy – they discuss ideas and arguments. Everyone else appropriates the ideas as “theory.” At least according to them), and the end goals of scholarship. While each seeks to uncover something of the human condition – and so is part of the humanities – they are not exactly engaged in the same project.

Thus, while I think it is good that the humanities are attempting to come together in this digital world, I think we also have to create room for disciplinary distinctiveness. What it means to engage is digital literary studies may be different than digital philosophy or digital history; and the way “theory” is utilized in each may also differ.

Second, I think digital history, the field that I am personally most invested in at present, could benefit from moving away from modeling off of literature. In a recent conversation (again related to work), Michael O’Malley expressed frustration with the historian’s practice of “narrativizing the evidence” – we gather our evidence and then present that evidence to the reader surrounded in prose and shaped into a story. While this can make for better monographs (when and if it is done well), it is not the most helpful model for digital work.

But where would we go? I suggest we investigate moving closer to the social sciences.

This is particularly true in cases of scholarship that utilize data-mining, topic modeling, geospatial analysis, and the like. As I have thought in the past about questions to ask and problems to investigate digitally, I have run into a question of what to do with my results. If my investigations support my hypothesis, where do I go from there? Does that work become example or case study A? If it is A, and A took that much work, do I need to be asking an even larger question so that I can provide B, C, and D as well? How do I surround these results in narrative – wouldn’t that be redundant with a visualization?

Moving toward a more social scientific model may help with some of these questions. It may also help with the question of theory.

In what I image of a social scientific model, the historian begins with a historical question and compiles a collection of sources appropriate for the scope of the question. (This is very similar to our current practice of beginning with a question and narrowing in on the relevant primary sources). These sources are then investigated using digital and algorithmic tools, and old-fashioned reading. The results of these investigations are then presented and, herein lies the key, an argument is made about what the results of the investigations mean for the question originally pursued. The representations of the data do not stand on their own – they are not neutral and obvious. The data and their representations must be interpreted and that interpretation must be argued for. But that interpretation and argument does not need to be modeled after the novel. In such a presentation, the theoretical underpinnings of ones question, ones selection of sources, ones choice of analytical methodology, and ones interpretation of the findings must be addressed.

Moving away from narrative does not mean moving away from words. And although parts of the argument in a digital history project will exist in the organization of the information or the mode of investigation, those choices and the effects they have on results and interpretations need to be discussed as part of the scholarly activity.

The “gold-standard” for digital history is not the monograph. I am excited to be involved in investigating what it will be instead.

Food for Thought

September 10, 2011

Jason directed my attention to this interesting and provocative blog post on morality and Christianity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The semester ended. The year ended. And my master’s degree has ended. And I am slowly coming back to life.

Which is a good thing, because in 2.5 short months I am throwing myself back into academic purgatory yet again.

This summer is taking shape as an odd one. We are moving in August but, because I am no longer a student at Yale, finding a summer job has proved difficult.  So I have a lot of time, but those around me are very busy. Which means, oh lucky reader, that you get to listen to the ramblings of my mind.

I am currently intrigued, inspired and slightly obsessed with the blog, It presents an unique mode for presenting historical scholarship, using photo-essays and a focus on plac to capture, record, preserve, and present stories of place and of those who inhabited it.  It is a very engaging and arresting way of telling history and as well suited for making the case for preservation. There is something very powerful in seeing the decay of buildings and artifacts left strewn as determined by fate, something about the decay that makes the history that much more tangible. And rooting the story one is telling in a particular place is a method of history telling that I find to be very compelling and interesting. I am very interested in exploring the photo-essay as a way of telling history.


Prayers for the Dead

April 25, 2011

I am reformed by birth. Born into the Christian Reformed Church, educated in CSI schools during my formative years, defining myself in opposition to the norm of my evangelical/baptist high school, I am Reformed. The determined intellectual approach of that tradition is deeply embedded in my bones. The world is fallen, the gospel offers grace and we, as believers are called to redeem all things – all areas of life are open to Christian work and intervention. This work is the stuff of our earthly life, which we strive to do as best we can, and which is completed upon the moment of our death. For at death we face judgment; at death, our life’s work is complete; at death, the door to redemption closes and our position on either side of that door frame is set.For this is the Reformed way and is also the understanding of many others who would label themselves Protestant but not reformed. This is one of the many legacies of the Reformation – the rejection of purgatory and the growing insistence that the dead are dead. They are no longer aware of us, for either their salvation is complete and they are absorbed in worship of God or their rejection of God is complete, and there is no hope. Our hope is to be reunited upon our death or the return of Christ, but while we live and they do not, our existences are closed to one another.

So I thought. And then I took a course on Eastern Orthodoxy. Just three week in January, but my whole understanding of Christianity began to change. As in the Catholic church, saints play an ongoing and vital role in the lives of the living. However, for this sort of practice to work, those saints must in some way be aware of and care about the lives of the living. And perhaps, just perhaps, the process of becoming like God does not end at the point of death. Perhaps that process continues in whatever that life is beyond the grave. Radical thoughts to my reformed mind, thought that required examining my assumptions about salvation, about death, about the community of Saints.

During the Pascal Vigil on Saturday at the Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church we attend, while renewing our baptismal vows and reconsecrating the baptismal waters, we, the entire congregation, invoked the prayers of the saint, both the major saints of the entire catholic church, and those saints more local to the Anglican communion. And as we asked the prayers of saint after saint, we became ever more part of that “holy, catholic, and apostolic” church that we confess in the creeds. These saints, living through the death and life of the Christ, which we commemorated that evening, are a part of our lives. The church is not just our church – it is theirs as well. The community of believers is more than those gathered in a particular space at a particular time – it transcends space and time and comes to be united, to be catholic, through worship. It is a community that defies death.

A dear friend experienced the passing of a grandfather this weekend. Two years ago, again near Easter, we said goodbye to my husband’s mentor. And in prayer on Easter, I was able to pray for them, for their journeys are not over. Not merely to thank God for their lives, though that is most certainly is true, but to pray for them. For if we believe as we profess that reality extends beyond the confines of this time and materiality, then our lives are still very much connected with those who have died. This is the hope of Easter. This is the reality of the liturgy. This is the mystery of faith.