Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Open Criticism and the Freedom to Imagine New Forms of Research in the Social Sciences

Publishing online and soliciting tweets gave ample room for an airing of any grievance with our manuscript to be heard.  As advocates of open access publishing, we were enthusiastic about providing this opportunity for dialogue.  But some of that dialogue comes in the form of a heated attack, in a few notable cases, questioning our credentials as scholars in the process.  When does open-access critique offer useful food for thought and revision, and when does it overstep the boundaries of scholarly respect?   I will argue here that traditional scholarly standards have become confused in the midst of hasty communications from our critics.  One of the features of the most impassioned critiques we heard was inflated rhetoric about the faultiness of the text as a whole, coupled with fairly minor critiques of the data we used and our interpretation thereof.  This mismatch has dangerous consequences for debate.

Our book was not a research monograph that claimed exhaustive research on a historical era but rather a polemic, whose purpose was to hold up new methods for research in the social sciences, drawing inspiration from methodological revolutions of the past.  Polemics like these have an extreme utility in the social sciences and humanities, as they unify scholars working with new toolsets (for instance the digital humanities) and propose new possible orientations towards their use. 

The crux of our argument about the waning of an age of mid-century public intellectuals who participated in government debate and the rise of economists rests upon secondary, scholarly sources that have been vetted in other contexts.  These timelines exist independently of our own work. We did not pretend to be doing archival research on a monograph that would review in detail the lineaments of the American academy in the 1970s.  

I believe that some of the rhetoric that accompanied our interlocutors’ fastidious suggestions came because our interlocutors misunderstood the genre in which we were writing.  We were writing a persuasive essay, not a monograph in which we claimed exhaustive, expert authority on the eras and actors in question.   We were taking on the case of history departments as an exemplary case of a profession working within the modern university as a whole, offering a critical stance while arguing positively for the promise of some new practices that we have seen younger scholars pursuing – including digital history, working with big data, and engaging the timescale of the Anthropocene.   

My coauthor and myself both work in flagship departments of history where we are routinely exposed to cutting-edge scholarship as well as the ambitions of young scholars.  We wanted to write a polemic that would foreground the difference and novelty that characterized the work that most impressed us, pulling positive examples of similar revolutions in historical methodology from the past as points of comparison for how important a methodological revolution can be. 

To lift up such examples in the form of our own manifesto should be seen not as an act of hubris, but rather as an act of the routine service that scholars perform when they write review essays about recent work in the field, introduce a new set of theory, or write their own historiographical and methodological introduction to a book or journal article.  

As younger scholars, we cannot match in detail the historiographic richness of a Lynn Hunt or Hayden White, who personally experienced the scholarly revolutions of the 1970s and who published their own manifestos this year.  Yet as younger scholars at the beginning (in my case) and height (in David's) of our careers, we are strongly motivated to notice and rank new trends in publishing, big data, and other methods that seem promising, which we and our students and collaborators may borrow as we seek to plow new routes through the field.  

The purpose of a polemic, after all, is to stir debate about the ethical orientation and methods of a field, not to have the final word on any particular episode in history.  To draw these arguments together as a provocation to professional history is an important task for provoking a debate about where we are going as a discipline.  It is also one of the most ordinary traditions in the academy, the eruption of such disagreements.  Some time in the twelfth century, Peter Abelard got into a dispute with his own teacher.  Things weren’t working out well, so he moved down the valley, and set up his own tent, and students followed him there, where he began giving his own lectures.  Polemics are like that: they are an assertion that one body of scholars have begun to see the matter that motivates us differently than another body of scholars.  These moments are creative; they bring together new bodies of scholars, who by moving apart, begin to think about themselves and their work anew.  Such moments are also polarizing; not everyone must agree or come along, and those who don't come may well complain about what the new camp is doing.  

We wrote a polemic that put distance between ourselves and the practices of social and intellectual history of the past in which we ourselves were trained, looking forward to the research that we are most excited about shaping our own work around and proposing as models for our students.  In our polemic, we talked about how new generations of historians are separated from the past by the political impulses of their time and the arrival of new technical methods like the digital humanities.  To disagree with us would mean taking exception to our theory that time-scales in history have been broadening since 2000; that many great scholars are currently taking on climate change, international governance, and inequality as their major foci; that 1968 offers an exemplary moment for understanding how changing politics beyond the academy has long shaped the way that scholars engage archives; and that digital tools promise some help in this new longue duree even while they raise other ethical issues about access to archives. 

In an era of open-access publishing, when critique is extended, open, and invited, it is crucial that we as a scholarly community do not mistake a criticism of editorial work that could be improved (and is then improved, thanks to open access publishing) or an ideological difference in the making with scholarly failure.  Nor should we allow disagreements over critique and genre to cover up a more profound disagreement about the kind of scholarship, methods, and politics that are new and exciting in our discipline.  

One cannot expect all scholars to be enthused about transferring their labored research into the new tools of the digital humanities, nor should one even expect all digital humanists to agree about my own take on the most compelling trends in digital history.  However, offering a portrait of some exciting trends served a goal of unifying some scholars who agree that big data opens the gate to contextualizing archival research with long time-scales.  Those scholars can now identify more clearly their own orientation, and debate the best methods and practices available within that orientation, as a result of being marked out.  That some students and colleagues are inspired by thinking about the tools of big data in terms of periodization and politics has been my personal experience in teaching, writing, and lecturing about this book over the last year.  

Ultimately the questions at the heart of such disagreements as these — both of how we understand the university past and how we release our texts to the public online — are crucial for making sense of the role of the social sciences in the university to come.