Gerda Lerner, considered one of the pioneers of women's history, died Wednesday at the age of 92. An obituary in The New York Times detailed her career, much of which was spent at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She focused on the history of women in the United States when such a focus was highly unusual among historians. In 1972, when Lerner was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, she created a master's degree in women's history -- the first graduate degree in the field.
Academics ask all kinds of questions and make all kinds of judgments about parts of colleagues' or potential colleagues' lives that are irrelevant to their jobs, writes Nate Kreuter. He says it's time to stop.
A scholar committed to the digital humanities once summed up his long-term strategy for winning their acceptance with a terse, sardonic comment. “We will advance,” he said, “funeral by funeral.” It's the kind of sentiment that's often felt, but seldom so well expressed -- or so brutally.
But assuming that time is on digital culture’s side also tempts fate. The humanities include bodies of knowledge that have developed over periods ranging from a decade to a couple of millennia and more. Digital technologies can emerge and eclipse one another in the time it takes to write a single monograph. The wisdom of reorganizing one around the other is at least questionable.
A paper in the December issue of Literary & Linguistic Computing called “Toward Modeling the Social Edition: An Approach to Understanding the Electronic Scholarly Edition in the Context of New and Emerging Social Media” manages to be forward-looking but not triumphalistic. It also poses the interesting question of whether the turnover in the stock of digital tools might actually have a productive relationship with long-established ways that scholarly communities engage with their primary sources.
The list of its authors is headed up by Ray Siemens and Meagan Timney, both of the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia. It includes, as appendices, a couple of substantial bibliographical essays that were posted online a couple of months before the paper itself was published. Siemens et al. have been venturing the concept of the “social edition” for at least a couple of years. At this point, it still refers to something potential or emergent, rather than fully realized: a speculation more than a blueprint.
But the paper offers a logical extrapolation from existing trends -- a plausible glimpse of the shape of things to come. Siemens and his colleagues point out that there is a gap between how electronic editions of texts are prepared, on the one hand, and how scholars use the available technology, on the other. “The types of electronic scholarly editions we see prominently today,” they write, “were largely developed before the ubiquity of the web that we now enjoy and do not accurately reflect the full range of useful possibilities present for academic engagement and interaction around the textual materials that are our focus.”
At the same time, gaining legitimacy for electronic editions has for a long time meant adhering fairly closely to established formats for definitive editions of texts. Siemens and his coauthors sketch a typology that begins with material prepared more or less along the lines of a scholarly edition in print, with its features made available in slightly different form. The reader of such a “dynamic text” could click around to find annotations, variant readings, cross-references, and so on.
Subsequent formats for scholarly e-texts incorporated links to pertinent primary and secondary sources -- whether as part of the edition itself or elsewhere online. This meant, in effect, grafting a good research library onto the text. The edition would reflect the state of the existing scholarship – or the state of the editors’ scholarship while preparing it, in any event.
Just when the later species of “hypertextual” and “dynamic” scholarly e-editions arrived on the scene is not indicated, but probably not much later than the early ’00s, to go by the authors’ descriptions. In the meantime we’ve had the arrival, for good and for ill, of social media, which have insinuated themselves into academic communication so extensively that it’s easy to overlook their ubiquity.
Hence the emerging potential for the “social edition” -- which, if I’m following the argument correctly, is not some newfangled travesty of established protocols for preparing important texts. It doesn’t mean tweeting Being and Time, though someone is bound to do so, sooner or later.
Rather, the social edition would offer the same features available from earlier scholarly editions of e-texts (glosses, links to appropriate material, etc.) while also acknowledging the ongoing nature of serious engagement with the material so preserved and annotated. The participants in preparing a social edition would generate commentary and analysis; help compile and update the bibliography; and create “folksonomic” tags (as when you use Delicious to store and categorize the link for an article you want to cite later).
“The initial, primary editor,” Siemens and company write, would serve “as facilitator, rather than progenitor, of textual knowledge creation…. Relying on dynamic knowledge building and privileging process over end result, [the social edition’s] expansive structure offers new scholarly workflows and hermeneutical methods that build, well, on what we already do.”
That last point is particularly significant. For one thing, scholars are already using social media – group bookmarks, blogs, etc. -- to share references and ideas. (The paper and its appendices identify an enormous array of them.) But more importantly, such tools are increasingly experienced by those using them “as natural extensions of the way in which they had always carried out their work.”
Novelty, then, is not the issue. “The core of activities traditionally involved in humanities scholarship,” the authors say, “have altered very little since the professionalization of academic study during the nineteenth century.” And those basic activities (finding texts, comparing and analyzing them, circulating them, etc.) are finally collaborative, or at least dialogical. A social edition will presumably foreground that reality, assuming one wriggles up on shore sometime soon, breathing air and able to find funding.
The University of Northern Iowa is contesting a recently released American Association of University Professors report on affronts to shared governance and tenure policies last academic year in the midst of a budget crisis. The AAUP criticized university administrators for eliminating 20 percent of academic programs and the K-12 laboratory school without full engagement of the faculty -- who are primary curricular decision-makers, according to association recommendations -- and for making some professors involved in those programs feel forced to accept separation packages or risk being laid off.
In a statement, President Benjamin J. Allen said the institution disagrees with the findings of the report, and that “university leadership is obligated to not only consider the best interests of the faculty, but also the taxpayers, staff, alumni, and most importantly our students. The program changes were made up with all those stakeholders in mind.” Allen called the AAUP report mere “opinion," without punitive teeth at this point, and said it mischaracterizes university policies and agreements.
Dan Power, president of the UNI-United Faculty union, called the events of the past year “unprecedented,” and said that collegial, shared governance is in the interest of everyone in the university community going forward. “My hope is that we will resolve the outstanding issues identified in the AAUP Committee A investigation," he said in an email. "We need to work [together] to continue to meet the needs of our students and the people of Iowa.”
The AAUP report followed a May 2012 investigation prompted by faculty complaints, said Michael Bérubé, investigation chair and professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, as well as president of the Modern Language Association. "In the future, we would hope and expect that the UNI administration will involve [the union] and the Faculty Senate at every level of decision making with regard to program closures and/or reductions, because UNI's own handbook gives the faculty primary responsibility over the curriculum," he said in an e-mail.
In today’s Academic Minute, Anthony Jack of Case Western Reserve University explains why it’s hard to be analytical and empathetic at the same time. Learn more about the Academic Minute (and listen to the podcasts published over the holiday break) here.
As politicians try to avert the fiscal cliff, Lake Superior State University wants to ban it -- the phrase at least. "Fiscal cliff" tops the university's 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. The university's press release states: "If Congress acts to keep the country from tumbling over the cliff, LSSU believes this banishment should get some of the credit."
Other words and phrases banned are:
Kick the can down the road
The rationales for the bans -- announced each year on New Year's Eve -- may be found here. Previous lists (and a place to submit a word to ban) may be found here.