Shit humanists say: A response to “English Profs want to control the internet”

This is a response to “English Profs want to control the Internet”, by somebody who apparently doesn’t want their name front-and-centre. It is slightly modified from the comment I submitted, but since this is actual and it is in a moderation queue, I decided to post it here as well. I wouldn’t mind returning to the topic, to be honest.

I find the genre of this piece (“humanists say the darndest things”) about as tiring as the debate about tweeting conferences. It is pretty easy to make fun of ongoing conversations in any discipline you don’t normally follow, especially if, as others have pointed out, you don’t actually read the things you are linking to, let alone the broad context in which they are being written. Yesterday the Chronicle was reporting on scientists who peer review their own articles by creating fake email addresses and even entire identities. Yet I can resist the temptation to suggest that this must mean that all natural and medical sciences are one large circle jerk.

What’s really going on in this discussion, as Kathleen was actually pointing out, is a debate about manners in a field where digital technology is just beginning to be mature enough to have real disciplinary impact. This is bringing with it all sorts of questions that are simply new to the way researchers in those fields work. And it is happening at a time in which what appear to be fundamental methodological changes are coming much faster than generational attrition. Questions like how to handle authorship attribution on collaborative teams, for example, are completely new in most of the Humanities; we can hardly expect them to be handled with the skill and transparency they have been in disciplines like, say, medicine, where they have longer experience and, as a result, do it absolutely flawlessly.

So how collaborative and social media technologies, like tweeting, are supposed to work professionally is a major issue to many humanists–both for generational and disciplinary reasons. Yes, English conferences are different from “science conferences” (and I have attended enough of various kinds to be quite sure of what I am saying here), because the work is very different. (Same is true of colloquia vs. conferences vs. public lectures, and so on in any discipline; anybody who doesn’t know that scholarly and scientific gatherings vary depending on their purpose both within and across disciplines is either pretty inexperienced or, worse, willing to sacrifice accuracy for the pleasure of creating stark, but wrong, binary comparisons).

One way in which English profs work differently than many scientists is, as somebody suggested above, that they deal primarily with arguments rather than data. A lot of the discussion at English conferences (and those in History, and Philosophy, and most other humanities disciplines) involves debating subtly different, often non-exclusive, understandings of cultural phenomena, motives, or understandings. There is often important data under discussion–for example, the precise words used by a subject you are studying–but generally that data is relatively well-known and pretty stable: the question is less often what somebody wrote than how we are to understand the significance of what they wrote.

This is why many literature researchers and historians read their papers from a prepared script: what is crucial is not the data but the /precise/ argument the researcher is using to explain it. And in such cases the exact connotations of the words used can be very important (This is also why, in many humanities disciplines, citations need pages or other canonical sign posts in addition to author-date or other basic information: you are citing specific language, not the general point of the paper, as you might say in Psychology or Physics). That this is a methodological thing rather than evidence that English professors are just dumber than scientists can be shown by the fact that these same researchers often speak to slides rather than read from prepared texts at conferences when they are doing work that is more focussed on data or procedure: in a lecture on palaeography or textual criticism, for example, or linguistics, or the Digital Humanities. Significantly, you will also often find that bibliographic practices change in these contexts as well: when I write about techniques in the Digital Humanities or work on palaeographic or editorial questions, I often find it sufficient to refer to entire articles or even books in a way I would never consider in a literary paper.

This difference is also why some people might be nervous about having their lectures tweeted: not that they might be scooped but because the point of their paper is the precise wording they are using to explain their interpretation of a largely already-known dataset (it is actually pretty hard for this reason to “scoop” a literary paper: you can beat somebody to publication about data; it is harder to beat somebody to print with a complex argument about already-known data without plagiarising them at length). It is as easy to grossly trivialise a complex literary argument in 140 characters as it is to misrepresent the importance of some apparently trivial or “immoral” data and research questions in the natural and medical sciences. If evolutionists, those conducting animal experiments, or those working with genetically modified foods are entitled to fear being misrepresented by journalists or “common sense” politicians, then I think we might allow humanists similar scope to fear having their carefully constructed arguments made ridiculous in a similar forum. I don’t fear this myself, particularly, but then a lot of my work is data- and procedure-focussed and I’m easily ridiculed anyway. But I’m not completely dismissive of the fears of others on this regard no matter how much easier life would be if I decided that everyone but me was stupid every time they said something I hadn’t thought of given my training and interests.

A second reason, as others have pointed out, can involve the context of the lecture. If you have never been to a presentation in which a researcher is trying out draft ideas or reporting on draft data that are still too provisional for widespread circulation, then the problem is not that you are not a humanist… it is that you are clearly not getting invited to the important meetings. I have attended scientific meetings at which data and interpretations are being presented to others under embargo. And I have been at humanities lectures, colloquia, and project meetings where people have been trying out ideas among invited or limited company while they are still too raw and undeveloped for public disclosure. It doesn’t seem at all bizarre to me that some people may be uncomfortable about live tweeting preliminary ideas in certain contexts.

And finally there is simply a generational issue at stake and, as somebody pointed out, a lot of the discussion involved questions of manners: a number of mid- to late-career humanists are truly out of their element with this new technology. This is, for example, my sense of what’s going on at the MLA: a relatively large gathering where, except for some business meetings, it is harder to argue that it is an appropriate form for the discussion of preliminary arguments. The social approach to sharing arguments in the humanities (including the use of Twitter) is so new that many well established people in the field have no innate feel for how it works or what is and is not appropriate. Even if there were no danger of having a complex argument misrepresented, these people might fear or ridicule twitter because they don’t know much about it and are not part of the broader conversation among those who do.

Kind of like this posting.


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