Month: February 2012

Innovation and Writing

Scott Berkun gave a lecture a few years ago at Carnegie Mellon University on the subject of innovation: Myths of Innovation (it seems he might have given this lecture a few times after he had written a book by the same title). He opens by recounting a few iconic moments of innovation. Predictably, he invokes scenes of Newton under the apple tree and Archimedes running naked through Syracuse shouting “eureka” and then rightly dismisses them as myths of innovation. These events were not moments of innovation but rather are epiphany stories we tell ourselves. These stories mask the real work goes into any development. He dips liberally into history and the history of science to defend his argument that innovation occurs slowly and only through considerable time, effort, and failure.

Berkun’s model for the relationship between work and innovation.

One of his more useful points, useful for academics and students, pertains to the habits of “creative people.” Creative people work really hard and regularly and frequently. They make lots of mistakes. Creative people are not particularly attached to any iteration of their work and are willing to jettison a project along the way. Berkun’s claim is not new or innovative, but it is a useful reminder.

A dominate idea among students and, I suspect, among academics holds that writing occurs in epiphanic saltations. We assume that if you sit long enough and think your thoughts will spring forth from your head in a brilliant, fully formed essay, like some academic Athena. Closely related to this is the myth that we do our best work when writing for a deadline. These are powerful and seductive myths. I see my students laboring under them every day. I have suffered from it.

In the end, writing is like innovation. It is the product of hard work, daily. It requires a certain equanimity and detachment with respect to what you write. Good writing only happens at the end of a long process of revision, failure, and misdirection. You don’t write an essay so much as rewrite and revise and rewrite and discard and rewrite [repeat] an essay.

Now if I could just convince students of this fact.

Good Science Often Makes Bad History

A new article in Weather has been getting considerable attention the last few days. In “How useful could Arabic documentary sources be for reconstructing past climate?” Spanish researchers had the novel idea to look at medieval Islamic texts to see if they could find any climate information. According to the summary, Arabic Manuscripts: It Used to Snow in Baghdad over at Surprising Science, one of the Smithsonian Magazine blogs, the researchers found evidence of snowfall in Baghdad. At this point I have to rely on the summary and abstract because I haven’t yet received a copy of the article itself. If those are accurate, this article reveals once again that scientists and journalists often practice bad history of science (I’m tempted to use the term “pseudohistory of science”).

Post over at the Smithsonian Magazine claims it used to snow in Baghdad

The title of the post implies that snow was a regular occurrence in medieval Baghdad, but the summary doesn’t quite back up that implication. The researchers looked at 10 texts and found a number of “meteorological citations.” Of these, there were “14 chilly periods” and 2 accounts of snow, a century apart. One example struck the author as noteworthy: “One particularly odd event was in July 920, when it was too cold for people to sleep on their roofs, as they did on most summer nights.”

Without more context, it is difficult to know what to make of these “meteorological citations.” Two examples surely don’t justify the title “It Used to Snow in Baghdad.” And what exactly is a “chilly period?” For some people, particularly those accustomed to hot weather, chilly means something entirely different from those accustomed to cooler climates. Too cold to sleep on the roof? That could mean anything. Despite the authors’ claim that “social and religious content of the documents is probably biased, the historians weren’t likely to fabricate an off-hand mention of a drought, hail storm or solar eclipse,” the term “chilly” is so fraught with subjectivity that a little bias is the least of our worries. And what about a little of that biased social, political, and religious context. It would be nice to know if the “chilly period” corresponded to any significant political, social, or religious events. Maybe these chilly references are metaphorical rather than mimetic.

I fear this article is the meteorological equivalent to retrodiagnosing diseases. A group of modern scientists have treated historical documents as if they conform to our standards, have imposed a conformity on those documents, and then read out of them categories that mean something to us today. The weather, as numerous studies in the history of science have indicated, is not a timeless, natural category. How people observe, record, and understand the weather has varied considerably. Regrettably, they don’t appear to have consulted with a historian of science or any history of science, though I have to reserve any fuller comment until I see the article.

This is precisely what I’ve been worrying about lately. People assume that the history of science (and history in general) has no unique domain of expertise and that anybody with an interest in the past and maybe some grasp on a handful of facts can do history. In fact, often such people do the greatest violence to the past because they enlist it in their present-day agendas.

[Reposted from “Scientists Practicing Bad History at PACHS”.]

Witchcraft and Digital Humanities

Digital humanities is a term that risks losing all useful meaning as scholars apply it to an ever increasing range of projects. Many of these projects are “digital” only insofar as they put material online, often without providing any tools that facilitate the study of that material. A collection of on-line texts, for example, is not a robust digital humanities project, as far as I am concerned.

I find myself thinking a lot about opportunities offered by digital projects. Right now, that thinking takes place in the context of my course on plagues and epidemics. I think there is an opportunity for students to work collaboratively on a project that would make early modern plague texts available online and would allow people to study these texts beyond what can be done through Early English Books Online (EEBO). Such study would include textual analysis for words, mapping the texts geographically and chronologically, comparing texts, and collating both symptoms and treatments.

Witchcraft in Early Modern England, a promising DH project.

Today I stumbled across an ambitious model in Witches in Early Modern England. This website indicates some of the promises that DH offers. In addition to collecting and making available a mass of primary sources, the people behind this project — led by Kirsten C. Uszkalo — have envisioned various tools that will allow people to study these texts in interesting ways. I don’t yet know if these tools merely facilitate research that otherwise would have been possible if laborious or if they enable people to ask new questions. There is surely a spectrum between those two positions—I can think of many projects that would be possible but not feasible without some sort of database-mapping-textual analysis backend. In any event, it looks promising.

Uszkalo’s Witches in Early Modern England is certainly far beyond what I could do with students, at least in a single term, but it does point to some of the ways I can think about a plague project.

History and the Problem of Historical Expertise

[Reposted from History and the Problem of Historical Expertise at PACHS.]

In his recent post, History: The Everyman Discipline?, Paul Lockhart wonders about what makes a person a historian. His characterization of “the public ‘at large,’ if you will” seems accurate both to academic and non-academic publics. This public at large, he suggests, believes:

If you have a deep interest in history, and have memorized a few facts and are able to recite them at will, then you are a historian, since we all know that history is nothing more than memorizing stuff. … So, to them [public at large], a historian is someone who has learned lots of facts about the past and is able to arrange them into some kind of intelligible narrative.

A keen interest in and some knowledge of the past is not sufficient to be historian, any more than knowing some numbers makes a person a mathematician, to borrow Lockhart’s example. Nor is arranging facts into an interesting story adequate to distinguish historians from antiquarians. Collecting, organizing, and presenting facts is not analysis, though it might be propaganda.

What Lockhart seems to be trying to identify and articulate is historical expertise. What constitutes the unique expertise that distinguishes a historian from other, often smart and educated people who have some interest in the past. Lockhart offers the training historians undertake in order to do their research. Or rather, he stresses that historians undertake considerable training: getting a Ph.D., digesting thousands of books, learning research fields, mastering languages and paleography. As Lockhart notes, neither these skills, which I would call mechanical skills, nor the credential, the Ph.D., can distinguish historians from non-historians.

If the mastery of languages, paleography, thousands of books, and research fields (I confess I’m not quite sure what this entails) do not constitute historical expertise, what does? Are there methods that historians employ, e.g., a particular type of close reading, are there questions that historians ask, e.g., source generating questions, are there philosophical and conceptual categories that historians use or avoid, e.g., presentism vs. present-centered, are there theoretical approaches or particular questions and problems perhaps arising from Lockhart’s “research fields” that historians recognize as meaningful?

The unique expertise of a historian stands at the center of the debate between Helen King and Don Shelton in the latest issue of Social History of Medicine). King takes Shelton to task for practicing bad history and, along the way, for lacking the credentials of a professional historian (in her final response she emphasizes that she is not condemning amateur history but bad history). Shelton responds to King’s charges by reasserting his conclusion and invoking a massive number of sources (facts?). For Shelton, familiarity with historical artifacts and a keen interest in the past qualifies him as a historian. For King, the facile and perhaps incorrect interpretation of these sources—promoted by easy access through the internet—and a seeming lack of awareness of less accessible sources and facts disqualifies Shelton and his work from the realm of history. King seems to imply that Shelton lacks a historian’s expertise and, consequently, is practicing bad history.

What both Lockhart and King don’t emphasize is the unique combination of esoteric knowledge and rigorous habits of mind, the attention to methodological issues that come through engagement with historiographic questions, the concern with how and why certain sources were generated and what questions they were created to answer, the worry about how few artifacts from the past remain to be enlisted as evidence in our arguments, the focus on narrative interpretations that reveal how neither the past nor the present are pre-determined but are, instead, the consequence of innumerable choices. Maybe, in the end, historical expertise cannot be reduced to a body of knowledge and a particular methodology, but is a set of questions that reject teleological and developmental narratives for narratives of contingency.