Saturday, February 11, 2012

Commentary on "How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship"

So lots of people in rhetoric and writing, especially computers and writing, are talking about Gary Olson's post "How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship."

Olson counsels deans and department chairs—and us—to beware "commentators there who were recommending changes in how the discipline conceives scholarly work." In particular, he notes:
Among other things, the reforms call for replacing the traditional monograph-style dissertation with alternative types of final projects; reconceiving professional scholarship to be less dependent on traditional forms and standard scholarly venues; and moving more toward open-access dissemination of scholarship. 
Olson argues that "the proposals are wrongheaded and ill-timed" for various reasons:

Retaining the monograph-style dissertation.
  • "Learning to produce a traditional monograph-style dissertation, then, is essential training for a humanities scholar these days because the experience helps neophyte scholars overcome the cultural and cognitive sway of attention deficit to which we are all prone now."
  • "allowing doctoral students to produce alternative projects may well disadvantage them on the job market, as hiring committees—or at least some members of them—may not be as receptive to experimental forms and may favor candidates who have, in fact, produced a monograph."
Using traditional forms and venues; avoiding open-access scholarship.
  • "more and more online journals are claiming to employ a peer-review process. That could be a positive development if we can arrive at a point where the community of scholars has confidence that the review process in online venues is as rigorous as it is in top-tier print journals. At the present, however, many scholars are still skeptical that the processes are equivalent."
Olson concludes: "We're trying to keep new and aspiring colleagues from making choices that might damage their careers, at least until more consensus can be established within the disciplines. And we're trying protect [sic] the reputation of the humanities."
    Olson's argument has not been well received by some readers, both in the comments, on Facebook, and in at least one blog commentary. As one commenter points out, Olson is covering—and not properly separating—two different issues: whether the proposals will damage the scholarship itself, and whether the proposals will lead to work against which the academy (dissertation, tenure, and promotion committees) is prejudiced.

    Here, I only focus on Issue 1: whether the proposals will damage the scholarship itself. And in this sense, I think Olson's argument is a mixed bag. 

    For instance, although I strongly prefer monograph-style dissertations—they provide a strong framework for developing a research arc—monographs are not the rule in many other scholarly fields. When Olson warns that "critics of the humanities to assume that [the humanities] are inferior disciplines and therefore expendable," I remember that in many fields, the monograph is seen as a post-tenure project, one that a senior scholar can take on because her or his "real" work of articles, conference proceedings, and grants has already been done. Scholars in these other fields still manage to "produce long, in-depth, sustained projects," but those projects consist of tightly interrelated, tightly argued strings of publications. Surely we can't blame the digital age for how, for instance, molecular biologists publish.

    I have a bit more sympathy for Olson's argument about online publications, though I think he hasn't quite done his homework. As many commenters have correctly noted, many online publications - including journals and books - have indeed established peer review processes. For instance, the WAC Clearinghouse includes several open-access books that are edited by top-flight scholars and dually published online and in print. The medium itself doesn't matter; the process does.

    At the same time, open-access books and journals face at least two problems that impair their process. 

    One is a money-and-labor problem. A traditional academic press makes money from (some of) its publications, and that money goes to a lot of necessary things besides stamping ink onto dead trees: encouraging submissions, picking up the tab for sending the journal editor to recruit papers at conferences, offering small honoraria to reviewers (in the case of books), copyediting, checking references, designing book covers, and promoting publications. With scholar-supported open-access journals, this work is still necessary, but must be shifted to people who are willing to do it for free - usually scholars, who must then take time away from their own scholarship, teaching, and/or graduate mentorship to do work that they're not necessarily well prepared to do. In particular, scholars who are good at big-picture applications such as journal editing are often not good at small-picture applications such as copyediting. 

    The other is a chicken-and-egg problem. A traditional journal makes its reputation in part by 

    (a) enlisting a recognized senior scholar as editor; 
    (b) enlisting an editorial board of scholars who can apply a consistently high standard to reviewing articles; and 
    (c) recruiting high-quality papers that exceed that standard. 

    Without those conditions, any journal will struggle. Open-access journals are at a particular disadvantage at this present moment, though, because 

    (a) senior scholars recognize that they take a lot of work due to the money-and-labor problem, so they don't take them on, leaving less advanced scholars to fill the gap; 
    (b) without a senior scholar as editor, journals face difficulties in recruiting senior scholars to their editorial boards and enforcing consistent standards from their editorial boards, as well as 
    (c) recruiting papers from senior scholars. 

    (All these issues stand apart from the fact that senior scholars are the most likely to distrust open-access publications.) 

    So (a)-(c) work against open-access journals, depressing the necessary confidence that will lead scholars to submit papers and tenure review committees to accept those publications as demonstrating high-quality scholarship. In turn, that lack of confidence means that scholars tend to send their best work to traditional journals.
      I do think that the prejudice in favor of print publications will fade away over time—we're in a transitional period. But unless open-access publications can decisively address both the money-and-labor problem and the chicken-and-egg problem, that transition period will be a lengthy one. 

      Thursday, February 09, 2012

      Democrats for Drones

      The Washington Post reports on a poll today about the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies, including its vastly expanded use of drones. Key paragraphs:

      Obama has also relied on armed drones far more than Bush did, and he has expanded their use beyond America’s defined war zones. The Post-ABC News poll found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy, which administration officials refuse to discuss, citing security concerns. 
      The president only recently acknowledged the existence of the drone program, which some human rights advocates say operates without a clear legal framework and in violation of the U.S. prohibition against assassination. 
      But fully 77 percent of liberal Democrats endorse the use of drones, meaning that Obama is unlikely to suffer any political consequences as a result of his policy in this election year.
      The poll's results are lamented by some on the left, who see the results as exposing hypocrisy - after all, liberal Democrats opposed the Bush administration's much more sparing use of drones. asks "Do you surrender your autonomy by joining a political party?" while Glenn Greenwald calls it "repulsive progressive hypocrisy." People on the right agree, with Instapundit calling the previous opposition to Bush-era drones "partisan crap" and linking to Hot Air's sardonic overview.

      We can stipulate that the poll results reflect hypocrisy, but that misses what I think is the important strategic picture. Why have consecutive administrations stepped up the use of drones, and in particular, why has the Obama administration scaled up its use of drones so much? If we step back and take a broader view of military development over the past few decades, the expanded use of drones looks like an obvious answer to a conundrum our political leaders face.

      That conundrum is concisely explained in John Arquilla's excellent 2008 book Worst Enemy. On the one hand, the US finds itself involved in an increasing number of theaters, due in part to political pressure to do something. (Today's possible intervention targets include Syria.) On the other hand, we dearly want to minimize soldier casualties - especially now, with an all-volunteer army and 24/7 news covering each casualty. So how do we satisfy both conditions? Arquilla's suggestions in 2008 included reinstating the draft and leaning more on influence operations, both of which he preferred to Powell-era airstrikes that minimized US casualties at the expense of increased civilian casualties. But he also suggested that better organization and communication could give an advantage to comparatively low-tech dispersed solutions such as drones.

      The problem is that weaponized drones have functioned like small Powell-era airstrikes. They reduce the likelihood of US military casualties - to zero - and they expand the number of theaters in which the US can practically operate. But they retain the likelihood of civilian casualties, and in doing so, reproduce the problems of the Powell Doctrine on a smaller, more dispersed scale: "staggering expenditures, major collateral damage inflicted upon innocents, and growing global resentment of the United States" (Arquilla p.xi).

      For now, the political advantages of projecting force without risking our volunteer forces outweigh the disadvantages. So of course the Obama administration - and administrations of either party in the near future - will continue and expand drone strikes. And this expanding drone policy will continue to garner broad public support - unless the public becomes more isolationist, relieving the political pressure to intervene in a broad range of theaters.

      Wednesday, February 08, 2012

      Reading :: The Story of Writing

      The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs, & Pictograms, Second Edition
      By Andrew Robinson

      I just finished reviewing Robinson's slim book on writing, Writing and Script, which is largely a condensed version of this thicker and larger book. The Story of Writing has over 350 illustrations, many of which are photographs. It's a beautiful book, appropriate for display as well as reading, and many of its comparisons and descriptions gave me the same thrill that I got when reading Schmandt-Besserat's books on the origins of writing. What an amazing thing it is that we developed writing, and that we held onto it long enough to make it useful!

      Robinson focuses on the origins and development of writing here, and in much more detail than he could in Writing and Script. So he gets to devote whole chapters to (for instance) cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Linear B, Mayan glyphs, Chinese writing, and Japanese writing. He also devotes a whole chapter to undeciphered scripts - a fascinating chapter, and one that helps us to realize just how fragile a writing system can be.

      If you're interested in the origins of writing, but you're not an archaeologist, I recommend this book. It's a beautifully illustrated and well written introduction.

      Reading :: Writing and Script

      Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction
      By Andrew Robinson

      This little book lives up to its subtitle: It's pocket-sized and only 157pp, and serves as a condensed version of Robinson's earlier book The Story of Writing. Like that earlier book, Writing and Script attempts to provide an overview of writing from its emergence to the present day. That's an enormous charge, but most of the book covers the origins and development of writing.

      In fact, I picked up this book specifically because I was interested in learning more about the origins of writing. I've read about it in Denise Schmandt-Besserat's work, but wanted a broader take. In this sense, Writing and Script provided a nice overview. Robinson is openly skeptical of Schmandt-Besserat's thesis that writing emerged from tokens, characterizing it as a minority view for which "the correlation is patchy"; although the "theory is reasonable, it seems overcomplicated" (p.7). Robinson favors the view that tokens and bullae accompanied the origin of writing but did not precede it; rather, writing emerged from pictograms (p.8). "What is virtually certain, though, is that the first written symbol began life as pictures" (p.9).

      Robinson discusses the geographical origins and likely chronology of writing's development (p.19 et passim), acknowledging the many questions about whether it appeared first in Mesopotamia or Egypt, and suggesting that writing was invented many times in different places (an account at odds with Schmandt-Besserat and Erard's assertion that it was only invented three times in human history).

      Overall, Robinson packs a lot of information into this little book. I very much enjoyed the accounts of writing and the comparisons of different scripts, especially the ones that are genetically linked. The book is a quick but fascinating read, and I recommend it highly if you're at all interested in the development of writing.