Coloring Outside of the Lines: Academic and Strategic History

11 Feb

What side of American life is not touched by this antithesis? What explanation of American life is more central or more illuminating? In everything one finds this frank acceptance of twin values which are not expected to have anything in common: on the one hand, a quite unclouded, quite unhypothetical assumption of aesthetic theory (“high ideals”), on the other a simultaneous acceptance of catchpenny realities. Between university ethics and business ethics, between American culture and American humor, between Good Government and Tammany, between academic pedantry and pavement slang, there is no community, no genial middle ground.—Van Wyck Brooks mc hammer

The combination of reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees while also working on revising my project statement for History 501 has made me wonder “What makes a ‘good’ question?” After struggling with this a bit, my tentative conclusion is that I am approaching the situation from a “strategic” point of view rather than an “academic” one. Moretti’s advocates for a strategic approach, with preferred research methodologies to reach specific sorts of interpretations.  This challenges not only the methodologies of literary critics (and reading!) but the nature of the academic problem solving. Through innovation, “coloring outside the lines,” digital history and humanities can resist this classic dichotomy and work towards strategic academic research methodologies.

In my recent experience in the business world and as a practicing public historian, the process of data gathering and analysis, problem solving and resource allocation were largely strategic.  By strategic, I mean a plan or method to obtaining a specific goal or result.  These are underpinned by values, theories and research (both acknowledged and unacknowledged) but usually with the end towards a specific goal or plan.    Outside forces such as bosses, boards, community groups, funders or by organizational missions dictate the questions or problems that garner attention are largely.  The “tools” used are largely dictated by utility, tradition, funding or organizational resources.  In historic preservation, for example, adaptive reuse and community building are largely the goals.  To aid in this process, when I worked for the Wabash Valley Trust for Historic Preservation, we had a “Most Endangered List, strategic plans, and neighborhood plans to crystallize complex issues, seek community feedback and facilitate decision making. Historic buildings are expensive to restore and maintain, so in general the goal is to identify possible partners, purposes or funders.  Organizationally restoring a building is usually only done as a last resort.  Even when buildings capacity and strengthen communities, there are usually fairly well set protocols.  Preservationists quickly learn, often by mistake, what works well and what does not.  There are a finite amount of resources and seemingly limitless work. You make decisions daily based on your long-range plans and resources.  This was largely the same at a Target, we set sales goals looked at the numbers and adjusted plans accordingly.

Despite cries of University Inc., in the academic environment, there is not a sales forecast or similar goal selection process processes.  Disciplinary standards, networks and conventions unite and define subject areas but do not provide a shared goal, beyond the vaguest shared goal of increased knowledge. This freedom from the need to address vocational, practical problems allows experimentation into the theoretical, hypothetical.  As a graduate student, when selecting a research topic or tool, there is no priority list of topics.  Beyond that, there is not even much information on what are the best tools for researching history.  Students are sent out to ask questions of primary sources, leading perhaps to amazing discoveries and perhaps wandering lost through the archives. Using this lack of questions as a potential research topic, I quickly started looking for resources. A quick Google search on “best history research topics” mostly led to sites for buying term papers. [1] A search for “effective historical research methods” led to a few books and websites, but almost all from Great Britain.[2]

Strategies and Conventions can be limits or guides. Moretti seeks to give “strategic”[3] answers to “academic” questions.  He is arguing for a better way of analyzing the literature of the past.  Moretti believes that distance aids in reducing the number of elements, so that we can gain a “sharper sense of overall interconnection.”[4]  Employing this approach, he suggests using “graphs, maps and trees” as a way to visualize these interconnections. These visualizations provide data that the historian can interpret. The models and data assist in making these interpretations, but it is incumbent on the researcher to add this interpretation and select the visualization strategies that are most useful. I admired that he was willing to boldly state what “Literary Historians” are supposed to be doing, borrow models from other disciplines.  From our other readings, we have seen how often theory and practice are separated from each other by walls that seem difficult to surmount from the other side. He did not just expound on theory but, offered some preliminary examples of this theory in practice.

Can we have strategic answers to academic questions? In digital humanities, can there be a “best” way to study something where the benchmark is “increasing humanistic knowledge?” I shared reviewer Timothy Burke’s unwillingness, to adopt this single model wholesale, and in exclusion of all others. How can we offer some suggestions on more effective methodologies and areas of scholarship that need addressing, while still allowing for creativity and innovation in methodology?[5]

And to do this, must everything be reduced to a tool or a tag? While there are definitely things that benefit from counting and mapping, how do we address the “mountain of the uncountable?[6]” Can we focus on larger bodies of data without losing the “details of reading?” I was viscerally appalled by his comment that this model does not become “bogged down in the details of reading,” a feeling echoed by reviewer Robert T. Tally Jr.[7]  I did agree that we focus all of our attention on too little of the available resources and that this specialization has caused a sense of loss of larger patterns.[8]  Reading “big” books such as Peter Brown’s Eye of the Needle has made me appreciate the uses of new looks at large stories. [9]  Burke rightly points out that “counting publications only scratches the surface of the totality of cultural production.” [10]

I think academic centers, such as the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, and other academic centers have found ways to combine the powers of innovation for both academic and strategic concerns.  Interdisciplinary researchers have employed digital media and computer technology with a clear goal to “democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”  These goals set clear benchmarks to judge the success of the venture. This democratization is evidenced by 20 million visitors, and over a million people utilizing its digital products each year.  Beyond these strategic goals, their work has advanced and transformed the study of history and the humanities. [11]

Beyond starting a center, are there ways individual historians can combine academic and strategic problem solving.  The keys, it would seem to be specific and concrete not only about the research questions and underlying the inherent underlying values, but also about the goals and audiences for a project while not letting these strictures confine experimentation and innovation in approach, tools or results.

Returning to Moretti, I admire Burke’s suggestion that we can “reconcile the agency of authors and readers with Moretti’s graphs maps and trees” through a suggestion of “coloring outside of the lines.”[12]  The idea, that there is a coloring book of pictures, created by Morretti and others, is appealing.  There is something so daunting about the blank piece of paper– or the blank word document, in the digital world. I feel much more comfortable about selecting a picture then thinking about how to color it in. In some ways, digital analysis seems a bit like this coloring book.  There are already set out tools (different applications and software) and we use them to create our own pictures.

(But then I tried to download the software to make the picture and I could not figure out how to install it, let alone use it. Back to the drawing board, so to speak.)


[1] After digging through the ads, I did find this useful site by former AHA president William Cronon on designing historic research projects.  http://www.williamcronon.net/researching/questions.htm  Dr. Kelly also recommended the book, The Craft of Research which I found helpful. Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[3] Morretti terms this “rational,” focusing on the internal patterns of logic within the “collective system.” However, reviewers have challenged this notion of the impossibility of capturing all of the facets of this “collective system.”  I am using “strategic” because I think it better reflects the character of his model while not requiring the adoption of the notion of a “collective system.”  Franco Moretti, “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History-1,” New Left Review (November 2003), 68.

[4] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (Verso, 2007), 1.

[5] Timothy Burke, “Book Notes: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, TreesThe Valve (13 January 2006), 1.

[6] Burke, “Book Notes,” 2.

[7] Robert T. Jr.  Tally, “Review, Graphs, Maps, Trees.” Modern Language Quarterly (March, 2007) 132-135.

[8] Moretti, Graphs, 4.

[9] Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton University Press, 2012)

[10] Brke, “Book Notes,” 3.

[12] Burke, “Book Notes,” 3.

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One Response to “Coloring Outside of the Lines: Academic and Strategic History”

  1. apcurtin February 11, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    Angie, I was really intrigued by what you had to say about “strategic academic problem solving.” I think that as public historians in a somewhat traditional academic graduate program here at IUPUI, we might find an opportunity to bring strategic analysis and academic analysis together in our theses. We can pride ourselves on being in a public history program that emphasizes the importance of good historical scholarship, but we can also strive to create strategic interpretations of historical people/places/events that might serve the needs of public audiences.

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