Sunday, January 19, 2014

Grad School and the Internet

One of my favorite things about graduate school (and school in general) is the regular interactions with people whose interests and fields of study are foreign or even unknown to me. I love the breadth of information found online, but nothing beats talking to someone who is really into whatever-it-is they are doing.

My university is very interested in a field of study called "digital humanities" - essentially, combining traditional humanities questions and scholarship with ever-improving technology. This ranges from searching two key words together to see how they've turned up in other work to recording volunteers reading in an fMRI machine to see how the brain processes different kinds of reading. That project is actually being undertaken by one of the professors from my department, who is interested in attention and how we train (or don't train) our brains to focus in a world that usually requires multitasking. She looks at how the brain responds to pleasure reading versus focused reading.

Of course the first half of "digital humanities" requires both access to technology and the willingness to use it. For a field devoted to the printed word, this an interesting new road. The use of technology in general has made for a real change in the way humanities scholars and students work - a great deal of information can be found online, we can preview possible works before reading them to see if they look promising, we can search out more keywords than an index can ever provide. This has the benefit of cutting down on the amount of reading of ultimately non-useful information, but also means that research doesn't so often include tangential, possibly interesting chapters. It's something of a trade-off, certainly, but not a dire one. Perhaps not even a negative one.

I confess to remaining very attached to printed books. E-readers (for example) take up far less space, granted, but they don't have that wonderful book smell. Or pages you can dog-ear. Or a dozen other tactile aspects of reading I've grown up with and come to love. Word processing, on the other hand, is a gift from above. I can't even imagine the extra time that went into typewriting, when you couldn't just delete mistakes or  cut and paste paragraphs.

One continually-evolving part of the humanities is the role crowd-produced information and research, like Wikipedia. Like most of my colleagues, I don't consider Wikipedia a scholarly source. Incredibly helpful for a brief summary, yes. Often with correct information, yes. Sometimes with good links off-site, yes. But not to be cited in a paper. Scholarly work not only tells you who the author is, but has gone through some kind of review process.

So here's the question: at what point does group wisdom (or "wisdom") become indistinguishable from that review process? Is the collective opinion of a big enough group enough to equal out the learned opinion of a few editors? There are definitely crazies out there - witness the comment section of, oh, anything - but they seem generally to be outweighed by non-crazies. And academics have their own kind of crazy, which is sometimes not weeded out thanks to the norms of scholarship and professorial work. I'm not convinced that Wikipedia can ever take over scholarly work, to be honest. That's probably not a bad thing. But any professor or teaching assistant can tell you that students are often convinced the two are interchangeable. I wonder if I'll be proved wrong.


  1. I like reading your thoughts on digital humanities! I especially like your thoughts on all of this crowd-sourced information, like Wikipedia, that's out there today. It's true, that this information might be less accurate or valid than information coming from one who is an authority in their field…at the same time, the information on Wikipedia gets updated so ridiculously quickly because all of the collaborators working on it (yesterday, for example, I checked Wikipedia about a second after I read that Philip Seymour Hoffman died, and his entire biography had already been changed to the past tense and to include details of his death).

    Is digital humanities also a big thing right now in the English department here? From what I understand the Romance languages don't deal with it quite as much as we do in the German department.

  2. I don't know where to comment because I like everything that you have written! Every blog is very unique and address a different topic- I personally enjoyed reading the story vs history one. I am very glad that you have joined our class and I look forward to reading your future posts!