keeping it cool in the information pool

Sadie (2)

Temps here in Houston have been consistently over a hundred degrees for the past four or five days.  As y0u can see, the only way to get any exercise at all is to take a swim, preferably at a dog park. 

In the meantime, I’ve been reading Ossian to stay cool:

“Evening is grey on the hills.  The north wind resounds through the woods.  White clouds rise on the sky: the thin-wavering snow descends.  The river howls afar, along its winding course.  Sad, by a hollow rock, the grey-hair’d Carryl sat.  Dry fern waves over his head; his seat is in an aged birch.  Clear to the roaring winds he lifts his voice of woe . . . . ”  (Fragments, ed. Gaskill, III, p. 10)

And here are a few stray thoughts from the previous week’s reading:

  • For those interested in information literacy in the context of classroom contextualizations, Carl over at Dead Voles had an interesting post about history education, and discussed Sam Wineburg’s work regarding the best practices for teaching historical thinking. From Wineburg’s perspective, the two major concepts to keep in view are “sourcing” and “corroboration,” and both of these have a lot of applicability for literature instruction, I’d argue.  I’ve been thinking about this material a lot as I’ve been setting up some newly tweaked information literacy/critical reading presentations for my annotated bibliography assignments in Swift and Literary Studies.
  • Not so recent, but still interesting: AcademHack’s Teaching Carnival, including Mark Sample’s great Annotated Bibliography assignment using Zotero.
  • Lisa Spiro (down the street and across the bayou at Rice) has a good, thorough post on “Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects,” which sketches out a series of examples of collaboration, along with their general purpose and orientations: “Facilitating communication and knowledge building,” “Sharing and Aggregating Content,” “Collaborative annotation, transcription, and knowledge production,” and so forth.  Bookmark it now, and explore it at leisure: you’ll be thinking about some of these possibilities in the future, I’ll bet. 
  • This may seem off-topic, but believe me it isn’t.  I’ve been fascinated this past week by the widespread outrage over the Washington Post’s not-so-surprising firing of their best journalist, Dan Froomkin after his recent run-ins with the marquee names on the op-ed page, and after his long-time jousting with his paper’s own White House reporters over their lame, he-said, she said style reporting.  As  a number of commentators have pointed out, the entire conflict came down to competing views over what Froomkin did, exactly: was he a mere “aggregator,” cutting and pasting other reporters’ original investigatory work, or a genuine reporter in his own right, finding stories that the high-profile folks kept ignoring?  And, of course, the issue boiled down to whether Froomkin was entitled to do “media criticism,” which would certainly include criticism of the WaPo’s own clueless handling of certain stories.  Others may disagree with me about this, but I think that any comparison between Froomkin’s carefully assembled account of the last eight or nine years (see his superb summary of the Bush years, in his final column), with the first-hand views of “pros” like Bob Woodward or (god help us) Dana Milbank, tells the whole story.   So at what point do we begin to discount the validity of this kind of first-hand account, if reporters themselves seem to lack the curiosity or courage to question what they are being told face-to-face?  What this tells me is that the real competition in journalism, and for all I know in scholarship as well, will not be about access to the best “official” information or sources, but in the uses one makes of the information, and in the ability to discover promising gaps in the “official” coverage.  Get to it, people.


6 responses to “keeping it cool in the information pool

  1. Thanks, Dave!

    I had not been following the Post stuff. Isn’t it always the case that the best work is distinguished by quality analysis, including the analysis that leads you to the information you need? How much of the routine work of publication in History or Literature is just getting bulk data out there by earnest but dim grinders?

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Carl,

    I agree about the analysis distinguishing better from lesser work, but in an environment of information overload, time and publication pressures, and conflicting macro-narratives, the question of how and where to find the best work/sources/information becomes all-important yet unpredictable. The result is that the “earnest but dim,” self-consciously modest literary (or historical?) monograph has all but vanished, largely because they are neither bought by libraries nor read by people outside their sub-specialties. There is a presumption now that these first books have done the analytical work that we once assumed were the province of senior scholars.

    In the context of journalism, I’d say that the aggregator vs. reporter paradigm is genuinely, willfully misleading, because it omits any discussion of the credibility of those who published those “he said she said” reports over the past 10 years.

    So in one instance, I can imagine the analysis missing simply because the very junior sub-specialist scholar is still learning how to add that dimension, whereas in the journalistic field, the analysis is missing because it would reveal the culpable role the press has played in the political events it reports.

  3. Dave, this looks right to me, with one qualification. Those database kinds of books are still out there, but the formulaic lit review introduction has been replaced by a formulaic grand theory introduction in which e.g. the global significance of the micropolitics of socially-constructed bathroom etiquette in the homes of the Victorian petite bourgeoisie is ponderously asserted.

    • Dave Mazella

      Carl, I think books can be formulaic any number of ways, but following a formula does not always mean that it is a bad book, only that it is a limited one, and in ways that authors may or may not be conscious of. We like to think that using scholarly conventions does not affect our thoughts, but surely they do, and in ways we are not always in control of.

      On the other hand, scholars who do not resist the conventional have a way of achieving great success without ever winning anyone’s respect. We expect higher-order thinking to be principled, not procedural, and it offends (or rather, it should offend) good scholars to see one of their number using the same procedure over and over again, to produce the same “insights,” or “results,” or whatever.

      But what is more common, especially at the upper echelons of the academy? I saw this discussion on your blog a few months ago, and thought that the most disappointing aspect of Harman’s article was not his excellent advice to would-be scholarly writers, but the fact that this exemplary level of professionalism was paired with an apparent lack of curiosity (or really interest, passion, investment, etc.) in the materials he was using to address other scholars. What’s the point of that kind of non-exchange? I would prefer to think that we remain interested in the stuff we do and the stuff we want to say, even when we reach a certain level of comfort within the profession.

      • Amen, Dave. Tim Burke (of Easily Distracted) often makes similar points about intellectual curiosity in our materials and interactions. Non-exchange – yes, that’s it exactly.

        I should say I think a good databasy book is a good thing indeed. Synthesists / aggregators are essentially symbiotic (some would say parasitic) on good reporters, which I imagine is why Froomkin was so upset to be stuck with bad ones.

        And thanks as always for reading my rantings generously!

  4. Dave Mazella

    A long time ago, I read someone who said (in the context of a discussion of ethnic literatures) that the greatest danger of specialization was the illusion of self-sufficiency.

    I would expect that disciplinary illusions of self-sufficiency represent collective desires or fantasies that are maintained over even longer stretches of time, by a succession of practitioners eager to demonstrate their legitimacy.

    Samuel Weber’s work on institutions and especially Stanley Fish’s professionalism have been long-time touchstones on these issues for me.

    As a long-time aggregator/synthesist myself, I suppose I am sensitive about this, but I do think that much of the “scandal” about Froomkin was the way that he pierced the professional reporters’ illusions of self-sufficiency, which never permits them to acknowledge their mutual dependence on or symbiotic relationship with the aggregators. (cf. for example, news outlets’ self-defeating attempts to force others to pay for web links, etc.) This is the kind of reminder that is never welcomed.

    But yes, I think that good descriptive work takes its purpose from the collective enterprise of scholarship, and sometimes seems more willing to acknowledge that collectivity than more synthetic accounts.