Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Linkity link

I'm way behind on linking to these, but two recent essays by Scott McLemee and Adam Kotsko deserve to be read together. In their own ways, both argue that the routinization of academic life in philosophy or theology (Kotsko) and literary studies (McLemee) is inimical to finding answers for the "big" questions that draw us to these subjects in the first place. I think the risk of deadening routinization is often especially high in history, in which adding lines to the CV often means filling the gaps in the historiographical wall. (How many introductions to history books, dissertations, and articles contain some version of this locution: "But what no one has considered ..." or "Yet we still lack an account of ...")

In making bricks to fill these gaps, we often lose sight of what we're trying to build, or start to accept the illusion that history is about building some superstructural synthesis. But I also find that when historians do confront the "big" question of why we study the past at all, we usually punt to the philosophers. Most of our big, animating professional questions are about how to do history (from the bottom up? with numbers or pictures? within national frameworks or transnational frameworks?) and only implicitly offer answers to the question of why doing history is useful. What do we hope to gain by being historians? And if we don't have an answer to that question, then McLemee's question applies equally well to us: "Why is the profession of [history] what you are doing with your life?"

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I've linked before to the discussion about "higher brain death and personhood" going on between Brandon at Siris at Chris at Mixing Memory. The discussion continues, and it is really a model of engaged and respectful philosophical debate. You can start by following the catalog of links here, which catches you up on Parts 1 and 2. Then move on to Part 3. Fine arguments have been offered on both sides, and I'm still unsure where I stand.

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Mel at In Favor of Thinking is celebrating her one-year blogiversary, and she has a post on her blogging experience that pretty closely captures how I feel about this thing we do.

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There's an interesting article about Google at Inside Higher Ed, which apparently some librarians call a "disruptive search technology." I tend to agree with those in the article who say that Google does not do away with the need for librarians or teachers who can serve as "strategy coaches." Google can actually lead to less focused or sloppier research because it is so deceptively simple: just type a few words in a box and get a jackpot of returns. Judging from the kinds of searches that bring people to Mode for Caleb, many searchers give little thought to the way Boolean operators or quotation marks work in a search string.
Sweeney compared searching in Google to the kind of video and other gaming that many young people do, where once a user achieves a certain level of success, “you can move on to the next level."
That may be overly optimistic. How many "young people" ever try to move to the "next level" on Google? I suspect most searchers never investigate what kinds of options an advanced search makes possible, and even if they went to the advanced search page, this doesn't mean they know how to utilize the tools that are available there. That's why librarians and "search coaches" are not going to be expendable anytime soon.

Although I realize these generalizations about Googlers are unscientific, I'm drawing partly on my experience teaching a three-week intersession course to undergraduates at Hopkins on "Online Research." I'm teaching the course again next month, so suggestions for reading or links on these subjects would be most welcome.

Collective Improvisation:
For online search engine research, I've found this New York Times  article  from a couple of years ago to be very useful, though perhaps some of the information is now out of date. 

Posted by eb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/12/2005 09:27:00 PM : Permalink  

I do history because I want to know  and synchronic answers are inadequate. Having learned, I want others to know (and to want to know) and teaching is the best way to do that honestly.  

Posted by Jonathan Dresner

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/13/2005 05:33:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for the article link, eb. I use the Google Hacks book some in my class, as well as a few of the search engine sites listed. But I wasn't familiar with resourceshelf.freeprint.com .

Thanks for the comment, Jonathan, and sorry I didn't respond earlier. I see that the "Why bother with history?" question has been picked up over at Cliopatria too. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/16/2005 12:44:00 PM : Permalink  

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