Networks, Webs, and Work, pt. 1

February 17th, 2013 § 0 comments

In work for the Domain of One’s Own project this past weekend, I’ve read chapters 6-8 of Martin Weller’s The Digital Scholar while also thinking about recent conversations. These have run a gamut of issues related to openness vs. pressures of the P&T and publication climb for academics as well as differences in opportunity (or freedom) determined by one’s location in the machine, e.g., junior vs. tenured faculty (and, importantly, contingent faculty), SLAC vs. R-1 institutions, research field and resources.

Andrea Smith’s recent post provides a very good sense of the concerns that may be raised in regard to sharing work openly online. For myself, as a scholar of Chinese history with research sources that are often a very good distance away (in terms of time, money, travel, and, figuratively speaking, language and, yes, bureaucracy) these issues have resonated.

The next question, though, is what question is next. And getting to that question also seems important. Andrea frames an answer nicely:

 A digital approach won’t be a panacea. Instead, it will be adopted by fields at their own pace and for their own uses. I, for one, don’t think that’s a negative at all. On the contrary, this is quite empowering: in my field, at least, I could encourage new models for research that fit our goals and ideals. It’s still the digital wild west, and that means we can be pioneers instead of just followers.

And her invocation of the wild west rings a bell for me.  It promotes flashbacks, actually, to past conversations about method, theory, and navigation.

One flashback is to the inevitable conversations in graduate school (at least in the humanities or social sciences) about a life beyond Theory—not life without theory, I should note, but analysis that’s not enslaved by a monolithic Critique, as it were.  This may have been a classic crisis moment in the grad school process, of course. Or, more precisely, the desire of a China-specialist to see her non-Western region of specialty complicating the supposedly universal Western models. In any case, I recall reading with great joy Michael Taussig’s invocation,

With good reason postmodernism has relentlessly instructed us that reality is artifice yet, so it seems to me, not enough surprise has been expressed as to how we get on with living, pretending—thanks to mimetic faculty—that we live facts, not fictions. [Taussig 1993: xv]

Leaving the implications of Taussig’s own discussion of mimesis to another day (and about eight liters of espresso), I do recall the freedom that Taussig invoked with a call to move beyond the “meta-commentary” and instead jump into “making-anew” (xvii). 1 The most creative work in digital humanities, whether pedagogy or research (or both) is doing exactly that right now.


The other flashback that occurred brings me to conversations with a crowd I haven’t seen since my doctoral days at UC San Diego. This was an informal working group that brought together grad students from Sociology, Communication, Cognitive Science, and History. 2 There was no prep for the weekly meetings, just a page, perhaps two, on a work in progress that’d be distributed at the meeting by one of the group. Or they might introduce a problem in their work verbally. Feedback was instant and thought-in-process. The range of perspectives and critical feedback was invigorating. And the task of having to explain one’s work—in my case, in late Qing dynasty Chinese history—to a group entirely outside one’s own field of expertise was a perfect exercise for a grad student in speaking to a broader audience. 3

Which brings me back to Weller’s own survey of the potential of the digital realm to encourage interdisciplinarity. He cites Wang Shaohui and Ma Lihua (2008) in a listing of three characteristics of “blog culture”:

1. Thought share…

2. Nonlinearity and concentricity — through linking, embedding, within blogs and then aggregation of blogs, there is a nonlinear construction of knowledge

3. Criticalness and multivariate collision — [arising] from a personal, subjective standpoint that attracts varied comments and views.

[Weller 46]

These were much the same strengths of that working group, but now the opportunity for these conversations seems multiplied exponentially via digital tools. Or, at least, the opportunities for building similar working groups and reaping similar rewards seem more readily available. It was so much easier (somewhat) to gather as a crowd of grad students on the same campus. Now, with old intellectual comrades scattered far and wide, and the schedule more packed than ever, the spatial connection and temporal nonlinearity of the blog is very, very helpful.

Which, in turn, brings me from flashbacks to past connections all the way to consideration of current-day webs of communication. I’ll save that for a second post, coming soon. 4


  1. Many thanks to Dorothy Ko for assigning Taussig’s work… I still miss those seminars.
  2. And much appreciation to Chandra Mukerji, for founding and hosting the group.
  3. And also listening to that same audience…
  4. Image: “At a kitchen table, Charlie Wells and Mary Ann listen with delight to one of Mickey Spillane’s stories.” Life, May 1952. Photographer: Peter Stackpole

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