On Scholarship and Management

Jen Guiliano [posted on Friday of last week][] about the [curious case of Sean Takats][] who after receiving complete support from his department garnered a 10-2 vote in favor of tenure at the college level. The college committee’s report included the following:

> The committee also recognized his considerable work at the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as it relates to projects such as Zotero and the substantial funds he and his collaborators have raised to help sustain them. Some on the committee questioned to what degree Dr. Takats’ [sic] involvement in these activities constitutes actual research (as opposed to project management). Hence, some determined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valuable, should be considered as major service activity instead.

The particular diminishment of “project management” and the consideration that his involvement in such singularly important projects as Zotero should be considered as “service” are stunning for their sheer lack of investment or interest in a broader field of activity for humanities scholarship.

When people wonder what’s wrong with the humanities, this is it, and were it possible to examine historical trends, one wonders if it wouldn’t be revealed as a product of a very particular generation of scholars (who have in turn shaped the assumptions of their students), scholars who came of age during the golden years of higher education’s expansion, when the GI Bill and the Cold War pumped huge amounts of dollars into universities without being readily apparent nor having very many strings attached. The result was, without a doubt, a rise in intellectual productivity and innovation that is amazing to conceive. New domains and new subdomains were born as well as the journals and conferences and proceedings and special collections that such developments require.

There was also, I would argue, a concomitant rise in arrogance and presumption. And a transformation of what mattered. There was, as the mourning of the loss of public intellectuals that took place in the 1990s attested, an inward turn in the nature of the work being done. Again, that turn was enormously profitable in terms of intellectual innovation and productivity, but like any turn to the virtuosic, it prefers a kind of formal excellence over any kind of communicative competence.

Guilano’s argument is that the committee’s report reveals a misunderstanding of how much project management always already plays a role in any kind of scholarly production: anyone who has chaired a dissertation will have experienced at least one dissertator for whom a fair portion of your advice was more about managing the process than responding to the manuscript. (If you haven’t, then good for you. I will envy you some other time.)

Guilano’s argument is also, I think, a defense of the importance of logistics in our lives, and, I think, that reveals a certain classism that lies at the root of the distinction between research and service in the committee’s report. There is the sense among some scholars that organizing one’s own ideas into a manuscript is better than the organizing of people and policies into an effective organization. And that something like conference planning is too much like party planning and, as such, is of such a low brow nature that it in some way taints the purer sphere within which scholarship should exist.

And that brings us back round to the invention of such a sphere in the first place. I was trained by some of those scholars I have dubbed as part of that fortunate generation. And I wish I had their jobs. I really do. But I don’t wish I had their attitude and presumption, and I do wish they would realize their role in a transformation of scholarship that has contributed an equally important set of weaknesses to the current state of the humanities as it did strengths.

Now my history here could be completely off. If it is, then I have a whole lot of apologizing to do.

[posted on Friday of last week]: http://jenguiliano.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/dont-call-me/
[curious case of Sean Takats]: http://quintessenceofham.org/2013/02/07/a-digital-humanities-tenure-case-part-2-letters-and-committees/

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