Monday, November 07, 2005

Humanities labs?

One item I've been meaning to discuss for a while now is the Inside Higher Ed article "We Need Humanities Labs" written by clinical psychologist and dissertation coach Gina Hiatt . She begins
I wonder how an English professor would feel spending a week in a physics lab. Not about the scientific work, but about the frequent, ongoing interaction between students and peers, post-docs and faculty. Scientists see each other in the lab, if not daily, then at least weekly. They have frequent lab meetings, colloquia and interaction with scholars at other universities around joint research.
And then, in comparison to the sciences, she notes:
In the humanities, outside of the classroom, this kind of easy and even semi-formal interaction is rare. The isolation for the grad student begins in earnest when the coursework is finished and the qualifying exams are completed. The fledgling ABD is nudged out of the nest, left to fly solo for long periods. The luckiest students have advisors who are mentors and insist on frequent meetings, which increase accountability and allow the student to learn how to think in a scholarly manner. The large majority, however, are left to flounder, some of them working as adjuncts far from the institution where they are trying to finish a Ph.D.
Finally, drawing upon Barton Kunstler's article "he Hothouse Effect: Time Proven Strategies of History's Most Creative Groups," she suggests that the humanities can create their own "hothouses" through weekly meetings with peers in which "the only agenda being the discussion of work in progress at an informal level." Based upon her dissertation support groups, she suggests that
People should be encouraged to attend with partly formed thoughts, poorly written paragraphs, or just an idea they want to develop. The idea is to think of all such scholarly dialogue as a laboratory. Ideas are cooked up, thrown in the test tube, and mixed with human interaction, creativity and motivation. These experiments will produce better written and less painfully produced dissertations or publications, and might engender a “creative humanities hothouse.”

I've found the reaction to this argument from those in the humanities to be interesting. While not universal, many of the reactions can be lumped into the mantra that "humanities research is solitary." Some suggest that solitude can lead to "independent thinking" and others note that in the humanities, unlike the sciences, we're isolated experts:
It would take months to familiarize anyone with all the materials he or she would need to know in order to make even a half-informed comment. Unfortunately, in history at least, almost no one, including your advisor , knows anything about your specific project other than the abstracts and reports you have given them yourself. The result is that we all talk about methodology or point out weaknesses in each other's papers, instead of discussing substantive issues in our research.
Denis Jerz, on his blog rather than in the discussion after the article, makes the best argument for the solitary nature of humanities work
[...] quite frankly, most work in the humanities IS solitary. I realize that hard and serious work is done in group environments, but in the humanities we don't first *do* research and *then* write it up -- typically the writing *is* the research, along with the requisite reading, and most of us need quiet and some control over our schedule in order to get that work done.

I'm quite sympathetic to the need for extended amounts of quiet, solitary time to do reading, thinking, and writing, but I'm not buying this argument that the humanities can't benefit from close interaction and regular discussion. I used to buy it, and I used to argue as much with a fellow graduate student who, observing the close interaction his wife, a biochemistry Ph.D. candidate, had with her fellow students and professors, argued that we in the humanities needed a similar setup.

In the past, I experienced something like a humanities "lab" for a couple of years. We used to have weekly Old English or Old Norse readings groups, and monthly practice oral exams in which the medieval faculty would grill one graduate student for 45-60 minutes on a narrowly focused subject such as Old English prose, lais, Middle English debate poetry, or, in my case, Beowulf followed by a debriefing discussion in which we all participated. In those days, the ideas I had zipping around my head were less narrowly focused, less one-tracked, and that, think, was a good thing. It's about the connections, the associations, the joining of disparate pieces of information into something new. It was the exposure to ideas, to thoughts, to associations and connections I wasn't going to encounter on my own. I also spent two years in a rhet-comp reading group. While we stopped reading as we moved into our respective dissertations, we still meet regularly to talk, offer moral support, and, most recently, to negotiate the job search process.

And that, I think, is what Gina Hiatt is suggesting in this piece, that by coming together weekly to focus on each others work, to bounce ideas off each other, to tap into and share each others storehouses of knowledge and experience, to create a continuing intellectual dialogue that we can draw upon when we enter into our quiet, solitary time of reading, thinking, and writing. But, most importantly, we then bring back to the group what we get out of that quiet, solitary time.

While I may know more about rhetorical memory, medieval memory theory, and social memory than anyone else in my department, let alone the rhetoricians and the medievalists, this doesn't mean that no one in my department has anything to offer me, which is, essentially, what the historian I quote above suggests. They've got plenty to offer me and I sometimes go and ask them. In the past six months, I've asked one friend who is writing his dissertation on Old English proverb collections some questions about proverbs, and I've asked another friend whose spent much time with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle if they could think of any sections in the ASC that I might be able to use as additional examples. Both helped me the best they could in that limited, one time contact. I know for certain that my friend working on OE proverbs could benefit greatly from my knowledge of the cognitive and memorial function of proverbs and that I would benefit from his greater knowledge of OE proverbs and their meanings. If we regularly met and discussed, I'm quite sure his dissertation would be different and I'm sure that my discussion of proverbs would be different too.

And that's the point. If we medievalists met regularly and discussed our work with our fellow graduate students and professors, our thoughts, our ideas, our associations, and our knowledge would be different. It would be deeper, richer, and thicker. In a nutshell, more textured and complex.

If we truly believe what we preach, that knowledge is socially constructed and that invention is a social act, it seems to me that we should be involved in these regular discussion sessions, that these should be a regular feature of graduate education in the humanities. Imagine, if you will, if you could join such a group when you started your program. Weekly, you sit and listen to others, the more experienced members of your field, discuss their ideas, and you contribute and ask questions as you want. Over time, as you progress, you start sharing your own ideas, your seminar papers, your conference presentations, your first publications, and, eventually, your dissertation. Your intellectual growth is not a solitary, by your own bootstraps experience punctuated by brief encounters with individual minds, but rather a continual ongoing conversation that regularly benefits from each others' labors because everyone's ideas are, to some extent, on each others' minds.

This is what the generative hothouse idea means for the humanities. As I read, I make a connection between what I'm reading and what my friend is working on and I tell my friend, and vise versa, or, as I share my ideas, fledgling or developed, with the group, someone else makes an associative link between my idea and something they've read or thought and they share it, which in turn sparks an association for someone else, which then sparks a connection between this idea and another idea I've been working on. But since I don't work in a hothouse environment, connections like this are random and unlikely. And when I do get feedback of these sort, it's not on my fledgling ideas but on the ones I've thought out, the ones I've spent time with and seem to me to be worth pursing. How many ideas have I had that withered on the vine because I didn't share them, because I didn't know or didn't remember X, so I couldn't combine X and Y to develop A, B, and C? How many ideas have you had that have withered likewise?

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At 3:22 PM, Blogger Gina said...

Hi John,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on my article, We Need Humanities Labs. You definitely captured, more eloquently than I did, what my thoughts are on the topic. I liked what you said in your last paragraph on random sparks of ideas -- how they can so easily die out when the "flames aren't fanned" by the associations and reactions of others.

I also agree that you don't need to limit your interactions to those who have intimate knowledge of your area in order to get the positive effect of dialogue. In fact, some of the best ideas have come from two disaparate areas coming together and sparking innovative thinking.

Gina Hiatt


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