August 10, 2015

The Reason I Do What I Do

To do history is nothing more than to be a conscientious reader of history: to extrapolate ramifications from texts and other artifacts, to hypothesize the logistics implied by a literature, to imaginatively construct a non-fiction storyworld, to encompass the world in one's mind. It can be nothing else.

The history one "does" (or "produces") may ultimately take the form of yet another literary synopsis, or it may become yet another detailed critical analysis, or perhaps it will exist merely within one's own memory of the experience of studying "the past". In all these cases, past history always exists presently as nothing more than the narrative residue informing mnemonic reconstruction. The "actual past" is remembered not as a text, but as the memory of whatever you imagined that world and that era to have been like, as you were reading.

To say "Jesus wept." is not necessarily to say that Jesus wept. The difference is all in the mind. If we do not imagine a narrative storyworld, we are not reading about actual persons in past situations. If we're just mouthing the words, our default mental setting is to remain focused on self. To dig in, to imagine the story, is a valuable step towards focusing elsewhere.

We do not have to write history to do history. We do not have to do history to read literature. But to read literature without doing history is to treat the contents of that text as nothing more than a bit of light fiction, perhaps with a moral attached, and this makes any story as irrelevant to the present world as it seems non-existent to us, as it remains for us only in the non-envisioned past - words never dwelt upon, a non-situation, even less than forgotten.

I am not suggesting that we need to declare how much of a story we believe really happened. 

I'm suggesting we need to show care for important historical stories by reading and thinking about their contents AS IF those things actually happened.

Otherwise, I don't see how any portion or detail of a supposedly non-fiction story could ever, actually, presently, personally matter...

August 5, 2015

Peer Review, Peon Review

The illustrious and effervescent NT professor known (to human folk) as Christopher Skinner generated some great conversation among academics last week with his blog post about the academic citation of blogs, and another one about peer review. The first topic seemed simple to me: blogs should not be cited as scholarship but they are fair game to cite in scholarship. The second topic required some thought, and here's what I have to say about that. 

There's nothing wrong with peer review. It was, albeit flawed, the best possible system for the old media world. And although the way forward now is NOT to abandon the old way and embrace cacophonous ignorance (perish, forbid!) it would behoove the academy to re-apply the purpose of peer review in the new media world. The old model was a gatekeeper, and a good one, but now barbarians are flooding the court and no one is going to get them out again. The old model was "Filter, then publish." The new model is, and must be, "Publish, then filter.". 

As academic publishing goes more and more online, it needs a new revenue stream. Coincidentally, we'd need a huge budget increase for academics to begin offering a thorough and systematically comprehensive review of all the gibberish (and other stuff) being posted on the interwebs. With less and less administrative burden for dead tree pipeline, and with a noble cause sure to elicit massive donations, we might repurpose our best curators to start providing regular feedback and constructive criticism of the most prominent stuff that desperately needs a professional redressing, and perhaps occasionally showcasing a few modest voices whose ideas are worth fostering. 

We don't need to end peer review. 

We need to establish peon review.
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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton