Just noticed an article from February’s issue of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, announcing the formation of the organization’s ad hoc Committee on Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship. Sure, “Making Something Out of Bupkis” is a good title for an article in a professional journal, but more importantly, James Grossman and Seth Denbo here address some of the issues we (I?) raised in Domain of One’s Own regarding the value of digital scholarship–and our concerns about what it contributes to our professional advancement. I think many of us can agree on its value for our professional development, but with the lack of standards in assessing/evaluating that work, I, for one, currently feel more comfortable investing my time and energy in more traditional formats.

The AHA’s stance here is that the lack of standards, and consequent wariness, “robs our discipline of innovative energy…marginalizes scholars who do take the risks…impedes the development of genres that can contribute even more…[and] contributes to a culture that discourages the kinds of collaborative work that are valued–in some cases required–in nearly all other venues of creative enterprise.” To address those concerns, the committee has been tasked with developing guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship and engagement–including publication, collaborative work, public engagement, and teaching.

I think this is a great development, and I am thrilled that the AHA is actively working on issues like these–and that, as we’ve progressed through the DoOOFI, I’m more conversant in these issues.

I suppose if I kept up on my reading in the monthly magazine issued by one of my professional organizations, I’d have been able to bring this to the table in our DoOOFI cohort meetings, or post on it in a more timely fashion. But I don’t, so I didn’t, but my Wednesday night reading proved timely nonetheless.

A team (of history, English, rhetoric, and engineering professors, plus computer science students and librarians) at Virginia Tech published a piece, “Mining Coverage of the Flu: Big Data’s Insights into an Epidemic,” in the AHA’s Perspectives on History, that I found enlightening. They concede that asking historians “accustomed to interpreting the multiple causes of events within a narrative context, exploring the complicated meaning of polyvalent texts, and assessing the extent to which selected evidence is representative of broader trends, the shift toward data mining (specifically text mining) requires a willingness to think in terms of correlations between actions, accept the ‘messiness’ of large amounts of data, and recognize the value of identifying broad patterns in the flow of information.” It’s asking quite a bit, but their measured optimism is, I think, quite reasonable.

Using 20 weekly newspapers from throughout the US, they identified topics (defined by words that frequently appeared together–something I actually worked on some as a grad student research assistant) to think about broad patterns in reporting on the disease, including change over time. I don’t see the historical developments they identify as especially groundbreaking (and this recalls what Debra Schleef raised in relation to sociology, where she has seen projects use such methods, but without accomplishing much that traditional methods couldn’t anyway), but the fact that the research team then closely read selected articles to confirm the larger patterns and to further develop arguments I think suggests their approach to data mining as a supplementary tool, and one in which researchers can build confidence over time as they gain experience and confirm some of what they find by applying more traditional tools as well.

A second component of the project involved identifying the tone of these newspaper reports, which the project could do on a larger scale than individual human readers could manage. Again, the categories of tone they identified–Reassuring, Explanatory, Warning, and Alarmist–weren’t surprising or really new, I don’t think. Nor did the classifier program’s 72% success rate “correctly” identifying tone seem especially high. Yet the team’s report was cautiously optimistic, noting, “It is therefore potentially valuable as a knowledge discovery technique, but only if it can be refined,” which also suggests this process alone would provide an incomplete understanding. As they say, “Tone classification illustrates the real challenges that the complexity of written language poses for data mining.”

In other words, they’re very much in favor of employing new methods, but advocate their combination with existing methods–and the application of this combined approach to history, and especially to the 1918 influenza epidemic (which I talked about as a pandemic in my US History survey just last week), resonated with me.


I’m not all grumpy-pants. I found the idea of an “open scholar,” whose project and process are not only visible both within and without academia, but continue to evolve in response to the conversation they foster (which itself is visible), particularly intriguing this week. That would provide quite a contrast to the more traditional approaches to scholarship, especially through academic journals (which in terms of the business model I tend to think are all kinds of problematic in their current form anyway). The tension between the two approaches seems to me reminiscent of our discussions about a pedagogy of abundance (as opposed to scarcity), in the sense that those journals are premised on the idea that due to the editorial and peer-review process, the knowledge/scholarship they present is of higher quality/authority (scarce), whereas knowledge/scholarship not vetted by those processes is perhaps not (though possibly abundant on the open web). So in a sense, the goal is to create the impression of scarcity even where it might not truly exist. The open scholar presents one avenue for escaping that model, though certainly not one without its own problems (not least of which, of course, is that mechanisms for determining quality may not be as well refined or tested).

However, I also have to question the viability of this model for all scholars (I’m thinking here in terms of rank more than discipline, though the latter could be a factor as well). In part that concern arises from my position as newly tenure-track, and my attention to what will secure/advance my own career–and in the current climate, becoming that “open scholar” wouldn’t. Sure, that’s something that might be combined with a more traditional approach, though that just increases the demands on my time/energy/resources. Besides the relative security of tenure, a more senior scholar would have advantages that I think would facilitate her/his transition into being an open scholar, most notably a well-established network (PLN?) of peers and contacts who could contribute one element of that open conversation, providing some continuity in the conversation as well as academic authority (which could potentially be constricting, but could also serve as “quality control” to some extent).

Part of what I want to accomplish with my domain is to share some of my work and my process, and even some random thoughts I’m unlikely to ever follow up on, and I’d love to continue conversations about scholarship that I’ve begun in other venues. Plus, I do want to make sure if people search for me and read my webpage, they can get a good sense of what I work on. At the same time, I’m wary of making that work too available, so available that no one has any reason to come to me to get it, or to publish it in a journal, etc. For the time being, I’ve settled on descriptions and abstracts, and perhaps a focus on process (what I’m doing) over product (what I have to say).