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You are here: Home » Content » "Our Cultural Commonwealth" The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences » The Conservative Culture of Scholarship

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The Conservative Culture of Scholarship

In response to the Commission’s invitation for public comment on the draft of this report, Dickie Selfe (director of Michigan Technological University’s Center for Computer-Assisted Language Instruction) observed that the “challenge of cyberinfrastructure is primarily a challenge to our own academic cultures. This report is an opportunity to admit to that challenge and to commit to cultural change.” The university is an ancient institution, so it is not surprising that its culture is conservative, especially in the humanities—one of the oldest faculties of the university. Robert Darnton, a prominent scholar of French history, remarked at the Commission hearings that the structural elements of the academy have not changed, even though the world has. A recent study of the state of online American literary scholarship identified several cultural features among humanists that seem to militate against change. 1Despite the demonstrated value of collaboration in the sciences, there are relatively few formal digital communities and relatively few institutional platforms for online collaboration in the humanities. In these disciplines, single-author work continues to dominate. Lone scholars, the report remarked, are working in relative isolation, building their own content and tools, struggling with their own intellectual property issues, and creating their own archiving solutions.

Many have contrasted this pattern to that found among technology-intensive sciences and engineering, in which “large, multidisciplinary teams of researchers” work “in experimental development of large-scale, engineered systems. The problems they address cannot be done on a small scale, for it is scale and heterogeneity that makes them both useful and interesting.” 2In contrast to this collaborative model, Stephen Brier, Vice President for Information Technology and External Programs of the City University of New York, told the Commission, “Humanists tend to be more focused on individual theorizing and communicating of ideas and information about their disciplines. Technology is not seen as a necessary, let alone a required, tool for collaboration in the humanities the way it is in the sciences.”

Most people the Commission interviewed expressed hope that an investment in cyberinfrastructure would allow humanists and social scientists to “conduct new types of research in new ways.” To take advantage of the technology, one must engage directly with it, and one must allow traditions of practice to be flexibly influenced by it. One such tradition in the humanities is that of the “individual genius.” Nevertheless, many of the examples cited in this report show us that humanists can be highly collaborative and that by working in groups, they can sometimes address research questions of greater scope, scale, and complexity than any individual—even a brilliant one—could address in isolation.

Footnotes

  1. Martha Brogan, A Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature (Washington, DC: Digital Library Federation and Council on Library and Information Resources, 2005).
  2. (Chatham, 11)

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