One Prof One Book?

I enjoyed Tom Schienfeldt’s presentation on his One Week One Tool initiative. One thing in particular has stuck with me. After his talk, the question of Project Management as applied to academia came up. Mr. Schienfeldt made the point that corralling humanists into working together is difficult. It’s really a shame this is true.

People can do so much more when they work in a team possessed of complementary skills, and this applies to academic pursuits in the Humanities as well as any others. It’s often said at this point that successful collaboration happens all the time in the sciences. What is so different about the humanistic fields that makes collaboration so hard?

Many say it is because a monograph, apparently the great proof of academic accomplishment, succeeds best as a solo undertaking. It’s the concentrated expression of a single person’s study and thought. Why is this valued? Partially because the subjects of the Humanities are thought of as subjective, or at least contingent. The monograph form also evolved partially as a response to the need to recognize academic accomplishments, designed to make it possible to give credit to one person.

But, the monograph isn’t the inherent form of humanistic expression. Group projects, while they look different from monographs, can still provide unique contributions to knowledge. They might take the form of an archive, or a ‘social edition’, or any number of arrangements not invented yet. And, if expectations change in order to recognize group work, some academics will consider it in their best interests to work together.

Even the monograph form doesn’t exclude group work. It is possible to assign appropriate credit for each author’s contribution to a multi-author monograph, eg, by assigning authors to write individual chapters. Imagine, however, a book written truly collaboratively, with each author’s text intermingling with the others’. Authors could use a version control system like Git, letting them work simultaneously on the same text without interfering with each other’s progress–and allowing judges to assign credit, using Git’s Diff function to see who wrote what.

By the way, I’ve employed just such a collaborative model using Git & Github (see the source code here), working with Alevtina Verbovetskaya, Robin Davis, and Junior Tidal, for a presentation we are making on the topic Life with Pi: Microcomputing in Academia to the CUNY IT Conference this next Friday, December 6th. Come on by if you’re interested!

One thought on “One Prof One Book?

  1. Jacky Ievoli

    What you said about the monograph got me thinking about the lone scholar approach in the humanities. ” a monograph, apparently the great proof of academic accomplishment, succeeds best as a solo undertaking. It’s the concentrated expression of a single person’s study and thought. Why is this valued?” I started thinking about the fields that make up this thing we call the humanities and I was struck by something. The works the humanist studies are, for the most part, solo undertakings. The great symphonies have their great composer. The masterpieces hanging in museums each have their genius artist. The great works of the literary canon are each attributable to a sole author toiling away at a typewriter. In our scholarship, are we trying to emulate those whose works we devote our lives to?

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