Organiz­ing and Commu­ni­cat­ing Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations

In light of the recent Learning by the Book conference, it makes sense to reblog this piece, which I first posted on History of Knowledge on February 3, 2017, when we were just getting started and were working out what we thought the thing was. The question was not as self-evident as regular bloggers might think, certainly not at a research institution rooted in Germany’s powerful academic traditions.

In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me.[1] Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?

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Lost in Translation: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Sometimes disseminating the results of experiments, demonstrations, or other research can yield widely accepted knowledge built on questionable foundations through a kind of distorted translation. This seems to have happened with the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. Two people who heard a recent talk by Alexander Haslam tweeted about Haslam’s key findings. Read the thread by Jay Van Bavel and then the one he links to by David Amodio. They talk through the lens of their field, and they help break old stereotypes about human nature. I can’t help but think, however, that there is a broader story about knowledge production and circulation here.

Photo by Eric E. Castro.

Blogging before Conferencing

We tried something new in connection with a conference called Learning by the Book. The conveners asked participants to submit a blog post to History of Knowledge in lieu of precirculated papers. One of the conveners, my colleague Kerstin von der Krone, did most of the coordinating work, prescreening posts for length, permissions issues, and content. Then I edited them, trying to ensure they spoke to a multidisciplinary audience, not just specialists in their authors’ respective fields.

Of thirty-seven potential posts, we managed to publish thirty-five on a rolling basis between May 2 and June 5. Four of these were crossposted on the Recipes Project and edited by Jess Clark instead of me. One piece wasn’t published because of an unresolved copyright issue and another because the author had trouble conceiving of a short blog post that spoke directly to the conference’s concerns while giving the original research context a much more cursory treatment. These numbers tell a success story. An overwhelming number of scholars, from graduate students to senior scholars, were able—and willing—to convey their core ideas in only 1,000 to 2,000 words. And they did so to good effect.

Sometimes, scholars will read aloud what they precirculated to conference participants. I experienced only half the conference in person, but the papers I heard generally did not duplicate the blog posts. Some presenters made their blog contributions a foundation on which to build fuller versions of their posts, while others consciously used the blog format to present a specific aspect of their work, presenting other sides of the story in the conference room. A great example of the latter strategy was offered by Jennifer Rampling, whose blog post focused on an alchemic experiment in the lab, but whose talk dove into the alchemy manuscripts and how they were read.

One participant also suggested that blogging before conferencing forced participants to prepare better because their ideas were being made public in advance. Moreover, the process of writing and revising can force one to become clearer about one’s own positions.

The higher volume of activity on History of Knowledge lead it to garner many times its normal number of readers, thereby expanding the reach of the conference, getting ideas to an audience many times its size. Conclusions synthesizing the results are missing, of course, but what a way to get a first draft! If all history is an act of interpretation, why not make earlier iterations of that work public for other scholars and for engaged members of the public?

Reader engagement (visible in visitor statistics and in reader engagement with our accompanying Twitter posts) and the discussions at the conference itself underlined that knowledge as an object of historical inquiry can open productive dialog across seemingly impermeable disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. (Researching what hashtags to use for which communities on Twitter helps too.)

Fake News and Everyday Knowledge

False information gains strength from its roots in stories that make sense to a lot of people; mow down the latest false facts and more will soon sprout until we address those stories themselves—and the reasons people believe them.

– Paul, J. Croce, “What We Can Learn from Fake News,” History News Network, July 23, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166400.

Information, Sociability, Reality Check

I’ve been off RSS readers for a while, in part because of Google’s exit from the game, but also because of information overload. Thinking about using it again and revisiting some old stomping grounds in the blogosphere, I found Dan Cohen’s relevant comments on Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know. Seems I am in good company with my occasional ignoring of information—ignoring that I prefer to think won’t lead to, might even prevent, ignorance.

I treat Twitter rather cavalierly too, as if it were a place to hang out, learn stuff, share things, and then leave—sometimes for longer spells. If I view all these information inputs in social terms, this is a perfectly rational way to engage with the Twittersphere. If I worried about missing some bit of news, some fascinating article or weird event, I would never get anything done and my mind would become a still murkier mess. Besides, meaningful ideas and conversations tend to have longer lifespans, and they make themselves felt in other contexts.

Dan’s piece, indeed his whole blog, reminds me of another thing. Much ostensibly older writing on the web has value, and sometimes we should take a moment to read bits of it instead of gulping down and spewing forth a remixed version of the latest clever insight or rant. (I’m talking about myself here, bigly, uh, big league.)