Let me begin with a kind of provocation: however critical we humanists are of the ideals of authorial authority and genius, our practices of scholarship and the ways they gain legitimacy in the academy continue, even in this digital age, to be rooted in those outmoded 19th century ideals.
Edgar Allan Poe gives voice to the notion of genius I have in mind:
The true genius shudders at incompleteness–imperfection–and usually prefers silence to saying something which is not everything that should be said (Marginalia X).
Still today, we humanists shudder at incompleteness, protecting our ideas from the public, polishing them toward perfection in the private confines of the library or the book lined study. We prefer the silence of these spaces, nurturing our ideas until everything is said just right. Only then are we prepared, reluctantly, to reveal them to the world.
We begin by exposing our ideas at conferences to small groups of experts where they are challenged, questioned and, if the experts have just the right balance of generosity and grace, improved by virtue of thoughtful discussion.
We then return to our private, silent places, to nurse our wounded egos, celebrate what was well received, and further polish our ideas into brilliance, until they are prepared to be reviewed by two or three eminent figures, anonymous all, for a major university press. If deemed original, innovative, and ingenius enough to print, they will find their way into bound tombs to line the wall of another study, where another lone scholar will polish another idea toward perfection.
Poe’s genuis continues, even at this late date, to haunt humanities scholarship.
And yet, in a digital age, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence suggests, we humanists are learning to expose our ideas earlier to the insights of others; we are starting to collaborate and to listen; even from our libraries and studies, we are beginning to think and read and write in public. The great challenge for the humanities in a digital age is to transform a culture of genius into one of collaborative excellence.
To do this, we need examples, not paragons of genius, but concrete attempts at collaborative public scholarship, and reflection on what fails and succeed in those attempts. For the past five years, I have sought to perform scholarship in public largely through blogging and podcasting on The Long Road and through the Digital Dialogue.
Below, however, I outline another, perhaps more modest, attempt to engage in collaborative research in the humanities. It is a short presentation, a Prezi in fact that I recorded as a Vimeo video, that illustrates how I have invited my undergraduate research assistants to collaborate with me at an early stage of research, one that had previously been marked by silent study.
This attempt is not perfect, but it has allowed me to introduce undergraduate students to the research endeavor that so often unfolds in private solitude; and in the process, my research has been enriched. So in the spirit of opening these issues to a wider public, I welcome your thoughts and reflections in the comments section below, or on twitter @cplong, or wherever else you would like to offer an engaged response.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: NYU Press, 2011