It’s official: I am Stanford’s new DH data scientist from May to August. What does that mean? I haven’t the foggiest idea – I think figuring that out is part of my job description. Over the next few months, I’ll be assisting a small platoon of Stanfordites with their networks, their visualizations, their data, and who knows, maybe their love lives. I’m reporting to the inimitable Glen Worthey and the indomitable Elijah Meeks, who will keep me on the straight and narrow. I’ll also be blogging, teaching workshops, writing papers, and crunching numbers, all under the Stanford banner.
This announcement is on the heels of my recent trip to Stanford, and I have to say, I was incredibly impressed by the operation they had going there. The library has at least three branches under which DH projects occur, and of particular interest are the Academic Technology Specialists like Mike Widner. A half a dozen of them are embedded in different schools around campus, and they act as technology liaisons and researchers within those schools, supporting faculty projects, developing their own research, and just generally fostering a fantastic digital humanities presence on the Stanford campus.
Then there’s Elijah Meeks and Karl Grossner. Do you know those TV shows where contestants vie for a fancy house from some team of super creative builders? They basically do that, except instead of offering cool new digs, they offer their impressive technical services for a few months. There’s also the Lit Lab, CESTA, the DH Focal Group, and probably a dozen other projects which do DH on campus in some way or another.
As far as I can tell, I’ll be just one more chaotic agent in this complex DH environment. Many of the big projects going on at Stanford rely in some way on networks, and I’m going to try to bring them all together and set agendas for how they can best utilize and analyze the networks at hand. I’ll also design some tools that’ll make it easier for future network-y projects to get off the ground. There’s also a bunch of Famous Network Scientists who operate out of Stanford, and I plan on nurturing some collaborations between them, the DH community, and some humanities-curious tenants of Silicon Valley.
It will be interesting to see how this position unfolds. As far as I’m aware, the “resident data scientist” model for DH is an untried one at any university, and I’m lucky and honored that Stanford has decided to take a chance on such a new position with me at the helm. If this proves successful, it will provide even more proof that the role of libraries in fostering DH on campus can be a powerful one. Of course there’s also the chance I could fail spectacularly, but in true DH tradition, I believe such a public failure would also be a worthy outcome. If the process works, great; if not, we’ll know what to fix for the next try.
Traditional disciplinary silos have always been useful fictions. They help us organize our research centers, our journals, our academies, and our lives. However much simplicity we gain from quickly and easily being able to place research X into box Y, however, is offset by the requirement of fitting research X into one and only one box Y. What we gain in simplicity, we lose in flexibility.
The academy is facing convergence on two fronts.
A turn toward computation, complicated methodologies, and more nuanced approaches to research is erecting increasingly complex barriers to entry on basic scholarship. Where once disparate disciplines had nothing in common besides membership in the academy, now they are connected by a joint need for computer infrastructure, algorithm expertise, and methodological training. I recently commiserated with a high energy physicist and a geneticist on the difficulties of parallelizing certain data analysis algorithms. Somehow, in the space of minutes, we three very unrelated researchers reached common ground.
An increasing reliance on consilience provides the other converging factor. A steady but relentless rise in interest in interdisciplinarity has manifested itself in scholarly writings through increasingly wide citation patterns. That is, scholars are drawing from sources further from their own, and with growing frequency. 1 Much of this may be attributed to the rise of computer-aided document searches. Whatever the reasons, scholars are drawing from a much wider variety of research, and this in turn often brings more variety to their research.
Methodological and infrastructural convergence, combined with subject consilience, is dislodging scholarship from its traditional disciplinary silos. Perhaps, in an age when one-item-one-box taxonomies are rapidly being replaced by more flexible categorization schemes and machine-assisted self-organizations, these disciplinary distinctions are no longer as useful as they once were.
Unfortunately, the boom of interdisciplinary centers and institutes in the 70’s and 80’s left many graduates untenurable. By focusing on problems out the scope of any one traditional discipline, graduates from these programs often found themselves outside the scope of any particular group that might hire them. A university system that has existed in some recognizable form for the last thousand years cannot help but pick up inertia, and that indeed is what has happened here. While a flexible approach to disciplinarity might be better if starting all over again, the truth is we have to work with what we have, and a total overhaul is unlikely.
The question is this: what are the smallest and easiest possible changes we can make, at the local level, to improve the environment for increasingly convergent research in the long term? Is there a minimal amount of work one can do such that the returns are sufficiently large to support flexibility? One inspiring step is Bethany Nowviskie‘s (and many others’) #alt-ac project and the movement surrounding it, which pushes for alternative or unconventional academic careers.
The #alt-ac movement seems to be picking up the most momentum with those straddling the tech/humanities divide, however it is equally important for those crossing all traditional academic divides. This includes divides between traditionally diverse disciplines (e.g., literature and social science), between methods (e.g., unobtrusive measures and surveys), between methodologies (e.g., quantitative and qualitative), or in general between C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” of science and the humanities.
These divides are often useful and, given that they are reinforced by tradition, it’s usually not worth the effort to attempt to move beyond them. The majority of scholarly work still fits reasonably well within some pre-existing community. For those working across these largely constructed divides, however, an infrastructure needs to exist to support their research. National and private funding agencies have answered this call admirably, however significant challenges still exist at the career level.
Novel and surprising research often comes from connecting previously unrelated silos. For any combination of communities, if there exists interesting research which could be performed at their intersection, it stands to reason that those which have been most difficult to connect would be the most fruitful if combined. These combinations would likely be the ones with the most low-hanging fruit.
The walls between traditional scholarly communities are fading. In order for the academy to remain agile and flexible, it must facilitate and adapt to the changing scholarly landscape. “The academy,” however, is not some unified entity which can suddenly change directions at the whim of a few; it is all of us. What can we do to affect the desired change? On the scholarly communication front, scholars are adapting by signing pledges to limit publications and reviews to open access venues. We can talk about increasing interdisciplinarity, but what does interdisciplinarity mean when disciplines themselves are so amorphous?
Have any great ideas on what we can do to improve things? Want to tell me how starry-eyed and ignorant I am, and how unnecessary these changes would be? All comments welcome!
[Note: Surprise! I have a conflict of interest. I’m “interdisciplinary” and eventually want to find a job. Help?]
Increasingly interdisciplinary citation patterns is a trend I noticed when working on a paper I recently co-authored in Scientometrics. Over the last 30 years, publications in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have shown a small but statistically significant trend in the interdisciplinarity of citations. Whereas a paper 30 years ago may have cited sources from one or a small set of closely related journals, papers now are somewhat more likely to cite a larger number of journals in increasingly disparate fields of study. This does take into account the average number of references per paper. A similar but more pronounced trend was shown in the journal Scientometrics. While this is by no means a perfect indicator for the rise of interdisciplinarity, a combination of this study and anecdotal evidence leads me to believe it is the case. ↩