Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities

Five years ago in this space I attempted what I saw as a meaningful formulation of critical thinking—as opposed to the more vapid definitions you tend to come across in higher education. Critical thinking, I wrote, “stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty.”

Two hallmarks of difficult thinking are imagining the world from multiple perspectives and wrestling with conflicting evidence about the world. Difficult thinking faces these ambiguities head-on and even preserves them, while facile thinking strives to eliminate complexity—both the complexity of different points of view and the complexity of inconvenient facts. Continue reading “Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities”

Serial Concentration is Deep Concentration

A column in the Chronicle of Higher Education by former Idaho State University provost and official Stanley Fish biographer Gary Olson has been making waves this weekend. Entitled “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship,” Olson’s column is really about scholarly publishing, not scholarship itself.

Or maybe not. I don’t know. Olson conflates so many issues and misrepresents so many points of view that it’s difficult to tease out a single coherent argument, other than a misplaced resistance to technological and institutional change. Nonetheless, I want to call attention to a troubling generalization that Olson is certainly not the first to make. Criticizing the call (by the MLA among others) to move away from single-authored print monographs, Olson writes that a group of anonymous deans and department chairs have expressed concern to him that “graduate students and young faculty members—all members of the fast-paced digital world—are losing their capacity to produce long, in-depth, sustained projects (such as monographs).”

Here is the greatest conflation in Olson’s piece: mistaking form for content. As if “long, in-depth” projects are only possible in monograph form. And the corollary assumption: that “long, in-depth” peer-reviewed monographs are automatically worthwhile.

Olson goes on to summarize the least interesting and most subjective aspect of Maryanne Wolf’s otherwise fascinating study of the science of reading, Proust and the Squid:

…one disadvantage of the digital age is that humans are rapidly losing their capacity for deep concentration—the type of cognitive absorption essential to close, meditative reading and to sustained, richly complex writing. That loss is especially deleterious to humanities scholars, whose entire occupation depends on that very level of cognitive concentration that now is so endangered.

Here again is that conflation of form and content. According to Olson, books encourage deep concentration for both their writers and readers, while digital media foster the opposite of deep concentration, what Nicholas Carr would call shallow concentration. I don’t need to spend time refuting this argument. See Matthew Battles’ excellent Reading Isn’t Just a Monkish Pursuit. Or read my GMU colleague Dan Cohen’s recent post on Reading and Believing and Alan Jacob’s post on Making Reading Hard. Cohen and Jacob both use Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which offers a considerably more nuanced take on reading, distraction, and understanding than Olson.

But Olson is mostly talking about writing, not reading. Writing a book, in Olson’s view, is all about “deep concentration”  and “richly complex writing.” But why should length have anything to do with concentration and complexity? There’s many a book-length monograph (i.e. a book) that is too long, too repetitive, and frankly, too complex—which is a euphemism for obscure and convoluted.

And why, too, should “cognitive concentration” correspond to duration? Recalling the now ancient Stephen Wright joke, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.” The act of writing is mostly standing on the shore like an idiot. And Olson is asking us to stand there even longer?

I am not saying that I don’t value concentration. In fact, I value concentration and difficult thinking above almost all else. But I want to suggest here—as I have elsewhere—that we stop idealizing the act of concentration. And to go further, I want to uncouple concentration from time. Whether we’re writing or reading, substantive concentration can come in small or large doses.

The act of writing is mostly standing on the shore like an idiot. And Olson is asking us to stand there even longer?
There’s a cultural prejudice against tweeting and blogging in the humanities, something Dan Cohen is writing about in his next book (posted in draft form, serially, on his blog). The bias against blogs is often attributed to issues of peer review and legitimacy, but as Kathleen Fitzpatrick observed in an address at the MLA (and posted on her blog), much of the bias is due to the length of a typical blog post—which is much shorter than a conventional journal article. Simply stated, time is used as a measure of worth. When you’re writing a blog post, there’s less time standing on the shore like an idiot. And for people like Olson, that’s a bad thing.

I want to build on something Fitzpatrick said in her address. She argues that a blog “provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers.” It’s that concept of ongoing process that is particularly important to me. Olson thinks that nothing fosters deep concentration like writing a book. But writing a scholarly blog is an ongoing process, a series of posts, each one able to build on the previous post’s ideas and comments. Even if the posts are punctuated by months of silence, they can still be cumulative. Writing on a blog—or building other digital projects for that matter—can easily accommodate and even facilitate deep concentration. Let’s call it serial concentration: intense moments of speculation, inquiry, and explanation distributed over a period of time. This kind of serial concentration is particularly powerful because it happens in public. We are not huddled over a manuscript in private, waiting until the gatekeepers have approved our ideas before we share them, in a limited, almost circumspect way. We share our ideas before they’re ready. Because hand-in-hand with serial concentration comes serial revision. We write in public because we are willing to rewrite in public.

I can’t imagine a more rigorous way of working.

(Digital Typography Woodcut courtesy of Donald Knuth, provenance unknown)