U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (3/24/2011)

1. Google and the Ongoing Commodification of Knowledge

Nicholas Carr takes apart Google’s view of Western/world history by acting like an intellectual historian. In a Rough Type post from a few days ago, Carr questions the Google team, as represented in statements made by Google’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian, on its intellectual vision of knowledge—meaning how to search our increasingly digitized historical record to answer questions. Here are some excerpts and Carr’s punchline (bolds mine):

History, in the Googley view, isn’t about what people do; it’s about what they output with the help of machines. Before 1700 you could see history everywhere except in the productivity statistics. …

Maybe the question we should be asking, not of Google but of ourselves, is what types of questions the Net is encouraging us to ask. Should human thought be gauged by its output or by its quality? That question might actually propel one into the musty depths of a library, where “time saved” is not always the primary concern.

And, I might add, we should also acknowledge that some knowledge can’t be commodified. [Aside: I think it’s funny that Blogger.com doesn’t understand “commodify” as a verb. Merriam-Webster online does, however.]

2. Hollinger on Ecumenical Protestantism in Modern America

HNN has done yeoman’s work over the years (e.g. 2009, 2010, 2011) in bringing selected proceedings from major historical society meetings to the public. Of interest to intellectual historians, David Hollinger gave a talk at this year’s OAH meeting entitled “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity.” Here is HNN’s recording of the talk in seven parts (1 hr, 7 minutes total). In the past years, intellectual history seems to have an HNN angel in relation to coverage because many intellectual history panels are covered and recorded. Kudos to HNN and Rick Shenkman!

3. Refereeing and Transparency

Eric Schliesser at the NEW APPS weblog advocates for more transparency in humanities and social sciences publication refereeing. Here’s the gist of his argument:

Accepted, refereed papers and books should be accompanied with the name of the referees and, ideally, their reports, if only, in the online edition. (Note rejections can still be done anonymously.)

I think I like the idea of exposing the chain of recommendations in favor of breaking down “old boys and girls networks” across academe. This could have some interesting consequences in history. But I really like the idea of getting more important academic work recognized. Why shouldn’t this legitimate work be incorporated into the tenure train? I’m interested in arguments opposed.

4. The New Issue of Modern Intellectual History

The April 2011 issue of Modern Intellectual History (Vol. 8, no. 1) holds forth several articles of interest to U.S. intellectual historians. Here’s the TOC. I’ve already downloaded Andrew Jewett‘s article, “Canonizing Dewey: Naturalism, Logical Empiricism, and the Idea of American Philosophy.” I also plan on reading Patrick Allit‘s review of the two new books on Ayn Rand (Burns and Heller). Finally, there is Richard F. Teichgraebe‘s article, titled “Beyond ‘Academicization’: The Postwar American University and Intellectual History.” Thanks to Andrew J. Ballou for the head’s up.

5. Scialabba on Phillipson’s Adam Smith

Here is George Scialabba’s review of Nicholas Phillipson’s Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life. I recommend the review for what it says about modern conservative economic interpretations and appropriations of Smith. It’s near the bottom of the review that Scialabba (and I) find Phillipson most useful in undermining popular perceptions about Smith’s coherence in terms of market theory.

6. A New Book—Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction

Yet another English Professor, Stephen Schryer at the University of New Brunswick, presents us with an intellectual and cultural history of America’s late twentieth-century intelligentsia, this time through complex fiction. Here’s the book’s description from Columbia University Press:

America’s post-World War II prosperity created a boom in higher education, expanding the number of university-educated readers and making a new literary politics possible. Writers began to direct their work toward the growing professional class, and the American public in turn became more open to literary culture. This relationship imbued fiction with a new social and cultural import, allowing authors to envision themselves as unique cultural educators. It also changed the nature of literary representation: writers came to depict social reality as a tissue of ideas produced by knowledge elites.

Linking literary and historical trends, Stephen Schryer underscores the exalted fantasies that arose from postwar American writers’ new sense of their cultural mission. Hoping to transform capitalism from within, writers and critics tried to cultivate aesthetically attuned professionals who could disrupt the narrow materialism of the bourgeoisie. Reading Don DeLillo, Marge Piercy, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ralph Ellison, and Lionel Trilling, among others, Schryer unravels the postwar idea of American literature as a vehicle for instruction, while highlighting both the promise and flaws inherent in this vision.

Enjoy! – TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim–
    On refereeing and transparency: while it always seems attractive to increase transparency, I think this recommendation would actually be counter-productive. We have enough currying of favor and use of personal connections in the profession. One of the virtues of double-blind peer review is that the only audience the reviewer has is the editorial one at the journal, not the broader reading public and the author. Blind peer review removes most of the personal machinations of “who knows who” and the varieties of favoritism that come with it. It’s not perfect, but it actually does some work in keeping the “old boy network” out of the picture. Whether something gets in print or gets the critique it deserves should not depend on how a reviewer feels that his/her public reputation will be hurt or improved. For instance, keeping referee’s names secret increases the likelihood that sloppy work by famous professor x will be rejected, or that important work by little-known-scholar y will get the full airing it deserves.

  2. Dan,

    I know that you know that the double-blind veil of secrecy is a thin one. We can often perceive from forwarded reviews the predispositions and concerns, of both oppositional and favorable reviewers, by the books and themes they recommend. This is particularly acute in smaller subfields of history, where the historiography is well known.

    And, moving to a different media, you also know that publishers of books solicit our opinions about potential reviewers of our manuscripts. So those pools are always colored by our perceptions of fairness and our ambition.

    But, sticking to journals, what of the editor’s feelings about over-riding mediocre and negative reviews? So isn’t it possible that relationships could again trump the double-blind review process? Of course you would counter that the editors and review boards are already explicitly named in each journal. Conceded. But if ultimately the editor and the board have the most say, then why not publish the reviewers names in the case, noted by Schliesser, of ~accepted~ articles? And isn’t it true that acting properly as a reviewer is worthy, sometimes hard, work that deserves more credit in the academy (e.g. for t-t portfolios)?

    I say all of this in the spirit of conversation, not contentiousness (of course). I’m not super attached to this idea of full transparency. I merely wonder aloud about the positives.



  3. Love the post, but framing is crucial. We need a better word than “commodification,” but I have no suggestion, other than: fewer syllables, and more of an image than a concept.

  4. Tim–
    I agree that the current system isn’t perfect, and that it’s certainly possible to infer (although usually not to be certain) who reviewers might be, but the current system at least leaves in place “plausible deniability”. But just because people currently can work the existing system, and insert personal connections in it, doesn’t mean that we should give up the aspiration to limit those connections. I have to say,: unless a referee has revealed him or herself to me, I have not known who the referee is. The referee has a primary incentive to evaluate the quality of the work–it doesn’t mean there is no grandstanding or self-important statements in readers’ reports, but it does work against those elements overwhelming the focus on the work itself. I am sure that doing the hard work of reviewing manuscripts should be recognized by the profession, but I think being asked to review manuscripts is often a form of recognition of a certain standing in the profession. But it doesn’t make sense to give credit only to those who write in cases where the article is actually accepted; that’s only a way to provide an incentive to recommend publication.

    I wonder how you see this proposal in relation to similar proposals to eliminate confidentiality in tenure and promotion review?

  5. Dan,

    Agreed on plausible deniability, as well as on the positive aspiration to limit personal connections (though that has paid off for me, I must admit). Finally, I also agree that being asked to review articles and manuscripts is an honor (one I appreciate).

    If I knew more about the process of tenure and promotion review—meaning if I had some real experience with it—I’d probably still desire minimal confidentiality in that process. I say that with the concession that every school is different in terms of overall culture (i.e. politicized more and less), size (i.e. being evaluated by disciplinary peers, or general faculty peers), etc. But in regular job settings, in my experience I’ve noticed that personal prejudices (esp. annoyances with personality) play a bigger role in those evaluations than academic evaluations for publication. Again, I’m extrapolating and speaking on principle, not any real experience with tenure and promotion.

    – TL

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