OCLC/RLG Programs Meeting Talk

I kept meaning to put this essay up over the summer, but I, uh, got distracted. Did I say that I wasn’t kidding about the title of this blog? Anyway, this is a talk I gave at the the Research Libraries Group Programs Meeting this past summer. I was toying with rewriting it to be slightly more formal, as this was written to be spoken aloud, but I’ve decided to leave it as is.

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9 Responses to OCLC/RLG Programs Meeting Talk

  1. Gavin Weaire says:

    I often feel that I detect running through a fair amount of what you write on the blog (and in this piece) an implicit equation of generalism/accessibility and comparative work. Is that an accurate impression? If so, I think it could use some explicit articulating and defending, given that there’s no automatic connection between the two.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s an interesting point. I’d agree with you that they’re not the same thing. But I do think generalism requires some degree of comparative thinking, otherwise it’s nothing more than brute-force universalism. That’s my problem with alleged generalists like Jared Diamond or E.O. Wilson, for example: they assert a universal that allows them to simply steamroll all variation and heterogeneity. A good generalist is aware of very different kinds of claims about knowledge in different areas of study and does not insist on subordinating those differences to some universal theory or argument. That’s beginning to be close to some kind of comparative method, but it’s not the same thing as one.

  3. The piece has been duly submitted to my Seniors, one of whom is working on a digitization and archives project.

  4. Sisyphus says:

    This was very interesting, stuff pinging about in _lots_ of different directions here. I think you’re a bit more optimistic about or less focused on the power struggles involved in this than I would be, and I also think the increasing commodification of everything, including the university, and information/knowledge itself, is going to shift library and archive work away from what you propose. (I don’t have this all articulated to myself, yet, so I don’t suppose this will make sense.)

    And I would add that the increasing specialization and additive nature of disciplinary knowledge is crushing grad students on the one side and the job market/publishing crunch is coming at us from the other. I’m not sure that what you propose as a change will help — my department has already mandated a move for us towards more comparative/interdisciplinary/Everything Studies work _while still requiring_ the depth of knowledge as for the specialist model. And then they cut our available funding time.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    My apologies to Jonathan’s seniors, the poor things.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Sisyphus, that’s very interesting, and you definitely touch on something that worries me a great deal, which is that demands for generalism will simply be additive demands, that what we will ask of future academics is that they be able to pay lip service to everything and yet somehow also be supreme experts on some very specific subject. I think that’s actually what happened with “high theory” in the 1980s and 1990s: a lot of its practicioners assumed the burden of speaking to everything indiscriminately, and if you were involved in theory-talk, you could easily be one-upped by someone asking you for your opinion of another theorist, another philosopher, and so on.

    This is why I really strenuously insist that generalism isn’t just specialization-plus, why it is a subtractive form of knowing in some ways. That’s crucial: it shouldn’t be an insult to a generalist to say that they know less than specialists about a given field, just that the generalist is doing his/her job. Then the only sin the generalist can commit is assuming that a generalist understanding can do more than it ought, that it trumps the specialist on questions that reside with specialization. Which, unfortunately, is a sin that a lot of generalists commit. The generalist is built to communicate and translate from a specialization to a wider public, and to translate back to specialists the question, “So what?” Not to tell the specialist that his undersanding of social formations in late 17th Century North Wales isn’t supported by the archival evidence.

  7. Tim – quick question. How does Saturday Morning Fever fit into the mode of specialization you chronicle? Wasn’t it written when you were untenured? How did it “matter” in your tenure review, and how might you see it fitting into your argument here?

    (Sorry, that was not a quick question, but a bunch of potential lengthy inquiries…)

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Saturday Morning Fever was kind of an accident, an outgrowth of some writing my brother was doing that I got drawn into. At first, I really saw it as a decidely non-academic project and one that had nothing at all to do with what I did as a scholar. But I was ultimately surprised that at least some of what I was thinking through during the writing had an effect on the way I thought about expressive culture in general, in Africa and elsewhere. My impression is that it didn’t matter at all in my tenure review, negatively or positively, but I could be wrong. In the end, it still wasn’t that scholarly a project–Heather Hendershot’s book is the truly thorough version of some of the arguments we made more sloppily.

    I think the take-away lesson for me of that project was to be less frightened of whimsy and opportunity in how I managed my intellectual universe. In some ways, it gave me permission to remember all the things that had interested me before about the third year of graduate school, and to start being interested in them again. Which I’m very grateful for–I think when I look at some other academic bloggers who had that sense of being trapped, there are far worse ways to “break out” of the trap–into the intellectual politics of resentment and bitterness, for example. This was a much more joyful and playful experience of reinvention.

  9. Jerry White says:

    Thrilled to learn of the existence of the Journal of Late 20th Century Icelandic Haiku Studies. Think they might publish this little ditty I wrote in 1999?

    Honn ert frá Kanada, menna
    Honn ert ekki Gimlur
    Þessa ert ókunnugur maður

    Or maybe, being a specialised journal, they only publish critical studies, and not new work. Worth an email, for sure. If only my library subscribed!

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