Bad Research and Informational Heresies (Draft Syllabus)

Still polishing this a bit, but I think it’s at the point where we can share it and get comments. I’m co-teaching this with my totally awesome colleague Rachel Buurma in the Department of English at Swarthmore.

I’m really excited about the class. We’re calling it “Bad Research” for three reasons: first, to underscore the question of whether research has been “bad” for academia (or in particular, the humanities) and the related history and aesthetics of research practices and tools inside and outside of academic life; second, to draw attention to the way to the manners and ethics discipline research in academia and how those have changed over time; third, to ask the question of how academic or scholarly research practices look in relationship to other kinds of research practices and communities (and who is “bad”, if anyone, in such comparisons).

Comments, suggestions, critiques all welcome.


Bad Research and Information Heresies (English 81/History 90C)
Taught by Tim Burke ( and
Rachel Buurma (
Fall 2012 Wednesday 1:15-4 Science Center 105
Office hours:

This cross-disciplinary class draws takes apart the distinctions between academic, professional, and everyday research in order to ask what research is: What do we mean by research, why do we do it, and when did we start? How do we describe the practice? How might we build some theories of research? What are the explicit and implicit understandings that underpin research in different situations and institutions? We will explore topics like search, dictionaries and encyclopedias library catalog, archival organization, metadata; theories and aesthetics of research; print vs digital formats and strategies; very large data sets; the digital humanities; the invention of “facts”; information as concept and theory; realism and the novel; impact of intellectual property; the poetics and practicalities of research by students and faculty at Swarthmore. Our chronology will extend from the early modern era through the last day of class. For juniors and seniors from any major.

Course requirements: The reading load for each week is substantial, particularly in the first half of the semester. There will be several formal writing assignments during the semester, the last of which is expected to be a substantial project involving some independent study. In the last third of the class, we will also be expecting students to locate relevant material for that week’s discussion and report back to the class as a whole about that material. Active participation and regular attendance are a requirement throughout the semester. In the last half of the semester, we will also have visitors who will discuss their own research practices in their professional and creative lives: students will be expected to come to class ready to engage in a general conversation about our visitors’ practice of research.

Part I: The Production of Research

Week I (September 5) The invention of the research university

William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Idea of the University, Prologue, Chapter 5, Chapter 8, Chapter 11. Available as an ebook through Tripod.

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas, “Interdisciplinarity and Anxiety”, pp. 93-126

Anthony Grafton, “The Public Intellectual and the American University”, in Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West

Daniel Coit Gilman, The Launching of a University, “Research”, pp. 237-255. At GoogleBooks,

Come to class ready to talk about your own experiences and understandings of research within Swarthmore College.

*Weekend trip, Sept. 8th (voluntary): Visit with historical re-enactors at Brandywine Battlefield Park

Week II (September 12) The fact, the encyclopedia, the taxonomy, the archive, the notebook

Barbara Shapiro, A Culture of Fact, pp. 1-62, pp.105-138

Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge, Vol. 2, pp. 11-84

Jacob Soll, The Information Master, pp. 120-152

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, “Classifying”

Week III (September 19) Catalogs, Databases, Notations

Ann Blair, Too Much to Know, all

Marcus Krajewski, Paper Machines, pp. 1-52

Week IV (September 26) Dictionaries and Reference

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman

Daniel Headrick, When Information Came of Age, “Storing Information”, pp. 142-180

1st paper (4-5 pp.) due

Part 2: Living Research, Research Lives

Week V (October 3)

Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land, all

Adam Ashforth, Madumo, pp. 1-27

Carolyn Steedman, “Romance in the Archive”

Week VI (October 10)

J. L. Lowes, Road to Xanadu (Preface and chapter 1)

Wimsatt and Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy”

“Literature and the Professors” article

Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, pp. 1-59

Martin Duberman, “Writhing Bedfellows in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence.”

Week VII (October 17 – October break)

Week VIII (October 24)

Michel Lamont, How Professors Think, pp. 1-158

Weber, Max 1949 “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy.” pp.50-112

Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto”, New Literary History, 2010, 41: 471–490 [pdf]

Writing assignment: Prepare a hypothetical research proposal for submission to one of several grant-giving competitions, and determine your proposal’s need for IRB review.

Part 3. “Bad” (?) Research

Week IX (October 31)

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all
Pages from Charles Reade archive
Trevor Norton, Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth, “Lovely Grubs”
Lauren Slater, Opening Skinner’s Box, Chapter 2 (Milgram)
“The Bedroom and Beyond” (short essay on Kinsey’s methods)
Film: “Kinsey”

Discussion of final assignment

Week X (November 7)

David Freedman, “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science”
Richard Hamilton, The Social Misconstruction of Reality, selection
Kathryn Schultz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, selection
Hoffer, Past Imperfect, “The Case of Michael Bellesiles”

Simon Worrall, The Poet and the Murderer
Salisbury and Sujo, Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art

Assignment: find and report on cases of academic fraud, research misconduct, or exaggerated & misrepresented research findings [starter list of suggestions provided by professors]

Week XI (November 14)

Carl Wilson, Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love (all)
“Our Aesthetic Categories: An Interview with Sianne Ngai” (Adam Jasper interview with SN on taste and affect)
TV Tropes
Corrine Kratz, “In and Out of Focus”, American Ethnologist, 37: 4, 2010.

Assignment: Sketch out a research plan for one of your cultural tastes or preferences.

[Nov 16-17: Penn “Taxonomies of Knowledge” conference –]

Week XII (November 21)

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, Chapter 1

Michael Nielsen, Reinventing Discovery, Chapter 7

Council on Library and Information Resources, One Culture: Computationally Intensive Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Michel Callon et alia, section from (page #s ) Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy.

Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, Chapter 3

Assignment: Examine an example of crowdsourcing, networked knowledge or computational analysis of very large data sets in humanistic/social science researchfrom the page of suggestions distributed before class. Report back to the class about your impressions.
[examples: Lyon et al “Using Internet Intelligence to Manage Biosecurity Risks”; Atlantic essay on Wikipedia/Reddit class; other Wikipedia examples; i love bees; Iowa Electronic Market; CrowdFlower; Threadless; Mechanical Turk; SETI @ home; The Polymath Project, etc.]

Week XIII (November 28 – Thanksgiving break begins after class)

Week XIV (December 5)

Practices & Assignments
“Researchable questions” and their Others

Presentations on final assignments

Final assignment due by Friday Dec. 14th

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12 Responses to Bad Research and Informational Heresies (Draft Syllabus)

  1. sls says:

    Is there room here for looking at contemporary art’s current love affair with research and archives? Over the past 10 years, there has been an explosion of artists and curators conducting “research-based projects.” It may have culminated a few years ago with Okwui Enwezor’s wonderful “Archive Fever” exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. However, I just got back from Documenta 13 in Kassel where these types of projects were quite thick on the ground.

    Needless to say, artists approach their research and the archives with which they engage in wildly different ways from academics, ranging from serious attempts to uncover and present some bit of the historical record to the willfully irresponsible.

    It might be too late to add such a unit in now, but it might be a good place to point students looking for topics for projects.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually that’s a totally awesome suggestion. I bet we could shoehorn a pointer to this in the last third and hope some students will go further with it in projects.

  3. I loved the book _The Age of Wonder_ by Richard Holmes which told a great story, including the birth of the modern concept of the scientist. Of course, _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ is a must (if a bit obvious).

  4. Withywindle says:

    Grafton and Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities
    Grafton, The Footnote
    Davis, Fiction in the Archives
    Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life
    Borges, Library of Babel; Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius; Death and the Compass; The Analytical Language of John Wilkins
    Kipling, Dayspring Mishandled
    Ernest May, Strange Victory
    LeGuin, Wizard of Earthsea

    For a somewhat different course, doubtless.

  5. I’ve seen C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers say (sorry, I’m not sure where) that dissertations in grad school are a bad idea– they mean that students are focusing down on detail at the age when they’d be better off reading widely.

  6. Wes Martin says:

    Today I blundered into this website. Happy to be here. I’ll be back.

    I immediately thought that some of you might be interested in a book that I encountered as a young grad student at Wisconsin, in 1974: Stanislav Andreski’s Social Sciences as Sorcery. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1972).

    For a good summary of its impact you might go to another person’s post:

    I’m grateful that you shared your syllabus. I teach poli sci at a small liberal arts college; and I have the good fortune to teach research and writing classes as a regular part of my load.

    –Wes Martin, Keene State College, Keene NH

  7. J. Otto Pohl says:

    This is kind of a practical question. But, how do you get students to do all that reading? I find it hard to get even 400 level students to do a mere 75 pages a week on average. I have read a number of final exams where it is obvious that the student did close to no assigned reading. Often I come to class and ask if anybody has done the mandatory weekly reading and no hands at all go up. I keep hearing the excuse that I can’t expect African students to read the same amount as elite schools in the US. But, the official language of Ghana is English and Legon used to be the best university, particularly in history, on the entire continent. So students were reading hundreds of pages a week in the 1950s and 1960s.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, a couple of things. First, we’ll probably be cutting out a bit of the reading on our last pass over the weekend–that tends to be the last thing I do, because I’m always reluctant to give up stuff. Second, it’s a class that meets once a week for 3 hours, and I find that supports a different kind of reading load than classes that meet 3 or 2 times a week. Third, I do a lot of work with students in teaching them strategies of reading, in particular, a systematic practice of skimming, so I do my best to show them how to manage a reading load of this size.

    I think also it takes some care in selecting readings–I do my best to create stylistic and genre contrasts within my reading, so keep it stimulating, and to avoid scholarly work that I think is excellent in its findings and craftwork but is not very accessible. Undergraduates can’t really find a point of purchase in a top-of-the-line monograph if it’s not also making some broad claims that they can work against their own experience or knowledge.

    But it does come down to institutional cultures as well. We’re just fortunate here to have very serious students who remain earnestly dedicated to doing at least some of the work they’re asked to do by professors. You can’t build an institutional culture by yourself, and in some ways, even an institution can’t easily change an existing culture simply because it decides it wants to. Sometimes students are essentially calling a professor (or institution’s) bluff–knowing that they really won’t be held accountable for not doing assigned work. Also sometimes there’s a gap between what’s expected at a university and what the students are actually prepared to do, or have experienced in their past education. I think there’s no way to deal with that gap except with frankness and generosity–you have to talk about it, talk explicitly about why you want students to “jump the gap” to some new practices–you have to persuade them to do a new kind of work with a new kind of diligence, which means showing and modeling what that good outcomes of doing work that way might be (without papering over the limits).

  9. Alan Baumler says:


    I agree with a lot of what you say about picking readings, but one thing I have had good luck with is splitting them into common and optional readings. (So each week they read something in common and pick something from a list.) You usually have a critical mass of people in class who can talk about something (and the fact that others have not seems to sharpen their explanations.) Also, I feel less guilty about putting in things they may not like, since they don’t have to read them. When it works well it lets the students take the class in whatever direction they want.

    Also, a book you may want to look at is Tong Lam, A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949. University of California Press, 2011

  10. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Thank you for your response. Classes here all meet once a week for two hours of lecture and then again with a TA for one hour of tutorial. I am serious about the reading as our other history lecturers here. We routinely fail students. I also assign accessible readings. Right now I am using John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History in my historiography class and Roger Gellately’s, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler in the Age of Social Catastrophe in my World History class. I want to move up to about 100 pages a week for my classes, but the resistance by students is very strong.

    I think you are right about institutional culture. Although this aversion to reading here appears to be a recent development, sometime during the 70s or 80s. There is also something about level of preparation. But, by their fourth year at what is a flagship university in the region a hundred pages a week should be routine, not something orders of magnitude to what they have been doing in previous years. Telling them that when Nkrumah was alive several hundred pages a week was the accepted norm here does not seem to be inspiring them.

  11. It’s also possible sometimes that the reading itself is the issue–not that it’s too hard or too easy but somehow just doesn’t motivate the students to keep going, that it’s remote or bloodless or something of the sort. I sometimes try to find a way to give the students permission to talk about what kind of reading excites them (if any) and what doesn’t.

  12. CarlD says:

    I’m intrigued by the class concept and the reading list, but at something of a loss to comment (and it’s probably too late to do so productively anyway) because I don’t think a reading list says much useful about what a class is actually going to be. That is, a reading list, and associated assignments, are generally statements of aspiration, if not outright fantasy, in the way JOP alludes to. So some very, very bad classes can look really good on paper, and vice versa.

    To me the actually critical variables are gestured at in your comments here, Tim, e.g. “Third, I do a lot of work with students in teaching them strategies of reading, in particular, a systematic practice of skimming, so I do my best to show them how to manage a reading load of this size.” Well yes, when professors have this kind of relational awareness of students and do this kind of groundwork all sorts of topics and readings can result in good classes. So only at that point do I look back at the reading list and think yeah, looks good.

    I think this kind of point can be lost when one deals regularly with students who know how to learn through all kinds of bad teaching, as again you recognize. I don’t get that kind of student where I am.

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