Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Project Bamboo: Meeting 1d

Here in the Friend Center of Princeton University, the break-out groups reconvene to report on their morning conversations. We're at the last of four meetings (hence the "d" in "1d") collectively described as a "listening tour." What's being listened to? Recommendations on technical support for humanities research. The premise, as articulated in Project Bamboo's Mellon-funded grant proposal, is that a widely consultative process can lead to the development of standards, tools and services to be shared across institutional boundaries. Subsequent meetings ("2" and beyond) will distill all this feedback and move forward. So far so good, though participants worry, some vocally, that we are using a distributed community-based grass-roots open-source-modeled process to produce a highly centralized set of products and services. John Unsworth, voice of reason and lead author of the ACLS report on cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, responds to group discussion by urging unity, and he reminds us of Benjamin Franklin's admonition to the Founding Fathers that they hang together lest they hang separately.

It's not clear how the hundred aught participating institutions will be winnowed down to the smaller number which will interpret and sift through the findings and propose next steps (and subsequent grants). The wide-spread expectation is that the have-nots will drop out once institutional commitments are requested, but the "hanging together" may take the form of virtual participation of some kind. There is a call for a more diverse international perspective; already one of these four meetings was held in Paris, and there has been talk of a fifth in Hong Kong. Oxford and Cambridge are said to be lining up for meeting 2. Oddly, given their achievements in humanities computing, Canadian institutions are almost entirely absent. I'm curious that the NEH is not more visibly engaged -- if anybody knows how many times the wheel has been reinvented (and with taxpayer dollars), it's surely the primary funding agency for the humanities in this country. Missing from the roster are the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, and the American Library Association.

The engagement -- and transformation -- of the disciplinary societies will surely be required for the successful creation and maintenance of infrastructure for humanities scholarship. The disciplinary societies have some influence over the training and career prospects of the young humanists who will function in the "ecosystem." I opine that the Bamboo grant proposal focuses too much on transforming the research, and not enough the researcher; channeling Stephen Ramsay, I say that our inveterate resistance to math and science, of which we make a badge of honor, is both anti-intellectual and isolating. "Who has ever heard a scientist boast about being unable to write?" as Steve has asked. Greg Crane ups the ante, saying that we don't want to waste our energies arming for the last war: if there are to be humanities departments in the future, they will exist only because their members have found a way to engage with and have an impact on the world outside, and that is a challenge which any new humanities consortium will have to face. I recall James O'Donnell's remark that humanities faculty aren't hostile to technology -- only to the latest technology. Serge Goldstein, Princeton's Associate CIO, shrewdly observes that technology that has become familiar -- photocopying, e-mail -- is no longer "technology."

We are doing That Thing We Do, which is to go at a problem by (1) going at the problem while (2) endlessly critiquing our way of going at the problem. This must drive the engineers nuts.

During his "4-6" presentation, entitled "What can we do that is different when it's all on-line?" Greg Crane asks who was the most influential classicist of the 20th century, and not entirely in jest proposes the Ayatollah Khomeini, a careful reader of Plato. He calls for a revival of tool-creation as a respectable area of humanities scholarship as it was when dictionaries, concordances, and critical editions were common elements in a tenure dossier. I'm pleased that we're bringing him to Buffalo in September, and eager to hear him speak for more than four minutes. (But I think we should change his assignment: he is a cogent agent for change, so why force him to rehearse familiar tales?)

I am not a fan of break-out / report-back meetings, so I mutter during the exercises. The assignment (here slightly edited for syntactical coherence) had been circulated in advance:
[Speaking from] your personal perspective as a researcher, librarian, IT professional, computer scientist, etc., [explain what you do] during a really good day, term, research cycle, etc. in relation to humanities research, and how you accomplish these tasks/practices.
Now, the break-out groups have been studiously balanced so that humanities faculty, IT support professionals, and librarians are all equally represented, but the assigned question was ill-suited to this demographic diversity. It would have been vastly more productive to ask these teams to describe the environment and life cycle of humanities research projects. Each constituency could then have described the phases it knew best: intuition, suspicion, validation, research, feedback, publication, dissemination and archiving. IT and library professionals share their frustration with being asked, for example, to "design a database" when a database is not the optimal platform for the research project. I think, but don't say, that it is equally maddening to be told by support people that they are the ones who know how your problem should be solved, and that you're not to worry your pretty little head with the technology. One library colleague helpfully proposes the "reference interview" model, during which the librarian and the researcher together identify the best resources through an iterative process. I found JSTOR's CIO Tim Babbit to be a brilliant interlocutor... if only there could have been more unfettered interlocution.

I do begin wondering if Project Bamboo is an effort by humanists to solve problems we have identified in our own environment and practices, or a rescue mission driven by IT leadership exasperated by the challenges of humanities research support. The people in charge are fantastically intelligent and engaged: Steve Masover, data architect, was an English major, and has written a novel. Rich Meyer, Project Manager, comes from a background in Anthropology. Chad Kainz and Sara Ware are accomplished and sharp. Co-director David Greenbaum runs the workshop, and remains relaxed and cordial under what must be great pressure (his day job looks quite demanding). The co-PIs (not visibly present at the Princeton meeting) are Janet Broughton, humanities dean at Berkeley, and Chicago's CIO, Gregory Jackson. At lunch I meet the Mellon Program Officer with oversight responsibility for Bamboo: Ira Fuchs, natively a physicist/computer scientist, formerly CIO at Princeton. I'm encouraged by the presence and endorsement of some of the most accomplished humanities computing people, but keen to understand whether "we" are at the heart of this effort, and if not, what that might portend for its eventual pertinence for the intended beneficiaries. In other words, are we co-pilots, or are we passengers whose preferences are diligently solicited?

I've met fascinating people who have traversed several disciplines in their own careers. Among them is an erstwhile chemist, now professor of French at Johns Hopkins, named Wilda Anderson, who says she runs an informal "summer camp" for her graduate students at her home. She teaches not only Photoshop, but also the history of mathematics, assigning Jean Dieudonné's Pour l'honneur de l'esprit humain, and the history of computer science (her own father having played a role in this history which I did not entirely pick up). Then she shows students her backyard pool and pours them lemonade. Here is a woman who has taken affairs in hand! A scholar who holds an endowed chair at a Prestigious Institution reports having asked his own university's humanities center for funds for a major GIS project. What's GIS? He explains that it's a database of geographical information. What's a database? He defines it. It is finally conceded that he may make a presentation to the group, but he is instructed not to bring scientists with him, lest the humanists' ignorance cause them embarrassment! Similar jeremiades enliven dinner table conversation throughout the meeting.

The Princeton campus is as it ever was, only more so. East Pyne Hall has been completely redone, and in a very elegant way. A new science library by Frank Gehry is nearing completion. Serge Goldstein offers guided tours of campus highlights.

I swim on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at 5:30 with the Princeton Masters Swimmers, at the Princeton Community Pool, way down Witherspoon. This is the pool where, after 5-6 pages of dissertation drafting, I used to come swim and hang out on the grassy "beach" with the other graduate students.

I walk down Chambers to the gate through which Debbie Norden and I would come back home to the house on Greenholm Street where we rented third-floor rooms thirty years ago. During our endless animated conversations in the tiny kitchen, Debbie taught me what architects mean by "charrette," and why the Chrysler Building is to be admired above all other New York City skyscrapers. And then I learned the cost in remorse of perpetually deferring the effort to reconnect with old friends, who are not, as we imagine, suspended in a timeless orbit waiting for our call.

Lionel Gossman very kindly took time to have coffee on Monday afternoon. As always, he's working on a dozen things, and seems most enthusiastic about a project to publish and translate the works of an Austrian countess who was a devout Catholic, and who then became an energetic socialist, seeing no discontinuity between the two "gospels" of care and respect for others. And what do you know? He is publishing a substantial piece online with Cambridge, and is very conscious that such choices by established senior faculty will make these outlets respectable and safe for junior scholars. I believe that he has been involved in persuading the APA to do digital publishing.

Bamboo would do well to seek the collaboration of distinguished and generous senior humanities scholars who, by the interdisciplinarity of their mature scholarship, demonstrate a willingness to advance the frontiers of possibility for the humanities.