Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: research (page 1 of 1)

outreach and generativity

Over at the Daily Nous, Alex Guerrero, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers, argues that the traditional three branches of academic work — teaching, research, and service — needs to be augmented by a fourth: outreach or engagement.

Colleges and universities are supported (1) by the general public, through government funding; (2) by students and their families, through tuition and fees; and (3) by rich people, through donations. What education and what knowledge will be pursued in colleges and universities is not set in stone; it is, rather, a function of what those three groups want and demand. If we want philosophy to be part of the education and part of the knowledge that is pursued in the years to come, we need people in those three groups to want and demand philosophy. And for people in those three groups to want and demand philosophy, we need to reach out to them, engage them, make them aware of what philosophy is and why it is wonderful and valuable. Given what philosophy is, and given our contemporary situation, that task is monumental, and must be undertaken at many different levels, in many ways. No small number of us can do it on our own. Therefore, it should be a part of all of our jobs — quite literally — to do this work.

Such outreach can be accomplished in several ways:

There are obviously central enterprises: exposing children and adolescents to philosophy and serious humanities in K–12 education, for example, something that many are already doing. Writing “public facing” philosophy that appears in newspapers, broad circulation prestige venues, trade books, and so on. Creating online philosophy courses and videos and other broad access materials like podcasts. There are also more local, more intimate efforts: organizing a public philosophy week at a public library, running a philosophy club or ethics bowl team at the local high school, organizing community book groups and “meetups” to discuss philosophy, running “ask a philosopher” booths at the train station, farmers’ market, or mall. These activities bring philosophy to people outside of the academy and bring people into philosophy, giving them entry points and a better sense of what the subject is and why it is of value. They also are a lot of fun. And a ton of work to do well. And, for the most part, they are treated as outside of one’s job, falling outside of the big three: research, teaching, and service.

Obviously this idea would apply to many other disciplines (most of them? all of them?) and it certainly applies to mine. When I write here on my blog, or for non-academic magazines and websites, I am certainly and quite consciously practicing such outreach — but none of it has any value in the eyes of Baylor University. My position at Baylor is wholly due to my academic work. You could of course argue that that’s as it should be, that strictly academic work is what universities ought to value and support; but for what little it’s worth, I think that’s shortsighted.

I could cite several reasons for my view. For instance, some students want to attend the Honors College here at Baylor because they have encountered the public work, the outreaching work, that I and several of my colleagues do. We can in a similar way help with the recruitment of faculty also. But I suspect that there may be other benefits to my kind of public-facing work, benefits that are more strictly academic — even if the work itself isn’t academic, or not in the familiar ways.

Consider the career of the great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra. Cal Newport recently wrote about Dijkstra’s work habits in a post that’s interesting in several ways — but I just want to call attention to one thing: what Dijkstra did after he received a research fellowship from the Burroughs Corporation. Newport quotes one colleague of Dijkstra’s: “The Burroughs years saw him at his most prolific in output of research articles. He wrote nearly 500 documents in the EWD series.”

But hang on a minute. His entries in “the EWD series” were not in any conventional academic sense “research articles.” They were, basically, letters, originally typewritten and later handwritten with a Mont Blanc pen, which Dijkstra photocopied and mailed to colleagues. (He numbered and labeled them, and each label began with his initials, EWD, thus their familiar name. “I got a new EWD today!”) The initial recipients numbered only in the dozens, but since they had photocopiers too, it’s estimated that each EWD had hundreds or even thousands of readers.

Sometimes EWDs developed into proper research articles, but, as the home page for his archives notes, “the great majority of his manuscripts remain unpublished. They have been inaccessible to many potential readers, and those who have received copies have been unable to cite them in their own work.” The archive was created precisely in order to enable proper academic citations, since “personal communication from the author” is not a recognized form of documentation in the CS world.

So Dijkstra’s EWDs were not proper academic research, were not the sort of thing that one can put on a CV or include in a year-end report; nor were they “outreach” in Alex Guerrero’s sense, since they were directed to Dijkstra’s colleagues and peers rather than to the general public. Yet, as thousands of computer scientists over the decades have testified, the EWDs were enormously generative: they inspired and guided research throughout the field of computer science.

Universities know how to reward the dissemination of ideas through standard peer-reviewed publication; what they do not know is how to reward generativity. And, to be fair, that’s true at least in part because it’s hard to know in advance what ideas will generate other ideas, what projects other projects. It took a corporation to risk supporting Dijkstra, not knowing what the results would be; but perhaps there are expansive and stimulating thinkers in disciplines that no current corporation would care to support. Maybe that “fourth branch” should, in addition to outreach or engagement, also seek to discover and reward generativity.

The best service I could provide through this blog is to stimulate others (and not just, or even primarily, academics) to pursue ideas that I don’t have time to pursue myself, and while I don’t expect Baylor to reduce my teaching load so that I might have more opportunity to hand-write letters to twenty or thirty colleagues — or, um, blog a lot — a guy can dream, can’t he?

“Another Green World,” by Jessica Camille Aguirre:

NASA has also dabbled in space agriculture. In the late Nineties, it conducted experiments at the Johnson Space Center in Houston called the Early Human Testing Initiative, enclosing volunteers in sealed chambers for up to three months at a time. In one experiment, the oxygen for a single crew member was supplied by 22,000 wheat plants. A more ambitious project to enclose four people, named BIO-plex, was planned for the early Aughts, but was ultimately shelved because of budget concerns. Still, NASA researchers have continued work on space agriculture, albeit on a more modest scale. A few years ago, astronauts succeeded in growing lettuce aboard the International Space Station in a miniature garden called Veggie.

Most recently, the China National Space Administration has collaborated with Beihang University to build Yuegong-1, or Lunar Palace 1, a sealed structure with small apartments and two growing chambers for plants. Beginning in 2018, eight student volunteers lived in the capsule, rotating in groups of four for over a year. Their diet consisted of crops they grew, including strawberries, along with packets of mealworms fed with biological waste. Like the ESA’s loop, carbon dioxide was cycled through plants, which were enriched with nitrogen from processed urine. Yet even Lunar Palace 1 fell short of being a truly closed system. While it managed to recycle 100 percent of its water and oxygen, it managed to do so for only 80 percent of its food supply.

A fascinating story about biospheres and other strategies for living in places other than the Earth.

most popular people EVAR

Kevin Berger:

Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. 

This is one of those statements that ought to create immediate skepticism. If we think only of the present moment, we can easily discover that there are approximately 2.3 billion Christians alive today, all of whom have heard of Jesus — but how many have heard of Plato and Aristotle? 

So if you go to the Pantheon website, you find this description of their methods

To make our efforts tractable, Pantheon will not focus on culture, as it is understood in its broadest sense, but on cultural production. In a broad sense, culture can be understood as all of the information that humans — or animals — generate and transmit through non-genetic means. At Pantheon, however, we do not focus on the entire range of cultural information, but in a subset of this information that we define narrowly as cultural production. That is, we do not focus on cultural information such as passed on family values or societal trust, but on cultural production as proxied by the biographies of notable historical characters. 

Why they believe that “the biographies of notable historical characters” form a reliable proxy for “cultural production” they do not say. Isn’t there a great deal of cultural production that is non-biographical in character? Art, music, literature, clothing, cooking, moral guidelines and taboos, religious teaching … the overwhelming majority of we typically think of as “cultural production” is non-biographical, it seems to me. So I’m already scratching my head. 

But even setting that aside: the Pantheon website directs readers to cite the article that presents the structure of Pantheon 1.0, and if you consult the preprint of that article available here you’ll see that the dataset draws heavily, I think it’s fair to say primarily, from … Wikipedia. And similar sources. By the way, an earlier attempt at the same kind of ranking — one that Pantheon tries to improve on by using more foreign-language Wikipedia sites — put Jesus at the top, followed by Napoleon (?) and then Mohammed. 

This is all poppycock and balderdash. It’s interesting and perhaps even useful to see what data dominates Wikipedia, but Wikipedia, in any and all languages, is not a reliable indicator of universal historical “popularity” — whatever that means — and still less of “cultural production.” I think the Pantheon database will be valuable, but it won’t ever do what its makers are saying it already does. 

my Zettelkasten

Over the last few years I have adopted, with increasing confidence and pleasure, a new means of organizing my research. For my most recent book and the one I’m working on now, I have developed a version of Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system, and it it by far the best system of research-based note-taking I’ve employed.

For a long time I hesitated to try the Zettelkasten system because I believed that Luhmann depended on a single system, a single collection of cards that ramified and extended indefinitely. Now, that may not be strictly true, but it was certainly his ideal. And I felt that I had come upon the Zettelkasten model too late in life to adopt it. It would have been wonderful if I had learned about it when I was 30, or even 40, but in my fifties? Too late.

So I thought. But ultimately, when I was working on The Year of Our Lord 1943, I realized that the demands of my research — trying to track the thought and writing of five figures working in complete isolation from one another — called for something like a Zettelkasten system. (It would take a long time to explain why, but it had to do with cross-referencing ideas that were related to one another in a variety of ways: by author, by date, by theme.) Well, I thought, why not have a collection of Zettel that is based not on a lifetime of research but on a single project? So I tried that. And it worked wonderfully.

Now I’m back to work on another book, and again I’m finding Zettel the best way to keep track of quotes and ideas. Don’t Zettel for less than the best, is what I say!


Just a random note before I go further, from Wiktionary:

Early Modern High German zeddel, zedel, from Middle High German zedele, zedel, a loan from Italian cedola, from Medieval Latin cedula, schedula, the diminutive of scheda, scida (“strip of papyrus”), ultimately from Ancient Greek σχίδη (skhídē, “splinter, fragment”).

That’s an interesting history, no?

One of the best things about making Zettel is the ability to go back to an old card and add related cards. So if I make a note about Barbara Tuchman’s idea of history as a distant mirror, I can make a note on that, and label it BBD26. (BBD because this project is called Breaking Bread with the Dead.) And then when I come upon a fascinating essay by Daniel Mendelsohn that treats the Aeneid as a kind of “distant mirror” of our own time, I can add a card to that effect and label it BBD26a. And if later still I have a further thought about Mendelsohn’s essay I can add another card and label it BBD26a1; or, if I want to return to the “distant mirror” theme but with reference to a different text, I can label that card BBD26b. And then if I realize that some other card already in my stack treats a similar theme, I can add cross-references at the bottom or on the back of the relevant cards. (This is not quite how Luhmann numbered his cards but it’s what I like to do.)

I could of course use any number of apps to build a digital Zettelkasten, and indeed I have tried, but paper cards work much better for me. I like keeping my text editor in full screen mode in front of me and then arranging the relevant cards around the computer. I like sifting through the pack and being reminded of things I wasn’t looking for (Luhmann thought this proximity to serendipity one of the most important features of his system.) I enjoy “building a deck,” as it were.

And then, when I’m done with this project, I can put all the cards in a box with my other cards, most of which, by the way, are about the books I teach rather than those I write. (Whenever I am preparing for class I make notes about the themes and passages I want to explore on index cards.) By the time I retire, from teaching and writing alike, I’ll have a pretty interesting collection of cards. Nothing like Luhmann’s, but interesting. Something to look over between sips of my well-earned single malt….