It’s probably because he’s not writing about food.

23 02 2010

James McWilliams has written his first post at Freakonomics that hasn’t left me looking disgusted while slapping my forehead. It’s about research databases, and here’s his core point:

Given the range of documents that came up, it’s safe to say that—had this powerhouse of a search engine not done the digging for me—it would have taken decades for me to find these obscure references to weeds, most of which are buried in documents living in a vault under some research library in Boston or Philadelphia (I live in Texas).

This experience is becoming increasingly common for those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences. And while I think there are many downsides to relying too heavily, or exclusively, on this form of research, there’s no doubt that it allows the engaged scholar to pursue questions in a much more streamlined (and inexpensive) manner. Which brings me to my question—one that I ask with some trepidation in light of the recent shootings at a University of Alabama faculty meeting: Should publishing requirements for tenure go up for scholars in the humanities and social sciences?

Here’s the core of my response from the comments (which isn’t all that different than what I wrote here):

I don’t think it’s tenure requirements that should go up; it’s publishing standards. Knowing what you can get on the databases or just Google Books, I will never again be impressed solely by someone’s research in newspapers or any other old published sources. What will really matter now (and really should have mattered even before all these technological changes) is how well people connect all their facts to the overall point of their studies.

Hopefully, in this new era, publishers and peer reviewers will pay more attention to how well historians write, rather than just how much information they can accumulate. Indeed, I would argue that the hardest (as opposed to most time-consuming) task of the best historians has always been knowing which evidence to include rather than finding that evidence in the first place.

After all, what’s the last monograph you read that you wished was fifty pages longer?


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