Perfection is not an option

A series of events seem to be forcing me to ask myself what my scholarly accomplishments are really worth, at least to me.

The first opportunity came in the form of the question bluntly asked during the interview for the ProFIL  programme “Would you say you are proud of your accomplishments?” I was on my guard by then, since it was a situation in which I wanted to be hired. And when it is so, you try to be as honest as possible AND to give the interviewers the answer you suppose they want to hear (I guess that it is not the most comfortable dialogue situation in the world when both are somewhat incompatible, which was, luckily for me, not the case). Still, on that first occasion, I managed to not answer the question.

Then my little sister got her rankings (she is 18, studying biology and in the midst of the French concours to enter top schools) and was disappointed (though not saying it too loudly) about the marks she got. No pride there, in spite of hard work and talent (or is it because of hard work and talent?).

And today I begun to write my part of the text for the 4th panel of the #dhiha5 conference, which is the panel on early career and recognition. The page and half I am supposed to write summarizes the contributions made by various bloggers as well as my own ideas on the subject of the recognition of performances in DH. (It is part two; part one deals with the recognition of persons and part 3 with career opportunities, each is being taken care of by dedicated colleagues, you’ll see all that online by the end of the week-end)

So I suppose that now I have to confront the question for real: What are my scholarly accomplishments worth to me? What does it really matter to give a good talk, to make a good impression, to be excellent? The first difficulty is of course to admit that you ask yourself the question in those terms. In scholarly ethics, excellence is on the one hand a shield in many institutional circumstances, on the other hand a moraly ambiguous value. You want to be excellent, but not to claim that you are so. Being excellent is being uncool, selfish, an apparatchik. And who would want to be in (scholarly) business with someone who avows to that kind of virtues?

The second difficulty is that excellence varies. It is objectivable only to a certain point. During the conference that ended today, we heard , within 48 hours, something like 20 talks (I haven’t counted precisely). It is not humanly possible to keep focussed that long on that many different topics, to find all of those talks equally good. What will make you consider that some papers are more excellent than others? There will certainly be an intrinsic value of novelty in some talks that you won’t find in others. But in the end, what will differentiate the “excellent” talks from the ones that are “interesting”?

Scholarly political correctness will make you say that one needs some of the interesting and some of the excellent to have a good balance, which means that you need the interesting ones to make the excellent ones excellent. As faire-valoir?

I think that excellence has in big part to do with the capacity to recognize what is being expected from you, with a kind of survival instinct in the academical jungle. It has to do with the faculty to pull yourself together in the circumstances that require it, to recognize the moments when that is needed and in which form. It is a way to read the system, to read your work partners,your environment. Sometimes it is like you hear your own brain clicking. I occasionally wonder how empty my eyes look in the moments when the pieces of the puzzle come together and I have to figure out the next step on the fly.

Of course, recognizing patterns doesn’t suffice. You also have to produce the right thing at the right time. Which is trainable, but again, you have to be willing to be trained. And if there is one thing I would never ever formulate a judgement about, it is about wanting, or not wanting, to engage in that kind of training.

Being proud of my accomplishments? I don’t know.  Being proud means accepting what you do wrong. forgetting it, living with it, dealing with it. And I keep blaming myself for a great deal of it, late in the night. Well, perfection is not an option whatsoever.

Transcription vs. edition?

There are those times, you know, when you are being dragged from one task to another, day after day, and come evening, are plainly exhausted without understanding why it is so, because you don’t feel like you have achieved anything.  You run from one fire to the other, trying to keep emergencies from burning the whole place down. These phases, I know it now, pass. But they require resilience and faith in their finiteness to be survived to. Yes, summer will come, and we will just drink beers and be a bunch of people that are happy to be gathered together (I am already dreaming of Friday’s DH-Berlin-Stammtisch)…

In the meantime, I have had several interesting discussions and not enough time to think about them, alas. One thing in particular is still on my mind.

I enjoyed a lot taking part in the panel discussion “From the archive to the book. The text’s way from the author to the book.” at the KOOP Litera Conference in Dortmund last week. I am not that often given the occasion of a dialogue genuinely conceived to be between archives and research in order to define what could be a good basis for common work. The idea of taking as much advantage as possible of fundings that make common applications of a research project and an archive possible, and even the idea of asking the funding agencies to increase those funding options, were welcomed by everyone. I love the idea, I see future in there. Even if I also see that it will only be a short-time solution leading to even more turnover everywhere, but I have no idea how to solve that problem, really, so big as it is (again: does anyone?).

But it is not the unresolved question I wanted to write about.

The discussion also dealt with editors being invited to put their transcriptions of manuscripts online as soon as they have them, and do an edition later, so to speak independently from this quick (and improvable) publication of the transcription. As much as I see the benefit of having searchable text online fast (or at least on a time scale that is not the one of big edition projects), I am somewhat skeptical about the sense it makes to say that you “put a transcription online”. You can’t do so without editing. Maybe it is not the same kind of edition as when you make a book with a commentary twice as long as the text itself. But still. You have to decide what to do with abbreviations, with the glyphs, with the tons of information that are on the page, waiting to be transcribed. I am unsure about that kind of practice, or at least about the way you define a work step which was certainly conceived as transitory when it was discussed, but only makes sense, I think, as a full-fleshed digital edition involving at the very least editorial decisions on the rendering of the text and linking to authority files.

Rich metadata sets would, I think, do that kind of job better. You could not scroll through the text, not do any full-text searches, that is true. But the links to the authority files, the keywords, the linking to existing editions (even partial ones) would fulfill the function of a transitory search medium enabling to “discover” a manuscript better than a transcription which would not avow to what it really is.

Calling – Elvis?

Since the German Ministry of Research issued a call for applications specific to eHumanities with two types of funding (junior research group and center) in January, not a week goes by that I don’t hear of a new application. The call has two deadlines, one by the end on this May and one in May 2014.

The fact that so many people are rushing on this call came to me in the first place as a surprise, especially regarding the amount of projects competing for the title of “center”. After two months, some kind of resignation took over the surprise. And now, not even two weeks before the first deadline, I am tending to curiosity. With so many applications even on the first deadline, how will the ministry manage to find enough competent reviewers that will not be, in some way, involved in one project or another, and which will be the selection criteria?

This is certainly a sign that the call for applications was the answer to a real need: there are obviously a lot of people evolving in the field of DH, coming from different disciplines. But it is also the sign of situation of concurrence in a field that is not so easily definable. (yet again: would it help if DH were a discipline and not just a transdisciplinary toolbox? I am even tempted to think that it would, in the actual situation). What is more, the combination of infrastructure and research as it is presented on the call for eHumanities centers does not seem to solve, in the practice, the basic question of the balance between technique and research. It proves difficult to connect services and research questions in a way that does not reduce the technical aspects to purely ancillary services.

Which brings me to DH Aphorism number 2: In DH, not everything is in the cloud.

What’s new on the web

I have been announcing it for months, it is there at last: our new interface! There are still a few details to be improved (the rollover with names poping up on the authors’ pictures or the new favicon that seems to have been lost in the process for instance), but this is mostly it. The general idea was to improve the aesthetics of the edition as well as the navigation. Here too, a few improvements still need to be done on the genres, topics and repositories main pages in order for their architecture to be made more obvious than the little column to the right allows it for the time being.

Having suppressed the structure in corpora and subcorpora has the inconvenient that it is not as clear as it was in the old interface who is the main editor of said corpora/subcorpora. I only realized it when I saw the final product, so that we are now working on adding a “quotation” button on each page that will let the user know how to quote each single document – and this way, inform said user about the name of the person who has the editorial responsibility of the text he/she wants to quote.

Since I have been tracking little mistakes all week-end long, I can’t feel the magic of the new interface’s novelty anymore. This is a pity, really. I have been waiting for this improvement for a long time and it is bound to remain our “face” for several years.  Instead of enjoying it, I can’t help thinking of the next steps: actualize the Boeckh platform after this model and publish it officially, add more texts, add Boeckh’s books list, add the pdf button, update all headers and notes so they all are in the 3 languages,… since it will take about the 2 years we have left to just publish all the texts we have had in mind in the first place, there is little room for expansion and experimentation now. There is room for more neatness, more information, better access. I guess there is a time and place for everything…

Concerning experimentation, things are moving on a little bit too wildly for my taste in my Wikipedia class, but I enjoy too much the class’ enthusiasm to want to slow it down too early. We have a class blog, on which I post as well as the students, and on which I get comparatively about hundred times as many comments as on this one (which is an unfair comparison considering there are over 130 blog entries on this blog and not even 10 on the other). There are right now at least 3 blog entries on stack awaiting publication on the class blog: it happens to be quite complicated to teach writing blog posts and writing wikipedia entries at the same time. I might need to separate both in the future. But it is a completely new and exciting experience.

And the DH Berlin group is going online as well. The webpage is under construction, but at least it is there! Programm and flyer of the June workshop should be online by the end of the week.

In other words: no time to get bored…

Quatre jours et les lilas, en mémoire

Il ne reste plus que quatre jours avant le 15 mai. Ce sera le premier anniversaire de l’accident de voiture de mon père et de l’accusation de plagiat. Depuis un mois, l’approche de cette date anniversaire devient de plus en plus oppressante, au point de m’empêcher de travailler. Je réalise que mes souvenirs de l’apparition de certaines fleurs l’année dernière sont inexistants, recouverts par les couloirs d’hôpital, les trajets en train rivée à mon ordinateur pour formuler telle ou telle prise de position pour contrer l’accusation de plagiat.

La collusion de l’événement personnel, familial et de l’événement professionnel, a été sans pitié. J’ai vécu des mois abasourdie. Puis en octobre, après près de trois mois de coma artificiel et autant de rééducation, mon père a pu rentrer chez lui. Bien sûr, il y a des séquelles. Mais il va au travail, il vit chez lui. Et en octobre, l’accusation de plagiat elle aussi a été remisée après plusieurs expertises. Bien sûr, il y a des séquelles. Mais je crois toujours à l’accès ouvert à l’information scientifique, à une certaine idée de la communauté qu’il y a derrière.

J’ai perdu une certaine innocence, il y a un an. J’ai perdu de l’élan.

Mais le printemps revient.

Voilà, j’avais oublié le lilas, en gigantesques buissons le long de l’autoroute, du Ring-Bahn, de n’importe quelle rue, pendant une semaine où tout embaume. Il est là, et je m’en souviendrai.