Failed research ought to count

Failed research projects ought to count for something! It’s too bad they don’t. They just disappear into nowhere, it seems to me: into filing cabinets, abandoned notebooks, or forgotten folders on some computer. The data goes nowhere; nothing is published about it and no talks are given; no blog posts are written and no credit is claimed. You stop telling anyone you’re working on your dead projects, once they’re dead.

I’m imagining here that other social researchers are like me: they have a lot of ideas for research projects, but only some of them come to fruition. Here are some of mine:

  • Interview project on the personal experience of people applying to graduate school in English and Physics. (It got started, but didn’t have a successful strategy for subject recruitment.)
  • Interview project on student representatives to university Boards of Trustees in the Chicago area. (I got started with this, but didn’t have the time to continue.)
  • Historical research project on what I hypothesized was a long-term decline of organized campus labor at the University of Chicago. (I only ever did some preliminary archival poking around.)
  • Project on faculty homes in the Paris region. (I only had fragmentary data about this, and it was too hard to collect more, and never the main focus of my work.)
  • Discourse analysis project on “bad writing” in the U.S. humanities. (I did write my MA thesis about this topic, but it needed a lot more work to continue, and for now it just sits there, half-dead.)

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Herd overproduction and star overproduction

I’ve been thinking about certain scholars who have written, for lack of a more precise way of putting it, a lot. The sort of people who seem to write a book a year for thirty years. I don’t necessarily mean scholars in, say, the laboratory sciences, but more like the humanists, the anthropologists, the philosophers. Today a post by Brian Leiter quoting a caustic review of the prolific scholar Steve Fuller reminded me of the topic.

If one description of scholarly activity is “producing knowledge,” then logically, wouldn’t we expect that there would be such a thing as “overproducing knowledge”? Can there be an overproduction crisis of scholarship?

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A day in campus IT

One day back when I was working in my campus IT job, I jotted down some notes on a day at work. I was in the middle of working on a web application that we were building to keep track of graduate student degree progress, so this is the story of a day in the life of that project. It was full of interruptions.

9:12 am. I’ve just finished getting my coffee, refilling my water bottle, and saying a gruff Hello to the guys across the hall who do desktop support. They seemed busy. All four of them: a recent arrival from California, right out of college with a bony face; an undergrad; a Ukrainian who has been here for five years; and a guy from downstate Indiana, in his late 30s, who previously worked at a cable company and now manages our group. It’s a fairly masculine environment, which I’ve talked about with the manager before, but our group is slowly becoming more diverse, which I’ve felt glad about.

Back at my desk, which is marked by three enormous computer monitors and a futuristic ergonomic keyboard, I get an email from someone who’s leaving the university: “Yes, today’s my last day.” I ask if she can do one last piece of work before she leaves, sending out an email announcing a new project. I know she’s had that item on her agenda for the past few weeks, but probably got overwhelmed and couldn’t get to it earlier.

Now I’m revising the code that calculates a currentTerm property (that is, it figures out the current academic term) for our student tracking application. I used to generate the current term using a lazy approximation, by just dividing the year evenly in 4 quarters, 3 months each:

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New Years

Outside my new house, which is currently full of half-unpacked boxes and lamps waiting to be reunited with their shades, there’s a palm tree. If you go out and descend the fourteen steps from the front door, you’ll pass a series of low houses, and, finding yourself at the corner of a shady boulevard, you can arrive, after another minute, at a large sign reading Whittier College, where I’ve just started working as a postdoctoral fellow.

I got hired largely because I had a background in both anthropology and web programming. These past few years, while I was finishing my dissertation, I was also working full-time as a web applications programmer for the University of Chicago’s Humanities Division. Mainly I built administrative applications for them — internal software to keep track of student progress, keys, endowments, course scheduling, that sort of thing. I also worked on some research projects — Scrolling Paintings and the Digital Media Archive were the most interesting — and used a bunch of handy technology, like ansible, solr, ruby on rails, ember.js, drupal, shibboleth, LDAP, nginx, postgres, or redis. It was an unusual job, because a lot of universities don’t have in-house software development, but I learned a lot there.

In any event, my new job in Whittier is half in the Anthropology Department and half in the Digital Liberal Arts Center. This spring I’m teaching a class on digital cultures, and next fall, I’m thinking of teaching a class on anthropology of education, and another about web programming. And I’m working on a couple of book projects coming out of my dissertation — one’s going to be about the French faculty protest movement in 2009, the other about the Philosophy Department at Paris 8 — and hope to be able to blog much more regularly, at last.