Sunday, November 10, 2013

Interaction among scholars and intellectual progress

When scholars working on closely related topics get together, it is possible to make real progress and greatly advance understanding of the phenomenon at hand. Diverse perspectives and data sets generate synergies, and the give-and-take direct communication of ideas within a small group can generate real intellectual or scientific progress.  Too bad this rarely happens. Much of the structure of contemporary academia works against such synergies and progress. We have events that ostensibly promote intellectual progress -- conferences, symposia at annual meetings, edited books -- but actually serve to inhibit the kind of intensive intellectual interaction that generates advances.

 Several events in the past couple of weeks have brought this point home to me.

(1) A couple of weeks ago, Ryan Anderson posted a nice discussion on Savage Minds titled "numbers." Most of his ten items had to do with the amount of time spent on research and the amount of money required and available for scholarship. But his first item totaled the costs for ten people attending an annual meeting to participate in a symposium (actually, he seriously underestimated the costs), and asked:

But I think there are times when it might make sense to take that collective $5000, round up 10 people who want to collaborate, find a cheap central place to meet—and then do something.  Like write a book.  Create and actually start implementing a project. ... Imagine what 10 people with a common goal could really do if given some serious time to really put their heads together.

My sentiments exactly. You participate in a symposium at an annual meeting, and are given 15 minutes to talk. There is no time for discussion or questions from the audience. Official "discussants" may or may not say something useful. Often the most useful part is the trip to the bar or restaurant after the session.

(2) I spent a week at the Santa Fe Institute last summer. That place is really set up to foster the kind of face-to-face interaction that generates real scientific progress. In just a few days of discussion with a few colleagues, my understanding of urbanism advanced more than it had in several years of normal scholarly activity. A working group was formed, and when I got home I started working on a new topic (urban scaling). I now have a new perspective on urbanism as a social process, and I have many new questions about the similarities and differences between ancient and contemporary cities.

(3) I received received two invitations to participate in events on ancient cities. One was for a session at a larger conference where a bunch of archaeologists working on diverse urban topics in diverse areas of the world all gave papers. While there are some interesting people, and probably some good papers, this is the kind of dead-end event I alluded to above. I declined that invitation. The other invitation was for a targeted conference on urbanism in a specific area, with clear goals of addressing how urban concepts and theories relate to new data. I accepted that one. Part of my reason was to give me a chance to learn about an ancient urban tradition I don't know very well, but part was the greater chances that real intellectual progress would be made. Why? Because of the more focused nature of the topic, and because of the potential for good interactions with colleagues.

(4) I am reviewing an edited volume for a journal. While it has a number of excellent papers, it really falls short of the level of transformational scholarship that can happen when people get together under the right conditions. Consider two models.

Model A.  A group of organizers decide on an intellectual goal and how it can be reached. They invite participants and insist that each does X, Y, or Z in order to reach the goal. The session includes intensive discussion among the participants, and then they go back and write the papers needed to reach the goal (whether or not these match the papers they initially presented).

Model B. A group of organizers invite a bunch of people working on a topic to give papers. They provide some guidelines, but don't enforce strict standards. The papers are presented, there is a bit of discussion with the audience, and then the participants go revise their papers slightly for the published volume.

Guess which model generates more scientific progress? Guess which one is more likely to produce a publication that really advances understanding of a field?

I have blogged about this before, focusing more on the products: edited volumes:

Why are so many edited volumes worthless?
Buried in an edited volume
Swords, chainsaws, and edited volumes.

So, what can be done? Here are a few off-the-cuff suggestions. The basic idea is that participants, organizers, and sponsors should acknowledge the importance of give-and-take discussion among small groups of scholars and work to include this in their events.

  • Professional societies should promote more forums and workshops at their annual meetings. The SAA, to take one example, has started to do this, but their annual meeting model remains overwhelmingly focused on the 15-minute, non-interactive, symposium.
  • Funders and session organizers should promote these events. The close intensive sessions can be combined with public presentations, since it is good to share ideas more widely and many sponsors and funders require such public presentations.
  • Organizers should be creative and diligent in constructing situations of intensive interaction even within the confines of traditional academic structures. Have a pre-meeting, have a post-meeting, set up a listserv for email communications, etc.
  • Organizers should not be so hasty to bring every session to print in a lousy edited volume. Of course everyone thinks their particular topic and edited volume is of the highest importance to the universe, but, guess what? That is not always the case. On the other hand, if you have managed to generate interaction and synergy, then publication will likely be a positive step that is valuable to someone other than your mother
  • Participants can urge organizers in this direction, perhaps by offering to help set up the kind of event I am talking about.

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