Open notebook: public service, self-serving, and conversation starter

I had been feeling a lot of anxiety since my last (and first) post because of the imperative to #DocumentAllTheThings. It took me as long to write, format, and edit that post as it had taken me do the research it was documenting. A 1:1 ratio for documentation does not seem sustainable.

Over the week-end, a programmer friend of mine assured me 1:1 for a first post wasn’t a problem because I would get quicker. However, on the Friday between the Tuesday post and the Labour Day week-end, wise old scholars had given me pause.

Conversations at #SharpFriday

I did a lot of collaboration- and community-building during lockdown and since. One of the communities I built is a weekly meetup of book historians. I floated the idea on Twitter when international happy hours, powered by Zoom, were popping up.

It was March, we had just gotten all excited to see each other in Amsterdam, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the conference would have to be cancelled even if it was still months away in mid-June (RIP #SHARP2020).

Between 4 and 9 of us meet each week for #SharpFriday. There is a rotating cast totalling 38 (I keep tabs!) with a core group of half a dozen. For an hour, we hang out, catching up and meeting new people, commiserating and celebrating, like you would in a bar.

Last week, I shared my concern about time spent on documentation, especially since it was in a format I didn’t personally need: I’ve been doing research for over a decade without a notebook or research journal. I have a good memory, so I can recall having worked on certain things, and then rely on the various search engines of my Macbook, my Gmail, and my Google Drive to find where the heck I stored that information.

This notebook, Price One Penny, new series, is therefore not a way of making public what I’m already doing (as open notebooks seem to be in the sciences), it’s a new documentation process I’m not sure I’ll need for my research.

The generosity of public service

Leslie Howsam, a regular at #SharpFriday, and Patrick Leary, who was dropping in for the first time since the big #SHARPinFocus bonanza, made me realize that publishing a notebook, if it wasn’t for my own sake, would be public service.

It would be very generous of me to share all of my research process with others in something that would be more akin to a daily log, but it shouldn’t get in the way of actually doing the thing, they said. Leslie was also concerned about the openness of it all. “I wouldn’t want others to know all the rabbit holes I went down into!”, she said.

That got me thinking that it would be a laudable goal, in my mind, for this notebook to document how research is not a straightforward process. It twists and turns, and not just when you’re a student and feel like you don’t quite know where you’re going. Esteemed professors fall into rabbit holes too!

The usefulness of sharing negative results

Ashley Reed had another word for rabbit holes: negative results. I spoke to her yesterday after she reached out on Twitter when I announced that I was looking forward to reading her article.

We had a nice long hour-and-a-half conversation. She impressed upon me that, as an Independent Scholar™, I had the luxury of doing what is given much less space in the academy, which includes writing about negative results.

I’m definitely comfortable talking about getting lost and failing, I just don’t know yet how much time I want to spend doing that. But I don’t think this open notebook would just be public service: I think it can also be self-serving.

Self-serving, or making the implicit explicit

I don’t know what doors I would like to see this grant open, if any. My problem finding a job job has always appeared to be the fact that my degrees don’t make explicit my skillset. An English M.A. who can code and analyze data? Who can plan and execute campaigns?

In her 2014 piece (which was her first peer-reviewed article, she told me!), Ashley called for project management skills to be made explicit as a first step for them to be properly acknowledged and rewarded:

Making explicit the tasks and aptitudes required for good project management can help to reduce the frustration felt by principal investigators or developers who find themselves unexpectedly occupied with organizational tasks and stakeholder relationships that seemingly have little to do with researching content or writing code. Once these implicit tasks and expectations are made explicit, it becomes easier to recognize how indispensable they are, whether a team has one member or 100. (para. 7)

This open notebook could therefore be a way of demonstrating to potential employers that I am able to document my processes, both for other team members and for posterity, that I am able to plan and to adjust when the initial plan falls apart, that I can weigh competing imperatives, such as cool new features and sustainability.

Transnationalism, of research and of scholarly communities

Another approach that goes against the grain in academia is transnationalism because disciplines are so bound to nation-states. Ashley thought about studying German writing in the United States, but she found that it doesn’t count as American literature, and should be studied in German or comparative literature departments if at all. She saw me as free to roam between languages and over national borders.

(Thomas Smits, who won the RSVP Colby Prize for his book The European Illustrated Press and the Emergence of a Transnational Visual Culture of the News, 1842-1870, demonstrated yesterday in his interview with Brian Maidment for the #RSVPDigitalSalon that these national bounds can be overcome within academia.)

When I wondered out loud on Twitter about how to deal with publication languages in this open notebook —translating everything or writing different articles in French and English— I found that other bilingual people were facing the same dilemma.

Chosing my audience

If I’m to write different articles for each audience, I think I could write about digital humanities (DH) in French since I’m not doing anything cutting edge that would require communicating with the larger community in its lingua franca. Furthermore, the translation process required to write about it in French (since DH and web programming stuff is mainly in English) ensures I better integrate the notions because I can’t just regurgitate what I’ve found.

Price One Penny, new series posts about the contents of my database should be in English, right? Well, that’s not so clear. Many penny bloods are actually translations from French. Shouldn’t people studying French literature be aware of them, then?

It just so happens that French is my first language (I’m from Québec, the French-speaking province in Canada), so I can be that bridge. I’ve attended conferences of the Médias 19 research group, but I haven’t published in French. Where should I make roman-feuilleton researchers who are not affiliated with that group aware of penny bloods? Are French-language posts on this notebook a good space to start and further these conversations?

Initiating conversations

At last week’s #SharpFriday, Kamilla Aslaksen mentioned that Twitter was a pretty good space to receive feedback and generate interest, suggesting therefore that I should put all my energies into Twitter rather than on this notebook.

I agree that Twitter can be a great way of connecting with other scholars. That’s how I got to chat with Ashley after all! The virtual conferences from across the world we now get to attend (only US, UK and Europe so far for me) are another great space. And we do sometimes talk about research and methodology at #SharpFriday, between discussing the weather and quality-TV like 90-Day Fiancé.

I don’t think this open notebook can be a space for conversation, even with the comments feature of blogs. I don’t expect anyone will be feverishly awaiting my next post, the way I thought of Primed for the Polls, the elections blog I created with a fellow retired party-activist friend of mine.

I do think someone might stumble on a post two or three years from now through the magic of Google search, and perhaps contact me. That’s how I met my past collaborator Daniel Carter, the technical editor of our electronic edition of The Mysteries of the Inquisition, presenting side-by-side the French novel and two competing English translations.

I was searching for a way to visualize double end-point in TEI (I can’t for the life of me remember what that would mean), and a blog post he had written a month earlier provided me with a path forward. I emailed him, and he found the challenge exciting. Maybe I could become that person for someone else?

Oh and did I mention some penny bloods were translations from French? =P


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