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One Culture

By Charles Henry

This is the inaugural post of the new CLIR blog titled Re: Thinking. In the months ahead, one question will help to frame the contributions: To what degree are we working against our best interests in higher education: our mission statements are almost invariably attuned to our home institution and building a reputation that burnishes our university or college. We strenuously compete with one another for students, faculty, funding, and prestige. Yet the emerging digital environment and the Internet function at a very large scale only through collaboration, cost sharing, and amalgamation of services across institutions. How do we solve this?

An immediate example of this problem can be gleaned from the new CLIR publication One Culture: Computationally Intensive Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, an analysis of the Digging into Data projects that NEH and cosponsoring funding agencies awarded in 2009. The research this report explores entails remarkable collaborative efforts across disciplines—social sciences, humanities, and engineering in most cases. The methodologies are often new, as is the knowledge discovered through the execution of this research. Collectively the projects are quite diverse in their structuring themes and media studied. Among the data sets used were nearly 200,000 trial transcripts from the Old Bailey in London; thousands of audio files of different genres of music; 9000 hours of recorded spoken English from the U.S. and the U.K.; 50,000 letters written during the European Enlightenment; and over 50,000 digital images of American quilts.

It is in the report’s recommendations that the concept of “working against our best interests” is explicit. The recommendations call for a more expansive definition of research; a greater capacity within the academy to facilitate collaboration; more investment in cyberinfrastructure; a more flexible mindset for promotion and tenure; and a thoroughly redesigned approach to academic publishing. Inherent in these observations and recommendations is the narrowing focus of disciplinary organization and the traditional conservatism of higher education, which poorly prepare us to respond effectively and efficiently to some of the most interesting and complex research underway: research that is the lifeline and chief purpose of the university.

In a Q&A session at an NEH-sponsored roundtable at JCDL this week, at which the One Culture report was highlighted, an audience member asked what financial constraints impede this new research from gaining more mainstream acceptance and wider adoption. My response was that more funding was certainly needed, but other constraints—what one might call the culture of higher education—were equally compromising. For these projects to gain currency, the academy had to rethink many of its fundamental assumptions and procedures. Otherwise, the efforts would remain silos of intellectual achievement paradoxically segregated within the most robust, interconnected, and flexible system of information distribution in our history.

I invite your comments on One Culture’s recommendations. What can we, or our institutions, do to facilitate and encourage research collaboration across disciplinary, institutional, and professional divides?

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