The Round-robin Approach
One of the usual tasks of traditional researchers involves the creation of labels that situate their work within the otherwise infinite pool of knowledge constructed by mankind. Their tendency has often been to dissect this knowledge in small and carefully shaped pieces that meet the requirements of a specific field. This propensity to individualize areas of study is beneficial to a certain degree and completely justified in moments when academic practice is shifting towards new forms of knowledge. However, as internalized in the general practice as this process may be, it can come at a price in the exceptional times we are currently witnessing, with the Humanities experiencing a massive transformation driven by the Digital Age.
The price I am referring to is the loss of qualitative research production as a result of an excessive fragmentation of knowledge into emerging study areas. I came to think of these dangers during last Friday’s talk at UCC by Professor Enrique Santos Unamuno, from University of Extremadura. When talking about the multidisciplinary projects he is currently involved in, his exposition focused on highlighting the different skills that every contributor was adding to the overall project. Rather than labeling or restraining the scope of his work through new terminology, he employed existing notions taken from philology, cartography, computer science, philosophy, literary criticism between many others, and insisted on the need of all these fields to come together and collaborate between them.
In order for this collaboration to produce qualitative research, there is another necessary ingredient to the recipe: expertise. Through mastering their own field, researchers must excel at it while also becoming aware of their limitations when approaching other areas of knowledge. The aim is to seek the expert advice of other top researchers in these other disciplines, rather than unsuccessfully attempt the impossible task of becoming the ultimate interdisciplinary researcher who can master all subject areas.
Therefore, when we talk about Digital Humanities and its contribution to knowledge, I believe that above all, we have to highlight its collaborative nature, its ability to put together experts on existing fields that are willing to create new forms of knowledge. But most importantly, we have to be really careful when defining or labeling new sub areas within the discipline, as this can also restrain the skills associated to them. In other words, do the Digital Humanities search for a scholar who is an expert philologist interested in a collaboration with an expert on computer science, or do they want this scholar to be half proficient in computer science and half familiar with philological concepts?
Both scenarios are possible within the current definition of a digital humanist, but the question is which of them will produce the best research. The trend imposed by social media engines such as Twitter, which values quantity of information over quality, may be suitable for some aspects of a society shaped by the Digital Age, but when it comes to academia, epistemic integrity surely demands quality over quantity. In order to achieve this, collaboration between scholars in different areas of expertise is essential.
It was perhaps this same collaborative need, or even curiosity, which brought together some crime novel writers in the 1930’s. Figures such as Agatha Christie and Ronald Knox united their creative efforts with other twelve writers from the so-called Detection Club and created works such as The Scoop and Behind the Screen or The Floating Admiral, probably some of the first collaborative creative writing projects in history. Whereas the writing processes behind a literary work and a piece of research may differ considerably, these two practices may have more in common that what we think, as the level of expertise needed to succeed in a particular area of research can be compared to the level of specialization that a writer needs to achieve to succeed in a determinate literary genre.
My interest in this type of narratives is driven by the digital project based on Catalan author Manuel de Pedrolo: Temps Obert v11.1, which started off as a web-based free interpretation of Pedrolo’s ambitious novelistic series Temps obert, an eleven books approach to the concept of ultimate novel. After several weeks and close to forty posts, the project has turned out to be an interesting portrait of how collaborative writing works, while showing the extent to which the writing process can be influenced by induced thematic and time restrictions; its weekly contributions from five different writers in their different mother tongues exemplify how the plot and style of a narrative can be shaped by not only the collaborative nature of its production, but also the immediacy of publishing on an online platform.
It is quite interesting to see how words evolve to convey different meanings though time, and even more surprising how we immediately associate these meanings to mental images. Since the moment I learned that these collaborative literary experiments were called Round-robin stories, I can’t help but imagine my four colleagues in the project as little fluffy robins chasing each other in circle, waiting for their weekly turn to write their four hundred words.