on small data

Maybe it will help to start small.

In the entirety of his poem, De Rerum NaturaOn the Nature of Things, as Lucretius advocates for Epicurus’ atomistic view of the world (and thus, now famously through Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book, helps to precipitate the Renaissance), Lucretius only uses the Latin word, datum, a single time–and then only as extrapolated by later readers from a section of missing text.

It strikes me as a bit odd that the term–from dare, to give, and refers to that which is given, present, extant–occurs only once in a treatise devoted largely to ideas about relationships among elements at the atomic scale. Throughout the text, Lucretius seeks exactly this–the unseen datum–something elemental or essential about which one could make assumptions and which could explain the underpinnings of the universe. No small task.

Today, however, our post-theory scholarly landscape reminds us of the continual subversion of any such underlying or essential truth, which leads almost inevitably to some significantly larger questions:

What is given?

What are the essential constituent parts of our inquiry process?

At this weekend’s THATCamp, a group of us interrogated the very idea of data in a session aptly titled “What is the Opposite of Big Data?” With guidance from Suzanne Fischer and Sarah Werner, we made a few tentative steps into the shallow lake of big data looking for some substantive ideational rafts among the flotsam of small data sets.

Two questions that came from our session that might foster some useful research or inquiry:

1) Do humanistic projects need to meet expectations about accuracy and statistical significance? And, how can scholarship that engages a sample size of n≈1  demonstrate its validity and relevance in an increasingly scientific discourse?

 2) Are big data approaches that advocate a distance-reading to large swaths of text or cultural artifacts in some way a response to continual challenges to the relevance of humanities in society broadly? And if so, how can small-data approaches be leveraged to demonstrate the relevance of humanities-based scholarship and liberal arts education generally?
One model around which we coalesced proposes to turn the traditional big data approach (one scholar, lots of texts) on its head (one text, lots of scholars) to underscore the utility of what are, frankly, some really cool DH tools to explore the materiality of texts and artifacts. By having a range of scholars converge on a small data set (be it a single book, poem, musical refrain, painting, or material object), we can turn attention to the affective response inherent in scholarship and create a network of nuanced meanings in the context of a very narrow slice of data. In such a model, the experience of reading itself becomes the data.

Suzanne succinctly summarized the discussion with what began to approach a mission statement–that as a group, “we do value the small and limited, and we do value modest claims. We believe that big data should try to make more modest claims and to think how humanistic inquiry can be ported over to those claims.”

I was left with a something not quite a manifesto and call for a renewed attention to the experience of reading, to the materiality of texts in an effort to reground and make relevant our teaching and scholarship.

Although I think we’d all admit to only being ankle-deep in this discussion, I think there’s also a lot of much more profound terrain to explore. In particular, trending toward small data can continue to decentralize, destabilize, and complicate humanistic study in ways that can (perhaps even more so when paired with contextualizing swaths of big data) open doors to innovative methods of inquiry that foreground the significance of humanities scholarship.

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Integrative Studies and Complex Systems

I have been involved in several conversations in the past week related to cross-disciplinary scholarship. Some online, including “Lit vs. Comm”collected by @adelinekoh, and some at the College as we continue to try to articulate the most effective capstone experience for our undergraduate seniors.

As an academic administrator and professor at one of the smallest liberal arts colleges in the U.S., I am perhaps uniquely positioned to support both curricular and institutional initiatives that cross disciplinary boundaries. We are fortunate to have no defined departments, to meet as a whole faculty twice monthly, and to have fully half of our students designing their own majors, many of which capitalize on the breadth of institutional expertise rather than in a narrow and focused research area. Clearly, this kind of undergraduate liberal arts education is only one piece of the post-secondary system, but I think it’s an essential one–and one that could serve as something of a model.

In, Complexity as Practice: A Reflection on the Creative Outcomes of a Sustained Engagement with Complexity (in the most recent issue of Leonardo), Tom Davis introduces complex systems as

resistant to reductive analysis; an examination of a single entity in isolation does not reveal the true nature of its role in the construction of the whole. Complex systems support a worldview very different from that proposed by the reductive Newtonian theories of classical science. In contrast, they offer a more holistic view of the world, a world containing systems that can create new structures and forms on an epistemic or even an ontological basis. They possess the ability to outperform their designers, promise the allure of perpetual novelty and can possibly be deemed creative entities in their own right.

Complex systems, then, are themselves a performative act; if they are irreducible, continually dynamic and developing new structures, then they are similarly generative and effectively greater than the sum of their parts (the “room” that is smarter than the people in it).

A university or college is just such a complex system.

Nearly all of the tools and frameworks that are used to articulate links between technology and learning–  Open Courseware / Open Educational ResourcesNetworked Learning, Collaborative Learning, Hybrid Learning, etc.–underscore the rich collaborative, integrative possibilities of cross-disciplinary scholarship and teaching.

This aspirational rhetoric (as is, I will readily admit, ecologies of knowledge) gives us–and often enacts, to be sure–many models of integrative learning and scholarship whose champions nonetheless continue to negotiate with more traditional institutional infrastructures. Part of the evolutionary process in which many scholars (and many academic publishers) are in the midst of continues to draw attention to the still extant, long-standing concepts of academic disciplines and intra-institutional divisions.

Over the past decade, I’ve organized several conferences whose main purpose has been to take a broad interdisciplinary look at intersections of people and place. From such a regional studies perspective, there is no other way to look at scholarship except from an integrative perspective. When biologists, artists, literary theorists, ecocritics, historians, economists, and ecologists all get together to talk about place, the result is nearly always wonderful…and sometimes revolutionary.

I believe that more coordinated integrative conversations and projects in which we can actively take part, the more we will be able to recognize that the complex knowledge systems in which we work can empower entirely new modes of thinking and learning.