This is the first of a two-part series.
by Zachary Hines
As the undergraduates return to campus and the Fall term begins, I finally have the opportunity to sit back and reflect on what was, for me, a “slow” summer. Although with that statement I risk what might seem to be a contradiction: it was the most productive summer of my young career as a graduate student in English literature. This post is the product of some of the ideas which for me found their inception in two complementary panels at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in early July of this year.
The two sessions (Session No: 536 and Session No: 636), organized by Catherine Karkov from the University of Leeds, featured an interdisciplinary group of junior and senior researchers gathered to discuss the importance of what we have come to call “slow scholarship.” This form of scholarship is likened to the Slow Food movement of the 1990s, which developed, in part, to resist the proliferation of American fast food in Italy. Slow scholarship, as the sessions’ abstract suggests, “explore[s] the value of forms of scholarship that have become endangered,” and, in some ways, seeks a return to the origins of our discipline:
Slow scholarship necessitates dealing with actual objects rather than facsimiles, editions, or online images; it necessitates really getting to know texts or books or objects – or a field. It demands a developed methodology or theory rather than chasing after the latest theoretical trend or research council theme. It is a type of scholarship that has become increasingly devalued as research councils and universities focus increasingly on large-scale collaborative projects, quick results, the impact agenda, and rapid online publication.
Slow scholarship, as these sessions conceived it, is a response to emerging technology and digital media and asks why a return to old questions should be associated with a lack of progress. The sessions made it quite clear that a slow approach to scholarship is not anti-digital in its thinking and in fact recognizes the value and utility of digital tools such as collaborative and multimedia projects, searchable databases, and enhanced resources for paleography, among others. In order to produce good scholarship in the age of rapidly changing digital media, however, it becomes more and more vital to begin by asking the right questions.
These sessions approached the topic from a variety of perspectives – navigating issues of institutional bureaucracy and budgetary anxieties, notions of “impact” and public engagement – and considered the way that academics in pre-modern disciplines, as keepers of the past, must curate the narratives and objects of history with the understanding that often, in the eyes of the public, the only quantifiable and economically viable scholarship is fast scholarship. Slow scholarship, then, is fundamentally about a return to the object, a response to the ways in which the digital sometimes seems to flatten the way we perceive history and culture. It seeks to carve out a place in our discipline for waning non-digital methodologies, a reminder that research need not be all digital, all the time. Slow scholarship is about being aware of the ways in which the layers of meaning associated with objects and texts change as we re-curate and re-translate the past for new and different audiences.
The papers each emphasized the importance of deep thought and reflection to the production of good scholarship – notably, Karkov on a return to the ‘digit-al’ (i.e. the fingers) and the materiality of stone, Lara Eggleton on scholarship as a kind of ruin, and James Paz on the craft of translation. We should resist modes of scholarship, they argued, that encourage us to hurry, to move on too quickly, and instead recognize those forms which reward a long, slow scholarly engagement with the material. Karkov pointed out that, as researchers and teachers, we are so used to writing and looking at things in a certain way that we tend to miss other things – that is, things that we might see or understand differently with patient observation of those contexts and contents, identities and memories, which inhabit the very books in which we are interested.
Slow scholarship, it seems, is really about the ways in which we receive texts and objects. It is about being first an observer. It emphasizes close engagement with the object or text of study and the intellectual rewards which come with the experience. To achieve this we must, as Paz put it, “unlearn things thought of as certainties.”
*The small irony that my thoughts on slow scholarship will appear in blog form has not escaped my notice, but that I have taken a couple of months to reflect on them suggests, I hope, that I have satisfied the requirements of the slow scholar.
**I would like to express my thanks to Boyda Johnstone (Fordham University) and Elliott Turley (University of Texas at Austin) for their very helpful suggestions.