Blog Post

Peter Stallybrass on Collaborative Scholarship

Last week, Peter Stallybrass visited the University of Iowa to give
two lectures: “Why We Need to Know How to Write” on Thursday, Oct. 29,
7:30p, Shambaugh Auditorium, and “The Blank History of the Blank Book”
on Friday, Oct. 30, 4:00p, 304 EPB.  As the UI Center for the Book
describes, "Peter Stallybrass, Annenberg Professor in the Humanities
and Professor of English and of Comparative Literature and Literary
Theory at the University of Pennsylvania, is a renowned scholar of
early modern culture, with a particularly alert eye to the history of
printing, reading, knowledge, and cultural transformation. He directs
the History of Material Texts seminar at Penn, a weekly gathering of
book historians and visiting speakers that sets the terms for study in
the field. As comfortable with Shakespeare as with Ben Franklin, his
capacious intellect has overturned conventional thinking about
literature and history. As reflected in his Ida Beam talks, his
current interest is the material history of writing and the remarkable
ways in which the printing revolution incited new uses of manuscript."
 My interest in Professor Stallybrass' work, however, has to do with
the fact that nearly everything he publishes is collaborative.

Several other UI faculty and grad students and I met with Professor
Stallybrass for coffee before his first address, and we were all
curious to hear about how and why he pursues such deeply collaborative
projects.  He talked about the challenges in working collaboratively,
including everything from handling power dynamics and the order of
names to the difficulties of both nearness and distance in physical
proximity to your partner(s).  Younger faculty should get front
billing, to make sure they get credit, even if the work is 50/50, he
recommended.  Talk about power dynamics upfront to ensure openness of
discussion, and decide whose name will go first right away.  Doing
collaborative work well, he suggested, has a lot to do with
personality; some people are just more cut out for collaborative work
than others.  And Professor Stallybrass's biggest piece of advice was
to "use people."  Though the phrase implies that some advantage is
being taken, he says that being "used" and being "useful" is something
scholars, and human beings, need.  Archivists and librarians are great
resources, and they can offer us both new materials to study but also
innovative ways of thinking about them.  So, don't be afraid to "use"
people who have skills or knowledge that will help us do better work.

These ideas about collaboration are more fully fleshed out in several
of his recent (collaborative) PMLA articles, including "Against
Thinking" and "The Library and Material Texts," both of which I would
highly recommend, especially the former.  These articles demonstrate
the collaborative vision that dominates Stallybrass' scholarship and
teaching, and they model how to work and write well with other people.

In "The Library and Material Texts," Professor Stallybrass describes
using libraries and librarians to uncover the puzzling "erasable book"
reference in Hamlet.  "One of the hidden scandals of the literary
profession," he writes, "is how infrequently those of us who work in
the historical end of the spectrum turn for advice to the experts in
the field: the librarians who handle an extraordinary variety of books
as part of their daily business."

In "Against Thinking," Stallybrass begins by responding to the
University of Iowa's own Ed Folsom and the Whitman Archive, saying the
project "liberate[s] Whitman from the economic and social constraints
that govern archival research."  The web has changed the way archival
research is done, but also who is doing it.  "Seeing online images of
the Mona Lisa has done nothing to decrease people's desire to see the
painting in the Louvre.  Quite the contrary.  The same is true of the
libraries that have begun making their materials freely available
online."  Scarcity of materials is no longer what maintains the
prestige of scholarship.  Building on some of they same themes we have
discussed here in the democratization of knowledge forum on HASTAC,
Stallybrass writes that "digital information has profoundly undermined
an academic elite's control over the circulation of knowledge."

The article goes on to discuss how Shakespeare's "plagiarism" of other
writers is really an astute use of "his own form of database."
Organizing information becomes more important than finding information
in a digital age, but this model of scholarship isn't new--it mirrors
Christian recordings, Renaissance practices of reading, and taking a
more natural model, the work of bees.  "Databases are neither
universal nor neutral," he explains, "and they participate in the
production of a monolingual, if not monocultural, global network.  But
at the same time databases can help free us from the tyranny of
proprietary authors, solitary thinkers who produce knowledge out of
their own minds."

Stallybrass undercuts the assumption that originality is a valid goal
for humanities scholarship; inspiration is more about imitation than
invention.  "Originality," he says, "is another name for repeating
other people's ideas without knowing that you're doing so."  The idea
of intellectual property is damaging to the production of knowledge;
if we model ourselves on bees and librarians, we might stay "busier
sharing information than trying to protect it."

These same ideas about the myth of solitary work surfaced in Professor
Stallybrass' Thursday lecture, which included a slide that read
"Printers do not print books.  They print sheets of paper."  Printers
print paper; bookbinders bind books; and there are a thousand other
steps and other people that go into publishing a book.  The paper
revolution, for example, was as essential as the printing revolution
in the rise of early modern publication--the ability to generate mass
quantities of paper allowed the explosion in publishing to occur,
Stallybrass quips, without a mass animal genocide.  Even the reader's
marginalia--"a sad one" scribbled on the cover of Othello is
Stallybrass' particular favorite--participates in the creation of a
book.  Though his lecture focused on reading, writing, and the history
of blank space, Stallybrass also invited us to think about the
materiality of a book, the various processes of mediation at play
between author and reader, as a way to help us recognize the immense
collaboration that goes into assembling any book.

If we apply this template to our own work, we'll discover that all of
us are already collaborative, even if we don't recognize it.  The
online databases and editors we use directly impact our work, and our
students and colleagues influence us in other indirect ways.  The
fallacy, Stallybrass contends, is to believe that we do isolated
scholarship in the first place.  Isolated scholarship is an
impossibility that we can't, and shouldn't want to, achieve.  Maybe
recognizing all the collaborative work that goes into our scholarship
already is the first step toward making collaborative research count
in the humanities.

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2 comments

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, suggests another use for the bee as metaphor for collaborative work: It shouldn't fly but somehow it does! He says that the body to wingspan ratio of the honeybee suggests that it shouldn't be able to fly, yet somehow it still manages to. This is similar to the way that Wikipedia or even the entire Internet works - they both rely on the assumption that people will help you for no particular benefit of their own:

http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_zittrain_the_web_is_a_random_act_of_ki...

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This is a wonderful post.  I've known Peter Stallybrass and admired him for such a long time and it is gratifying to read how much his work is transforming and being transformed by digital thinking--not just technological affordances but the spirit of collaboration enhanced by the new ways we all learn together on line.   Thank you so much for posting.

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