Friday, 25 October 2013

week 7 follow-up

Glen's lecture slides are now available for download on BB in the usual place. If you'd like to take a closer look at the Minard flow map I showed at the end of class, see last week's lecture slides and you can zoom right in on Prezi. Wikipedia has a good page on Raphael's painting School of Athens, with labels for the identifiable figures. The reading I was drawing upon is from Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood's excellent book Anachronic Renaissance, particularly from their final chapter, "Space for Fiction" (

In the spirit of Glen's examples of badly designed survey questions, there's an odd and interesting survey that you can take as part of an alternate reality game that was created for the videogame Portal.  Go to and type "LOGIN" at the prompt. Enter the username "CJOHNSON" and the password "TIER3", then type "APPLY" at the prompt. The survey should start from there. If you have any trouble, see

week 8 blogging question

This week's blogging question is prompted in part by Glen's comments on statistical literacy from our lecture this week, and partly by an NPR article on scorekeeping in baseball published in the summer but worth revisiting as the World Series gets going.  Alva Noë's fine essay points out that although few fans today maintain the old tradition of watching ball games with scoresheet and pencil in hand, the practice should not be mistaken for dispassionate number-crunching. Rather, close observation and recording of details -- combined with the exercise of judgment about, say, whether or not a play constitutes an error -- should be recognized as a different kind of engagement with the game. As 
Noë suggests, attending to the myriad details that make up a single play focuses the mind on the complexity of the event in ways that simply watching and listening to the announcers cannot. As Sherlock Holmes often points out to his companions Watson and Lestrade, we see but we don't observe. The act of recording the data generated by a baseball game, and especially of counting and analyzing them, helps us to observe patterns and details we might otherwise see but never comprehend. The same argument could be made for quantitative methods in social research: counting, measuring, and analyzing for statistical patterns can reveal dimensions of our lived experience that aren't available to the observer any other way. 

Supposedly Einstein had a sign on the wall of his office at Princeton that read "Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts." I believe this is true, but I also believe there are stories that can only be told by numbers. What are some of the significant things you've learned about the world that took the form of statistics? On Wednesday I told the story of when I learned about gender differences in pay and promotion among the faculty at the university where I was doing my PhD. Are there any statistics that have struck home with you? How were those stats derived from data? How were they communicated such that they'd have a human resonance beyond cold, abstract numbers? Another way to answer this question could be to share an example of a data visualization that you believe to be especially eloquent or insightful, such as the Minard flow map of Napoleon's march on Moscow, which I discussed on Wednesday.

Enjoy the World Series -- and go [insert team name here]!!

Friday, 18 October 2013

week 6 follow-up and week 7 blogging question

The slides from Prof. Hartel's guest lecture on ethnographic methods are now available in the usual place on BB in PDF.

This week's blogging question is inspired by Prof. Hartel's discussion of the concept of the field in her guest lecture this week -- which really got me thinking, as you can tell by the length of this post. As she pointed out, fieldwork is not only a necessary stage in many kinds of social research, it's also a kind of ritual exercise of professional standards and intellectual virtues. This dual importance of fieldwork comes through in her quotation from the twentieth-century American sociologist Robert Park, who enjoined sociologists to "get the seat of your pants dirty in real research" (emphasis added) by getting out of the library and spending time in the actual spaces under study, from luxury hotel lounges to "the doorsteps of the flop-houses" (see this week's lecture slides for the full quotation). What interests me here is the dialectic between the library and the field, and especially the latter's association with the real. One can understand what Park is getting at: as researchers of all kinds, not just sociologists (but them, too), we need to expose ourselves to contexts where our assumptions may be challenged, and where materials, phenomena, and people can exert their own agency in the research process. The field is where our objects of study can push back in unexpected ways against our preconceptions, which, in the safe space of the library or office, can all too easily ossify into fact. Perhaps the ultimate example of fieldwork in this sense -- as both a process of discovery and demonstration of intellectual virtue -- is Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947 (there's a really good film about it that came out last year: In other words, the field -- broadly defined -- is the space where surprise can happen. Therefore, the act of venturing into those spaces signals an epistemic virtue on the researcher's part, like dirt under the fingernails after a full day's work.

The specific value of this characterization of fieldwork might be found in what the archaeologist Ian Hodder calls, in a brilliant phrase, "interpretation at the trowel's edge," in which the processes of data collection and interpretation are not carried out separately, with a temporal interval between them, but instead overlap in the same moments. (Hodder mentions this idea in several places, but summarizes it most accessibly in the introduction to his edited collection Religion at the Emergence of Civilization [Cambridge University Press, 2010], p. 12.) You can imagine how that would be an especially potent idea in archaeology, where data tend to get collected through an inevitably destructive process that physically intervenes in the literal fields where it works. Hodder's point is that some interpretations only become available at the trowel's edge, and that some insights are available only in the field, amid sunburns, mosquitos, and -- unless Indiana Jones and Lara Croft have misled me about archaeology -- secret societies, Nazis, and ancient booby traps. You know it's fieldwork if you come back from it dusty, sore, and a bit wiser about what you're studying.

What, then, is the fieldwork of information research? How does your own research complicate or reflect this notion of the field? How does information research call us to rethink this notion of the field beyond the more straightforward sociological and archaeological pictures of fieldwork, which may happen in actual fields with grass and mosquitos? How does the traditional notion of fieldwork change when the field is online or virtual? Also, for those working in areas that aren't particularly ethnographic, what is your area's equivalent to the field, or does it have one? For example, I'm a book historian and bibliographer, and much of my fieldwork actually happens in the library -- the field's supposed antithesis -- and takes the form of examining material objects to see what surprises they reveal. Your fieldwork might be similarly non-obvious, but might have the same functional role: a space where our objects of study retain their power to surprise, confound, and illuminate.

Stories of your own experiences of fieldwork (or its equivalents, broadly defined) are welcome too, and feel free to wear your dusty Indiana Jones fedora as you type. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

week 5 follow-up

Today's warm-up music, chosen for our class on "Thinking Through Writing," was a nod to someone who proves that there's always value to revisiting the basics of your craft. By the 1990s, Rush's drummer, Neil Peart, had won a bazillion best-drummer awards and yet still singed up for drum lessons with a master jazz drummer named Freddy Gruber, whom he met while doing a tribute for another great jazz drummer, Buddy Rich. After studying with Gruber, Neil changed his grip, his playing style, and even started adding Buddy Rich songs to the ends of his live solos, like this one. Someone like him taking drum lessons is a little like a first-rate novelist taking writing lessons, but that's exactly the point: good writers, regardless of their level of ability, never stop being students of their craft, and neither should we as information researchers.

Here are the slides:

The first slides show Charles Darwin's own revisions to his writing, which you can go see in the Fisher Rare Book Library if you're interested. Here are the details:

Charles Darwin. [proof sheets for] The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: J. Murray, 1872. []

Thursday, 10 October 2013

week 6 blogging question

In our last class we looked at several pitfalls to avoid in research and proposal writing, including some examples of sentences that go off the rails for various reasons. For the week 6 blog post, let's balance those negatives with some positive examples. What is an example of research writing (broadly defined) that you admire, whether at the level of the sentence, paragraph, or larger structures? What makes the example admirable, and what specific qualities would you point out for the benefit of others? In addition to a example of good research writing, are there any examples of writing of any kind -- fiction, blogging, poetry, movie taglines, whatever -- that you believe exemplify qualities that could inform research writing? Put another way, what kind of reading helps you write? Keep in mind that for the purposes of our class, the term research writing could encompass many genres and disciplines.

My own offerings in the latter category would include George Orwell's short story "Shooting an Elephant." You could call it a literary exploration of the themes of ethics and social forces that Dean Sharpe and Kristin Luker unpacked for us earlier in the course. I'd also offer the final paragraph of James Joyce's short story "The Dead" (from Dubliners). Both examples show a real economy of language -- there's not much fluff in either of them -- yet they also reveal that their writers were  sensitive to the rhythms of words and phrases. Both examples also seem fitting given that the Nobel Prize for literature was just awarded to another master of the short story.

Friday, 4 October 2013

week 5 blogging question

This week we considered research ethics primarily in relation to research involving human subjects, though the question of ethics and research extends beyond that scope, and encompasses us all. That's the premise of our next blogging topic.

What are the ethical dimensions, and potential research-design consequences, of the research interests
 and questions you've been outlining in your posts so far? Might your research require review by a research ethics board, and if so what would you need to take into consideration? Did we learn about ethics questions this week that you wouldn't have expected?

Even if your research doesn't involve human subjects -- say it was an historical project on women in 19th-century newspaper publishing -- what are the ethical dimensions of your research in a broader sense? What ethical questions come into play in your research process, but also in the relation between your research and its future audiences? Are there ethical relationships we need to consider beyond the traditional ones of researcher and human subjects?

These questions should give you all plenty of avenues to explore, which will let us take advantage of the diversity of projects that you're all considering.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

week 4 follow-up

This week's wake-up (or wish-you-were-still-in-bed) music was Miles Davis's "All Blues," from his milestone 1959 record, Kind of Blue. What's that got to do with research ethics, you ask? Actually nothing that I can think of -- I tried to find something with a connection, but was stumped. Next week I'll find a better musical tie-in.

Just a quick post for this class, given that we had a guest lecturer, Dean Sharpe from the U of T's Office of Research Ethics. Dean kindly agreed to let me post his slides on BB, and you can find them there in the usual place.

One of Dean's historical points of departure for his talk was the Nuremberg Code, which was developed in response to war crimes involving human research in World War II. You can find the text of the code here: Reading this alongside our more recent research ethics guidelines (which, of course, have this code as their ancestor) makes for an interesting compare-and-contrast.

I also mentioned an upcoming talk (tomorrow) by Adrian Johns that will be worthwhile for anyone interested in the history of books, information, and communication technology. Details here:

Also, Junior Professors Research Day on Friday will be a great opportunity to learn about how different kinds of research projects in information are framed, both in terms of research questions and the practical design of projects. Students are very welcome, and the full schedule and abstracts may be found here: