Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Missing the Research Group

In yet another recent triumph for Wheaton (the New York Times recently called us a "hidden gem" and the Boston Globe asked our president what it's like to run a "red-hot" school), a research group in the Science Center has contributed to the decoding of the sea urchin genome and were co-authors on the paper in Nature. This is, of course, great news in its own right, and Bob Morris, who led the team at Wheaton, is always good to give my daughter a nice sea urchin test (the dried exoskeleton of the animal, but he does ask her questions, also) when we visit his labs.

But it's more important because this success illustrates something that scientists do really, really well and that we in the humanities are not so good at.

Jonathan Weiner, the star science writer who authored The Beak of the Finch, also published a long examination of the unwinding of the genetics of drosophila melanogaster, the friut fly. Weiner's book, Time, Love and Memory is of course mainly the story of Seymour Benzer, who was one of the pioneers in the analysis of the molecular biological bases for behavior. But it also the story of the people Benzer assembled, for decades, in his Cal Tech labs. They formed an ongoing research group that cracked some of the most difficult problems in molecular genetics, and their group was the source of many, many successful scientists. It is still going strong today.

We don't really have research groups in the humanities. Oh, at times people to get together for a presentation or a colloquium, and there's certainly a decent amount of water-cooler chat and sending email links to resources. But as a whole, you go into an English department and you do your own work. For some this is the dream life, and for others it is what drives them out of academia: those long, lonely nights with an open word-processing file that as yet has no words in it. This is certainly the romantic image of the academic, sitting up nights in his study, thinking and writing. And there's nothing wrong with the image; I even follow it sometimes.

But scientists have something that, at times, works even better, and I think we should figure out how to steal it from them.

The Research Group, a collection of different-level intellectual workers, gathered in a single lab with a single large and complex problem (the kind that sheds smaller projects like a maple sheds leaves), can, when it works well, harness social and even physical entergies and bring them to bear on these problems. Ideas are quickly vetted and cross-fertilized. New projects bud off from the original project and in turn spawn more projects. Eventually, in the best groups, everyone from undergraduate lab assistants to visiting Full Professors, is engaged in expanding human knowledge. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

But there are really very few functioning Research Groups in English. There seems to be one at the University of Toronto, centered around (of course) the Dictionary of Old English. Some larger programs, Notre Dame, for instance, seem to develop strong cameraderie among their grad students, and they do tend to work on very similar projects, so maybe it is working there. But in general, to paraphrase a line from noted philosopher Mr. Incredible: We Work Alone!

I brought up the Sea Urchin group earlier because they did not have many of the fundamentals upon which good research groups are built. They were part of a multi-institution team, there were not unlimited amounts of money to support many labs and different experiments, communication was almost all by email and rarely (with the larger team) face-to-face. But they still managed to form a productive group that included faculty from multiple departments (and multiple faculty within Biology) and even extended to the scientist spouse of one of the professors. Their energy was enormous, and the students picked up on it as they struggled on the project as well. So for now, even at a tiny place like Wheaton, with a strong, strong emphasis on teaching and not the kinds of resources possessed by the big labs, we were able to put together an effective research group.

So what does it take, and how can we do it? I haven't been able to get running the kind of research group I'd really like, but I've had some hints of it: I've assembled students through the Wheaton Research Partner's Program and gathered additonal volunteers. Then I've hosted visiting scholars Gergely Nagy and Marcel B├╝lles from overseas. We therefore had some moments when we really were functioning as a research group, each engaged in both individual and communal problems, each sharing data and getting ideas from each other. We were transforming the lonely struggles of academics into communal struggles of academics. It was great.

But I don't know how to do things like this without money, a graduate program, a physical space and wide enough recognition to bring in the best students, junior faculty and senior faculty. I think I'd be good at running it, though, if there are any mysterious billionaires reading this blog who would like to make a huge contribution to the study of culture.

But we do the best that we can with the time we have, and I'm happy that my research group, rudimentary as it is this year, is accomplishing more and better work that we would have had we not worked with each other.

[How I'll ever explain to school security about the number of people with keys to my office... well, let's just say I hope I don't ever have to make that explanation.]


Tiruncula said...

Interesting post! Three observations:
1) When my current English department was asked what it wanted the administration to prioritize in its latest capital campaign, infrastructure support and funding for collaborative work in the humanitites came out near the top of the list. I was surprised to hear that from senior colleagues, but pleased.
2) Malcolm Godden's Boethius project seems like it might be operating along the lines you envision. It's hard to tell from the outside, but I'd be curious to know more about the practicalities of the operation. Apart from DOE, there do seem to be more collaborative projects like that in the UK, despite an academic culture that's traditionally been, if anything, MORE individualistic than ours. I wonder to what extent that's the product of funding structures.
3) Speaking of funding, CARA is actively looking to support collaborative work among medievalists in liberal arts schools. They don't have the big bucks, but it might be worth getting in touch and having some strategic chats, if only to encourage them to continue to be interested in such things.

Mark Weedman said...

I don't know if this is exactly what you're looking for, but it's close and pretty interesting:

Future of the Book, Mitchell Stevens