Tidiness and reward: the British Evangelical Networks project

[The British Evangelical Networks project will create a crowd-sourced dataset of connections between twentieth-century evangelical ministers, their churches and the organisations that trained them and kept them connected. Here I argue that the project adopts an approach that can achieve what is beyond the capabilities of any single scholar. However, it will require participants to live dangerously, and embrace different approaches both to academic credit, and to tidiness.]

For a couple of years I’d been sitting on a good idea. Historians of British evangelicalism have for a long time had to rely on sources for a small number of well-known names. John Stott, for instance, has not one but two biographers, and a bibliographer to boot. But we know surprisingly little about the mass of evangelical ministers who served congregations; the foot-soldiers, as it were. There are some excellent studies of individual churches, but not nearly enough to begin to form anything like a national picture.

But what if we begin to trace the careers of evangelical ministers – from university through ministerial training to successive congregations ? Who trained with whom, and where did they later serve together ? Which were the evangelical congregations, and when did they start (or stop) being so ? We could start to map evangelical strength in particular localities, and see how co-operation between evangelicals in different churches might have developed. If we could begin to reconstruct the membership of para- and inter-church organisations, from the diocesan evangelical unions (in the Church of England) to the Evangelical Alliance, what a resource there would be for understanding the ways in which evangelicals interacted, and sustained themselves. And what did evangelicalism look like when viewed across the whole of the UK ? What were the exchanges of personnel between churches in England and Wales, say, or between Scotland and Northern Ireland ?.

But which single scholar could hope to complete such a task ? None – but that need not stop it happening. Much of the data needed to trace all these networks is already in the possession of individual scholars, as well as librarians and archivists, and members of individual churches with an interest in their own ‘family history’. All that is needed is a means of bringing it together; and that is what the British Evangelical Networks project aims to do.

The fundamental building block is what I’m calling a ‘connection’ – a single item of information that connects an individual evangelical minister with a local congregation, or a local or national organisation, at a point in time. Using a simple online form, contributors will be able to enter these connections, one by one or in batches. From time to time, all the connections will be moderated and made available as a dataset online. Scholars can then use the data, ask questions of it, uncover the gaps, and be inspired to fill those gaps. They can then add the new connections they have found, and so the cycle begins again:

Connect – Aggregate – Publish – Use – Connect.

But I don’t suppose it will be easy, because it will require different ways of thinking, both to do with credit and reward, and also about completeness, or tidiness.

Firstly, credit and reward. Those of us who were trained up in the way of the lone scholar tend to be protective of our information, dug from rocky soil at great expense of time and effort. Our currency has been our interpretation, and the authority it bestows. Some while ago I suggested that everyone could benefit from editing Wikipedia and making it better, even if that involved not being obviously credited, and the same applies here. I plan to make available data on the number of connections people contribute, in order that there is something to report to whichever authority needs to know how busy a scholar has been. Those who contribute will also have access to a more fully featured version of the dataset as it is released; those who don’t will be able to read it, but not much more. But still, it will still be less spectacular than a big book with OUP.

The other issue is about tidiness. Sharon Howard recently encouraged scholars to make more of the data we generate in the course of research available online for others to reuse. But this will involve overcoming a natural wariness of sharing anything “unfinished”. BEN will encourage contributors to submit a connection even if they do not have all the details, since another contributor can’t develop and strengthen a connection that hasn’t been made in the first place, however tentatively. The dataset as a whole is likely to remain incomplete in many places, and tentative in others; but neither of those things make it useless, if it is clear what the state of play is.

For scholars of British evangelicalism, such a resource could transform our understanding of the subject. But we’ll need to live a little dangerously.

What use is a personal tweet archive ?

A little while ago I wrote a post about the need to plan for archiving the digital “papers” of historians. In that post I talked about research data (what we used to called “notes”); about the systems that form the bridge between that data and the writing process; and about written outputs themselves, and their various iterations. It looked forward to a time when all these digital objects, in multiple formats but from one mind, are available to future students of the way the discipline has developed.

What that post neglected was data about the way I publicise my work. Perhaps one of the reasons we’ve been slow to think about this is that, at one time, most academics didn’t need to. Apart from giving papers at gatherings of the learned, the task of publicising one’s work belonged to the publisher. And if one’s publisher was the right one, then the work would inevitably end up in the hands of the small group of people who needed to know about it. And whilst the media don is not a new phenomenon, most historians might have thought such self-publicity outside the academy something of an embarrassment, even rather vulgar.

How times change. Universities are training their staff in dealing with the traditional media and in the most effective way of using social media. And this opens up a new category of data that ought to be archived, if only to understand how the push for ‘impact’ actually played out in these early years. And some of it is being archived. The Library of Congress are archiving every tweet, although it isn’t yet clear how that archive may be made available for use. The UK Web Archive, along with other national web archives, have been archiving selected blogs (including this one) for several years, and the EU-funded BlogForever project is looking to join those projects up. But this approach, valuable though it is, separates the content from the author, and from the rest of their digital archive. Whilst that link might be retrievable at a higher discovery layer, something important is still lost.

But now the helpful folk at Twitter, in a move that ought to be applauded, have made it very quick and easy to download an archive of one’s own tweets, right back to the beginning. And so I did: 1682 tweets, over 14.5 months. But what to do with it ?

Straight away, scrolling through a long CSV file starts to tell the story of the making of other things: the first retweet of someone else’s work which was subsequently to influence my own; the first traces of an idea, or even of a question I was beginning to ask, which spawned a blog post, and then a paper. I also find that I shared at least one link in more than two thirds of my tweets, which sounds public-spirited until I add that a good proportion were my own posts. I can start mining the data for key terms and themes, and how they ebbed and flowed.

It would be useful if there was a way to keep this data fresh, of course, to avoid going back to Twitter for a new download every so often. And, thanks to @mhawksey, there is a simple way of doing this, using Google Drive. Martin explains all here, with a handy video set-up guide.tweet archive

And so I now have a cloud-based archive of my tweets, complete with a basic search and browse web interface. This is now a lazy man’s look-up of old tweets and the resources they pointed to, searchable by handle, hashtag or key term.

But perhaps this is something about which most people are lazy. Social media provides us with an overwhelming stream of quite-interesting things, in amongst which are nuggets of gold. Those nuggets I can manage in the old way, by recording them properly, perhaps in a bibliography. I might even read them, one day. But the quite-interesting stuff, whilst being too much ever to record properly, will probably remain quite interesting. And so this provides a middle way between formal curation of a webliography and just searching the live web (which assumes I can remember enough about what I’m looking for.)

Might this archive now change my future tweeting ? Early days to judge perhaps. But I think it may, since I may now retweet and share in preference to using favourites, in order to get a link to a resource into the archive. I can also imagine starting to use personal hashtags, as a way of structuring my own archive at the same time as I tweet. Real-time curation perhaps ?

And I might share it too. Since this is now unambiguously my own data, rather than Twitter’s, I can licence it for reuse by others in larger corpora for analysis. Imagine a pooled archive of the tweets of many historians. Now that would be interesting.

On passing the General Reader Test

Once a week I stay away from home with two very good (and perhaps long-suffering) friends. They have looked after me this way for over three years; and over that sort of time it is hard to avoid the topic of one’s research in general conversation. And so, in a moment of weakness late at night, one of my friends expressed an interest in reading a draft article that we had talked about a little. It helped that the paper is about the recent history of a part of British Christianity of which both they and I have lived experience. And so, after some hesitation, I sent them a copy.

Slightly to my surprise, not just one but both took time to read it. And the best part is that, when we later fell to talking about it, they had understood it. Granted, much of the detail passed them by. But the argument they repeated back to me over a glass of wine was the one I hoped I had written. They had also been struck by some of the broader parallels with more recent events, which were implicit in it. It made my day.

Should this have been a surprise ? After all, writing is meant to be read, is it not ? But I wouldn’t be the first to note that not all academic writing is easy to read, even for specialists, let along the ‘general reader’. Indeed, some have suggested that there are perverse incentives for academics to be intentionally opaque.

I don’t tell this story in order to suggest that my writing is particularly clear; I’ve turned out my fair share of clunky writing built on muddled thinking. But it does suggest that a ‘General Reader Test’ might be one worth applying to more of our writing, particularly if you expect any non-specialist readers to stumble across it once it is released into the wild. I shall be doing so; although I might spare these particular friends too much of it, as I want them to keep them as friends.

More writing, less publishing ?

It was Stefan Collini, in what now reads as an early and prescient exposure of the problematic language of productivity in humanities research, that suggested as an aside that we might all of us be better off if there were much more writing, and rather less publishing.(1) And if you’ll excuse the fact of a blog post about writing not to be published, I rather think that his point is as relevant now, if not more so.

But (you may ask) who has time to write for the sake of it ? When under pressure to produce for research assessment, and then some more for our blogs and for the media to increase our ‘impact’, isn’t writing not to be published simply wasteful of time, an inefficiency to be overcome ? In my own case, I can recognise the train of thought, which is made more pressing still since all my writing happens outside work time. Why write that paper if there is not a conference at which to deliver it ? And, why speak at that conference if there isn’t to be a volume of papers to follow ? And if a paper is turned down for publication, can I not get it placed somewhere else, or (failing that) recycle it for blog posts or as part of a larger piece some other time ? (By extension, there have been times when I seem only to have read books if I was reviewing them.) When writing time is so precious and, for some, the act of writing itself often such a trial, ‘waste not, want not’ seems to be the motto.

But I’m beginning to find that the act of writing for the eyes of no reader has its benefits. I have recently found out something which (for complex reasons) I cannot contemplate ever writing up for publication, or at least not while some people are still alive. But I need to make sense of it, because it is materially important for my thinking on other matters; and I need some way of dealing with it in a safe way, to allow it to have its impact on the things I can publish. And so I’m beginning to write it up as a means of clarifying what it means, even it then remains in the metaphorical bottom drawer.

More generally, Paul J. Silvia has suggested that the more prolific published authors tend also to produce the highest rated work, suggesting a positive correlation between quality and quantity in published work, rather the negative correlation one might expect. And if Collini was right, then we might extend this principle to suggest that the more unpublished writing one does, the better will be the words that do eventually escape into the wild. I tried to suggest in an earlier post that every act of writing for publication has some place in the development of one’s thinking, even if this or that sentence is deleted or revised to the point of being unrecognisable at one’s next sitting. If the same applies to whole pieces written not to be published, then I need simply to write, as much and as often as possible, since in ways that are hard to document, it will make me both a better writer, and a writer who writes better history.

(1) Stefan Collini ‘Against Prodspeak: “Research” in the Humanities’, in his English Pasts (OUP, 1999), p.236.