Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Juan Cole: Blogging hazards in academia

The link above is to the recent controversial use of a Wikipedia biography page for Juan Cole (University of Michigan professor) being used as debating forum and platform for ad hominem attacks against him.

I created my weblog on the Mon Paradigm for exactly the opposite reason. To systematically give the book "The Mists of Ramanna" a thorough line-by-line review, examining claims, sub-claims, the sources evidence that supports them, and the logical glue that holds the whole argument together.

Apparently, the close-knit community of Burma Studies is not going to allow anyone within the community to critically review even a sentence of this very questionable book. The goal is not polemics or presentism, a polemic being defined as:

"...the art or practice of inciting disputation or causing controversy, for example in religious, philosophical, or political matters. As such a polemic text on a topic is written specifically to dispute or refute a topic that is widely viewed to be a 'sacred cow' or beyond reproach, in an effort to 'stir up trouble'." (Source: Wikipedia:Polemic)

Can one really avoid polemics though when the book itself engages in polemics in the guise of objective scholarship? Like proving that a conquered and subjugated people, a people who were defeated over and over again in war, the Mon, were not "down-trodden". That somehow British colonial rulers created this as a myth to control the Burmese overlords with. And claiming that you have the right to make such arguments, because you yourself are a little Mon in your blood. Eegaeds.

Things like this me compel me to take a quick shower and then start comparing early modern Burmese warfare with, let's say Maori warfare or northwest coast Indian warfare, world history. Why not? There are numerous similarities. There is similarity and difference everywhere.

Revising blog thoughts as a capital crime

This little snippet is also interesting:

"Joffe also raised issues of Cole's intellectual integrity, pointing to instances in which Cole altered his blog posts after they were demonstrated to contain incorrect historical information, without indicating he had made any changes"

Isn't error correction a good feature of weblogs? Is scholarship a competitive sport where you lose points for making errors and are afraid to revise an imperfect hypothesis? Let's all live in a cave because we're afraid to build a house. I guess I am naive.

I've actually seen valuable scholarly work lost, burnt by unknowing relatives, that others could have followed up on, destroyed upon the scholar's death, or a slightly incomplete translation of the Akha oral traditions, not published for decades because there was something slightly incomplete about it. Eventually, the manuscript is lost or the author dies, then all that work goes to waste and is of no use to anyone.

At the least the internet provides the potential for stemming this sort of wasteful behavior.

The false misplaced sense that one's work is complete and error-free only because it is finally published in paper form in a book or prestigious journal article is another part of this wasteful way of thinking.

Blogs make it easy to note evidence against a claim, post it quickly on a blog, and later integrate it into a longer lasting, more finished work. This is just commonsense, but unfortunately commonsense takes years to catch on. Be an early adopter.

With weblogs you can help peers correct mistakes. The challenge when I teach writing is always to get students and their peers to catch the errors, not to rely on the teacher. When I first became a computer programmer, one of the first things I learnt was egoless programming. A philosophy of egoless peer review will catch errors and clarify ideas in Burmese history as well.

There are ways to provide students with an incentive for no-ego peer review. One of my astute colleagues used to make the a collective group writing grade a small percentage, let's say 10%-15%, of the individual writing grade. If students did not help their peers perfect their writing, their individual grade would suffer a little. This is an instance, I believe, where Asian group tendencies definitely win out on the western tendency to individualize everything.