© Ann Blair and Figure/Ground Communication
Professor Blair was interviewed by Laureano Ralón on March 11th, 2011
Dr. Ann Blair is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Harvard University, where she specializes in Early Modern France, Early Modern European, Intellectual and Cultural History, History of the Book and History of Science. Her interests include the history of the book and of education, the history of the disciplines and of scholarship, early modern natural philosophy and its interactions with religion. Her most recent book is Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
My father was an academic; for most of my growing up he was professor of American Literature and Civilization at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. My mother earned a PhD and taught too. Books and papers covered pretty much every surface at home and I listened in on many academic conversations and visited many university campuses in the course of our vacations, which were often attached to travel to conferences or to visit colleagues. The university campus always seemed a familiar kind of place with predictable features including libraries, departments, eateries, a central green, and a flow of students and faculty that depended on the time of day and of year. I don’t remember setting out to become an academic until applying to graduate school while a senior in college, but in looking back I was certainly aided down that path by my exposure to it at home.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
New media have improved interactions between students and professors in many ways. In the 1980s visiting a professor during office hours usually meant coming away with a handful of vague references I would take down during the conversation (X wrote something on that, probably in journal Y around year Z). Identifying the references often required a lot of inventive searching and sometimes I had to give up on the search and the reference altogether. Starting in 1996 or so I remember vividly perceiving the power of searching an on-line catalog or database directly with a student in my office—we can refine the search together and the student comes away with verified references recorded in an email. The classroom and the office hours also used to be the only places to interact with a professor. Now email makes interaction possible throughout the week—teachers and students can communicate on intellectual and practical matters between class meetings and identify and resolve problems a lot faster than before. Of course the time spent on email amounts to multiple hours per day, although in the old days I remember spending a lot of time on the telephone, which often caused more disruption to meals and family life.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Distractions have always been many: it’s not hard for the mind to wander even without the lure of electronic devices. I’m not sure the qualities of a good teacher have changed that much. Clear presentation (I am now a fan of “less is more”), humor or not taking oneself too seriously, and an ability to listen to students and appreciate their concerns and background (or lack thereof) are all high on my list of important qualities. Teaching continues to require the output of tremendously focused energy, during the prep time before class, the time spent in class and the time spent talking to students and reading and responding to student work. I strive to create a classroom environment in which students can see the value of being present and attentive. In a room full of people reflecting together about a topic new questions, new connections and insights are generated much more effectively than when a student tunes out during lectures and relies on a recording of the lecture or on someone else’s notes. Interacting with others in person seems to me the best way to keep electronic and other distractions at bay.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Academics make little distinction between work and play. There are always more books and papers to read (or write), before and after the “work day” and on weekends and vacations, and leisure can overlap with work-related interests (in a museum or a city to visit, for example). So my advice is to make sure you’re passionate about your work! Nurture that passion as much as possible, amid the pressures involved in teaching, serving on committees and publishing, all of which can sometimes threaten to undermine it. Don’t panic if your passion for the topics you are teaching and researching ebbs sometimes, but rekindle it at every opportunity. It is vital to your ability to teach and write effectively and to enjoy a life which will so often be focused on work.
You specialize in the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe (16th-17th centuries), with an emphasis on France. What attracted you to these areas of inquiry?
I am especially interested in modes of thought of a pre-modern past—not only specific ideas, but also broader patterns of reasoning—and how they evolved over time. Assumptions that seem foreign and jarring to us were clearly effective for a long time and often changed only gradually. Whereas many historians study firsts, e.g. the first occurrences of new ideas, I have often been interested in “lasts,” in how long an old idea remained current, even alongside the introduction of newer ones. Of course that process of intellectual change can be observed in many time/place contexts and a succession of factors have led me to focus on the 16th and early 17th centuries, that is, the early part of the early modern period (traditionally defined in European history as 1492-1789). Going to high school in Geneva predisposed me to working on French-language areas and toward an interest in the 16th century, when Geneva played an important role as the center of the Calvinist Reformation. In college I appreciated how the Renaissance broadly conceived could be a lens through which I could learn about earlier periods too— about the ancient world that humanists strove to restore and the scholastic middle ages against which the humanists claimed to rebel even while they inherited from them institutions and forms of thought. Crucially, in graduate school I was introduced to the history of the book and realized how many wonderful sources were relatively easily available, in printed books in libraries across Europe, that had hardly been read since the time when they were current (often because they were in Latin or had not been singled out as part of a canon of “modern” thinkers). That trove of sources, some of which are now even more readily available through digitization, has kept me busy ever since, especially investigating the methods and questions used by the “ordinary” intellectuals—not just the handful of figures that intellectual history tended to emphasize until recently.
One of your research interests is the history of the book, which is very closely linked to the history of the printing press – an area of inquiry to which Marshall McLuhan has contributed a great deal from a media and communication perspective. In hindsight, was McLuhan right in his prediction that under electronic conditions “the book is no longer King but subject” and “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed”?
I think it’s too early to pronounce on the nature of the electronic age. Certainly the book has become the object of an exciting and growing interdisciplinary field of research especially since the 1980s, in part no doubt because of our heightened awareness of its contingency as a medium, since it is no longer the only format we use for reading and writing now. But I also doubt that the book as a form will disappear altogether; just as manuscript circulation has played a continuous role in the age of print, so too I expect that manuscript and print will be desirable media for circulating texts even as digital media become more prevalent. As for McLuhan on “departmental sovereignties” I see many good institutional and intellectual reasons for the persistence of distinct academic disciplines even as inter- and multi-disciplinary ventures continue to flourish. It’s hard to have conceived of crossing and blending disciplines without a sense of what the major disciplinary approaches and questions are and places where one can find them practiced. So there too, I don’t see the death of disciplines as something that would be desirable or brought about by electronic media.
Your most recent book is entitled Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010). In it, you argue that the phenomenon of “information overload” is not exclusive to the age of digital interactive media. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
In studying early reference works for evidence of methods of information management before the 18th century I was struck by how many of them referred (in the preface for example) to the abundance of books (multitudo librorum). One of the most eloquent prefaces dates from 1255, long before printing, when Vincent of Beauvais explained his motivation in writing a massive encyclopedic Speculum maius (“Great mirror”): “Since the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory do not allow all things which are written to be equally retained in the mind, it occurred to me … to reduce in one volume in a kind of compendium and in summary order some flowers chosen according to my talent, from almost all those authors which I was able to read.” Those same factors –lack of time, too much to read and the difficulties of retaining what one reads—are at the root of the feelings of overload that we experience today. Writing probably first made possible the accumulation of material beyond one’s capacity to retain it in the mind and the complaint about excessive numbers of books occurs as early as the book of Ecclesiastes (ca. 3rd century BCE). But what really drives overload is, I argue, the desire to accumulate information in the first place. This desire is visible in the medieval Vincent of Beauvais, who defends his work against charges of idle curiosity, and was widespread among the humanists of the Renaissance who were keenly aware of the loss of ancient learning. To guard against future loss, they paid careful attention to saving and passing on their notes from reading and reflection, thus accumulating the material from which to compose large printed reference books and leaving an impressive output in both manuscript and print, to which later generations have continued to add without abatement.
Too Much to Know appears to be grounded on an ecological approach compatible with that of Giambattista Vico and his notion of corso recorso. Are you suggesting that history repeats itself?
I see long continuities in the motivations and methods of scholars in managing textual information –notably by sorting and sorting selections and summaries of texts– from the ancient world to today and across many cultures based on the study of texts (including Islam and China, among others). But as a historian I am especially interested in the different contexts of these operations: broader social and cultural factors are necessary to explain, for example, the peculiar forms that the activities take and the balance of media in a particular environment—say, between orality, manuscript and print, and today also digital media. The impact and motivations of information management also vary widely both among individual scholars in a given context and between different contexts, within and across different times and places. So, no, I’m not trying to say that history repeats itself.
Your position in Too Much to Know seems to oppose that of authors such as Mark Bauerlein. Do you believe there is such thing as the “dumbest generation”?
No, I’m not a fan of labeling any particular generation in comparative or absolute terms. Complaints about the younger generation have been around as long as teachers and parents have, I expect, and certainly we can read impassioned complaints from the middle ages about those awful young people who favored nominalism or from the 17th century about the decline of learning from the heights reached by the previous generation. There is no doubt that new technologies have changed the way our kids spend both leisure and study time and that further developments will change how they live and work as adults. But as far as I can tell our students also have a full range of mental capacities, including capacities for sustained attention and nuanced analysis and judgment. As educators we must continue to cultivate these capacities in our students because I expect they will be essential to finding solutions to the problems of the future, some of which will no doubt posed by the new technologies. Just as the early modern scholars who complained about changing circumstances and yet carried on ably, so, I expect and hope, will we.
What are you currently working on?
I continue to be interested in the ways early modern printed books were made and am investigating in particular the ways in which “authors” (those named on the title pages) were aided in many ways by others often left unnamed–works by previous authors, helpers of various kinds, interventions during the process of printing and, in the case of books that went through multiple editions, the interventions of later, often unnamed editors. I am also returning to an earlier area of research, in examining Catholic natural theology in early modern France and the varieties of arguments made from natural philosophy to support religious belief.
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