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Habits of Highly Effective Researchers? Online Communication and the Early Modern Boundaries Network | posted July 31, 2017

Peter Auger (Queen Mary University of London)


[1] In his English translation of Michel de Montaigne’s essay ‘Of Custome’, John Florio writes that ‘whatsoever is beyond the compasse of custome, wee deeme likewise to bee beyond the compasse of reason; God knowes how for the most part, unreasonably’.[1] The same essay argues that ‘custome doth so bleare us that we cannot distinguish the true visage of things’. Pessimism about customary thinking can also inspire an empowering awareness of how new habits drive innovation. This can help us to reflect on Renaissance studies as a discipline, like all disciplines, in which research follows established conventions that define what counts as valuable and reasonable. Change the routines, and discoveries become possible that can expand the compass of our understanding.

[2] The Early Modern Boundaries project, funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award between 2015 and 2017, spent its first year examining how early modernists might develop working practices that better reflect the transnational and multilingual nature of early modern cultures. As recorded in our first report for this journal, a symposium held at Queen Mary in September 2015 highlighted the value of paying greater attention to transnational and regional movements, and seeking opportunities for collaborative research and improved language skills. The last of these points became the subject of a follow-up workshop at Newcastle in March 2016 that identified practical ways to promote language skills and exchange (twenty of which are listed on the project website).

[3] At both events, online communication came up as an area where new structures might usefully emerge to facilitate collaboration amongst early modernists, especially on language-related matters. In particular, participants raised the idea of an online professional network that would allow early modernists to ask and answer questions among colleagues with adjacent interests. So when the British Academy awarded us follow-on funding in Spring 2016, the obvious next step was to set up such a network to allow the research community to begin interacting in these new ways. In order to get a better picture of how research-related online communication currently works, we spent a couple of months talking to colleagues with diverse research interests and social media habits. Mailing lists (like JISCmail and H-Net), we learnt, are good for announcements but are often too large to initiate discussions among new members, plus it is hard to find out who else is on the list and only possible to contact the whole group en masse. For those who use it, Twitter is the best available tool for contacting many other researchers at once, and is especially useful during conferences; however, it feels too public for some, and is not as effective for directing questions to experts. Facebook groups can also generate a sense of scholarly community, but the blurring of personal and professional lives can be even more off-putting.

[4] We also received sensible practical advice. Don’t tell people how to interact – this was a project that should showcase new ways to communicate and see how researchers take them up. Don’t convene an omnium gatherum of early modernists, or something that just feels like yet another thing to sign up to. Instead, do have a clear identity: make the most of the emphasis on multilingual, transnational and comparative research to target a like-minded section of the larger community. Do concentrate on supplying a service that meets researchers’ current needs. Do gather together existing networks of people who have met in person rather than be wholly virtual; the group might even aspire to be a network of networks. Finally, don’t create an electronic island, but do create links with ways that researchers already meet and interact.

[5] With a sense of timeliness for a project aiming to strengthen ties between scholars in the United Kingdom and abroad after Britain’s EU Referendum, the Early Modern Boundaries network launched its pilot initiative in Autumn 2016, offering ‘a new platform for early modernists to discuss research queries among targeted groups of other researchers’. Hosted by a communications hub called Mobilize that has been evolving while we have been subscribing to it, at the time of writing we have 170 members from across the world – from Korea, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, India, the United States and Canada as well as a host of European nations. New members are always welcome: the project website has full details about the project and its uses, and how to join.

[6] The network operates roughly like a customizable mailing list. On joining, members can add information about research interests, languages and periods of study, then search a directory of other researchers who are willing to offer assistance, and contact sections of the group or individuals with research queries. The platform works best for research enquiries directed solely at recipients with shared interests, such as seventeenth-century Spanish, sixteenth-century French or outreach activities for English literature. Members of our community have been offering unfailingly prompt and well-informed assistance to questions asked on these and other areas. It is through such queries that the platform has enabled a kind of communication that could not have happened without the network’s existence.

[7] Members can also make announcements to the whole group if they wish. In order to reduce email volume, we encourage members to post general announcements on the platform where they will be immediately visible to anyone who logs into the platform (which, in practice, is hardly anyone as members can use the service entirely by email) and are then included in a regular email update sent to all members. Members can choose whether to receive emails from the platform immediately, daily or never. Almost all members have chosen to subscribe to email updates, and we try to keep messages at a minimum. However, whole-group messages, including newsletters, do not necessarily have a higher rate of engagement than targeted messages: messages sent by email to the whole group are usually opened by just over half of all members, e.g. fifty-six percent viewed the most recent newsletter (the platform lets you see who views or clicks on your messages).

[8] Having shown what the platform offers to the community, the network’s next task is to explore possibilities for integrating its activities with those of other researchers and projects working on cross-cultural and multilingual topics. The pilot initiative has one-and-a-half years left to run, after which time it will become clearer whether its new modes of communication offered a handy window of opportunity to ask questions, or whether they have revealed new habits among the global research community in early modern studies. The priority so far has been on setting up the platform such that members enjoy the experience, find it simple to interact with other members, and feel rewarded and part of a community when they contribute. The biggest question for the network in its current form is whether its passive members will become more active over time, feeling at home with the platform and able to contribute questions and ideas when they arise.

[9] The network also needs to link its interactions more closely to existing research activities and events. In order to generate discussion about how digital tools enable transnational and multilingual scholarship, the project sponsored a drinks reception at the conference ‘Reception, Reputation and Circulation in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800’, held at the National University of Ireland, Galway, in March 2017 (podcasts and abstracts are now available online). In introducing the project and its aims to potential new members, this contribution was in effect more like a conference paper than a new partnership: as a one-off collaboration, it made little sense to use the platform’s calendar, events and discussion functions to bring participants together. The network might well consider how it could attach itself to a series of occasional meetings to develop its sense of community, and even how such meetings might use video conferencing or recordings to engage participants from right across our international network. An aspiration to use the platform to engage infrequent tweeters in the rich conversations on Twitter has not yet been realized since Mobilize does not offer integration with social media platforms for the time being (though it can now be used via an app).

[10] Another area where the network could grow in response to need is to help more graduate students and other early career researchers to strengthen their personal research network. The network provides a supportive environment for junior academics to seek advice beyond their institution and discipline, to ask questions about languages and cultures beyond their specialism, and to gain tips about research, teaching and careers. The network has created a space for interdisciplinary discussion that complements disciplinary training among a self-identified group of scholars who are open to such conversations.

[11] The larger issue at stake is how the emerging area of transnational early modern studies can create and nurture a research community responsive to new developments that is not dependent on funded initiatives like this one nor on large fixed-term research projects. The network needs to become more closely embedded with activities at institutional and other research centres, and we would be interested to hear from other individuals and universities about creating links, in particular from those who already have an established community in a relevant area (all the more so if located outside the United Kingdom).

[12] The time and money invested in the Early Modern Boundaries project has generated a burst of creative energy to illuminate how linguistic and disciplinary boundaries shape research, and how researchers might organize themselves individually and collectively in response to the need for more work on transnational, multilingual and comparative areas of early modern studies, areas like the Northern Renaissance and Eastern European literature, to name just two. The pilot initiative’s purpose is ultimately greater than making this particular platform succeed: it has challenged members of the global research community to develop more robust methods that enable frequent and casual research collaboration. Such habits will usefully extend the compass of our customs if they help researchers to be visible and approachable members of a single research community that operates across disciplines and nations.

[13] All researchers with relevant interests are warmly invited to join the pilot initiative, which runs until January 2019. Members are very welcome to give thoughts and feedback on the network, and the comments box below offers a place to do so. To learn more and to join, see www.earlymodernboundaries.com.



[1] Montaigne’s Essays, trans. John Florio, 3 vols (London: Dent, 1910; repr. 1965), I, p. 114-15. I am very grateful to Kate De Rycker for comments on an earlier draft. [back to text]

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