The Famous Grouse

The Chronicle of Higher Education uses me as a foil in a profile of my colleague Dan Cohen.

These days Mr. Cohen thinks a lot about how to do history in an era of abundant digital materials. In a recent project, he examined whether one scholar’s famous assertions about Victorian thought, made on the basis of close reading of classic literature, held up against an analysis of Google’s collection of over a million Victorian books.

Critics view such “distant reading” as superficial. Others, like the historian Zachary Schrag, grouse that Mr. Cohen’s publishing experiments risk destroying what’s valuable about traditional scholarly communication, like good editing that improves manuscripts and filters out the “crud.”

Mr. Cohen pushes back against the pushback. For example, he views big data-versus-close-reading as a false fight; better, he says, to adopt a hybrid approach that draws on both. That response reflects Mr. Cohen himself: a smart mix of old and new.

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