The Seminar Concept
On an early version of the List Protocol statement, we said under "Comment,"
All messages are posted for comment by other members. The WSW list in particular, with its many members, would collapse if all members regularly contributed. But it is assumed that all members will be heard from now and then, on topics of interest to them. Auditors per se are not envisioned in our charter. WSW is not an information channel, but rather a seminar, combining people of different specialties and experience. We expect a little noise in the seminar.
and under "Collegiality,"
Ancient China is a vast subject. In that area, the greenest beginner may happen to know something that the most eminent worthies do not, and the rank outsider may perceive a question that has eluded the regular practitioners. It is well for us to conduct ourselves with tact as we in turn provide, or receive, information.
and under "Criticism,"
Stridency in comment is inappropriate. On the other hand, withholding criticism when criticism would be helpful to the author is also a breach of list ethics.
We think these statements adequately define the atmosphere we are trying to achieve. But those who have never experienced such a situation may be glad of an example, and here is one.
The Han Project
At the University of Washington, sometime around the mid 20c, there existed a research unit called the Han Project, which steadily focused on clarifying little understood aspects of the Han Dynasty. Since no aspects of the Han Dynasty were well understood, that mandate offered a lot of room for investigation, and scope for discussion. The Han Project held a weekly Seminar, whose topic was publicly posted in advance. Apart from the regular Project research staff, who formed the core of the Seminar, all graduate students and faculty had a standing invitation to attend, when the topic of the week was one that interested them.
Those present at any one meeting were thus always changing, but the atmosphere of the meetings was constant: both professional and egalitarian. Students and teachers took part as equals, according to what they could contribute. Teachers knew that it was not a place to pontificate; students knew not to ask elementary questions (just by keeping quiet, they would soak up the answers to some of the elementary questions). In the middle, much of value to the topic of the week got asked, suggested, considered, criticized, defended, and sometimes decided. It was an excellent example of how to run a mixed scholarly conversation, with members of different abilities cooperating toward a well defined common end.
The Seminar sometimes ventured beyond the Han Dynasty. On one such occasion Leon Hurvitz predistributed a draft review of a Japanese translation of the Dau/Dv Jing. The meeting that week included the usual suspects, plus a good number of Chinese Literature students who were engaged with the Dau/Dv Jing. The Seminar took up Leon's predistributed draft, and went through it page by page. Criticisms were offered, misunderstandings were pointed out, eccentric translations of Leon's own (so like Leon: he had translated the whole of the DDJ in the course of his review) were identified.
At the end of the session, Seminar members had been through much of the DDJ text and its problems of interpretation. Much of value (along with some stuff of less value) had been contributed.
It would be a pleasure to record that Leon went home and rewrote his review, giving full credit to the helpful input of the Seminar. If memory serves, he had already mailed off his review to the journal which eventually printed it. Some of those present still wince to read the unameliorated gaucheries, the undeterred eccentricities, in that review. So that conversation turned out to be devoid of benefit to the review. But it was of substantial benefit to everyone else present.
Except for Leon himself, then, we cite this case as a sample of How To Do It.
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