For a Human-Centered AI

The laboratory

May 26, 2022

Considerations of a historian on the importance of team work and confronting during the writing of manuals.

There is one aspect in humanistic research that may sometimes be forgotten or overlooked: historians also have their own laboratory. I filter what I am going to write through the lens of individual experience, recounting the professional moment I am living in these weeks: that of a visiting researcher on the other side of the Atlantic working within a research group. That said, let’s move on.

Let’s take the example of manuals, those on which – in some way – anyone who has dedicated energy to study has had to spend time. When as a student I read and underlined (in pencil only, may it never be!), I gave very little or almost no thought to imagining the hard work of those who had written those manuals. I was satisfied with the contents, sometimes getting even bored. Now that time has gone by and I have moved to the other side, that of the writer, the point of view has changed.

How do you prepare a book of this kind, or rather, how do I think you should prepare it? We need teamwork, we need a lab. Here is a possible path: we start from the idea. Already this first step may not be yours, but suggested by someone who reading an essay or a book that you have written asks you: why don’t you try to offer a more general look? You might say yes, think about it and prepare a reasoned index, discuss it with colleagues you trust and start studying and, in parallel, writing. A text begins to take shape, but to have a general look means dealing – often in a nutshell – with issues you have never committed yourself to. Then you turn to whoever did it and keep learning. You write some paragraphs and you send them over to read, collect suggestions and work on them. And so on until – and that’s a difficult personal responsibility – you have to tell yourself: it’s time to write the words “the end”. Having made this difficult decision, you pause and ask for new reviews, waiting for suggestions on content and style. As you get them you put yourself to work again and set the fundamental points, updating the references and bibliography. The time comes to deliver to the editor, and again you wait, ready to react to what you are asked to do on the drafts, and correct the oversights that are always there. Before seeing your ‘research product‘ printed, you write your thanks, being very careful not to forget anyone, aware at the same time that often few people will read them.

So, if you have come this far I have a request for you: could you please read the thanks of the next book I will suggest? They are so important, because (at least for us historians) they are one of the few appropriate ways to bring out how fundamental the laboratory has been for our work.



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