5.0118 Humanities Computing Disappearing? (1/72)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 4 Jun 91 17:02:56 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0118. Tuesday, 4 Jun 1991.

Date: Fri, 31 May 1991 22:36:48 -0400
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (Willard McCarty)
Subject: a mid-life crisis?

Recently I attended a meeting of a small organization devoted to
humanities computing at which a member suggested that we would likely
disappear professionally in the near future. His reasoning was that
those whom we had started out to support were rapidly becoming
independent. Putting aside the question of whether the organization in
question is doing right by its members, I began to wonder if we had
not reached one of those stages in life at which existential questions
become urgent questions. Perhaps I'm merely projecting a mid-life
crisis onto the profession (in which case throw me in the creek), but
after some reflection I still think that we have come far enough to
have some evidence on which to base searching questions. For years
some of our most experienced members have looked forward to the day
when the computer will cease to be an object of interest, humanities
computing will wither away, and we will simply get on with
scholarship, or find some new benighted group to assist, depending on
our job descriptions at the time. Is that day arriving?

The future's of course all shiny murk, in which we tend to see our
present fantasies darkly. That's a given. A great part of the
difficulty, however, is social, and it just happens to be the
difficulty that Humanist began with back in the Spring of 1987. It
remains largely true that those who manage to remain active both in
the humanities and in computing are few, and nothing our traditional
professions are doing, as far as I can tell, even promises to remedy
the situation. The pressures on young computing humanists either to
hide the computing and turn the traditional crank, or to become
computer scientists as best they can, are almost irresistible. So, I
would imagine, few remain precisely at the crossroads, from which
vantage point, I suspect, humanities computing as a genuine subject is
uniquely visible.

Hand-wringing of this sort can get boring very quickly, so I dispense
with it at once, though the cause will not go away for all that.

In the organizations of which I have some knowledge (including the one
mentioned above), there are healthy signs. Perhaps a brief enumeration
of these will suggest some lines of inquiry.

1. Concentration on courses, particularly on those that emphasize the
methodologies of humanities computing rather than the tools as such.
Collection and comparison of syllabi are an important step in
understanding how various people understand these methodologies. These
should be in circulation, yes?

2. Shift, in demonstrations and the like, from a focus on the tools as
abstract instruments to actual scholarly problems in which imaginative
exercise of these tools is demonstrated. The software fair of the
future will have to be very different from those of the past.

3. Emergence of instructional software that is not just an electronic
analogue of some textbook exercise but a medium for a kind of learning
that is genuinely new.

4. Emergence of what I call "fully realized" electronic editions of
texts. So much of what we have seen and heard about so far is, again,
merely at the stage of the analogue to old technology. Signs are,
however, that we will soon have editions that are not frozen monuments
to scholarship but carefully thought out, though open ended,
experiments in which the user is invited to participate.

5. Partial though significant dissolution of the wall between staff
and faculty, particularly in the process of software development.
Perhaps it's the role of the "humanities computing support" person and
the kind of organization designed around him or her that's bound for

Anything else? Comments on the above?

Willard McCarty