5.0229 Offline 34 (1/155)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 15 Jul 1991 21:11:06 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0229. Monday, 15 Jul 1991.

Date: Friday, 12 July 1991 1428-EST
Subject: OFFLINE 34

<<O F F L I N E 3 4>>
coordinated by Robert Kraft
[11 July 1991 Draft, copyright Robert Kraft]
[HUMANIST 12 December 1991]
[Religious Studies News 6.4 (August 1991)]
[CSSR Bulletin 20.4 (September 1991)]

<Feeling the Information Explosion>

This column will be brief. It almost was not written at all, due
to my inability to find sufficient time. And why was time so
scarce? Largely because of the snowballing success of the
emerging new forms of scholarly communication and interaction on
the electronic networks. The good news is that exciting things
are happening through electronic conferencing (discussion lists,
information posting, review of publications, etc.). The bad news
is that if one has wide interests and tries to keep up with them
by using the electronic resources, it eats up huge amounts of
time. All those dire warnings about the "information explosion"
are being fulfilled even at the level of academic discussions!

We are in a pioneering situation. Old interests and techniques
are being adapted to the new technologies, and new things are
being tried. Some will work effectively, some will have to be
abandoned. There is excitement in taking part in these
explorations, but frustration at not being able to keep up with
everything at once. There is an air of immediacy -- topics get
stale in a day or two, and if you blink, you might miss something
really important and/or interesting. The ability to retrieve
messages posted in the past is at best spotty, depending on the
sort of system being used and the software installed on it. Some
electronic groups keep archives of past communications, some do
not. And the ability to work effectively with those archives
varies greatly from system to system and user to user.

Necessity will require that suitable solutions be explored, and
the effective ones exploited. "Spy" software may do the trick,
where the user identifies the subjects of interest and the
software automatically chooses pertinent items from the available
materials. Or service centers may be established where actual
people (another job for graduate students?!) scan the incoming
information and filter it into appropriate channels according to
the expressed interests of the ultimate users. Somehow it will be
brought more effectively under control, but how and how soon are
still quite open questions.

<Mining the Electronic Treasures>

What could possibly be so interesting and time consuming, you
ask? That will vary from person to person. Unfortunately for me,
I am rather nosy, and like to know what is going on in a wide
range of fields/areas. Thus I belong to such electronic
discussion groups as HUMANIST, in my experience the grandparent
of this type of interchange and the most diverse in coverage;
IOUDAIOS, with its specific focus on Judaism (including earliest
Christianity) in the Greco-Roman world; ANSAX-L, centering on
matters Anglo-Saxon in the medieval period but ranging into many
associated areas including the transmission of early traditions
and literatures in the west; FICINIO, dealing with early modern
western literatures; RELIGION, which hasn't really formed a
distinct personality yet but is avowedly comparative in its
orientation; and ROOTS-L, for genealogy research (everyone should
have a hobby, no?). I subscribe to other groups as well, but you
get the picture (see OFFLINE 31 for a fuller, if now quite
outdated, general listing). As more people join the groups, with
more interests and issues to be discussed, the networks and
mailboxes bloat with messages of all sorts to be read, some of
which themselves call for a response.

But what has one learned? What possible value can it all have,
especially in relation to the time needed to keep up? Does it
really have an effect on one's scholarship, other than keeping
one from having time to pursue it? Fair questions, and hard to
answer adequately at this juncture. I certainly have gained lots
of information that I would not have encountered otherwise, both
about how other scholars in adjacent fields think and work and
about what other people know or think they know. What textbooks
are valuable for teaching which subjects? What effect has
"deconstructionism" had outside of modern English literature
departments? Were there many female scribes in the middle ages
and what difference would it make to us if there were? How were
palimpsest manuscripts produced, and how can we exploit
technology to recover their original contents? How did the
traditions about finding solace in the wounds of Jesus develop?
What constituted "patronage" in the Greco-Roman world and how did
that institution affect the development of Judaism and early
Christianity? What is the best source for detailed information on
the convential designations, contents, etc., of the Dead Sea
Scrolls? These are actual matters discussed during late spring
and early summer of 1991, all of which have direct significance
for my own teaching and scholarship. And many others like them
have passed across my screen.

New groups and endeavors have also started up, calling for even
more of one's immediate attention. The Bryn Mawr Classical Review
is fully active electronically in producing prompt and thorough
reviews of publications in classical studies. These will also
appear in print somewhat later. IOUDAIOS has started a similar
review project for publications in its areas of interest; some
older groundbreaking works such as Robin Lane Fox on Pagans and
Christians (1987) have received extensive discussion already, in
response to readers' queries. There are also refereed electronic
journals, such as "Postmodern Culture." The RELIGION list has
started collecting class syllabi and related materials, and there
has been some discussion of suitable textbooks for various
religion courses. Many different types of material have been
deposited on "ListServers" from which any subscriber can obtain
specific items at will -- texts, bibliographies, drafts of
articles, special collections of data, and the like.

And there is much more: Announcements and reports of conferences,
job postings, product announcements and reviews (what is the best
footnoting software available for the Mac?), obituaries, requests
for exchange of housing during sabbaticals, locating addresses,
getting advice about graduate programs. The list goes on an on. A
credit course on computer programming for the humanities was
offered recently over the BITNET network. An electronic Hebrew
Users Group newsletter is being produced, and may or may not be
listed in the new electronic directory of academic e-conferences
available from the HUMANIST ListServer. The new archaeology list
(ARCH-L@DGOGWDG1) will certainly appear there, and perhaps also
"Egypt-net," about which I know very little.

<Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained>

Our world is rapidly changing. Some of us will be caught up more
than others in the process, but one way or another we will all
be affected by it. Active engagement in the electronic networks
is not for everyone, even if everyone had the same opportunity to
be involved. But the potential is tremendous, at a wide variety
of levels -- information gathering, testing ideas, interactive
discussion, review and publication, distribution and revision.
And our personal worlds will move more and more in these
directions, along with the worlds of our colleagues and students
and children. Get involved if you are so inclined, and in any
event stay informed. As was emphasized in OFFLINE 33, these and
related issues will be the theme of the CARG sessions at Kansas
City in November. Meanwhile, if I don't answer your mail
immediately, please be patient. I may be floundering in a glut of
newly released information!


Please send information, suggestions or queries concerning
OFFLINE to Robert A. Kraft, Box 36 College Hall, University of
Pennsylvania, Philadelphia PA 19104-6303. Telephone (215) 898-
5827. INTERNET address: KRAFT@PENNDRLS.UPENN.EDU. To request
printed information or materials from OFFLINE, please supply an
appropriately sized, self-addressed envelope or an address label.
A complete electronic file of OFFLINE columns is available upon
request (for IBM/DOS, Mac, or IBYCUS), or from the HUMANIST
discussion group FileServer (BROWNVM.BITNET).