15.035 obstacles to humanities computing

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Tue May 22 2001 - 02:08:10 EDT

  • Next message: by way of Willard McCarty: "15.036 interactive content"

                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 35.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: "John Unsworth" <jmu2m@virginia.edu> (21)
             Subject: RE: 15.031 obstacles to humanities computing: SGML

       [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (72)
             Subject: indictment of whom, on what grounds?

             Date: Tue, 22 May 2001 06:59:52 +0100
             From: "John Unsworth" <jmu2m@virginia.edu>
             Subject: RE: 15.031 obstacles to humanities computing: SGML authoring


    In re: your comments on Kirk Lowery's email about Emacs+PSGML:

    >I think that what you describe is precisely the situation that we need to
    >get away from. It should _not_ be necessary for scholars to become
    >computer experts in order to do the work for which we have been trained.
    >You should not have had to spend uncounted hours to get to this level; and
    >I think that it is a real indictment of humanities computing as a
    >discipline that you have had to do so.

    As I pointed out in an earlier email on this subject, there is software out
    there that does not require you to become a computer expert in order to
    produce SGML--it costs less than $300, which is about what a good
    word-processing program cost two or three years ago. If the time it takes
    to learn emacs is worth more than $300, then one should buy the commercial
    software package; if the time it takes is worth less, or if one values the
    greater speed, flexibility, and customization that emacs offers, then one
    should spend the time and acquire the skills. In any case, if producing
    SGML or XML is a central part of one's scholarly activity, neither course
    (spending some money or spending some time) seems unreasonable, to me at

    John Unsworth

             Date: Tue, 22 May 2001 06:56:32 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: indictment of whom, on what grounds?

    Charles Faulhaber's note in Humanist 15.031 about the trials and
    tribulations suffered by Kirk Lowery got me to thinking about several of my
    experiences as a besieger of disciplines and sacker of subjects. To keep
    nostalgia at a minimum, however, let me recount only one very recent

    In pursuit of a question about what computing might do to commentary
    practice, I recently wandered once again into E. R. Dodds' famous (and
    truly great) commentary on Euripides Bacchae. Looking for a comment
    particularly rich in intertextual variety I stumbled upon Dodds' long
    paragraph on lines 661-2, about snow falling on Citheron. (Dodds remarks
    parenthetically that "I found none when I climbed the mountain in April" --
    charming to think of the scholar climbing the mountain to be *there*, where
    it happened.) In any case, the point of the story occurs much later in the
    paragraph, in a note about metre, where Dodds quotes two words of Greek and
    comments: "-- aneisan chionos L. Dindorf, to avoid the tribrach composed of
    a single word..." and so on. Now for my purposes I thought this a very
    interesting bit of work, very precise. Dodds' sense of audience is so keen
    (someone who knows this stuff correct me if I am wrong) that, for example,
    he spells out "Seneca... Thyestes" to accommodate experts in Greek drama
    who are insufficiently familiar with the Latin tradition to know a Roman
    author and his work from abbreviations, though such are used for all
    references to Greek authors and works. He also does not use forenames or
    initials unless he thinks he has to. So why "L."? Some research revealed to
    me that there were two Dindorfs in the field, brothers in fact, so Dodds is
    addressing quite precisely those who will of course know the surname but
    just might not know that Ludwig August is the one to go for. But which
    work? Ludwig published on historical texts mostly, Xenophon as I recall.
    Where does the outsider to this field look? I spent not countless but some
    hours investigating, then gave up. In frustration, I can tell you. Less
    troublesome was "Verrall's notion that 662 is interpolated..."; there's
    really only one possible work Dodds could be referring to, although there's
    no way of telling from a library catalogue, as Verrall did not write a
    commentary in the usual sense, rather an essay. So one has to know the
    book. But the Dindorf question still has me stumped.

    Of course those who know the gatekeeper well and greet him or her every
    morning on their way into ancient Greek drama studies will think my
    experience utterly unremarkable, just what one would expect for an ignorant
    person who wanders in off the street looking for a place to crash. To be
    fair, those who love the commentary genre worry about situations like this
    one -- some call it an endangered species and worry out loud about how to
    make it more approachable to a wider audience. (We have something for them,
    don't we?)

    My point: that we also have a lot of work to do in humanities computing to
    minimise this sort of situation. Especially in humanities computing, since
    so many different kinds of people with so many different backgrounds are
    wandering in and wanting to do something they recognise as valuable with
    their time. I beg to differ (as I have delightfully and profitably before)
    with my colleague Charles, but I don't see the regrettable situation he
    describes as the basis for an indictment -- as if by some kind of law we
    were obligated to make sure that everyone has the nicest possible
    experience -- rather as the basis for a realisation of how far we have to
    go in some areas. It is indeed *very* easy for people far into a subject,
    like the Oxonian professor deep into his classical Greek, to forget that
    not everyone will know exactly what to reach for when L. Dindorf pops up.
    To be fair, Dodds was writing in the early 1940s, when "schoolboys" could
    be expected to use his edition (he says just that in his preface, o
    tempora, o mores) -- though the reference to Dindorf is bracketed away to
    indicate "for the professional scholar only". We *could* act that way too,
    build ourselves a disciplinary wall (put glass fragments on the top, as the
    Oxford colleges and some of my East End neighbours do) to keep out all but
    properly trained experts. But that seems not such a good idea to me.

    On the other hand, the argument that difficult subjects are made easy only
    by diluting their essence, that education is all about becoming more able
    to jump higher, not about lowering the bar, is hard to put aside. How does
    one know what difficulties are needless?

    In any case, back to work.


    Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
    Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue May 22 2001 - 02:19:40 EDT