15.044 obstacles to humanities computing

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Thu May 24 2001 - 02:28:39 EDT

  • Next message: by way of Willard McCarty: "15.045 obstacles (and propellers) to humanities computing"

                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 44.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: Mark Wolff <wolffm0@hartwick.edu> (54)
             Subject: Re: 15.041 obstacles to humanities computing

       [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (65)
             Subject: truly a quest worth the effort

       [3] From: "Dr. Donald J. Weinshank" <weinshan@cse.msu.edu> (32)
             Subject: RE: 15.041 obstacles to humanities computing

       [4] From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance) (31)
             Subject: Counting hours

             Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 07:13:52 +0100
             From: Mark Wolff <wolffm0@hartwick.edu>
             Subject: Re: 15.041 obstacles to humanities computing

    >If you want to get trained in something and then never learn anything
    >else, scholarship is the wrong line of work for you. I recommend
    >something like plumbing.
    >John Lavagnino
    >Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London


    > >> From: "Kirk Lowery" <kelowery@cs.com>
    >"Humanities computing" cannot be a separate discipline, the business of
    >only the "propeller-heads" among us. Until it becomes the concern of every
    >professor in the humanities, your "indictment" will stand.
    >Do you know what I find encouraging? The Information Age has freed us. The
    >ivory tower is no longer a symbol of isolation: a satellite dish is
    >sitting on top of it. We don't have to wait for everyone to "get it." We
    >can just go out and *do*.

    Humanities computing is still far removed from what one might call the
    "traditional" humanities. To be sure, the thought of a humanities scholar
    without some rudimentary knowledge of computers is about as quaint as using
    a typewriter to prepare manuscripts. But technology is supposed to get
    easier, scholars do not have the time to learn a whole new discipline and
    still keep up with the one they're already in.

    Charles Faulhaber's comments suggest that humanities computing,
    specifically encoding, is something more akin to library science than
    humanities research. I agree with James O'Donnell who, in his book Avatars
    of the Word, has nothing but glowing praises for librarians who have blazed
    paths for us in applying information technology to humanities
    research. Humanities scholars need to learn how to use the library's
    resources in order to do their research, but they are not expected to
    become librarians. Likewise, I may want to put a database together to
    facilitate my research, but the database is supposed to be a means to an
    end, I do not necessarily want it to make encoding it the goal of my research.

    It's a question of jurisdiction: if I build a database of, say,
    19th-century popular French literature, who are my peers? Folks who encode
    texts in other languages and from other periods, or folks who study
    19th-century France who only know how to use a word processor and send
    email? You could say both, and in fact I'm trying to do that personally,
    but the research agendas of both contituencies are still so far removed
    from each other that even if I wrote the killer paper that made
    siginificant contributions to both fields, each group would only get half
    the message.

    So we have to make choices. Do I finish that database project that makes
    use of XML in a new and interesting way, or do I publish that article on
    canon formation? Who do I want to court, and what will I gain from
    impressing them?


    Mark B. Wolff
    Modern and Classical Languages
    Center for Learning and Teaching with Technology
    Hartwick College
    Oneonta, NY  13820
    (607) 431-4615


    --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 07:18:43 +0100 From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> Subject: truly a quest worth the effort

    Does anyone know where one can find a cap with a propeller on it? I had not until this morning ever conceived a desire for such a thing, but now I find life a gray and dull thing without one, even life in London on such a glorious Spring morning. I assure you I am quite serious, though in a deeply humorous way. If someone should feel moved to send me one, be informed that my hat size (in N American measure) is 7 3/4. I will of course reimburse. I cannot promise to wear it immediately. The occasion (an inaugural, perhaps?) will have to be just right, but when it is, it will be.

    For those who have not read their Humanist postings carefully enough, I am referring to Kirk Lowery's statement in 15.041 that, >"Humanities computing" cannot be a separate discipline, the business of >only the "propeller-heads" among us. Until it becomes the concern of every >professor in the humanities, your "indictment" will stand. Indeed, every professor in the humanities should be paying attention! But there are many questions packed into this brief "rant", as he characterises it. Allow me to list them with brief comment, inviting further from everyone else:

    (1) The question of "discipline". The argument about whether some field of study is or is not a discipline begins in the unexamined assumption that we know what a discipline is. The wise, in my experience, give up on the question and decide to do something about it, such as establish a position, found a department or research centre or ask better questions at least. The unwise, well... for them things usually go seriously downhill from there. Trouble is that the term "discipline" seems to suggest some higher authority than the term "department" or "tenured position", but it proves exceedingly difficult to establish what that authority might be. Some "disciplines" have been around for a long time, like philosophy, others are relatively recent, like English or anthropology, some prove flashes in the institutional pan. What makes all of these "disciplines"?

    (2) Propeller-headedness. Lots here, that's for sure: the ancient rivalry between those who make and those who think, to put the matter crudely but politely; or, to speak to their integration in terms with which we should be very intimate, the problem of what equipment has to do with and in the humanities. A question that begins with or at least deeply involves the history and philosophy and sociology of science and technology, in order that we may see the computer in a broadly cultural context. Once that happens, we can calm down, look around the disciplinary terrain, see that there's plenty of help about -- but that no one is doing the job that has fallen into our lap to do.

    (3) The withering away of the humanities computing state, with the final establishment of a professorial people's democracy of computational awareness. Disciplinarity (I mean, of course, departmentalism) causes many problems, as those who write about interdisciplinarity are always saying -- and they're right up to a point. But the division into sometimes not so intellectual fiefdoms serves an important purpose in the real world of budgets and monstrous social pressures; behind these walls perhaps, sometimes, we can have a little peace and time in which to think. Given departmental life, how is, say, a professor of French going to do his or her job in the subject AND keep up with computing? This just might seem possible if one were to trivialise what computing is about. Even if one chooses a tiny corner of computing, such as hypertext research, one is quickly overwhelmed with what is going on in it, intellectually, I mean. Besides which, who will there be in our socialist paradise to notice that methodologically we have alot in common?

    (4) Indictment -- but of whom? Shall we all swear out warrants against each other? Against "the system"? Perhaps we should put certain attitudes and mistaken ideas in the dock, finding fault with whatever sins are involved, certainly not the sinners, among whom we must all count ourselves, no? Besides, as Stan Katz observed in a meeting some years back (referring, actually, to the death of Paul Evan Peters), our activity here and elsewhere, in humanities computing, is so terribly fragile, depends on so few hearts continuing to beat, that we cannot afford to lose anyone.

    So, let's get down to substantive matters, like finding that propeller-topped cap....

    Yours, WM

    --[3]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 07:19:51 +0100 From: "Dr. Donald J. Weinshank" <weinshan@cse.msu.edu> Subject: RE: 15.041 obstacles to humanities computing

    We seem to be coming perilously close to a "flame war" on the subject of what one does or does not need to know about computing to be a productive scholar.

    The dirty little secret in the field of computing is that many programs are designed by techno-geeks with little attention paid to the human interface and to the usability of the software by people who are not initiates into the priestly class of computer scientists. Computer scientists themselves will be the first to tell you this.

    Example: I was trying to number pages printed from a file on a UNIX operating system. After trying every source of help on UNIX (the syntax is MAN (whatever) where MAN is short for "manual"), I asked a colleague how to do this. Without breaking stride, he replied, "MAN enscript," where "enscript" is the name of the utility I needed.

    Computer scientists say, "UNIX is the only operating system taught by word-of-mouth."

    There are comparable horror stories about other operating systems and most application software.

    In short, those who think computing technology is supposed to be the servant rather than the master are in for a rude awakening. The problem is incompetence on the part of those who write operating systems and applications software, not the readers of HUMANIST and other who try to use such software as scholarly tools.

    _______________________________________________________________ Dr. Don Weinshank weinshan@cse.msu.edu http://www.cse.msu.edu/~weinshan Phone (517) 353-0831 FAX (517) 432-1061 Computer Science & Engineering Michigan State University

    --[4]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 07:21:25 +0100 From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance) Subject: Counting hours


    How could I resist a little parse magic?

    > > 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. > > If you want to get trained in something and then never learn anything > else, scholarship is the wrong line of work for you. I recommend > something like plumbing. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

    The billable hours model for humanities computing.

    Good training for our students who do have to earn a living as consultants.

    Time is precious. So is a functional and ecologically-friendly sewer system.

    Scholarship is not a line of work. Teaching, research, publishing are lines of work. A person engaged in scholarship need not teach, need not publish and need not conduct research except in the most minimal sense of consuming products of scholarship. To flush out a piping conceit: some of us are pumps, some of us are filters, some of us are elbow joints, and to drain it further --- some of us are high-powered water heaters rigged to solar energy converters.

    I stress the point. Even when I do not teach, I am a scholar. Even when I do not publish, I am a scholar. Even when I am not engaged in research, I am a scholar. Scholarship is the cultural bagage that permits me to tinker with rhetoric and explore the parallels between a skilled trade and a learned activity.

    -- Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large


    in the Era of Reparation

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