15.095 what computing humanists need to know, cont.

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Sun Jun 10 2001 - 06:06:38 EDT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 95.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Sun, 10 Jun 2001 11:05:18 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: discovering what we need to know

    I would suppose that in our compilations toward a curriculum we are still
    at the shopping-list stage and that what follows on from this is a boiling
    down into a practical survey-course or two at the masters or doctoral
    level. I've likely pointed before in other contexts to the "great books"
    approach of the required survey course in the humanities that I encountered
    as an undergraduate at Reed College -- everything, as I recall, from Homer
    to the 17th century in one very busy year. For whatever it may be worth,
    the rapid survey of so much served me well, planting seeds that sprouted
    many years later when my interests verged on classical studies. I at least
    knew that something was there to be learned. I would think, then, that a
    survey course of the disciplines whose basics we need to pursue our field
    would be foundational to a humanities computing curriculum.

    One would be entirely safe to list every discipline in the catalogue, but I
    think a more organic approach is preferable -- not because it arrives at
    any different result but because in growing it from our current situation
    we discover the intellectual genealogy, as it were. My own experience
    (again for what it is worth) suggests that the grocery-list grows best from
    encounters with specific problems in which in some desparation one looks
    around the disciplinary terrain for help from the longer established
    fields. Thus we ask: who has thought about tricking commonalities out of
    human actions? (social scientists) About experimental knowledge-making?
    (philosophers, historians, sociologists of science) About understanding
    something across a divide of time or space? (historiographers,
    ethnographers) And so on. In each case, one tends to discover that the
    problems are deeper and richer than expected -- this is after all a pushing
    down of roots into the humanities. I am not suggesting that we only take,
    certainly not that all we have to give to our colleagues is greater
    convenience, rather we bring fascinating new inflections on the old
    problems with which we connect.

    Let me put forward an example. In what we simplistically think of as the
    migration of data from one medium (like print) to another (like the
    electronic), the question of continuity arises. What, exactly, is the
    relationship between e.g. Joyce's Dubliners in book-form and the "same"
    novel on CD with various multimedia adjuncts, say? Are we further ahead to
    think in terms of a Pythagorean model, in which an eternal soul (the verbal
    data) migrates unchanging from one body (printed book) to another (CD-ROM)
    essentially unchanged? (Perhaps more fairly one might call this the
    "there's-aunt-Matilda-again" doctrine of reincarnation.) Or do we get
    further by considering a philosophy of mind in which the relationship
    between soul and body is considerably more complex than that? In other
    words, is not the form/content problem that we face a resurfacing of the
    mind/body problem that has been bothering philosophers since Plato? To get
    back to the curriculum, if we regard this line of thinking as consequential
    for us (as we should!), do we not need at minimum to teach the next
    generation of computing humanists enough philosophy to recognise that a
    significant problem, with significant resources behind it, lies here? We
    might not expect them all to be submitting articles to the journal Mind, or
    even reading it, but it seems to me they should know that these waters are



    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/

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