15.370 report from the Humanities Computing Curriculum conference

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Fri Nov 16 2001 - 04:25:23 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 370.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Fri, 16 Nov 2001 09:21:04 +0000
             From: Stefan Sinclair <ss@huco.lang.arts.ualberta.ca>
             Subject: report from the Humanities Computing Curriculum conference

    Dear colleagues,

    Malaspina College-University in Nanaimo, on beautiful Vancouver Island,
    was the site, this past weekend, of our discipline's first major
    conference on Humanities Computing Curriculum. The importance of this
    conference to our teaching activities is obvious, which is why I thought
    I'd try to formulate a report -- reductionist and inevitably partial -- of
    the proceedings. Apologies in advance to fellow participants for omissions
    and deformations, particularly from the papers in parallel sessions that I
    missed; more information available at

    I must begin by congratulating the organisers and hosts on a particularly
    successful and enjoyable event. Ray Siemens deserves special praise for
    having struck an excellent balance between the professional and social
    components that make such a conference so fruitful. The attention to
    detail and the integration of local culture were especially appreciated.

    A Discipline in Transition

    Humanities Computing, since its birth over a half century ago (depending
    on how retroactively the label is applied to pioneering activities), has
    been in constant transition. Or, more accurately, it's a discipline that
    has never been able to satisfactorily define itself (to any substantial
    degree of consensus). In fact, this constant search for identity is
    perhaps one of the most important defining aspects of Humanities
    Computing. It may even be suggested that if ever we were able to
    conclusively define who we are and what we do, it would signal the
    beginning of our end, like a language that has stopped evolving and that
    is fated to die. Of course, very few if any disciplines aren't susceptible
    to the ebb and flow of fashionable ideas, approaches and methodologies,
    but very few if any disciplines have as much difficulty as Humanities
    Computing in defining the sphere of its activities.

    Still, there is a rich research tradition of Humanities Computing made
    available to us through journals like Computers and the Humanities and
    Literary and Linguistic Computing, various seminal books, and conferences
    like the annual ACH-ALLC joint meeting, The challenge is to sort through
    and organise what research we've done and are currently doing in order to
    establish a teaching curriculum to pass on to our students. In the terms
    suggested by Geoffrey Rockwell during this conference, we're no longing
    only relying on individuals (like ourselves) who cobble together a variety
    of perspectives and skills to do Humanities Computing
    (pre-disciplinarity), we're now in the business of reproducing ourselves.
    Reproduction is a huge responsibility, and this conference was about
    starting a dialogue on the opportunities and the dangers that await us in

    Humanities Computing Curriculum

    Susan Hockey's opening plenary talk identified many of the essential
    questions that would be discussed throughout the conference, including the
    tension between the "doing it" that characterises the sciences and the
    "talking about it" that characterises the Humanities. When done well,
    Humanities Computing can benefit from both cultures in balancing theory
    and practice, curiosity and employability. Susan discussed some of the key
    benefits of a Humanities Computing education by adapting a very useful
    list of objectives for the Liberal Arts found at:

    Willard McCarty's plenary talk further explored the contribution of the
    Liberal Arts culture to Humanities Computing, as well as that of the
    Social Sciences (like history and sociology). We're essentially
    "problematisers", we question, we oppose, we create and represent
    knowledge and then we look for cracks in it (and indeed the interest lies
    in the cracks). John Unsworth's plenary talk explored knowledge
    representation in more depth, as this seems central to using computers in
    the humanities (and certainly to what is planned for the M.A. in Digital
    Media at the University of Virginia). Knowledge representation (by any
    other name...) allows us to define our materials, their potential and
    their limitations.

    The final plenary talk was given by Nancy Ide who sought to define the
    infamous question of "what is Humanities Computing?" Is it in the use or
    creation of data? Is it in the use or creation of algorithms? The clearer
    the answer, the less broadly the definition applies (far more people use
    data than do programming). Still, programming can be highly relevant,
    especially when concepts are taught and not just specific languages.

    Terry Butler drew an interesting parallel between the rigorous way natural
    languages were taught and learned years ago with methods that required
    patience and discipline, and the patience and discipline needed to learn
    programming languages, given their highly formalised and generally rigid
    nature. The value of such exercises goes beyond what is directly learned.
    Likewise, as argued by Thomas B. Horton and John Unsworth, developing
    software goes beyond the actual language into a whole realm of broader
    managerial competencies involving planning, design, testing,
    implementation and maintenance. The trick, as argued by Susan Schreibman
    (and others), is to ensure the commerce between technique and theory, or
    in the "theorizing of technology and the technologising of theory."
    Patrick Juola provided very convincing examples of the need to understand
    the mathematical and logical presuppositions behind programming, and the
    ability to evaluate the appropriateness and correctness of particular
    tools and techniques.

    Implementation of Humanities Computing curriculum

    Beyond the prospect of complete Humanities Computing programmes (such as
    M.A. at the University of Alberta presented by Sean Gouglas), there was
    much discussion about other models of teaching curriculum, be it by
    integration into existing courses, the formulation of separate modules or
    the creation of entire courses. Experiences by Michael Best, Murry
    McGillivray, Steven Lane, Stan Beeler, Deneka MacDonald, and many others,
    suggest that a variety of approaches are possible, depending on the
    circumstances of each institution and the will of individuals. Peter
    Liddell, William Winder, Daniel Gilfillan, Judith Musick and others
    considered sustainable approaches to the development of curriculum,
    whether centralised or decentralised, grassroots or top-down,
    individualised or community-based. In any case, as Dirk van Hulle and
    Edward Vanhoutte reminded us in discussing a planned M.A. in Humanities
    Computing at the University of Antwerp, a review of curriculum prompted by
    the need to teach our discipline is an excellent opportunity to reform or
    at least reconsider some of our outdated institutional and pedagogical

    Such transformations prompted by Humanities Computing are very familiar to
    Andrew McTavish who has been involved in developing a successful B.A. in
    Multimedia at McMaster University. Andrew encouraged us to see some of the
    benefits of cooperation with industry -- despite our trepidations -- not
    only for the good of our students (employability), but in affecting the
    social change (or dialogue) that some see as the very vocation of the
    Humanities and Social Sciences.

    Wendy Robbins indefatigably reminded us of the _human_ aspect of
    Humanities Computing, and in particular of certain gender issues involved.
    Technology tends to be a "one size fits all" proposition, but we must
    remain sensitive to the fact that the one size works better for some
    individuals and groups than others.


    An inaugural conference on Humanities Computing Curriculum couldn't
    possibly have arrived at a consensus about a single formula for how to
    teach our discipline. On the contrary, this conference was a success
    precisely because it was a forum to hear about differing perspectives and
    approaches. As Computing Humanists, we all share the desire to see our
    activities gain greater institutional recognition and support, but
    awareness of local circumstances is key to ongoing growth.

    The teaching of Humanities Computing is of course well underway, through
    existing or planned M.A. programmes (UAlberta, UVirginia, etc.), B.A.
    programmes (McMasterU, GlasgowU), and various individual courses or
    modules (see <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/hcu/> for a recent
    list). The proposed _Companion to Humanities Computing_ to be edited by
    Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens and John Unsworth would be a valuable
    resource for teaching our discipline.

    I think we have much reason to be proud of how far we've come, but also
    humbled by the many challenges that lay ahead.



    Stfan Sinclair, University of Alberta
    Phone: (780) 492-6768, FAX: (780) 492-9106, Office: Arts 218-B
    Address: Arts 200, MLCS, UofA, Edmonton, AB (Canada) T6G 2E6
    M.A. in Humanities Computing: http://huco.ualberta.ca/

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