15.515 on what we say

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Tue Feb 19 2002 - 06:04:22 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 515.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Tue, 19 Feb 2002 11:01:19 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com>
             Subject: dialogue vs declaration &c.

    Dear colleagues:

    Recently one of our members wrote to me with the following complaint:

    >I subscribed to Humanist about 1996-97, resubscribed about
    >2000. Something has changed. For one thing, it doesn't seem as
    >informative about computing and humanities scholarship or useful to
    >scholars with computers. For another, it seems to lack a certain energy
    >or activity that I would associate with the vast spread and very intense
    >use of computers in various fields.
    >I'm a civilian in this forum--a dedicated amateur--... and do not wish to
    >denigrate the more theoretical discussion that should and does take
    >place. But I *wish* sometimes we'd do more mundane things: discuss
    >actual projects, exchange tips on software, publicize useful web
    >resources, and so forth. Perhaps you intended to get away from the
    >practical aspects of computing; perhaps there is another email list I
    >don't know about. But I'm wondering if perhaps you could put out your
    >view of what the list should be vs. what it is. I apologize, of course,
    >if those are identical and you are happy with Humanist as it is.

    After some exchanges, he wrote back to admit that,

    >Yes, Humanist has tipped me to some good things, most recently Rob Watts'
    >Concordance program. But did you know that it can be useful for something
    >like placename analysis? I just don't know what to do with a note of minor
    >(very minor) discovery like that, with some description of how I put the
    >program to work on a database of about 40,000 British placenames. Would old
    >Humanist subscribers say, "Yeah, yeah, we've known about that since the
    >discovery of computers"? Or would some say, "Hmm, I always thought of
    >concordance programs in connection with literary text"?

    and then in a subsequent note,

    >I *can* work up a nice long practical-application note....But frankly, as
    >a non-academic on the list, I don't know how brave I would feel about
    >sending it in. In the context of what is now posted, it could look pretty
    >odd. Maybe some public words of encouragement from you addressed to the
    >entire list?

    Allow me to respond briefly to three points he raises.

    (1) The decline in nitty-gritty exchanges. I am not sure this is so, but if
    it is, I regret any such decline too and have certainly done nothing to
    discourage the discussion of practical matters. What I do know to regret is
    that a number of computing humanists whose contributions would be
    exceedingly valuable have simply become too busy in their daily lives to
    participate in discussion. Perhaps another factor in the decline (if it is
    so) is that good projects take a long time to complete and are technically
    quite repetitive once the methods have been designed and worked out. I know
    I stopped talking about my project years ago because (a) I had nothing new
    to say, and (b) was too busy actually doing it.

    (2) My role in all this. The single most valuable lesson I have learned
    while editing Humanist is to allow it to go its own way. What happens here
    is what vocal members want to happen, or at least what their contributions
    make happen. Vox populi vox dei. I mostly stir the pot.

    (3) The fear of flying. I confess that I am sometimes dismayed by the
    reluctance of individuals to speak up. Certainly we've been treated to
    postings that might have benefitted us more by being kept back, but up to a
    point I view these as the price we pay for an open forum. I've come to
    realise that this openness is rather a complex matter. The point I'd like
    to make about it now is that the central purpose of Humanist in my view is
    to keep the conversation about our field going at as high a level as we can
    manage. It isn't to arrive at the truth about this or that, but to keep
    discovering whatever truths we can through dialogue. This means, I think,
    that postings are valuable in proportion to the risk they take while
    pushing the boundaries of what we know. So being brilliantly wrong is
    perhaps best of all, but since that's very hard to achieve, let us agree
    that being usefully wrong is what we'll actually try for.


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