3.336 software development (78)

Mon, 7 Aug 89 22:41:35 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 336. Monday, 7 Aug 1989.

Date: Mon, 7 Aug 89 11:21:42 EDT
From: Charles Ess <DRU001D@SMSVMA.bitnet>
Subject: Re: 3.331 software development (87)

I very much enjoyed Scott Myer's most recent comments (evoked by my comments
on his comments...) on the issue of developing homegrown software for
humanists when more polished, commercially available software is lacking.
I hesitate to quibble with the eminent good sense he displays -- but I
think the quibble is an important one.

Underneath much of our discussion, it seems to me, is a rather large
disparity between the environments and goals of humanities computing
which we are attempting to address.

To state this disparity most sharply: I am interested in taking a long-
standing claim about computing resources -- namely, that they will
democratize research and learning resources -- very seriously. While
there is some reason to believe that this democritization process is
gradually emerging -- there is equal reason to believe that computing
resources remain largely the province of the lucky few who (a) find
themselves in an institutional environment with the resources and
interest in academic computing to support their endeavors, and (b)
manage the difficult conjunction between traditional academic research
and teaching interests and the new technologies.

For example, Scott (if I may be so familiar) mentions collaboration
between humanities faculty and students in a computer science program.
My college, however, has no such program -- partly out of an intentional
decision to avoid creating a program which might reinforce our rather
traditional faculty's belief that computers are "really" the province
of the hard sciences and programmers. More generally, the financial
resources available to many of us in colleges such as mine -- small,
liberal arts institutions which are neither a Princeton or Stanford, nor
a _______ (fill in the name of one of the dozens of struggling liberal
arts colleges in this country who may boast some very fine and dedicated
faculty, but who are also not entirely certain their doors will open
next year) -- mean that a PC (not to mention a Macintosh) for every
faculty member, provided by the college, remains a fond dream.

My point is not to bewail our relative poverty, nor to somehow cast moral
deprecation on my colleagues who find themselves in more richly supportive
environments. Rather, it is to point out that there are considerable
differences in the computing environments. While this may seem obvious,
it leads to a critical difference in the decisions we make regarding
hardware and software.

Most sharply, if I'm interested in developing computing resources which
can be utilized by as many students and faculty on my campus as possible
-- and in this way, such resources will democritize the research and
learning process by extending such resources to faculty and students
who otherwise would have no access to them -- then these resources must
be cheap, exceptionally user-friendly, and sufficiently powerful to
overcome the fairly common reaction: "What can your computer do that I
can't already do with a typewriter or an overhead projector?" In such an
environment, acquiring a SUN would not make a great deal of sense. For
the humanities faculty who enjoy greater levels of technical and financial
support -- and, as some of Scott's comments suggest, are primarily
interested in exploiting the computer for their own research (_not_
a bad thing at all, just to be sure that's clear) -- the SUN might be
a wise investment indeed.

I do not mean to suggest that democritization is morally superior to
a kind of computer elitism. I simply want to call attention to a
distinction between computing environments which I fear is not always
explicit in our discussions, but which defines in large measure what
makes sense for us.

Charles Ess
Drury College