3.627 humanistic education and computers, cont. (206)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Mon, 23 Oct 89 21:39:22 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 627. Monday, 23 Oct 1989.

(1) Date: Sun, 22 Oct 89 17:36:33 EDT (106 lines)
From: Brian Whittaker <BRIANW@YORKVM2>
Subject: Re: 3.611 humanists and computers, cont. (165)

(2) Date: Mon, 23 Oct 89 18:24 EDT (13 lines)
Subject: RE: 3.606 culture in computers (61)

(3) Date: Mon, 23 Oct 89 18:59 EDT (16 lines)
Subject: RE: 3.610 humanists and computers (72)

(4) Date: 23 October 1989 (43 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: everyone learning everything

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Sun, 22 Oct 89 17:36:33 EDT
From: Brian Whittaker <BRIANW@YORKVM2>
Subject: Re: 3.611 humanists and computers, cont. (165)

The only answer to the "two cultures" problem may be for eveyone to learn
everything. Like Don Spaeth, I occasionally look wistfully across the
Atlantic (in the opposite direction) and imagine a more nearly ideal
educational system.

The "general education" model followed by many North American schools is
certainly an alternative to the old specialization, but I am not convinced
that it is more successful or even as successful. Given that a student only
has four years to do an undergraduate degree and that students are a little
less receptive to being driven by their instructors than may once have been
the case, a general education approach tends to absorb at least one year of
the student's life with courses that might well be called "science
appreciation," "social science appreciation," "humanities appreciation," and
so on. Where all students are required to do a first year science course,
the demand is often for a course that will not require any mathematics and
preferably no real lab work either. In our own area, "humanities"
courses are often courses in ancient or foreign literature in translation,
surely something of a paradox given the emphasis on detailed attention to
original texts in the original languages that characterized both the
humanists of the sixteenth century and the participants in the present
network. Morover, the more such courses the student takes, the less room
there is in his or her curriculum to achieve any kind of mastery of a
second and third language. This irony is all the more poignant when one
considers that in the curriculum ovehaul that brought in general education
in many schools, a first year foreign language requirement was deleted
in order to make room for the first year humanities requirement. It might
also be enlightening to do a survey to see whether humanities departments
prefer to staff their courses on, say, the ancient world, with graduates
from programs in literature in translation or with graduates from
programs in Greek and Latin or in Near Eastern languages.

Turning to the more specific question of why many scholars still find
computers rather daunting, I would agree with the observation that
scientists may be just as inclined to shy away from the computer as are
the literati. More precisely, both appear to be inclined to acquire a
limited mastery of one or two programs that serve their immediate needs
(the word processor would be the likeliest candidate in the humanities).
I believe that computer languages and conventions are just as alien to
the educational background of most scientists as they are to most humanists.
I believe this comes about through the rather eccentric early history of
the development of computers and later of micros. Not surprisingly,
there is much in the way programming languages work that is transparently
obvious to someone who has played around in electronics, soldering iron
in hand; surprisingly, some of these matters are not transparently obvious
to computer science students who lack that kind of real "hands on"
background and must simply memorize conventions as most humanists do.
Other conventions have their roots in surprsing fields that, through the
accidents of personal history, were shared by groups of pioneers in
computing. I have heard, for example, that a number of the pioneers
in microcomputer design and manufacture had been members of the same
model railroad club while students and had developed much of their
expertise in building electronic control systems for their model trains.
Some of the procedures and terminology which they bequeathed to micro-
computing came from model railroading and some came from the banter of
their own particular club. I have read a few interviews with people who
were pioneers in the development of languages, systems and even programs that
have reputations for being user-unfriendly or well nigh unintelligible; a
recurring theme in these interviews is that a particularly unintelligible
convention was established because it would be transparently obvious and
memorable to users, and was for the original small group of insiders who
had the same hobbies or shared the same jokes.

I suspect that at least some of the difficulty in coping with computers
arises from the conventions being developed outside the lingua franca of
the existing areas, like the physical sciences, the social sciences and the
humanities. This may even have been intentional on the part of many early
workers with computers who saw themselves as an elite or priesthood (to
use what is perhaps too much of a humanist's term). Now that the price
of a supercomputer may depend on support from departments beyond computer
science, there are expressions of exasperation over the lack of computer
literacy in those departments.

The problem is far from one-sided, I should add. Those who administer the
university's computer resources are often as ignorant of the needs of
scholars from other fields as we are of the possibilities offered by the
computer. My first encounter with computer support staff came when a
very courteous computer expert replied to my request with the observation
"You must be working with something really strange like text files!" I
was tempted to reply "What do you expect an English professor to be working
with?" But of course he knew as little of what I would be doing that afternoon
as I did of what he would be doing; I am reasonably certain however that
neither of our afternoons bore much resemlance to what I once taught in
first year humanities courses or what he studied in any of his first year
general education courses. That is clearly not the place to find a lingua
franca. And the ability of individuals to cope conceptually with a new
syntax and lexis, whether in a natural language or in an artificial
programming language has declined dramatically since the general education
courses drove second and third language courses out of the curriculum for
most students who are not language specialists.

One final irony. For the humanist and for the scientist, undergraduate
textbooks and popular handbooks are often quite unintelligible. The most
advanced books, on the other hand, often make much more interesting
reading. For example, the _Pascal User Manual and Report_ by Kathleen
Jensen and Niklause Wirth lays down the basic lexis and syntax of the Pascal
programming language, and should be immediately understandable for the reader
who appreciates the elegance of a good math book or a good grammar book.
Computer science students seem to find this book quite difficult.

Brian Whittaker
Department of English, Atkinson College, York University
Downsview, Ontario, Canada.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------19----
Date: Mon, 23 Oct 89 18:24 EDT
Subject: RE: 3.606 culture in computers (61)

It is not so much a problem caused by differences in approaching
the holy computer from either a humanist point of view or from a
scientist/engineer view point. Part of the problem, I think,
comes from the fact that humanist are often left with very bad
documentation accompanying software packages. Documentaion should always
be written by somebody other than the one who designed or developped
the product. They know their product too well and tend to forget that
nothing is evident.
Michel Lenoble
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------23----
Date: Mon, 23 Oct 89 18:59 EDT
Subject: RE: 3.610 humanists and computers (72)

answer to (2)
I don't think that we come to computer criticism just because we don't
fit into the specialist's straithjacket. On the contrary, we are the specialists
and the traditional critiques are amateurs. (I hope they don't hear me). In
fact we study texts very closely and come to know them - through the computer's
eye - very precisely. We give judgements based on hard evidence and not on
intuition. We have epistemological standards that we try to respect.
Traditionalists don't. There are as many differences between they and
us as there are between a micro-biologist that would be using a
microscope and another that would only resort to his/her intuition.

Michel Lenoble
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 23 October 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: everyone learning everything

Hardly a day passes when I do not regret not having zeroed in, at an
early age, on the things that now possess my mind. At the same time, I
recognize that the crooked path I took to get there was perhaps the only
way, and that many of the crooks (such as computing) have since proven
destinations in themselves. Specialization can be a fine thing, but I
think that for many, to begin an undergraduate programme broadly is a
better one. At one time I was a student at Reed College (Portland,
Oregon), which forced me to take a general survey of the humanities for
one year, required of all students, and pushed me into taking a sequel
the next. We had, as I recall, all of a week to read Homer (perhaps it
was two...), as much for Virgil, for example. I would be surprised if
any one of us understood what we read, but at least our eyes had passed
over the basic texts and art works, and our ears heard the music, so
that later on when circumstances were right, up they popped before me,
and I read and looked and listened again. At one time, Reed was doing it
right. As the alumni office is always reminding me, the accomplishments
of its graduates, many of whom have become intensely specialized,
suggests this rather strongly.

It seems to me that some things, like those basic texts and works,
need to be put into the mind, to cook for some time, before there's
much point in putting them under critical scrutiny. Ideally, gestation
of ideas and images begins very early, but we do not educate an elite
raised on the classics. I think of C.S. Lewis' statement that the
Faerie Queene of Spenser should first be read when one is 15, on rainy
afternoons before the fire, as a wholloping great adventure story.
Same goes for the Odyssey and many other such things.

Reed did not include much if any science in the required programme (I
already had plenty, so this was no bother to me), but I see no reason
why science could not be included. Computing the humanities raises some
very interesting and very hard questions that, I think, could take their
place among all the other insolubles humanists have for breakfast
every day.

Willard McCarty