3.658 computers, humanism, and students (164)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Sun, 29 Oct 89 20:06:10 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 658. Sunday, 29 Oct 1989.

(1) Date: 27 Oct 89 21:49:45 EST (14 lines)
From: James O'Donnell <JODONNEL@PENNSAS>
Subject: Computer use and Publishing (not Perishing)

(2) Date: Sun, 29 Oct 89 15:54 EST (46 lines)
Subject: Computing, humanities, and age

(3) Date: Sun, 29 Oct 89 16:03 EST (25 lines)
Subject: Teaching computing

(4) Date: 29 October 1989 (50 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: some wider responsibilities?

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 27 Oct 89 21:49:45 EST
From: James O'Donnell <JODONNEL@PENNSAS>
Subject: Computer use and Publishing (not Perishing)

From: Jim O'Donnell (Classics, Penn)

In my service on the editorial board of the journal TRADITIO, a journal
of noticeably traditional scholarship in ancient and medieval philosophy
and literature, I noticed already two years ago that fourteen of fifteen
articles accepted for the journal for that year were prepared on
computer; the one exception was from outside continental U.S. I didn't
bother checking this year, but would be surprised if the percentage were
any lower.

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------47----
Date: Sun, 29 Oct 89 15:54 EST
Subject: Computing, humanities, and age

I cannot resist adding my 2 cents worth to the continuing discussion of
does computing best: the young or the old. I will begin with an
anecdote from several years ago. A research project concerning
attitudes toward computers started by having children andtheir parents
visit a computer lab. When they arrived, there was no staff in the room
to tell them what to do, but they were observed through a two-way
mirror. Invariably, the children immediately went to the computers and
started trying things while the parents remained in the middle of the
room waiting for instruction. Should I say more?

Second point: this last week I celebrated (?) the 25th anniversary of my
initial employment with IBM as a programmer (an assembly language
programmer on a 7094/7044 machine for NASA). At that time I was
considered an excellent programmer . I still work in the computer
field, but I currently do very little programming. There are two
reasons for that, one that I worked up to doing design, concept
development, and project management instead, and the other that I am not
a very good programmer any more. I believe that if I had continued to
program regularly on a given computer in a particular language (e.g.
Pascal), that I would be better than I am now, but I think the talent
wanes. Compare that with the fact that most important mathematical
principles have been developed by young mathematicians. Us oldsters
have other talents that do not develop until later. Think of Goethe,
Ben Franklin, and other elder statesmen of the intellect.

Third point: when MLA was last in Los Angeles (I've forgotten the year),
I remember having coffee with a professor of English who was teaching a
technical writing course. He complained bitterly about his students
using a computer to do outlines. He said, "Everyone knows you know do
outlines better with a pencil and paper." I asked if he had ever tried
using a computer, and he had to admit he hadn't. That was the same year
that the ACH sponsored session on computers in writing programs had so
many people trying to get in that the room wouldn't hold them all, even
with people on every square foot of the floor. Things have changed for
the better.

Mary Dee Harris

(3) --------------------------------------------------------------28----
Date: Sun, 29 Oct 89 16:03 EST
Subject: Teaching computing

In response to the complaint that all the computer classes one HUMANIST
had encountered were taught badly by someone more interested in
impressing than teaching, I must say that an observation of that sort is
clearly not restricted to computing instructors. I had more boring
humanities teachers than science, math, or computing. Since I have
taught both English (composition and literature) and computer science
(nearly everything from programming to digital design), I would point
out that teaching is hard work, no matter what the discipline. Teaching
well is even harder.

I noticed that teaching programming and teaching composition are very
similar in many ways. Both require preliminary organization of one's
thoughts. Both require follow through to make certain those thoughts
are followed to a conclusion. Doing either well (programming or
writing) is only done "hands-on." Too much concentration on syntax in
either case obscures the real substance of the process.

I was trained in both math/science/computing and in humanities. I feel
that I am better at both because I studied the other.

(4) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 29 October 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: some wider responsibilities?

Justice Michael Kirby, president of the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court
of New South Wales (Australia), spoke recently in Guelph, Ontario
(Canada) about the threat posed by computing technology to basic
freedoms. In a workshop on the place of computers in ethics and
technology, Justice Kirby pointed out that incursion of computers into
ordinary life has happened far faster than the evolution of law and
institutional structures. The pervasive dependence on machines for vital
information of all kinds, and the rapidly developing efforts to link
together information in various databanks, gives new meaning to the
privacy of individuals, Justice Kirby pointed out. "The age of
informatics runs the risk that we surrender all our human values in the
name of efficiency." Kirby made reference, for example, to tamper-proof
identity cards used by the Nazis to identify their Jewish citizens in
certain countries and the effects this technique had on the efficiency
of their operations.

While it lies not within our bailiwick to discuss ethics as such, it
seems to me that Justice Kirby's remarks do say something about the need
for humanists to teach young students about computers and technology in
a wide cultural context. The momentum of technology would seem
irresistible, but the uses to which it is put just may be something we
can influence. Consider, for example, the spreading use of iron over
bronze and stone long ago. Poetic record preserves the ancient sense of
evil entering the world with the discovery of iron (e.g., Hesiod's Iron
Age; the use of "iron" in the Bible), just as we have felt for years the
threat to individuals from massively interlinked computing systems. One
can imagine that with the superior killing power granted armies by the
use of iron swords and shields, ethical issues were also given a sharper
edge, and philosophers made more vital. (Someone aware of the evidence
please comment.)

So, it would seem, teaching humanists have very little choice in the
matter, and no technologically incompetent humanist, however keen his
ethical and social sense, is likely to be suffered gladly by the new
crop of students.

Personal computers, it should be pointed out, can just as well be
instruments of freedom, even subversion (in the sense of my youth), as
Big Brother's little brother.


Yours, Willard McCarty