3.765 support of humanities computing, cont. (189)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Mon, 20 Nov 89 20:50:03 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 765. Monday, 20 Nov 1989.

(1) Date: 20 November 1989 (79 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: more about the support of humanities computing

(2) Date: Mon, 20 Nov 89 05:29:51 EST (90 lines)
From: David.A.Bantz@mac.dartmouth.edu
Subject: Professional malaise (re 3.755 user-support, cont.)

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 20 November 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: more about the support of humanities computing

In the ongoing conversation about the support of computing by
non-tenured scholars, a distinction needs to be drawn between real and
imagined injustice. Mr. Richmond has written about the injustice
imagined by those greedy for status but lacking in the qualities that
would earn them what they think they deserve. The world would certainly
be a much simpler, more comprehensible, and in some ways kinder place if
indeed the only injustices were imaginary and were all due to the greed
of the unworthy. Like Job before God made that nasty deal with Satan,
we could all then relax in the righteousness of our institutions.

Reality intrudes, however, and those who tend to feel it most are those
least protected by tenure and by the conviction of their own
unworthiness. Among such people whom I know few, if any, want to be
swaggering lords. Most if not all of them simply want to get on with
the work that they have been certified for and which they love.

One set of interests are well served by the legalistic approach to the
problem, which holds that the incumbent of a user-support job, whatever
his or her scholarly interests, takes money to support users and so had
better shut up and get on with the work. Even if enlightened
self-interest is all we've got, still it makes sense to provide for the
professional development of Ph.D.s who happen -- note well the neutral
expression -- to be supporting the computing needs of others much like
themselves in every way except one. The basic problem is the waste of
human potential that is endemic to a situation in which involvement with
computing means nothing, or less than nothing, to hiring, promotion, and
tenure-review committees.

People will lust after status, whether they happen to have tenure or
not. It is much kinder and more productive to see in the complaints of
the unjustly treated a general problem that afflicts humanities
computing, indeed the academy as a whole. We still tend to assume that
having ideas is nobler that making things. For some of us, however,
ideas come about or become real in the making of things.

Forgive me for oversimplifying the Platonic argument, but I wish to put
the finger on a deeply rooted prejudice that technically competent
academics frequently encounter. Our suspicion of techne (craft, skill)
is not without justification, of course, but I think that the whole of
humanities computing unjustly suffers from the notion that we are
carriers out of other people's ideas, mere intellectual mechanics, and
so are necessarily lesser beings. One likely assumption here is that
ideas can exist independent of things, and so are more pure when free
from them. The notion inherent in humanities computing, it seems to me,
is that things (such as computer programs) are the medium of ideas, the
means of discovering and clarifying them.

If what I say is true, then it is especially important that those
whom we pay to support humanities computing are themselves thinkers.
In our workshop everyone has his or her hands on the tools! As for
professional status, perhaps two models are possible:

(1) the union model, in which we define yet another kind of staff
position, for a `humanities computing specialist', who is a
kind of softened applications programmer;

(2) the collegial model, in which we make an official place not
only for the non-tenurable computing humanist but also for the
many other academically trained employees of research projects
and institutes that have proliferated, at least in N. America,
in recent years. I have in mind a parallel stream to the
teaching professoriate.

The first almost certainly would not favour the person's pursuit of
research problems, rather the imitative study of what others are doing,
what software is popular, and so what "customers" are likely to need.
The second would be far more difficult to institute but would, it seems
to me, be better for all in the long run. Who would occupy the trenches?
Those in training for other things, or those with no particular academic


Yours, Willard McCarty
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------101---
Date: Mon, 20 Nov 89 05:29:51 EST
From: David.A.Bantz@mac.dartmouth.edu
Subject: Professional malaise (re 3.755 user-support, cont.)

Willard McCarty's thoughtful response to an original posting asking for
guidance on formulating the job requirements for a humanities computing
position warned of professional tensions when a humanist takes up a computing
support position. Follow-on discussion seems to verify that point, as
evidenced by these exerpts:

--- Thomas Zielke <113355@DOLUNI1> wrote:
I also do sometimes feel as being the "tame lackey", being the one who will
always get things to do what they're supposed to do and will then please be as
kind as to leave the room when HISTORY is going to be produced.

Despite...these bitter feelings, I do like the job of supporting users....[but
think] a strong belief in one's own abilities and qualities is also needed,
especially when being regard[ed] as "inferior"...
--- end of quoted material ---

--- Skip Knox <DUSKNOX@IDBSU> wrote:
The university as an institution, though, so far from encouraging me to [teach
one history course on lunch hours] and recognizing the value of what I am
doing, periodically conducts red tape raids, requiring me to prove that I am
in fact surrendering my lunch hours and not secretly robbing [time from the
'real' job.]
--- end of quoted material ---

These comments reflect conflict between the institution's definition of a role
and the desired professional identification of the individual filling it.
While I admire the individuals who are struggling to maintain their own sense
of professional identity as humanist/scholars in the face of incomprehension
or hostility, I would like to suggest both institution and humanities
computing folk may be better served by creating an alternative conception of a
profession and career.

"Front line" computing support has a wholly deserved reputation as a burn-out
position, requiring a great deal of expertise which, however, is too often
used not to create something new and valuable, but to uncover and ameliorate
the mistakes of others. (Providing instruction to others is another matter;
like other teaching, it has many rewards.) Providing generic computing
support to humanists no less than to the academic population as a whole risks
degenerating to mutual frustration: the user insecure in seeking favors from a
sphinx-like priest of computing; the support person bored and pieved at the
apparent arrogance of users demanding magic solutions (often to problems they
have brought upon themselves).

So how can an institution provide the knowlegeable support staff needed and
how can the humanist (or for that matter the sociologist or chemist in an
analogous position) derive genuine professional satisfaction? Suppose the
conception of the humanities computing position is broadened to include
professional service the whole length of the intersection between humanities
and computing: productivity applications; software and hardware review;
evaluation, and standardization; providing instruction in computing relevant
to the needs of humanists; support in computer-based research from the design
phase on; development of instructional applications; securing external support
for innovative projects; serving as an advocate of the humanities to other
parts of the computing establishment; presenting and publishing projects, etc.

Such a broadened conception would provide creative outlets for a wide range of
abilities of humanists, and enhance the humanities at the institution far more
than the ad hoc problem solving method of support. It would, in short, be a
fully professional pursuit--not the same as that of the tenure-track teaching
faculty in the traditional departments, but with its own scope for
professional development, creativity, collegiality, and the like.

Some humanists who find themsevles in a computing support role will,
understandably, not want to abandon the more usual professional
identification: 'I am a philosopher [medievalist, artist,...] who happens to
be a computing support role, and I want to be accorded the respect and rewards
of a faculty member in the philosophy [history, art,...] department.' Well,
what is the difference between this situation and my graduate school friends
who have become industrial chemists, bankers, and the like, but occasionally
go to a conference or read through the literature of the disciplines in which
they have degrees? It's not impossible of course to pursue different
professional goals simultaneously but few will be able to maintain plausible
professional credentials in such a time-sharing arrangement. The risk is a
bitterness about one's fate which is ultimately unproductive for both employer
and employee.

The original request had to do with formulating a position description to
support computing in the humanities at an institution. I believe the
institution would be best served by recognizing the full scope of professional
computing-related activity which could benefit the humanities, and seeking
someone who is aware of and excited by the prospects of applying computing in
the humanities and who can work with faculty, students, adminsitration and
staff to foster the humanities. I trust that with such recognition on the
part of the institution would also come a recognition of the institutional
support required (equipment, staff, budgets, etc)!