6.0385 More Thoughts on Humanities Computing (5/223)

Tue, 8 Dec 1992 18:34:52 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0385. Tuesday, 8 Dec 1992.

(1) Date: Thu, 3 Dec 92 10:51:33 CST (67 lines)
From: Norman Hinton <hinton@eagle.sangamon.edu>
Subject: Re: 6.0373 Further Rs: Humanities Computing

(2) Date: Thu, 3 Dec 92 12:01:32 CST (64 lines)
From: Mark Olsen <mark@TIRA.UCHICAGO.EDU>
Subject: More humanities computing

(3) Date: Thu, 3 Dec 1992 16:13 EST (27 lines)
From: John Lavagnino <LAV@BRANDEIS>
Subject: Humanities Computing and humanities departments

(4) Date: 04 Dec 1992 15:57:39 -0400 (EDT) (34 lines)
Subject: Re: 6.0373 Further Rs: Humanities Computing

(5) Date: Mon, 07 Dec 92 23:09:52 -0800 (31 lines)
From: Oliver Berghof <oberghof@orion.oac.uci.edu>
Subject: Re: 6.0373 Further Rs: Humanities Computing

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Thu, 3 Dec 92 10:51:33 CST
From: Norman Hinton <hinton@eagle.sangamon.edu>
Subject: Re: 6.0373 Further Rs: Humanities Computing (2/191)

Prof. Falzer aswked, near the end of a thoughtful essay, about the relevance
of computers to our work. (Pardon me for not quoting him exactly.)

I'd be glad to answer that, somewhat at the risk of boring my
non-medievalist friends on HUMANIST: rememver, you can always press a key
and get frid of this. It also speaks somewhat to Willard's essay on the
same subject (which was the kindof important and impressive discussion I
always know I will get from him.)

Briefly as possible, I cannot do my most important research without the
computer. I use a database I call "The Middle English Database" -- I
programmed it, I input the data, I wrote the retrieval routines, and I use
the results.

It is my contention that we do not have one kind of knowledge about Middle
english that we have about Modern English, and that the lack is crucial.
When we read modern English poetry we readily make judgements about tone,
mood, level of style, etc because we know so much about the words. We know
which are newfangled and which are not, which are specialized and from which
discipline or which aspoect of the culture, which are fad terms or nonce
words,etc. Much literary criticism is based on an assumption that we know
and can react to such aspects of language. (Even hypermodern theorists
assume that we can show how language is inadequate to its task _because_
we know how language works -- a dubious assumption,but let that pass.)

But with Middle English we do not have such ready fluency, for an odd
reason. In Old English, we do not have enough information to form such
conclusions, but in Middle Englishm we have _too_ much. No one ca preted to
familiarity across the breadth of the writings in ME -- reading all the
Romances is an impressive feat by itself!

My database uses the Middle English Dictionary as its source, and, using
modern sampling techniques, stores information abvout the age of words,
their proximate etymologies (in ME, it is often very important to know
wehter a word is Germanic or whether it comes from French or Latin, or
Anglo-French, etc.) Soon the database will hold information about the kind
of work in which the word was first found -- law, medicine, theology, etc.

So I am slowly getting a handle on the growth and structure of theMiddle
English vocabulary, and will b able to move from that to a history of the
growrh of poetic diction in the English Middle Ages, and then beyond that
perhaps to sub-histories of the langauge of law, government, domestic
matters, etc. etc. NONE of this would be possible without the computer.
All of it is basic to the most simple Humanist understanding of the texts
involved. If this is mere hobbyism, or playing with toys in my spare time,
I wish someone had told me before I dedicated the past 15 years of my life to
it (I hope to be finished with it in another 10 years or so).

I will merely mention my other computer based projects -- a colleague and I
are doing a study of the language of female spirituality in the fifteenth
centurym, and I have another database containing information about the order
of the Canterbury Tales and their links in all of the MSS, from which I hope
to be able todraw some conclusions about the order of the tales and hence
the structure of the work.

I'm sorry if this looks lie play, though it has been great fun. There are
dozens of other projects out there waiting to be done -- I think of one or
two almost every month, in an out of medieval studies.

So I don'treallycare if people think there is no Humanities computing and I
don't really care if misguided University administrations (is there any
other sort ?) don't understand it -- I have work to do, and so will a host
of others in the coming years, if we just get out of their way....
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------77----
Date: Thu, 3 Dec 92 12:01:32 CST
From: Mark Olsen <mark@TIRA.UCHICAGO.EDU>
Subject: More humanities computing

Far from taking offense at Willard's comments, I think HUMANIST
is, as he suggests, precisely the forum for this kind of "collective
navel gazing." :-) He suggests that "some of us will
tend to get a bit testy if we're told it's our fault that humanities
computing isn't given a seat at the banquet table." Unfortunately,
I tend to suspect that we are at fault. It is, quite frankly, too
easy to blame the "social and institutional conditions" for the
failure of humanities computing to establish itself professionally.

Our failure is indicated by both explicit and implicit peer review
of our work. Implicitly by the intellectual failure of humanities
computing research to be cited by or published in (with a few notable
exceptions) mainstream scholarship. Bluntly put, scholars in our
home disciplines (literature, history, etc.) seem to be able to
safely ignore the considerable literature generated by humanities
computing research over the years. Explicit peer review is indicated,
in part, by the fact that humanities computing hasn't been invited
to the banquet. We don't *have* to be invited precisely because the
results of so much work can be ignored by scholarship in our home
disciplines. You might call this the "in your face" theory of
academic politics. When the results of this research become important
to mainstream scholarship -- challenging, supplementing, engaging --
then the institutional and social conditions will improve because
this work will be seen to be important. It is simply unreasonable
to ask humanities departments to allocate scarce resources to support
work that has not shown itself to be of wide importance.

Willard and others have counseled patience, that good scholarship
takes time. Well, I am impatient. One of my many faults. I
tend to see calls for patience as a way of evading the issues.
A recent paper in L&LC noted that "the numbers have been
crunched for about twenty years now" but it remains "difficult
to see the point of the exercise." So, how patient should we be?
Another twenty years before laying down the cards to see what we're
holding? I'll raise you five and call your hand now.

The corrective, I believe, is to engage and exploit the developments
in critical theory head on ("in your face"). Indeed, it is my
firm belief that the technology allows us to rethink the notion
of "textuality" and the relationship of text to context (discursive,
social, and political). And provide solid, verifiable results
based on new theoretical models, allowing us to test and (hopefully)
improve critical theory. Humanities computing should be in the
lead of rethinking textuality precisely because the technology
allows us to treat text as a radically different object of research.
I have my own theoretical hobby-horses to ride here, but the details
of an individual's theoretical preferences are of little importance.
The call to engage theory does not specify which theory should be favored.

When we publish results that our non-computer using colleagues read,
all the rest will follow. They may never wish to engage in that
type of research, but will be unable to ignore our results. Until we
get in the faces of scholars in our home disciplines, humanities
computing will remain on the margins.

Mark Olsen
University of Chicago

(3) --------------------------------------------------------------30----
Date: Thu, 3 Dec 1992 16:13 EST
From: John Lavagnino <LAV@BRANDEIS>
Subject: Humanities Computing and humanities departments

The resistance we observe to humanities computing doesn't stem solely
from the involvement of machines. In English departments, at any rate,
it's part of a general decline in the value placed on traditional
scholarship: on anything that's not literary criticism. Textual editing
and bibliography, say, are similar to humanities computing in that they
aren't likely to find you a job anywhere---though that wasn't the case
forty years ago. There are many valuable projects in humanities
computing that can't be made to look like criticism; English departments
have an automatic bias nowadays against such things, whether or not they
embrace the cybernetic devil.

In the introduction to *Learning to Curse*, Stephen Greenblatt tells of
proposing a project to his supervisor at Yale in the 1960s that sounded
too much like textual editing; he was given to understand that
interesting people didn't do such things. He says he thinks this
attitude is wrong, but he's just co-edited a volume for the MLA
surveying English studies which finds no place for computing or
editing---or anything else that's not criticism, apart from composition.
The MLA's draft statement on computers is excellent, but I suspect it
will be adopted without argument and then ignored.

John Lavagnino
Department of English, Brandeis University
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------48----
Date: 04 Dec 1992 15:57:39 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: 6.0373 Further Rs: Humanities Computing (2/191)

I find myself drawn inexorably closer to such applications as PageMaker,
Ventura, and CorelDraw!, all desktop publishing applications. Although
these programs do not, techically speaking, advance my _knowledge_ of the
humanities, using them in the computer lab makes me think often of humani-
ties-related concerns. For example:

-- the relationship between text and graphics stimulates my thinking
about design, and the ways in which people derive information from
what they see. After working so long in a world of words, I like
dabbling a little more in the visual arts.

-- the idea that the _writer_ will have, once again, control over
what a document says and the way it looks I find exciting. Not since
Benjamin Franklin's day has a writer had so much control over the
medium for his or her message. I foresee the day when, for good or
ill, anyone with a computer can become a publisher. This idea has
enormous ramifications for issues in ethics, privacy, and politics.

Although I certainly don't see technology as a panacea (it has a dark,
smart-bomb side), I look forward to the day when we will see multi-media
"novels," virtual-reality landscape "paintings," visible sound. More and
more, computers strike me as being the equivalent of a brand new, wonderfully
versatile paintbrush.

Thanks, by the way, for your discussion of this topic.

Jim Guthrie

Wright State University

(5) --------------------------------------------------------------43----
Date: Mon, 07 Dec 92 23:09:52 -0800
From: Oliver Berghof <oberghof@orion.oac.uci.edu>
Subject: Re: 6.0373 Further Rs: Humanities Computing (2/191)

Paul Falzer asks what the single most useful
program for a HUMANIST may be - outside word
processing, that is. Well, for me it's probably
Kermit, to wit, the program which allows me to
write these lines from a PC.

Taking a clue from Willard McCarthy's cautious
plea for an integration of computers in humanities'
research I would like to add a more specific question:
who among HUMANISTs could name programs which have allowed
them to improve their research ? More specifically, who
has been using programs which do not collect data, but
help to analyze them ?

On a different note I urge HUMANISTs to buttonhole their
local Unix SYSOPs to show them how to work with two new
arrivals in the world of information retrieval: WAIS and
gopher. And maybe the editors (hint hint) should think about
making HUMANIST available via these services, both of
which allow you to customize the way in which you retrieve
information under Unix.

Merry Christmas.

Oliver Berghof