6.0414 HumComputng: Programming or Cybernetic Devilry? (2/122)

Tue, 15 Dec 1992 00:03:18 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0414. Tuesday, 15 Dec 1992.

(1) Date: Sat, 12 Dec 92 08:45:12 CST (37 lines)
From: "Eric Johnson DSU, Madison, SD 57042" <ERIC@SDNET>
Subject: Prospects for computing humanists

(2) Date: Fri, 11 Dec 1992 22:59:59 -0500 (85 lines)
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (W. McCarty)
Subject: cybernetic devilry

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Sat, 12 Dec 92 08:45:12 CST
From: "Eric Johnson DSU, Madison, SD 57042" <ERIC@SDNET>
Subject: Prospects for computing humanists

Stephen Clausing and others made some excellent points about the
lack of job prospects for humanists with a background in computing.

There is another side of the issue of humanities computing that I see
as the Dean of a College of Liberal Arts.

At Dakota State University, our mission is to use computers throughout
the curriculum. Art courses cover computer graphics; English students
learn to write with computers; they use computers for the analysis of
literature. English majors are required to learn to program (in
SNOBOL4 or in Icon). Students in social science use computers for
simulations. There is a class for Health-PE majors to learn to write
programs for their applications.

When we need to hire faculty, it is *very* difficult to find people
with a sound subject background and anything more than superficial
knowledge of computing. If we advertise for an Assistant Professor
of English, we will receive 60 or 80 or 100 applications, but only
two or three will know more about computing than word processing, and
perhaps only one will be able to program.

The situation is starting to change (and it will change), but
if it is true that a humanities graduate finds it difficult to locate
a position where an understanding of computing can be put to use, it
is also true that it is difficult for a university to hire a Ph.D. or
M.F.A. in the humanities with significant computer knowledge.

-- Eric Johnson
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Dakota State University
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------217---
Date: Fri, 11 Dec 1992 22:59:59 -0500
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (W. McCarty)
Subject: cybernetic devilry

Norman Hinton, Mark Olsen, and John Lavagnino have, I think, said
some interesting things in their recent contributions to the
discussion on humanities computing (Humanist 6.0385). With the
indulgence of my fellow Humanists, I would like to keep the
subject alive for a bit longer.

I'm glad to do so with Olsen's agreement that Humanist's purpose
is well served thereby, but I must take issue with his calling it
"collective navel gazing" -- or omphalopsychosis, as it is
technically known. The OED (s.v. gazing, navel, omphalopsychic)
would seem to confirm my sense that this is usually, if not
always, a derogatory term. Whatever the truth of its origins
("to engage in meditation or contemplation"), navel-gazing in
Anglo-American culture seldom means anything other than "to be
complacently parochial or escapist" (OED s.v. "navel" 1a[b]).
Several of us are trying hard precisely to demolish complacent
parochialism and escapist tendencies in our professions and
institutions. Vigorous discussion following upon and fostering
equally vigorous contemplation is an essential tool in such
creative activity. If that sort of contemplation is what's meant
by "navel-gazing" then I plead guilty and heartily recommend the
activity to you all. Omphalophilia?

In an earlier note I echoed John Burrow's suggestion that our
introspective anxieties about humanities computing might be
leavened with patience. Olsen rightly points out that calls for
patience can be a way of evading the issues, but impatient,
premature assessment of failure is equally effective. Anything,
in fact, can be used to evade what it supposedly addresses -- but
here the waters get too deep for my purposes, so I beg leave to
swim back into relative shallows. (Whew!) Furthermore, such
assessment of failure can cloak a serious and currently not
uncommon attack on a necessary conditions for challenging
scholarship in the humanities: uninterrupted time. Which is
not to accuse Mark of devious intentions, merely to note a
tendency in the argument.

I'd be much more worried about a whole 20 years' worth of
humanistic number- and word-crunching having gone by without a
major revolution if, like Hinton, I were not immersed in exciting
computer-assisted scholarship and did not turn up new projects
each month -- more than I can handle in two lifetimes. Forgive
the possible hybris (feeling one's oats to a provocative degree),
but I know from direct experience that humanities computing has
not failed and will not fail, institutional myopia
notwithstanding. Twenty years indeed! That's very little time
in any sane assessment of the cultural and intellectual effects
of a major technology. With apologies to my good friend and
respected colleague Yaacov Choueka (organizer, ALLC conference,
1988), the tools are almost here, not quite, but the results are
coming nevertheless, even if we have to use an ungodly
concatenation of wordprocessing, spreadsheets, concordancers, and
miscellaneous user-hostile utilities to get them out.

Having counselled patience, let me now become impatient, again.
One of the characteristic faults of a revolutionary is to condemn
what he does not have so he can get it for himself, later, after
the revolution is over and the possessors have become the
dispossessed. With this fault in mind, I'd like to retract my
banquet metaphor (what humanities computing has not been invited
to) and substitute another that I now realise is both less
intellectually dangerous and more socially useful. I suspect
that what we in the demi-monde of disciplines want, or should
want, is the chance to get into a proper kitchen, where there's
space and time enough for skill in cooking to be developed and
show what it can do. A pleasure then both to serve our
colleagues and to eat! I am, again, arguing on the side of
nurture rather than nature -- what we are, what we are capable of
doing as a product more of environment than innate tendencies.
Yes, a limited perspective, but essential to the equation by
which a field is justly assessed.

Again I beg forgiveness -- this has already gone on too long. So
just let me say that I recognize the truth in Lavagnino's note
about the move away from traditional scholarship in some of the
traditional departments. This is something we can address with
our "cybernetic devil" (see Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

Willard McCarty