Welcome to the new Humanist

Willard McCarty (mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca)
Thu, 17 Aug 1995 22:19:19 -0400

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 100.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities
Princeton and Rutgers

[1] Subject: Welcome to the new Humanist
From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@phoenix.princeton.edu>
Size: 142 lines

Dear Colleagues:

It is my great pleasure to welcome you back to Humanist after
long silence and some months of preparation. In my first message
as returning editor, I want to explain briefly what has happened
and to speculate at greater length on the new and old things we
might do with Humanist. As in the past that some of you will
remember, I intend to let you know what I think and then leave it
largely in your hands to make the best use of our eight year-old
forum for humanities computing. Much has happened in
computing and in the world since Humanist began, so we need to
consider with care what we might do.

1. Technical matters.

First, however, a note about software. Every effort has been made
to ensure a trouble-free move to the new location (Princeton) and
new software (ListProc). Many thanks are due to Gregory Murphy,
Christopher Dietrich, Peter DiCamillo, Elli Mylonas, and others.
Inevitably, however, there will be a few problems at the beginning.
Please be patient. The next message will contain technical
information that should help you adjust the parameters of your
subscription and become familiar with new options. Suffering in
silence may be good for the soul to some degree, but dying in
silence is not. If you are stuck, please tell us.

If you have submitted a message within the past few months but
have not seen it on Humanist, consider it dead and resubmit -- if
you can remember what it was about.

2. The recent past

You may already know that earlier this year Elaine Brennan
declared her intention to resign as editor, a post she had held
continuously since May 1990, when I gave it up. The Advisory
Board then requested nominations from the membership and,
despite my best efforts, asked me to return as editor. I have
accepted gladly, because the work is so interesting, and even more
because I am convinced that despite the many changes, the
growth of electronic discussion groups and their acceptance
throughout the humanities, Humanist has a crucial role to play.

3. The new Humanist

As I mentioned, Humanist has moved to Princeton University from
Brown. It is published by the Center for Electronic Texts in the
Humanities (CETH), with offices at Princeton and Rutgers.
Technical support is provided by Computing and Information
Technology (CIT), Princeton. Individuals at CETH and CIT are
involved in software development for Humanist, including a new
digesting routine, and a WorldWideWeb component to extend the
capabilities of Humanist beyond anything I could have imagined
during my previous term of office. To show you that my
imagination has not stopped functioning, I have put together a
rudimentary homepage for Humanist, whose address is given in
the header. Suggestions and comments about this page -- do not
spare my feelings -- and about what we could do with the Web are
most welcome. We have plans for a number of major
enhancements. These will begin to appear shortly.

4. Whither thou goest....

Much has changed since Humanist began on 7 May 1987. The new
Humanist cannot simply return to its old self, however fondly
some of us may remember how "Humanist made me quack".
(Sorry, please indulge us old-timers by permitting a few in-jokes.)
Certain functions Humanist need no longer perform, or at least
not in the same way; other groups and newer technologies have
arisen meanwhile. The question before us is, then, what should
Humanist now do?

>From a technical perspective, the Web offers us, of course, a
superior means of distributing relatively static information and,
with some clever programming, will allow us to automate various
aspects of subscription. A Humanist Web could as well easily
become the focus of information gathering for humanities
computing and thus provide a valuable resource for research and
even advocacy. It seems to me, however, that the essential core of
Humanist remains the broadly interdisciplinary discussions about
the nature and purposes of humanities computing as such. In its
early days Humanist was nearly the sole online forum where
computer-using humanists could gather to discuss the
professional matters that concerned them. In my mind the
proliferation of discussion groups for the other areas of academic
study has not rendered Humanist otiose but liberated it to focus
on tending its own garden with something like the devotion it
deserves. Since 1990 I have been teaching the subject and have
observed it come into focus as an interdisciplinary subject as well
as a collection of approaches and techniques by which we may
better our other academic pursuits. I am convinced, therefore, that
Humanist has a great deal of important work to do.

You may wish to argue the point, but we are here to do just that,

>From a sociological perspective it is clear that the new Humanist
must change to serve the profoundly different academic world it
now faces. In the Spring of 1987 and for some time afterward its
primary concern was to build a community out of the widely
scattered humanists who happened to use computers. Bitnet,
JANET, and EARN were the information byways we used and
helped make into scholarly instruments. Awakening our
colleagues to the benefits of computing was a major task. Funds
were relatively plentiful. Now, however, the widespread use of
computing in the humanities raises the question of whether we
have any need for humanities computing as such. The
"information superhighway" is now a household word in many
countries and has the attention of powerful interest groups whose
agendas are very different from, and in some cases inimical to our
own. Years of severe budget-cuts have weakened our universities,
and the new means of communication challenges their former
monopoly on the distribution of culturally valued information.
Simply put, the sociology of knowledge is no longer the same.

I do not wish to suggest that Humanist should focus on political
questions, however pressing these are to the individuals affected.
For one thing, Humanist is an international forum and so must
address common concerns. The politics of computing specific to
any one nation have only limited relevance here. What we can do,
however, and what no other group of which I am aware is doing
well, is to address the intellectual issues and problems raised by
the application of computers to the humanities. Many if not all of
these are of immediate, practical concern -- essential, I would
argue, to our practice as humanists. We need to understand them,
for example, to communicate with our students, advise our
colleagues, indeed to understand what we study in terms of our
dominant (and fascinatingly inadequate) cognitive model. If we are
to improve humanities computing, we must understand them in
order to build better software, know how to interpret the results,
and design research projects worthy of our source materials.
Anyone who pays close attention to computer-assisted research
and teaching knows that the software we have is crude and our
understanding of the analytic and pedagogical issues exceedingly
primitive. The level of our work needs to be raised.

Furthermore, we are having now to argue for continued funding
and assignment of resources to humanities computing, which
inevitably means away from something else. Hence cogent
arguments and examples are demanded of us. As Yaacov Choueka
said back in 1988, "The tools are here; where are the results?" I
think he was more than a bit optimistic about the tools, but his
question keeps nagging me for an answer. John Burrows has
wisely counseled patience in the face of assertions that computing
has not made much of a difference in many fields. Good results, as
his work so ably demonstrates, often take a lot of time to achieve.
Meanwhile, however, our accomplishments suggest that we need
to talk our way through to a much better understanding of what
we are doing and why.

The ludic and serendipitous elements of Humanist, its use to
exchange information, forge friendships, share enthusiasms, make
unexpected discoveries, will remain if we wish, if we see that these
things happen. Let play and seriousness dance together here! Serio

Allow me, then, to invite you once more to enliven and profit from
whatever we have the wit to make happen in this loosely
controlled, chiefly self-regulating electronic piazza.

Willard McCarty

Willard McCarty, Centre for Computing in the Humanities (Toronto)
(416) 978-3974 voice (416) 978-6519 fax mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca