9.241 about Humanist again, with apologies

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Wed, 18 Oct 1995 21:31:14 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 241.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@phoenix.princeton.edu> (5+)
Subject: about Humanist, again

Dear forgiving colleagues:

My profuse apologies for sending out, via clever Eudora, the message about
Humanist, which several of you kindly reported to me was full of strange
characters. My thanks for your alertness, greater than mine. Here below is =
corrected version.


Humanist: an electronic seminar for humanities computing=20
What is Humanist?=20
Humanist is an international electronic seminar devoted to all aspects=20
of humanities computing. Members use it to exchange information among=20
themselves, ask questions, make announcements, and volunteer information=20
they think will be useful to others. Its primary goal is to provide a=20
wide-ranging forum for discussion that will help advance our=20
understanding of the field and will foster the development of a=20
community out of the many individuals for whom computing is integral to=20
the humanities.=20
Humanist is published by the Center for Electronic Texts in the=20
Humanities (CETH, Princeton and Rutgers). Technical support is provided=20
by Computing and Information Technology (CIT, Princeton), and both CETH=20
and CIT are involved in software development. Its editor is Willard=20
McCarty (Toronto).=20
A brief history.=20
Humanist began in May 1987 as a means of communication among a small=20
group of people concerned with the support of humanities computing. At=20
the time e-mail was relatively new among humanists and mechanisms such=20
as ListServ almost unknown. Humanist grew rapidly and, in response to=20
the community it helped to discover, developed quickly into a=20
international, interdisciplinary forum primarily distinguished by the=20
quality of its discussion. From the example of Humanist, many if not=20
most of the current online groups in the humanities were inspired.=20
For details of the early history, see "HUMANIST: Lessons from a Global=20
Electronic Seminar", <t>Computers and the Humanities</t> 26 (1992): 205-
Whither Humanist?=20
Since the electronic world has grown radically in the last few years and=20
become part of what most humanists do, we must begin by asking if there=20
is any need for the seminar now that so many of its progeny and others=20
populate the virtual world. Its members seem to think so, but to answer=20
positively obliges one then to face the more difficult question of what=20
role remains for it to play. However much people fondly remember the old=20
Humanist, they should remember accurately that it was always changing.=20
Humanist must serve an existing function or it is simply a waste of time=20
for everyone.=20
The significant fact here is negative: despite the proliferation of=20
discussion groups for the conventional academic disciplines, none other=20
has arisen to serve humanities computing as such. This fact suggests a=20
real question for Humanists to consider: is there any need for=20
humanities computing as a distinct pursuit now that computing has=20
penetrated the conventional disciplines? Can we say about it what Ole=20
Johan Dahl said about computer science, that "One may wonder whether=20
[it] is really a discipline of its own, or whether it is merely a set of=20
loosely connected techniques drawn together from different sources" (in=20
<t>Linguaggi nella societa\ e nella tecnica</t>, Milano 1970, p. 371).=20
If humanities computing is merely a rag-bag collection of techniques,=20
then why spend precious resources on it? If it is not, then what forms=20
its core? Answering the question requires that we examine what we have=20
been doing across the disciplines to see where the common ground lies.=20
There are other (and, for some, more serious) questions the new Humanist=20
has to deal with. These arise out of the social and institutional=20
setting in which the new Humanist operates. =20
As Stanley Katz pointed out in his keynote speech at the recent ACH/ALLC=20
conference in Santa Barbara, computing is transforming how we think=20
about and organize learning. In consequence, we are beginning to see a=20
shift in the power to distribute knowledge, from universities into the=20
commercial sector, with its very different (and sometimes inimical)=20
agendas. At the same time, applications of the technology shed fresh=20
light on ancient problems. The mechanical efficiency of computers is the=20
advertised benefit, but the real revolution in thought has far more to=20
do with the computer as cognitive model and genuinely new means of=20
scholarly research, teaching, and publication. The effects of this model=20
are ubiquitous and powerful but largely go unexamined, and imitation of=20
older means still muddies the waters. Our job in the academy is=20
precisely to examine these effects, discover what is new about=20
computing, and so both improve the model and refurbish our cultural=20
heritage. The principal mandate this suggests for the new Humanist,=20
then, is to put the job before the community most qualified to undertake=20
High-level scholarly discussion of computing in the humanities will=20
address one aspect of a much broader need. We in the academy have not=20
done a good job communicating our raison d'=EAtre to the rest of the world=
=97 arguably because so many of us do not ourselves know what it is.=20
Within the university, as outside it, fundamental questions are seldom=20
asked, but our fault is more serious because asking such questions is=20
our principal justification. The profound impact of computing on all=20
aspects of modern life provides therefore a great opportunity to engage=20
in a long-overdue re-examination of what universities do for the society=20
of which they are a part. Humanist cannot take on the whole of this re-
examination, of course, but it does have a role in it =97 potentially a=20
crucial role.=20
How to join.=20
Humanist has a homepage on the WorldWideWeb, at the URL=20
where information is supplied about how to apply for membership, search=20
the archives, and manage one's subscription. The only requirement for=20
membership is that one complete the subscription form, giving some=20
biographical information as well as addresses and the like. Experience=20
has shown that the "Humanist biographies" furnish a valuable means of=20
building the sense of community and introducing like-minded people to=20
each other. =20
Willard McCarty=20
Editor, Humanist=20
October 1995=20