9.412 what we are doing

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Fri, 22 Dec 1995 18:54:11 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 412.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: CHUCK TAYLOR <ctaylor@nova.wright.edu> (50)
Subject: Re: 9.410 what are we doing?

[2] From: Mark Olsen <mark@barkov.uchicago.edu> (47)
Subject: Re: 9.410 what are we doing?

Date: Fri, 22 Dec 1995 10:13:01 -0500 (EST)
From: CHUCK TAYLOR <ctaylor@nova.wright.edu>
Subject: Re: 9.410 what are we doing?

WM's comments on Allen Renear's "Preamble" to his reviews of the
books by Bolter and Lanham provokes many thoughts worthy of more thought.

Renear apparently agrees with Mark Olsen that "... computer-aided literary
studies have failed to make a significant contribution to literary
research..." This failure comes from another failure, not dealing with "...
theories and hypotheses which seem particularly tractable to
computational techniques..." I would like to expand upon WM's suggestion
that it may take a long time for us to learn what changes the computer is
making in humanities scholarship. I am curious as to just what is meant
by things "particularly tractable to [computers]". A high level
administrator here recently described using multimedia in anything other
than a large [400 student] class as wasting resources on nothing but a
"glorified overhead". As one who uses multimedia in each meeting of all
of my philosophy classes I can easily see the lack of imagination in the
"glorified overhead" argument. It is quite similar to the "horseless
carriage" notion of the automobile at the beginning of this century. I
think a case can be made that we are still in the process of trying to
understand the meaning of auto-mobility. So it seems likely that even
the most imaginative among humanities computing scholars may likewise
still be thinking of "glorified overheads" [no longer in bowling alleys]
and horseless carriages. The human being is also correctly defined as a
"featherless biped" -- but such correctness seems to misss the essential.

Let me cite just one example of what may be a narrowness of imagination
on what is tractable to computers. In a 1992 essay, "A Potency of Life:
Scholarship in an Electronic Age" [still available on WM's home page -
www.epas.utoronto.ca:8080/~mccarty/wlm/] WM discusses electronic books.
Obviously what seems most compelling to WM is what he calls the
electronic edition --"...textual corpora in electronic form, especially
large ones such as the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, the Dartmouth Dante
Database, or the Tresor de la Langue Francaise..." I do not mean to
question the significance of these projects or more recent ones
[including WM's own work on Ovid's Metamorphoses]. But I am less certain
that the electronic book should only be in the form of large corpora.
Yes, it is true that I am working on a different kind of project -- a
hypertext version of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. I think it will take
a long time to adequately assess the "failures of computer-aided literary
studies". What is needed is experimentation of all kinds. If this were
a graphical forum I would show here a picture of a Model T roadster with
rear wheels removed, metal tractor tires attached pulling a plow. In
fact, I'll put it on my home page [philos.wright.edu/CST.html].

It is instructive to note that the first attempts to teach people how to
use computers involved teaching programming languages. That
would have been matched in Gutenberg's era by teaching everyone how to
set type. Those who started teaching people to read seemed to have the
better idea. And so did Aldus Manutius.

Charles S. Taylor
Director, Master of Humanities Program
Professor of Philosophy
Wright State University
Dayton, OH

Date: Fri, 22 Dec 1995 11:05:21 -0600
From: Mark Olsen <mark@barkov.uchicago.edu>
Subject: Re: 9.410 what are we doing?

>> [1] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@phoenix.princeton.edu> (77)
>> >>
>> What astonishes Renear is that "with a few exceptions, the humanities computing
>> community has been almost entirely absent from efforts to understand, evaluate,
>> or contribute to these developments - few if any ACH/ALLC members are prominent
>> in these discussions of the new technologies and ACH/ALLC conferences generally
>> have only a very modest participation on these topics" (he notes exceptions in
>> CHum).

I am in total agreement with Alan that the ACH/ALLC has been rather
silent on the issues. Even _CHum_ has not been nearly as effective as
it should be in examining these new technologies. But my criticism
of the discipline, which should as Willard notes, be taken "as a challenge
in an ongoing conversation rather than a mere statement of fact,"
is really a rather paradoxical effort to downplay the importance of
"technology" as the driving force behind humanities computing. Just because
we can do something with a computer does not mean that it is salient
to the concerns of humanities research. There has been, IMHO, excessive
satisfaction with getting computers to do (really neat) things, with
little regard to the theoretical and/or methodological foundations of
such activities.

>> Why, for example, are we not leading the world in innovative
>> applications of the Web for academic and scholarly publishing?

I think Willard is a bit too pessimistic here. There are some really
quite extraordinary projects on the WWW today. The Rosetti archive,
the French Theatre project out of Montreal, John Price-Wilkins' HTI
effort, and several others all indicate that humanities scholars are
making important contributions and giving every indication of where
the WWW is taking humanities publishing and new mechanisms to make
basic research materials available.

But, and there is always a but with me I guess :-), new technologies
can be used to do the "same old thing," even when the "same old thing"
is not well suited to the new technology. Without sufficient concern
in our "home" disciplines, we will continue to generate print and
electronic publications that are not read by our colleagues and that
do not spark important substantive amd/or theoretical debates within
the disciplines which we represent and want to remain active.

On a much more important note, let me wish you all the best of
holidays and a very good New Year!!


Mark Olsen
Assistant Director
ARTFL Project
University of Chicago
(312) 702-8687
Gopher: gopher.uchicago.edu/11/uscholarly/artfl
WWW: http://humanities.uchicago.edu/ARTFL/ARTFL.html

Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections
must first be overcome. --- Samuel Johnson