9.413 what we are doing

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Sun, 24 Dec 1995 12:10:35 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 413.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@utoronto.ca> (40)
Subject: what we are doing

My thanks to Chuck Taylor and to Mark Olsen for picking up the challenge in
Humanist 9.410 and carrying it further. It seems to me that we can make some
progress in the discussion, since (as Olsen notes in his remark about online
publishing) a number of significant projects are underway or completed.

I did not mean to suggest that as *individuals* we are failing to lead, e.g.
in the area of online publishing, rather that our professional organizations
have not so far done so, as Allen Renear suggests. Unfortunately, these
efforts tend to be identified with what Olsen calls our "home disciplines"
rather than with humanities computing per se. That creates problems, first
of all for those of us who have identified with humanities computing, but
also for everyone else who benefits from the work of specialists in the field.

I couldn't agree more with Taylor, that experimentation of ALL kinds is
required, however near or far from what we have done in the past. I'm
puzzled, though, as to what he means by "narrowness of imagination". It
would be helpful indeed to know what the criteria might be for judging
breadth of imagination in a humanities computing project. Does this have
anything to do with the technological methods a project may employ?

Olsen, I think, is closer to the heart of the matter in his "rather
paradoxical effort to downplay the importance of 'technology' as the driving
force behind humanities computing". The computer can do all sorts of nifty
things, but as he points out, if these are primary then we are engaged in a
very different activity. The same, however, holds true if we use the
computer as a "mere tool", applying it only to do what could be done before,
though perhaps less quickly. I keep circling back to a question that has
preoccupied me for many years: what is humanities computing? It seems to me
that the answer lies in the paradoxical interaction between what we know the
computer can do and what as scholars we think needs doing. Each affects the
other profoundly. Would we understand the nature of the chisel without the
wood, or be able to realise the potential of the wood without the chisel?

Good, careful scholarship takes a long time and much effort to complete. To
engage the attention of the community, it must address problems of current
interest and demonstrably contribute to our understanding of these problems.
Impatience is understandable, but in order not to trivialize the enormous
potential of humanities computing, Sitzfleisch is required. And afterwards,
we must turn a steady eye on the products and ask, do we really now
understand more than we did before about this poem or work of art? What has
the computer had to do with the increased understanding, if any?



Willard McCarty, Univ. of Toronto || Willard.McCarty@utoronto.ca