9.689 designing a position in humanities computing

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Thu, 4 Apr 1996 21:21:36 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 689.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: John Slatin <jslatin@mail.utexas.edu> (27)
Subject: Re: 9.682 designing a position in humanities computing

[2] From: "Patrick W. Conner" <U47C2@wvnvm.wvnet.edu> (83)
Subject: Re: 9.682 designing a position in humanities computing

Date: Thu, 4 Apr 1996 09:35:02 -0600
From: John Slatin <jslatin@mail.utexas.edu>
Subject: Re: 9.682 designing a position in humanities computing

Maybe this simply (re)states the obvious, but it's increasingly clear to me
that we're talking about two separate kinds of positions here, or at least
different functions. One of these involves humanities computing as I
described it in my post yesterday: the expression of disciplinary concerns,
both scholarly and pedagogical, in the computational medium, i.e., as
electronic documents and as software. This is clearly a *faculty* position.
Right now this is a narrow specialization which only a few graduate programs
are preparing graduate students to fill; in years to come, "humanities
computing" will be the norm. So that's one position. The other is a
staff/support position, whose purpose is to enable the former by providing
additinal technical expertise that falls outside the purview of graduate
training in our fields. This position can, I think, sometimes be filled by
students, and indeed this is one way that we can assure ourselves that there
will be technically skilled people who are also informed, to some degree at
least, about disciplinary concerns. But these are complementary positions;
without the faculty person, the technical person has no significant mission
beyond making sure the IP addresses are entered correctly or whatever (not
that this is trivial!); without the technical person, even the most highly
skilled humanities computing faculty cannot fully realize his or her goals.

In order to make this work, then, we're going to have to abandon our
customary model of the individual scholar working alone; computational
projects of any significance are of necessity collaborative efforts now.
Professor John M. Slatin
Director, Computer Writing & Research Lab
Div. of Rhetoric and Composition and Dept. of English
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712
jslatin@mail.utexas.edu http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu

Date: Thu, 4 Apr 1996 00:09:00 -0500 (EST)
From: "Patrick W. Conner" <U47C2@wvnvm.wvnet.edu>
Subject: Re: 9.682 designing a position in humanities computing

We have just hired a person of the sort you are talking about. As Chair
of the English Department here at WVU, I suppose I'm the person who
set out to design the position. I don't have the advert (which was posted
here) at hand, but it used the usual language, mentioning Ph.D. required,
must demonstrate ability to do/direct original research/publication, etc.
It was tied to our Center for Literary Computing, which we started here
four years ago, and which I've been trying to run with my left hand. I want
the CLC to develop in some significant ways. The University is very interested
bringing technology into instruction, so I was allowed to undertake the
search and consequent hiring.

Our Department IS networked (pace John Slatin), thanks to our former chair
who could see the immense value of a network. (We need someone
to help us make full use of the network, but nevertheless, we've got it
in place.)

The search for our new Asst. Prof. of English with a specialty in Humanities
Computing and who will be the Coordinator of the WVU CLC was much more
complicated than my writing the ad and placing it, however. Indeed, the
position began to be defined to some degree in the hiring process itself.

My committee was made up of four faculty who have come to take computing
very seriously and two staff people: our LAN manager who is our in-house
technician, and the "contributing editor" of _Victorian Poetry_, which we're
a-fixing to turn into an electronic journal. We had never before used
staff on a hiring committee, but we felt that this committee required it,
and I feel it was an excellent thing to do.

Quite early on I discovered that the committee did not have a unified
notion of what the new person would do. One person seemed to believe that
great HTML skills were the sine qua non, and another wanted Sperberg-McQueenish
(or Burnardian, since I'm sure both those quys are looking in.... ) expertise
in SGML. I wanted someone who would view distributed computing as a
development in English language/culture/literary studies, someone who
grasped the idea that what we do with langage in all of the ways we
confront it in an English department (writing, reading, editing, etc.)
is changing in ways it has not changed since the beginning of the early
modern period. So as we poured through the forty or fifty applications
we received, we had a lot of discussions which ended up focusing on
what this person's expertise would have to include and on what directions
it might take from there.

We did agree that we wanted someone who already knew their way around the
internet, and decided to ask a portion of the applicants to submit further
materials by mounting web pages we could access.

I felt a bit awkward about this request at first, but the committee thought
it such a good idea that I couldn't very well say that we might lose good
people if we appeared to be playing games. In fact, we did lose several
people who simply never submitted URLs for us to view. At least one of these
people was highly favored by all of us on account of the first application,
and when next I run into him, I shall be very interested to know why he
didn't follow up on his application. I came to believe, however, that
anyone who balked at that request was probably not the person we wanted.
Certainly, as most of the committee and I said numerous times, "there's a
lot more to the forms of computing which concern us than writing home pages,"
but on the other hand, anyone who cannot create a positive online presence
for himself/herself is going to find it difficult to help the CLC, the
faculty, or his/her own career as a computerist. The "cyberdossiers," as
we called them, were remarkably useful. They informed us about all kinds
of things, from providing explicit answers to questions we asked (describe
a course in humanities computing you would offer for graduate students
in English with no special backgrounds in computing) to allowing glimpses
into self-presentation, style, taste, attentiveness to detail, etc. Some
applicants linked their cyberdossiers back to personal home pages or to
projects they had undertaken or to something else which gave us valuable
information we would never have been able to get in a personal interview.

Our new professor will arrive in August, and I'm looking forward to seeing
how she will begin to take on the mantle of literary computerist,and in
doing so, how she will begin to define the position we have created. The
next search (when she retires in 35 years, I hope) will be easier, because
the profession will have defined what's involved in such work, and everything
will be less _ad hoc_. But, from another point of view, people define
their own positions to a large extent. The best we always do is to choose
a good person for a combination of duties (teach the Renaissance courses,
provide dissertation expertise in early modern prose, help around the
department like everyone else), and the person wears that shoe until
it fits their foot (Shakespeare and Spenser were very nearly Marxists;
if you're going to mention early modern prose, you have to know a lot
about the influence of Paduan scholars; under the good person's guidance,
the undergraduate English Club has become a dynamo.) No one could design


Patrick W. Conner o phone:(304) 293-3107
Department of English |
P.O. BOX 6296 x e-mail: U47C2@wvnvm.wvnet.edu
West Virginia University |
Morgantown, WV 26506-6296 o fax:(304) 293-5380