10.12 optimism

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Thu, 9 May 1996 19:26:09 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 12.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU> (57)
Subject: optimism

A fellow Humanist has taken me to task, gently but firmly, for the
optimism in my birthday message. He asked me not to forward the note to
the group, so I am doing the next best thing, which is to paraphrase his
objection and then to reply.

How possibly can anyone be optimistic when so much around us is shutting
down and turning inward? The optimist is perhaps always a fool, sometimes
only a little foolish, sometimes a big one. Thus the spectrum of
possibilities I contemplate for myself. My intention was not, however, to
ignore the realities, rather it was more a call to arms for those who
still have the energy to raise them. The economy may be against us, the
Zeitgeist may be a crabbed and selfish spirit, but our wisdom is needed
and in some places is in demand. It may be that the intellectual life
will move out of the university and that to live it will mean for most a
choice between the sofa and the desk chair in the evening, but there
seems no question at all that humanities computing will play a growing
role in how this life is lived, despite all. Not for everyone, of course,
but for many.

There are strong forces at work. I referred in my birthday message to
recognition at high levels of the academy that we must play a central
role. At the same time, one of the principal barriers, the relegation of
humanities computing to the role of a mere "service", makes less and less
sense, even as budgetary forces oppose its advancement. A passage I keep
returning to in this regard -- forgive me, no doubt I have quoted it
before -- is from Jaroslav Pelikan's book, The Idea of the University,
where briefly he touches on the role of technology in the changing
structure of the institution. With your indulgence I will quote it here:

"Just as the reexamination of the idea of the university implies new
attention to university's definition of itself as a community in its
teaching, so the definition of the university as a community of research
requires significant reconsideration in the light of the "sisterly
disposition" of the sciences toward one another. That applies in the
first instance to those departments, agencies, and personnel of the
university who usually stand outside the classroom but without whom
research would halt. Because of its unique position among these as the
heart of the university, the university library... must be seen as a
collegial part of a total university network of support services for
research, and the network must be seen as a free and responsible
community if it is to be equal to the complexities that are faced by
university-based research. Indeed, even such a term as "providers of
support services" is becoming far too limited to describe both the skills
and the knowledge required of those who hold such positions. Scholars and
scientists in all fields have found that the older configurations of such
services, according to which the principal investigator has the questions
and the staff person provides answers, are no longer valid, if they ever
were; as both the technological expertise and scholarly range necessary
for research to grow, it is also for the formulation and refinement of
the questions themselves that principal investigators have to turn to
"staff", whom it is increasingly necessary -- not as a matter of
courtesy, much less a matter of condescension, but as a matter of justice
and of accuracy -- to identify instead as colleagues in the research
enterprise." (Yale U.P., p. 62)

I suggest that we adopt the term "collegial service" to describe what now
must happen, and that we equate it to the service-component common to
academic jobs in N. America and the U.K. Perhaps a mere term will help to
blur or in some cases to erase the often sharp boundary of privilege.

All this to prove my optimism.