10.0657 literary computing

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 4 Feb 1997 20:40:13 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 657.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[For most of the following, my thanks to H-CLC and particularly to Barbara
Diederichs for the question. --WM]

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (34)
Subject: agonizing

[2] From: rgpotter@iastate.edu (Rosanne G. Potter) (24)
From: "H-CLC (BD)" <bdiederi@ucsd.edu> ( )
Subject: Re: Computers and the changing fashions of literary

[3] From: Eric Johnson <johnsone@jupiter.dsu.edu> (19)
From: "H-CLC (BD)" <bdiederi@ucsd.edu> ( )
Subject: Re: Computers and the changing fashions of literary

[4] From: Austin Meredith <rchow@benfranklin.hnet.uci.edu> (24)
From: "H-CLC (BD)" <bdiederi@ucsd.edu> ( )
Subject: Re: Computers and the changing fashions of literary

[5] From: Bornstein <georgeb@umich.edu> (11)
Subject: Re: 10.0651 queries

Date: Tue, 04 Feb 1997 08:11:04 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: agonizing

Barbara Diederich's question in Humanist 10.651, in which she asks "why do
people get into literary computing, and why do they give it up?", varies a
theme prominently articulated by Mark Olsen in CHum and elsewhere and before
him by Yaacov Choueka, who asked in 1988, "The tools are here, where are the
results?" Mark pointed to a supposed lack of results from the application of
computing to the study of literature, concluding (grossly to oversimplify)
that if we were all studying literary history, as he does, we would get
somewhere. At the Oxford ALLC/ACH conference John Burrows (who has published
many a real result) answered Mark, saying gently that we should all be
patient, that these things take time. Time, of course, is also an enemy and
may suggest part of an answer to Barbara's question: people get old, they
get tired; their interests change; they move past the stage of quickly
obtained results, burrow into longer-term projects, and have the wisdom not
to be publishing all the time.

The work of humanists is like a great boulder near the top of a cliff, and
the researcher like a person slowly pushing that boulder to the edge. The
people below notice, chatter about it for a while, then the person above and
his or her boulder become familiar and are gradually forgotten -- until one
day their effects are suddenly felt. The great work has arrived. So if you
see a computing humanist rubbing his or her shoulder and complaining how
heavy some things are....

Is it correct to say that masses (such as they are) of computing humanists
in literary studies have given up? Or is it more accurate to posit a second
phase of our work, a quieter time when these masses have burrowed into their
projects, heeding the widespread call for fewer promises and more results?
Or should we look to some fundamental misconception, such as the pernicious
notion that our research is about building bridges rather than learning from
their collapse? Have we been utterly seduced by mistaking production for

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk

Date: Mon, 03 Feb 97 14:56:23
From: rgpotter@iastate.edu (Rosanne G. Potter)

Dear Barbara,

I can only answer for myself. Literary computing is extremely demanding:

1. it takes a great deal of foresight to design projects so that they
will lead to reportable results;

2. it creates piles of data and opens so many paths that one can easily
become overwhelmed by choices;

and (possibly less important, but also problematic),

3. questions about what is worth looking at, what constitutes proof,
what kinds of assertions can be defended from a theoretical standpoint
mean that the ground under one's feet keeps shifting.

I have spent more time collecting data on reader responses to plays and
designing concordances of the dialogue in those plays than I have been
able to spend on writing the articles and books that should some day
come out of those projects. I suspect I am not alone in spending so
much time creating a dataset that is worth investigating that I have not
had the time to investigate it.

The early issues of _Computers and the Humanities_ are full of the
relics of huge projects that were started and never completed.
Computers seem, from the beginning, to have lured critics into having
eyes bigger than their stomachs.

I'll be interested in hearing what other people think about your very
interesting question.

Rosanne G. Potter
Professor of English
Iowa State University

Date: Mon, 3 Feb 1997 12:01:57 -0600 (CST)
From: Eric Johnson <johnsone@jupiter.dsu.edu>

Some of Barbara's questions are discussed in my published article that
is now available online at


--Eric Johnson

Date: Mon, 3 Feb 1997 08:23:44 -0800 (PST)
From: Austin Meredith <rchow@benfranklin.hnet.uci.edu>

Every once in awhile some scholar who has not taken the trouble to view
our materials offers to dismiss our project out of hand by presuming that
this Computational Linguistics approach from the 1970s and 1980s _must_ be
the sort of thing that we presently do at this project -- they typically
consider that they don't need to look at our work product since we are
after all merely _using computers_, and since those number-cruncher people
also were _using computers_, and since computers are _only useful for
number crunching, tabulation, that sort of thing_.

That's very frustrating, as nothing which we are doing in any way
resembles the Computational Linguistics approach (we are employing
hypertext and transclusion techniques), and since I have checked around
from time to time and, bad news, have never sighted any piece of
scholarship which I would consider has actually benefited from that sort
of mindset. Various people have aimed me in the direction of various
pieces of scholarship, as proof texts, but to date whenever I have
actually looked at these proferred pieces of scholarship, the questions I
have had to ask myself have been:"What the hey is the question they are
posing?" "What the hey is the demonstrated finding which they have

Where's the evidence to show that Computational Linguistics was ever
anything more than an agenda, a proposal, a pronouncement, a false start?
Where are their results? Where is _any_ result? At this point I have to
consider it to have been merely an embarrassment, something which is sadly
interfering with our own acceptance as a viable scholarly enterprise.

\s\ Austin Meredith <r2chow@uci.edu>, "Stack of the Artist of Kouroo" Project

Date: Mon, 3 Feb 1997 19:56:51 -0500 (EST)
From: Bornstein <georgeb@umich.edu>
Subject: Re: 10.0651 queries

In reply to Barbara Diederich's recent query about studies in
computing and literary criticism, I would like to mention the
new collection THE LITERARY TEXT IN THE DIGITAL AGE, edited by
Richard Finneran and published recently by University of Michigan
Press, which brings together some outstanding essays.

George Bornstein Department of English
C.A. Patrides Professor of Literature University of Michigan
email: georgeb@umich.edu Ann Arbor, Mich. 48109-1045
office phone: (313) 764-6330 office fax: (313) 763-3128