11.0091 ruminations

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sun, 8 Jun 1997 15:57:38 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 91.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sun, 8 Jun 1997 15:46:31 +0100 (BST)
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: ruminations on the field

These are ruminations arising from the fine ACH/ALLC conference just held
in Kingston, Ontario. As one perhaps more extensively involved that he
should have been, I am very interested in what any Humanist might have to
say about my ruminations and the issues they point to. Many Humanists
might not locate themselves in humanities computing as such, but like
comparative literature the field is defined so as to include anyone
interested in the interdisciplinary common ground. That means all of us.

Two broad developments seem now to be affecting our work. The first is
institutional investment in the field. Within the last few years a small
but significant number of institutions in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.
have established posts in humanities computing itself or expanded their
academic staff in the field. Jobs in the traditionally non-technical
fields have also been advertised with explicit responsibilities for
applied computing. In other cases academic-related and non-academic
positions have been created along similar lines. As became obvious from
talking to attendees of the conference, there are a number of quite
different institutional models for humanities computing; these vary
considerably with local conditions. Nevertheless, overall institutional
commitment to our field is very encouraging.

At the same time (as one attendee put it) those of us whose jobs put us
squarely in this field may feel as if we're sitting in the road with
tire-tracks up our backs. Computing has become so integral to what
academics do that we can no longer lay claim to, or perhaps even keep
track of everything that is happening. In some cases we may feel as if the
action has moved elsewhere altogether. This is especially true since
imaging and the Web took the centre-stage of humanities computing away
from text-processing, leaving the Old Guard guarding an outpost at the
edge of an empire expanding rapidly away from them. Having awakened our
colleagues in the non-technical disciplines, we may feel as if they don't
need us any more.

But of course they do. No one else will tend the interdisciplinary common
ground. Those appointed in the non-technical disciplines will cultivate
and remain aware of only those patches that immediately verge on their
bits of turf. If each discipline is the centre of all knowledge, then that
knowledge is shaped to orbit the discipline, and those aspects of related
knowledge that do not fit will be neglected or only seen dimly. Since
applied computing is in flux, changing with the progress of the
technology, our common ground must be tended and developments brought to
the attention of the other disciplines as collegial service to them. At
the core, however, must lie real research in humanities computing. The
ACH/ALLC conference gave us examples of such research and strong reason to
think that a critical mass of insight is possible if we are able to bring
the bits and pieces of our work together. Communication is thus essential.

One problematic aspect of communication among ourselves came out in a
number of conference papers, namely the rhetoric of interdisciplinary
discussion. How does one communicate common insights to one's colleagues
in other disciplines? This is not an easy thing to do! I find generalities
to be unconvincing, indeed empty of any real content. Thus to reach these
colleagues I find that one must begin by explaining why anyone other than
a specialist should care about the research one is doing, even the terms
in which scholarly work in one's own field is defined. Even the nature of
what is considered "scholarly" must sometimes be explained. It is simply
not good enough to satisfy those who know these terms already and are
already committed to the goals and methods of one's discipline.

I guess what I am talking about is something we might call collegial
teaching, a close companion of the collegial service that seems to me to
lie at the core of humanities computing. It is also, perhaps, one of the
best ways to prepare oneself for the outreach beyond the institution that
some argue is vitally necessary to our survival as academics. How many of
us can answer the questions one tends to get for example from children
reaching adulthood and so wondering where their parents fit into the world
-- what do you do? why do you do it? why should I care about that?

"Opposition is true friendship" (Wm. Blake), and so comments please.
Humanists from beyond the borders of the three countries I mentioned above
are most welcome to correct any parochialisms.

Yours, WM