11.0323 infrastructure of computing; compelling its use

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 7 Oct 1997 20:40:30 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 323.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (85)
Subject: infrastructure

[2] From: Dan Price <dprice@union1.tui.edu> (19)
Subject: Promises not to Use Technology???

Date: Mon, 06 Oct 1997 20:33:34 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: infrastructure

In reply to my message on Humanist, 11.0286 (2) of 23 September, on the
"distribution of infrastructure", a colleague responded today with a long,
thoughtful message. His (letting the masculine gender take the entire load
of suspicion) request was that this remain private to me, but he did give
his permission for me to paraphrase, which I do as follows. Apologies to him
for any distortions.

Our computing center at the faculty started more than a decade ago as a
complement to the university computing center, as the staff there were
thought to be too much concerned with the technology and its application to
scientific processing. We began with a mini-computer (those rather huge
machines with terminals connected to them) and just two staff positions and
soon evolved into what was essentially a separate computing center at the
faculty level. Much of our time was consumed by technical support. And it
was even worse when we distributed the computer
power to the desktops and had to give technical support to more people in
their offices. We had no time for matters concerning humanities computing as

Now I think we are in a better position. We have twice as many full-time
employees plus one half-time technican and a 25% of a full-time secretary.
Our mandate is still to run the computer network, servers and common
computer labs. We must also give support to the administrative staff in
the faculty office and in the departments. This is our primary mission.
Besides that we are expected to give support to students, teachers and
researchers as much as we can. But we are given no guidance or rules on
how to do that. As there is a large number of teachers, administrative
staff and researchers, and several thousand students, we simply cannot
satisfy all their wishes. There are almost as many wishes as persons!

This autumn, in order to retain support of the university administration, we
must report to the provost on exactly what we are doing. Usually it is a
rather uncomplicated matter to compare one's goals to what one has actually
accomplished and to document people's willingness to buy or use the product,
and to what degree. For us, however, the goals are only partially defined;
we actually don't know if we have defined these goals correctly or given
them the right priority or even identified the right ones as far as our
users are concerned. We have as well our own vision about the possibilities
of humanities computing, and we have good reason to think that this vision
may in some respects be clearer than that of our users -- if they can be
said to have a vision of such things.

This raises the question of what humanities computing is, of course. From
our perspective it seems to be divided into at least two branches, one for
language-study and one for research into the historical and philosophical
disciplines. I think the needs of these two branches differ too much for us
to offer common seminars. We simply cannot be experts in everything.

So, what are we doing now?

Students are offered unstructured access to the computer labs. Every
Wednesday there is a five-hour course to teach them the basic skills of
computing, e.g. e-mail, Web browsing and wordprocessing. With the latter two
especially we emphasise need peculiar to the humanities.
That means looking for texts and other web sites with content relevant for
the humanities, and using wordprocessors to write compositions with
competent formatting.

For teachers and other members of the faculty we occasionally offer seminars
in different areas of humanities computing. We also offer courses for the
administrative staff.

For the members of faculty we tailor the courses to the concerns of specific
departments. Both Linguistics and Computational Linguistics departments are
giving similar courses on regular basis. Other language departments are now
starting up courses on concording and text-analysis. The archaeologists use
their special mapping and cataloguing programs. Philosophy uses simulations
in logic. In all those instances our role is to help build the bridge
between the technology and the scholarly methodology.

That is the direction of our progress as far as I can see it. As for your
notion of an invisible infrastructure, or "water works", supporting a
humanities computing operation, I beg to differ. I don't think the former
can ever be completely anonymous, and I don't see how there can be
successful organisational units for just "humanities computing". Computing
methods have become an integrated part of all scientific work and should not
be separated out. The "water-workers" have to understand the need for
increasing the dimension of the pipes and of the reservoir. The
teachers/researchers may need to discuss new technical functions, new
methods or just ideas. Our Humanities Computing Centre is that bridge, that
information channel, but also a unit following what is going on (like the
annual ACH/ALLC conferences) to stimulate people to accept new thinking, new
contacts and a new level of interdisciplinarity.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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, 6 Oct 1997 16:51:52 -0400
From: Dan Price <dprice@union1.tui.edu>
Subject: Promises not to Use Technology???

Reaction to the article from "The Chronicle of Higher Ed."

"Canadian University Promises It Won't Require
Professors to Use Technology"

The events and comments of the story seemed rather bizarre to me--were the
professors likewise going to protest the use of typewriters because of what
it was doing to penmenship. I was wondering what folks in similar
positions were saying to Gutenberg about the use of the printing press in
education OR even better, the response to the scribes of Sumer. Did the
elders of the tribe protest the new "crippling technology" of script?

Yes change is difficult, sometimes imposible--for some.


Dan Price, Ph.D.
The Center for Distance Learning
The Union Institute (800) 486 3116 ext.222
440 E McMillan St. (513) 861 6400 ext.222
Cincinnati OH 45206 FAX 513 861 9026


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