11.0447 humanism in the bath

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 9 Dec 1997 20:30:42 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 447.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Francois Lachance <lachance@chass.utoronto.ca> (38)
Subject: Scum of the baths

[2] From: Chris Floyd <cfloyd@carmen.murdoch.edu.au> (138)
Subject: embedding humanism

[3] From: Domenico Fiormonte <itadfp@srv0.arts.ed.ac.uk> (202)
Subject: Role of the Humanities?

Date: Fri, 5 Dec 1997 22:06:00 -0500 (EST)
From: Francois Lachance <lachance@chass.utoronto.ca>
Subject: Scum of the baths


You may be reading a version of this missive without the ad hominem
pleasantry (mostly of an eponymous sort relating to Christ bearers who
want to _be_ Saviours). I rather be blind than not indulge in textual sports
& spurts not fit to be published. This is just to say, honey, you
ain't got no monopoly on censorship or righteousness.

I say to you caster of stones: Name names.
Name those "entrenched academics" you accuse of "selling out".

The entrepreneurial Erasmus would not come away clean from
the scrutiny of your eyes. Nor, I venture, would Humbolt, that imposing
academic-administrator, architect of the modern university. If you
were to apply the standards you set out for the present to the past
there would be no room for nostalgia nor envy, both signs of a
misprision of the locus power. The figure of the
out-of-touch administrator could serve a mirror function.

You write that you

> like Jascha Kessler's comments re dangerous administrators.

I too like them for the signal to my some healthy humanist irony.

There are people both within and without the academy that clean the
tubs through which pass the bathwater and the baby. Those are my
heroes and heroines whatever office they may occupy. They are ready to
throw out both the bathwater and the baby (the one down the pipes to
the recycling plant; the other in the arms of some tutor). Then there
is the brave lot that can toss away the bathing basin itself.

I am reminded of the great joy of the baths that I have on occasion frequented
where puer and senex may let their towels fall with equal dignity.
And from the culture of these establishments, long under siege, has emerged a
collective response vowing never to replicate a culture that breeds
shame and blame.

That is the ethos that I want to carry. I want to recite from long
rosters and with great honour the names of humanists that eschew the
roles of victim or villain. I want to read them and have them read to
me. I care little if my own name is there; I care greatly to see that
of friends.

There are wells to dig, aqueducts to build. And many many strange
things to uncover.

Off to check the references to water in the Digger corpus of songs,

In dissent,


Date: Sun, 7 Dec 1997 17:50:31 +0800
From: Chris Floyd <cfloyd@carmen.murdoch.edu.au>
Subject: embedding humanism

Gary Shawver maintained:
>Actually, there is. They (and pogroms and the Spanish Inquistion) are very
>much tied to ideas of authority and identity which were prevalent hallmarks
>of the Renaissance and Modern Age. Perhaps, in my own muzzy-headed way, I'm
>suggesting that it would be helpful to question whether we are still living
>in the Modern Age, or at least in a Modern Age which sees its self in the
>Renaissance and its opposite in the Middle Ages. In the words of another
>well-know corporation, perhaps it's time to "think different" about a whole
>host of questions, including how to preserve the humanities in a
>post-national era of trans-national corporations. The past two decades have
>seen the redefinition of the humanities and the rejection (from within the
>humanities) of what some have called "the humanist project." How do we who
>are concerned with computing in the humanities fit into this?

I thought you would get me on this, and you passed the test. Nonetheless,
the incidence of man's inhumanity to man is nothing new. We just do it

I suggest we are living in the Postmodern Age insofar as certain
technological developments have given humankind amazing knowledge and power
which cannot be undone, such as nuclear fission; the discovery of DNA; and
computers. This has all occurred in about fifty years, and represents the
extrapolation of the modern, but is majorly different in terms of humans
and their environment. I suggest we are all in the postmodern with a few
commentators explicitly addressing it and others mystifying the issue.

>The past two decades have
>seen the redefinition of the humanities and the rejection (from within the
>humanities) of what some have called "the humanist project." How do we who
>are concerned with computing in the humanities fit into this?

Where there are clear notions of "inhumanity" vis a vis the illtreatment of
our kind, I don't feel the essentials have changed. Thus Saul's comment in
_The Unconscious Civilization_ that: "the humanist, individualistic,
democratic argument has come to us in a direct, unimpeded line from the
very first century of our civilization" (61). Interpretation is a different
matter, as is the thrust of the Enlightenment project. When rich people put
up walls and employ security brutes, then I know we are at war, but I don't
believe that means a redefinition of the 'humanities'. A case of calling a
different thing by the same name when you didn't understand it in the first

>In another vein, one of the OED's definitions of a humanist is one whose
>beliefs are in accordance with
>"A pragmatic system of thought introduced by F. C. S. Schiller and William
>James which emphasizes that man can only comprehend and investigate what is
>with the resources of the human mind, and discounts abstract theorizing;
>so, more generally, implying that technological advance must be guided by
>awareness of widely understood human needs."

Actually, mine indicates that is sense 5 of "humanism", the point being
there are heaps of definitions including "Belief in the mere humanity of
Christ: cf. HUMANITARIAN" which is not my cup of tea.

A problem with the Schiller/James definition is it has the Romantic denial
of the intellectual as if there were essential organic ideas uncorrupted by
the modern fall of patriarchs. Not saying I am unromantic, or opposed to
the sentiment of a controlled fall into the new world. Just that it
provides enough room to drive a truck through.

Recently I have been looking at conservative theory. There are several
schools, notably the more progressive, modernizing ideology of economic
conservatism (Friedman) and that of philosophical conservatism (say Bloom).
However, the effect might be the same where there is a vindication of
socio-economic inequity, and a concerted opposition to what they call
liberals. Philosophical conservatism is critical of the separation of
theoretical knowledge from practical knowledge: "The result is that
abstract knowledge, because it appears systematic, measurable, and cost
effective, is adopted by well-intentioned people who then ignore the
technical-practical knowledge that underpins the ability to solve problems,
practice skills, and express creative impulses" (Bowers, C.A. _Elements of
a Post-Liberal Theory of Education_ 103). Accordingly, socialism is
democratic in theory but not practice. Further to this, Bowers cites
Heilbroner's distinction between radicals who "view life as an epic" and
conservatives who view "it as a process of re-enactment, of renewal, to be
justified in the present" (104). Underlying this is the concept of human
'embeddedness' in society. Where humans in conservative terms are
'unregenerative elements' as per original sin, who despite education will
'continue to manifest selfish, irrational, and destructive behaviours'
(98), then conservation of the 'good' ultimately relies on social order, as
renewed through the natural cyclic boom/bust, feast/famine events of social
organization. The latter is mystified into some sort of Aristotelian system
where the divine plan is hidden, unknown to mere mortals who are "not the
center of the universe and thus is not the absolute source of authority and
meaning" (100).

The implications are obvious in this new world of economic rationalism
where the trend is to free the market and trust in its divine course.
Confronted with logic like that, I am nonplussed. Perhaps I should strip
naked, roll in ash, and travel the streets with a switch from a gum tree.
This is millenarian thinking and nothing to do with humanism. It is contra
humanism, not a redefinition.

>Does this describe the general outlook of this list, especially in regard
>to the uses of technology? Or is this only a partial picture at best?
>Perhaps we need a neo-scholastic search for the precise nature of human
>needs vis-a-vis computer technology.

What? Yet another search engine? There is no such thing as the "precise
nature of human needs" because it is variable. It's a bit like the question
of the meaning of life and everything in _Hitchhiker's Guide to the
Galaxy_. As for computer technology, the cognitive parameters are plain:
text manipulation; data retrieval; communication; ... There can be no
proper definition without an assertion of political will. What do human's
want is a better question. At the moment, the prevailing argument seems to
be that the majority want a go at the big wheel of fortune when they know
it is dead set against them. My argument is, since we are the smart guys on
the block, have an appreaciation of the big picture of the last two
thousand odd years, and can even operate computers, we have something more
valuable to contribute than context free technical applications.

The least would be a relentless dissection of conservative standpoints and
the place of technology. For example, the daily trillion dollar money
stream that traverses the planet is administered by similar electronic data
transfer technology to that which solitary thinking individuals,
independent of the socio-familial matrix, operate with internet. The
difference is that conservative cultural critics regularly snip at the
latter in the same way as they would jibe at a bookish person even though
literacy is prescribed. The consistency of a conservative mindset works
here, where first, a context embedded scenario fragments and mystifies the
broader perspective; and second, the independent thinking individual
contradicts herd wisdom as it is dominated by the natural leaders. In the
schooled society, intellectual endeavour is a hard thing, not achievable by
all, and certainly a privileged indulgence, while team sport (not surfing)
is a soul developing thing. This is fraught with contradictions,
particularly the proposition that conservative thinking is somehow less
abstract and more practical/realistic than other political viewpoints
(sounds very Hegelian). The place of computers is interesting because they
are symbolic processors without a material context vis a vis life and
death. Conservatism accommodates such technology within the greater scheme
of social organization, as if they are a natural progression, a feature of
contemporary reality that has a practical context without any intrinsic
implication for the social future.

Allen Bloom in _Closing of the American Mind_ notes that he: "personally
tried to teach teach [his] students prejudices... Prejudices, strong
prejudices, are visions about the way things are. They are divinations of
the order of the whole of things" (42). I wonder when they learn to grow
up, to question the so-called natural order of things, and deal with
complex scenarios.


Dr Chris Floyd
Phone: +61 8 9339 0490
Fax: +61 8 9385 7443

Date: Mon, 8 Dec 1997 22:05:43 +0000
From: Domenico Fiormonte <itadfp@srv0.arts.ed.ac.uk>
Subject: Role of the Humanities?

I would like to follow the discussion on the "role of the Humanities"
(messages by Floyd, Kessler, McCarty, etc.) sending few passages of
an article that I recently wrote for the "Bullettin for the Society
of Italian Studies". The piece was originally written in response to
a series of scurrilous articles published by the Guardian HES on the
Italian university system. This specific debate perhaps is not of
particular interest to Humanist, but believe that the function vs.
knowledge argument drafted down here and the story of my experience
in the USA are relevant to our discussion. (A full version of the
article is available at http://www.ed.ac.uk/~esit04/TALBOT7.htm)

Apologies for the unmerciful recycling and self-quoting (*citarsi
addosso*, as we say in Italian).


Domenico Fiormonte
Copyright "The Bulletin for the Society of Italian Studies", 30,
1997, pp. 18-27
In USA, while teaching Spanish, I
carried out administrative work within the Rhetoric and Technical
Communication Graduate Programme of Michigan Technological University.
During this time I studied the bulk of the administrative procedures:
application and admission rules (written and unwritten), teaching
requirements and assignments, assistantships, quality assessments,
etc. To improve the knowledge of my task I also gathered a lot of
material from other sources and universities. Following this research,
I will divide my argument in three parts: 1) The Company University;
2) Customer and Learner; 3) Function and Knowledge.


The Federal and State governments policy of financial cutbacks in
education and the consequent market-based competition have already:

a) lowered admission requirements standards;

b) affected dramatically the quality of teaching;

c) reduced or frozen the stipends of the staff without improving
social benefits;

d) made obtaining tenure a mirage and turned into legalised
exploitation part-time contracts of postgraduate students and staff.

These four factors (five, if one includes local or departmental
funding crisis) increased the level of pressure and stress within the
campus, leading to unbearable social strain and a degradation of the
quality of life.

e) The increase of the teaching loads for postgraduate students, who
absorb most of the first-year teaching assignments within the
Humanities departments (English and Modern Languages especially).
Postgraduate students who, I remember: i) are not recognised as
workers (see the rebellion of Yale postgraduates); ii) are paid with
survival stipends (from 500$ to 800$ monthly); iii) cannot protest if
their contract requires twenty hours per week but they have
assignments for thirty or forty. Every teaching assistant knows that
when he has 20-25 students the distinction between 'contact hours' and
preparation (and tutoring, correction, etc.) is a trick, since it
determines the latter on the basis of abstract calculations that have
no relation with real teaching which is an 'individual' rather than a
quantitative process.

f) The 'funding threat' soon becomes the 'surviving problem' producing
a gradual impoverishment of postgraduate research. In order to keep
their teaching contracts and to publish quickly students are forced to
do 'small bites' project; often less substantial and relevant research
that engages for short period of time and get them fast into the job


g) The 'quantitative' (pseudo-scientific) evaluation process has
devastating effects when applied to non-quantifiable phenomena. The
introduction of anonymous teaching evaluations to determine teachers'
effectiveness is a good example. These multiple-choice questionnaires
are distributed to the students at the end of each term, but the
teacher sees them at the beginning of the next one. The results of the
evaluation, in the words of the same 'evaluators', "should be one item
among several" which determine teaching effectiveness. But this is not
what happens in reality. Teaching evaluations (and written class
observations) are checked by Supervisors, Foreign Language Mentors,
Heads of departments, and sometimes by colleagues. In this situation
the real danger is that the teaching evaluations system allows
students to expect services rather than assignments. The metamorphosis
from learner into customer has notable effects at the pedagogical
level. When the responsibility of the learning process is placed
entirely on the teacher-clerk's shoulders the relationship between
teacher and student degenerates, and it becomes impossible to exercise
the minimum authority (a taboo word) required by the transition from a
state of less knowledge to a state of higher knowledge. (Horkheimer
defines authority as "a superiority that can be acknowledged and
accepted.") Not to mention the problem of respect and independence of
judgement, two concepts more and more hard to define in a system that
has cancelled (even in Ivy League institutions) the idea (and the
grade) of 'failure', forbidding the teacher to express his or her
right of assessment.

h) Teaching evaluations can be also a source of manipulation in
consequence of the perverse mechanism of the"University average",
usually showed at the end of each skill evaluated. The university
average includes all ranks and all courses taught and evaluated.
Evaluations scores (modelled on the military ones) are expressed in a
scale of 5. Where 1 means 'poor', and 5 'excellent'. Suppose that our
university average on a given item is 4. This means in practice that
whatever you get below 4 is automatically (though tacitly) considered
by your global performance evaluation team (and by your supervisors)
"below average", and therefore "inadequate". Once the "University
average" mechanism is established, everything between 1 and 4 becomes
irrelevant: you loose -- or, as they say in the industry, you are "out
of standard". As it stands, the evaluation system rather than a useful
diagnostic tool is a threat, another instrument of pressure that risks
also to foster potential 'complicities' (not say do ut des
temptations) between the student and teacher.

i) When a system which communicates and produces knowledge tends to
transform itself into a company, accepting its challenges and its
mentality, our freedom as teachers and researchers is in danger. And
it is not 'just' a question of freedom: an archaic industry mentality
is incompatible with the typical quality control processes used to
review the relevance of scientific research. Here is helpful to tell a
personal experience. During my stay at MTU I was assigned to take care
of an internal survey on our PhD programme (Rhetoric and Technical
Communication). The survey was realised to provide fresh information
to an external 'evaluation team' paid by the same department. The
practice is quite common in the US, where University programmes and
departments are promoted and advertised in a marketing style. The
evaluation process, to which I participated as 'team assistant' and
campus tour guide, is similar to the company job interviews system
where the scheduling provides meetings (both formal and informal) from
8 am to 8 pm. Every minute is carefully organised and planned, and the
'subject' cannot be left alone an instant. The 'treatment' is
undoubtedly impressive, both for its efficiency and professionalism.
At the same time, the control over the team is all pervasive. Every
source of information is accessed (and filtered) through university
bodies or 'employers'. This complex procedure develops in an
atmosphere of mutual trust and reliance, where both parties feel
confident of the information given and provided. At this the point the
exhausted team, after dozens of lunches, dinners, meetings, etc. can
go back home with a bunch of data (two hundred pages survey) to read
and verify. All the features and questions of the survey were decided
entirely by departmental staff. At that moment I was in charge to
e-mail collect the questionnaires from staff and postgraduate students
and draw up graphs and bar charts showing the 'audience' feedback. I
was concerned with the effectiveness of the survey preparation, and
when I tried to avoid the task pleading my insufficient training in
administrative matters, I clashed with the Head of Department. Later
in the week (believe it or not) I became ill, and the survey was
completed directly by the Head of Department and the Director of the
Graduate Studies. To get the questionnaires for the external review
survey my personal e-mail account was entered by the system
administrator with the authorization of the Head of Department, but
without niether consulting or informing me. The lesson of this story
(apart from the account-breaking episode, quickly buried by campus
authorities) was very clear: when a humanities department needs set up
marketing strategies to survive, advertising and propaganda become

l) Coming to the last and perhaps most disturbing point, from what I
noticed above it follows that PhD and Master students are more and
more selected not according to their academic performances, but to
their work flexibility and resistance. Of all deformations this is by
far the most dangerous, as it casts together the notion of paid worker
with that of researcher, eliminating the independence of the second,
and destroying the rights of the first one.


All the phenomena described are intertwined, forming a fuse for an
explosive mix. In 1915 John Dewey discussed similar problems when
arguing with David Snedden about the difference/opposition between
education and "trade-training". Today applying naive business criteria
to research and teaching may lead to debase the very character of
education, which is --still-- erroneously identified with the
"acquisition of specialised skill" (Dewey) rather than an articulate,
long-term process of learning. We risk allowing an unjustified
equivalence to take root in the in the collective sub-conscious. The
equivalence, certainly aberrant, between function and knowledge.
Function here means: efficiency, performance, functionality, and
marketability of the product.Who is affected by this process? The
"improductive" humanities department, of course. But not just them:
*dopo gli anelli deboli verranno gli anelli forti* [the strong links
of the chain will be affected after the weak ones].

We are facing a global crisis of educational systems, and in tackling
this we are coming to a crucial bifurcation. Two forces are facing
each other in the field, and both are a reflection of fragile
economic, historical, and cultural balances which are slowly becoming
manifest: a prevalently market-oriented model, represented by the
North American system (and its more or less tempered clones), and a
heterogeneous European system, whose model does not yet exist but
which it is urgent to invent. The watershed question is still whether
or not, and to what extent the State has to mantain a prominent
(public) financial and political role in orienting research and

Personally, I see a potential conflict between these two systems; a
conflict which is at the same time dangerous and inevitable, and which
we would not hesitate to define a clash between cultures. There is no
point in avoiding or denying this conflict, since it will decide the
future quality of our life. The troubles of the Italian university
system do not prove the virtues of the other systems. It is fair to
discuss these problems, but we must bear in mind that we are facing a
global crisis of educational models, which goes back to the industrial
reorganisation process carried out in the past twenty years by many
Western governments. This started out as a restructuration of the
economy and was followed by a shift in our way of thinking which
replaced a paradigm of social advance with one of economical progress.
(The day after Berlusconi's election Alberto Cavallari, recalling
Tocqueville, wrote on La Repubblica: "We are approaching a world where
men will be ruled by their interests, and not by values.)

Domenico Fiormonte
University of Edinburgh, Department of Italian
David Hume Tower, George Square
EH8 9JX -- United Kingdom

Fax: 131-650-6536
E-mail: itadfp@srv0.arts.ed.ac.uk
or mc9809@mclink.it

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