13.0162 humanities computing

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 30 Aug 1999 11:22:41 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 162.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Mon, 30 Aug 1999 11:12:41 +0100
From: Mark Wolff <wolffm0@hartwick.edu>
Subject: The Legitimacy of Humanities Computing

I suppose every discipline examines itself in order to determine what
its research agenda is or should be, but the recent discussion over
the identity of humanities computing has left me both enthusiastic and
anxious. Enthusiastic, because I feel there is real work to be done
in exploring the potential of digital media. Anxious, because the
discussion seems to blur what we do as members of the same field with
who we are within the wider field of academia. To a certain extent
doing and being are inextricable, but our discourse on what humanities
computing is plays itself out for ourselves within the field and for
others outside the field whom we want to persuade (for recognition,
tenure, etc.). A discourse that plays both sides without
self-reflexion runs the risk of misrecognizing our current place in
the academy and attributing false causes for where we are today.
While I agree with Norman Hinton's plea for impartiality among the
editorial boards of humanities journals, I can't help but sense that
the blame is being placed not on humanities computing scholars who
can't get published but on publishers who won't take a chance with the
new research. Willard McCarty's reference to chaos theory reassures
me that even though we work in many different areas, we can still
communicate our ideas and work toward defining a common language. And yet
at the
same time, his remarks seem directed toward those outside
the field whom he wants to assure that there is an elephant out there,
lest they think we were pursuing some intellectual dead end. The
inside/outside dichotomy of professional discourse is inescapable I
suppose, but I think we can gain more clarity if we try to objectify
our roles as scholars within the academy. Instead of speaking to
ourselves as insiders or to others as outsiders, we should try, as
best we can, to observe where we have positioned ourselves within
academia, how we got where we are today, and where we can expect to

In his studies of various fields such as academia, literature, and art,
Pierre Bourdieu has argued that in order for a field to act as a
legitimate authority within society, it must attain autonomy over what
it claims to specialize in. Literary scholars, for instance, can speak
with authority about literature because they practice methods of
scholarship they develop over a corpus of texts they define, and they
evaluate the work of their peers in order to maintain standards for
their scholarship. Established fields often experience minor internal
struggles, such as disputes over how one should read a certain author,
but these struggles usually remain within the field and do not concern
people outside the field. A nascent field necessarily concerns itself
with opening a space within society where its practitioners can claim
positions for themselves. Members of a new field must address people
outside the field in order to gain recognition for what they do which
identifies who they are. Even after twenty years, humanities computing
is still a nascent field because much of its discourse is preoccupied
with telling other disciplines where its authority lies.

I see two agendas developing for humanities computing. The first
proposes that computers serve the interests of traditional humanities
scholarship by creating tools for research in the disciplines without
claiming that these tools represent humanities research in themselves.
Those who create and maintain text- and imagebases may have
definite ideas about the significance of their digital stuff (more on
that below), but usually they serve the needs of researchers and
students who do not see anything but greater and faster access to
materials which, although now digitized, remain the same. As a former
manager of large, fulltext databases at the University of Chicago, my
primary mandate was to make digital resources useful to people who
simply wanted their stuff online with a useful interface. In this
sense humanities computing is an extension of library science: we
have specialized skills in providing other scholars access to their
materials. Just as most scholars do not want to think about how AACR2
was used to catalog a particular title, most scholars probably do not
want to think about how TEI was used to encode a text. There are
those outside of the field who insist this is our place and will hear
nothing more about what we do. When I talk to people outside of
humanities computing about how my use of computers can radically
change the nature of humanities scholarship, I frequently meet with
quizzical looks, suspicion, and outright hostility. Those who would
have us encode their documents for them will certainly give us thanks
and credit for the good work we do, but they will not consider our
work on a par with traditional humanities research which at best
recognizes computers as time-saving devices. As a result, humanities
scholars may find themselves toward the bottom of the academic totem
pole, providing technical support instead of receiving recognition for
real scholarship.

The second agenda assumes that computers have already changed
humanities scholarship and pursues questions that only a humanities
computing scholar could understand and appreciate. The ACH/ALLC
conference in Virginia was the first humanities computing conference I
attended, and it was fascinating to learn about, among other things,
the intellectual aspects of text encoding. I thoroughly enjoyed the
talks I heard, but I kept asking myself, "Where else would I hear
someone talk at length about how to use a particular tag?" Humanities
computing scholars have created fields of inquiry that belong to them
and them only, and this is a sign that the field is gaining an
identity and with it authority. However, as Mark Olsen argued several
years ago, scholarship in humanities computing is often isolated from
mainstream humanities scholarship: very few people outside the field
come to our panels at the MLA or read our articles and books. This is
not necessarily a problem: that botanist who ended up receiving a
Nobel prize probably didn't care that people outside her
specialization didn't read her articles. It depends on how you define
your specialization. If the grass specialist had been bothered that
other biologists ignored her, she would have seen herself belonging to
a wider field and might have appealed to a more general audience by
changing the direction of her research. If she was happy to continue
studying grasses in the way that she did, she could continue her
research and wait for others to catch up with her. "To the happy few,"
as Stendhal once wrote.

I think we need to reconcile these two agendas if we are going to make
humanities computing a legitimate discipline. We need to convince those
outside the field that what we do is more than programming, encoding,
and building web sites, and to do so we need to come up with
methodologies for using computers in humanities research that have a
real impact on humanities scholarship writ large. To a certain extent
we are already doing this, but we need to focus on how people's use of
computers affects their understanding of the world and to develop
methods for analyzing the effects computers produce in people's
encounters with texts and with each other. If I use ARTFL just to
look up citations, then the database is not much more than a
sophisticated concordance. If I show how using ARTFL changes the way
we think about French literature and why we should continue to use
databases like ARTFL, then I am on my way to claiming a position in a
field formed as a new space within humanities research, and in this
space I can find peers with whom I share authority.


Mark B. Wolff Assistant Professor, Department of Modern and Classical Languages Faculty Liaison, Teaching, Technology, and Learning Center Hartwick College Oneonta, NY 13820

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