14.0022 the ABCs, simple answers, home truths

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Thu May 18 2000 - 06:43:37 CUT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 22.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Thu, 18 May 2000 07:39:47 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: the ABCs, simple answers, home truths

    Dear Colleagues,

    As we seem rapidly to be pulling away from the necessity of instilling
    skills and to be reaching a high-ground of more interesting research
    questions of our own, what is happening to our introductory courses,
    lectures, workshops and the like?

    I raise the question primarily because when I think about my early
    experiences in university I recall having a particular kind of
    knowledge-hunger, the satisfactions of which remain vivid in memory as
    formative points of my intellectual life. I would hope we all have such
    anecdotes as I could recall at length, for example of the showman-professor
    of chemistry who charmed all 500 of us into a desire to study his subject,
    in effect by demonstrating his excitement and love of it. Perhaps I am just
    an incurable romantic, but attempting for the moment to be as sober as
    possible ("damn braces, bless relaxes"), I still think that no utilitarian
    lecture on the usefulness of chemistry in modern life and how it increased
    one's chances for a job would have worked even remotely as well as the
    professor's demonstrations of intelligent love. And I hope very much this
    is the general case now, that underneath the worries about jobs, investment
    profiles and retirement plans that knowledge-hunger still gnaws as strongly
    as ever.

    Let us say (cheer me and yourself up, please!) that our students and
    colleagues are still thus ravenous. The question, somewhat refined, is: how
    do we computing humanists appeal to their knowledge-hunger? What do we
    teach, how do we teach it, in order to demonstrate in plain terms what
    humanities computing is all about?

    I think it's rather easier to reach the specialist than the beginner. As a
    teacher of mine once said, "In the mind of the beginner there are many
    possibilities, in the mind of the expert there are few." The intelligent,
    curious beginner wants to know the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the
    disciplinary promised land one is travelling toward, has to be convinced
    that life there will be worth all that it takes to reach it. (As in the
    biblical original, it's difficult to keep the faith between original vision
    and arrival.) The specialist, who is already committed to the game, will
    not tend to ask the really hard questions. Of course the beginner and the
    expert are not necessarily different people. I'm also asking about how to
    reach the beginner in the expert.

    A related problem is how to explain what we do to those who are not our
    students -- the neighbour, local baker et al. pose this problem in an even
    more difficult form than the funding-body officer or dean. As background
    allow me to observe the general loss of superstitious reverence for higher
    education in the last 2-3 generations. Be that as it may, however, let's
    keep away from o-tempora-o-mores whingeing and get to what centrally we
    say, in plain language, humanities computing is for. And by "plain
    language" I mean not just simple English or whatever, but language devoid
    of promotionalism and dodgy appeals to the future. What have we got to
    offer right now, with the tools we have in hand, to the ordinary curious


    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
    voice: +44 (0)20 7848 2784 fax: +44 (0)20 7848 5081
    <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
    maui gratias agere

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