16.001 Happy 15th Birthday!

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Tue May 07 2002 - 01:45:18 EDT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 1.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Tue, 07 May 2002 06:28:33 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com>
             Subject: now we are 15

    Time is again -- the 15th time, to be exact -- to look up from the work --
    nose from off the grindstone, ear up from the ground, shoulder away from
    the wheel -- and notice that we've been hanging out in this virtual here
    for a while -- in the life of dogs and computers quite a while. And in the
    life of humans the teens seem forever, especially to the parents. Will
    Humanist make it out of its teenage years? Will I? It's been quite an
    adolescence so far!

    But now time to celebrate our persistence (or survival, if you wish) and
    see what the horizon looks like. Refulgent with bright promise, yes, of
    course, even if one cannot see "Eternity's sunrise", and despite the
    formidable darknesses visible and invisible. But it's the present and
    immediate past I want to talk about, as I think from them we may get some
    direction into the future of emergent and unrealized possibilities for the

    Recently I attended a meeting in Pisa hosted by Antonio Zampolli (to whom
    many thanks), the purpose of which was to sketch out a "roadmap" for the
    field. Various people reported on activities in the various disciplines,
    concentrating on the new and interesting in order to triangulate on the
    way(s) ahead. More will come of this very productive meeting in due course,
    at the forthcoming ALLC/ACH in Tuebingen. My own contribution in Pisa was
    chiefly in the form of an actual map of a kind, "a rough intellectual map
    for humanities computing" <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/essays/map/>.
    What's new about this map -- the question *was* asked -- isn't anything in
    it, rather our impulse and ability to engage in this sort of activity.
    Gradually over the last 10 years, as voices from outside the older
    disciplines have gained confidence and been heard, the methodological
    commons has come into focus, and the interchange of intellectual goods
    between the disciplines and the commons taken shape. More recently (though
    with great debt to earlier work) the "clouds of knowing", as Harold Short
    called them, have become visible in relation to this commons: broad areas
    of learning that, we are beginning ever more clearly to realize, must
    become part of the background knowledge that cultivating this commons
    requires. But -- this is the point which my birthday message is to make --
    what matters isn't this or any other map, my scheme or anyone else's,
    rather it's the activity of mapping, or in verbal terms, the conversation
    enlivened and deepened by questionable and questioning statements.

    Also quite recently I felt the need to look through one of our journals,
    Computers and the Humanities, from its inception in 1966 to the present.
    What struck me almost immediately was the number of articles in the first
    half-dozen years devoted to critical questioning of the field, its nature
    and possibilities. How refreshing, and how typical of the humanities, are
    those critical essays! In a chronological reading of CHum, however, one
    encounters fewer and fewer of those. Why is this? One cannot, I think,
    successfully explain the apparent decline in disciplinary
    self-consciousness by referring to unrealistic expectations which in time,
    with experience, are abandoned. A better understanding is, I think,
    provided by Sunryu Suzuki-roshi's sentence, "In the mind of the beginner
    there are many possibilities, in the mind of the expert there are few."

    As the map suggests, humanities computing is a formidable undertaking, but
    I think not quite in the sense one first has from the map -- that one
    should have at least half a dozen PhDs :-). The real difficulty is rather in
    figuring out how responsibly to be the right kind of amateur -- how to be a
    scholar with a beginner's mind. Another way of putting the same thing, I
    suppose, gets back to the importance of conversation. The scholar with the
    beginner's mind needs a different kind of discourse, or rather, we need for
    the conversational modes we have, such as Humanist, to be looked at rather
    more carefully.

    Yesterday, as another message from Humanist announces this morning, Jerome
    McGann received the new Lyman Award for his contributions to humanities
    computing. (Mazel tov!) What seems to me most important about this is the
    role that McGann has played in furthering the long scholarly conversation
    in which we are engaged. Yet again I use this word "conversation" because
    it is a social process of coming to know that with intelligence and care
    gets the balance of careful work (scholar) to heuristic adventure
    (beginner's mind) just right. It's something I know he regards as central
    to the intellectual life. And let us speak plainly: it is all too often
    snuffed out by a pervasive intellectual timidity, which the often
    frightening, demoralizing process of getting an established academic post
    doesn't help with. The late Don Fowler, a fellow as playful as McGann, used
    to talk about "the continuing fertility of problematization"; his ideal
    for scholarship, which he found exemplified in the great Eduard Norden, was
    not to solve problems but to make them worse. Conversation, interactive
    engagement, risk-taking, play.

    And in that mischevous spirit of serious play (in the fields of the Lord) I
    wish us all a happy birthday. With closed eyes, about to blow out the
    candles, I make a great wish for more and better conversation about the
    things that matter to us in this field of ours. Regret is a state of mind I
    save for the most important things which have not happened or which have
    gone wrong. And regret is what I feel for the absence, due to
    life-circumstances, of all those living whom we need in this conversation
    -- most desparately need. An essential way ahead, out of the silence, is to
    get the field on better institutional footing so that more people can be
    paid to think and talk without first having to wander in the desert for
    years. The way to do that, I remain convinced, is to make a totally
    unassailable, ravishingly attractive, irresistibly delicious, compellingly
    beautiful intellectual case for humanities computing. Which is exactly what
    this forum is for. So let the party commence!


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