18.374 report on the Canadian Symposium on Text Analysis

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 23 Nov 2004 07:58:34 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 374.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 23 Nov 2004 07:51:49 +0000
         From: Susan Hesemeier <s.hesemeier_at_utoronto.ca>
         Subject: CaSTA Conference Report

Report on the 3rd Annual Canadian Symposium on Text Analysis
The Face of Text: Computer Assisted Text Analysis in the Humanities
McMaster University, November 19-21, 2004

As a graduate of a humanities computing M.A, who still gives a different
explanation every time someone asks "what is that?" when referring to my
degree, I think this was a good conference to attend, and the following
summary will indeed reflect my pragmatic concerns as a graduate student.
Economic and job prospect apprehensions urge us to ask many questions of the
field that may appear to be overly-questioning and critical on some points,
such as: "How will entering this field be of benefit to me?"; "How does this
field define itself, and how is it regarded by others?"; "Is its work
legitimate, and how does it define legitimate work?". Because I could not
find these answers quickly in a field that is still very much defining itself,
I have also been quite sceptical, but I think that many of my criticisms have
also been shared or addressed by members of this community, which I see as not
just comprising humanities scholars, but information studies and computing
science academics in an integrally collaborative entity which TAPoR has
brought together at this conference. The conference theme, "The Face of
Text", allowed interdisciplinary interpretation and participation from
scholars working in areas related to humanities computing in general, rather
than just text-analysis specifically. The closing remarks, which connected
various metaphorical interpretations of the theme, reiterated this point: the
need we often feel to face different communities with the type of work that
computing humanists conduct. And I think this conference also demonstrates,
as some members of the humanities computing community have also pointed out,
that perhaps we have come of age enough to be able to withstand our own
anxiety and criticism, and to use this to define and refine what it is that we

There were many fine presentations that addressed the interdisciplinary nature
of our work and sought to improve collaboration between these types of
projects. The welcoming keynote by Jerome McGann exhibited the IVANHOE
project and brought up many points about humanities work in general, such as
that it might be helpful to not always obscure the uncertainties of projects
in the essays and articles we write, and how we need to have the ability
to 'play' and be creative with our projects as well. But my pragmatic POV
would ask: these projects are all very nice, but do we have studies to show
how useful they are, or the ways in which people are actually using them? Do
they justify the money we have put into them? This is not to say that they
<i>don't</i>, but I would like to see more reviews of a project's users, to
show how these projects are actually put into practice. Other keynotes
included John Unsworth on "Forms of Attention: Digital Humanities Beyond
Representation", which divided humanities research computing into phases to
represent how tools bear the imprint of the technological moment in which they
are created: the '50s and '60s focused on tools, the '80s and '90s on primary
sources, and in the 00's we are back at tools again, and perhaps our fear of
saying that we work with tools has become more moderate. I found this to be a
useful structure for organizing what it is that computing humanists have done,
and it can certainly help with describing what it is we do now, although some
may disagree with the classification of primary source and tool use over the

Saturday's keynotes were from Julia Flanders and John Bradley, and there were
many other presentations that ranged from demonstrations of projects to ways
in which we can think about and represent what it is that we do in humanities
computing. I was only able to hear about Saturday's presentations second-
hand, though, by talking to conference attendees during breaks on Sunday, as
my childcare arrangements for Saturday had fallen through last-minute with my
son's regular babysitter. But I would like to use this point to ask a few
questions about the way in which we still typically organize conferences, and
to express how this year's CaSTA conference organizer, Geoffrey Rockwell,
deserves extra 'kudos'. When I ran into him about a month before the CaSTA
conference, he offered, upon hearing that I have a five-year-old, to assist me
with finding childcare for any days of the conference when this might be
needed, and I didn't even have to ask for this assistance. Why is this not
standard practice at conferences? We make sure that all conference attendees
are able to find accommodation, food, and transportation, but do we still
assume that the typical conference attendee is in possession of a partner that
will take on the role of child-rearer/maid/housekeeper? The MLA has
conference childcare, but it is sad to see that most if not all other
conferences do not even consider the possibility that conference attendees may
require care for their children or otherwise not be able to attend. I have
been told by academic job-search workshops that women should hide the fact
that they have children during academic job interviews, because hiring
committees would not be able to find out this fact unless it is revealed to
them, and it might be detrimental to the application because the committee
would question whether the job candidate would be able to attend
conferences/etc. Perhaps if we had childcare at conferences, this would not
be such a problem? Maybe it would also help to ameliorate the 'glass ceiling'
that exists for women and traditionally disadvantaged groups (as would the
elimination of two-year waiting lists for family student housing and daycare
at many university campuses), and in general make it easier for women to be
able to have children and still pursue advanced degrees and advanced careers.
For all of the spectacular presentations that were given at the conference, I
am highlighting this progressive point as its most profound feature, as you
would have had at least one less female head in the conference crowd if the
organizer had not been sensitive to this issue.

That is not to say that the presentations and conversations with conference
attendees were not also impressive, and the presentations given on the final
day of the conference certainly demonstrated this point. Two keynotes were
given, one by Jean-Guy Meunier on "Interfacing the Text: Difficulties and
Solutions", and another by Stephen Ramsay, "In Praise of Pattern". These
sessions were well-attended and produced some interesting discussion in the
breaks and after the closing remarks. One presentation that particularly
stood out for me was the Toms/Rockwell/Sinclair/Siemens paper, "Modelling the
Humanities Scholar at Work", the survey instrument from which I have
previously referred to on this discussion list. What struck me on Sunday,
though, was the reaction from audience-members to its findings. These ranged
from distrust of the survey instrument itself to disagreement with the way in
which the results were interpreted. The findings made many assessments of the
humanities scholar, ranging from the fact that most of us still write single-
authored works and do not collaborate with graduate students (or other
scholars in general, for that matter), and that many of us also do not 'share'
our tools and resources. But perhaps it is less a matter of us not wanting to
share, than that we generally do not bother to 'borrow'. Although it is good
to be critical of these surveys and the way in which results are interpreted,
it seemed that many people disagreed with the survey's findings, whether it
was because they believe this type of information cannot be easily represented
in a survey, or because it is just not what we think of as representative of
the computing humanist. But I think in many respects the study does 'hit the
nail right on the head', and if it is true that we do not collaborate as much
as we could, perhaps there are ways we could address this. Some of the other
CaSTA presentations sought to address these issues as well, which is much
healthier than if we pretend these issues do not exist: hearing second-hand
about John Bradley's presentation, he seems to have begun to address the issue
in his point, "tools that have been developed have met with few successes, and
have had little uptake by the humanities computing community at large." Many
projects continue to 'reinvent the wheel' at the interface level every time a
new digitization is underway: on this point, I think many would concur that we
could possibly be 'sharing' and borrowing quite a bit more. If we can agree
that some interfaces for presenting transcriptions and images of manuscripts
are effective and useful, for example, either through usability studies or an
examination of the people that are actually using the resources, perhaps we
could share these interfaces between projects more often so that we do not
have to come up with different interfaces and text-accompaniment tools in
every project. More close collaboration with colleagues from information
studies and computing science can help with these usability studies, and I was
also happy to see such a good mix between these groups at the conference
because it gave me the opportunity to directly ask questions of researchers
from other fields. I asked one professor from information studies, "Have
people within your field ever heard of or used TEI?", to which I received the
reply, "No, not really." On the other hand, many researchers in the
humanities have not heard of learning object metadata and Dublin Core,
although they certainly have heard of these within information studies. Part
of having the pragmatic perspective is to also get annoyed easily at what
might be seen as 'redundancy', whether it is from scholars not conducting
appropriate literature reviews to build on each other's work within the same
field, or not building on work that has already been conducted within other
fields; others might say this surplus is necessary because of the different
perspective each field and individual scholar can offer. I came to this
conference with the critique, "What are we doing in this field that is so
different from information studies, and why should it be conducted within the
humanities and not a discipline that is more accommodating to social science
research methods and dissemination venues?". But I think that if we keep
bringing this mix of researchers from different disciplines together to
discuss issues in this field we call 'humanities computing', it will be a
healthy field of research for young academics to take on. I will certainly
encourage a number of scholars from various disciplines to attend next year's

Susan Hesemeier, PhD Student
Department of English
University of Toronto
Received on Tue Nov 23 2004 - 03:12:34 EST

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