18.391 what is research in humanities computing?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 1 Dec 2004 06:47:10 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 391.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 01 Dec 2004 06:40:19 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: research questions

I'd like to get some help thinking about the question of research in
humanities computing.

A great deal of the work that goes on in the field is directly concerned
with the making of software objects. The question with regards to research
is, are these objects *in themselves* research? This is certainly not an
easy question to answer, for at least two reasons. The first is that like
all other disciplinary terms that I can think of, the meaning of "research"
varies from field to field, as does the recognized forms it may take.
Consider, for example, research as it is known in physics, philosophy,
anthropology and history.

So, my question really is, what meaning can we reasonably and persuasively
give to the term? I think in this case, at least, being reasonable and
being persuasive are potentially two quite different things.

One could say that nothing is research that is inarticulate -- about which
the researcher has not been reflective (in the mode of his or her
discipline) and communicative (ditto). So, if I make a fine chair, it's not
research, but if having done that I write about chairs, analyzing the one I
have made and comparing it to others, then I could claim to be doing
research. Furthermore, if in my analysis I explicated the thinking that
went into the chair, is manifested in the chair and arguably communicated
by it, might I be able to say that the chair *is* research? Or is that way
over the top?

How about software? Software is unlike wood in that it is made of language
(of a particular, formally defined sort). Therefore it cannot strictly
speaking be inarticulate. If a program has been well designed, if genuine
thought has gone into it, e.g. insights about processing the particular
kind of data it processes, then it also bears the reflective thought that
I've tentatively specified as necessary to research. But *is* it research?
To be that, by the conventional measure, it has to be communicated and
assessed; it has to be part of the ongoing scholarly conversation and
recognized as making a contribution. In the humanities, it has to lead to
further, better questions than those with which we started. In some sense
it has to identify those questions if it is to be successful research.

But wait. A poem is articulate and communicative but is clearly not
research. Research on poetry is a different matter; its kind of discourse
is different. At the beginning of the Anatomy of Criticism, Frye remarks
that all art is mute, including poetry; criticism is how we talk about it,
how scholars respond creatively to it. So is software like poetry, or is it
like criticism? I would think the latter, because it is a way of talking
analytically about the data it processes, as it were.

My thoughts on the topic may be muddled, but it should be very clear to us
all that the question is not an idle one. Can we have a humanities
computing if the answer to this question is not, "Yes, software is (or can
be) research"? If the better answer is "can be", then what must we do to
make it so?



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Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk
Received on Wed Dec 01 2004 - 02:18:56 EST

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