18.752 beyond being dubious and gloomy

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 29 Apr 2005 07:15:29 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 752.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 29 Apr 2005 07:11:34 +0100
         From: Vika Zafrin <amarena_at_gmail.com>
         Subject: Re: 18.749 beyond being dubious and gloomy

Hello, Wendell!

You write:

> Rather, I think the blind spot is much closer to home, in that
> humanities disciplines have long been constituted, and structured
> institutionally (as has been observed many times on HUMANIST), as preserves
> for solitary scholars, while our work shows more than ever how dependent we
> are on the various talents of many. Accordingly, nominal and actual
> qualifications for the work are at variance, and incentives and rewards go
> badly out of synch with what we actually need from each other (with fake
> conference papers and fake conferences at which to deliver them being a
> result). If we can resolve *that* stress, it will ease many of our pains
> along with it.

I guess I had taken it as a given that the "collaboration is good"
message was sort of preaching to the choir, on Humanist. But hadn't
the discussion started as one about academe as a whole, whose
mindstate on this (as you've pointed out) is markedly different from
that of humanities computing? Maybe I was projecting. :)

But yes, to be clear: realizing that this may mean different things
for readers of this list, the pain I want to ease is that of The
System. Specifically, the view of the humanist as a solitary scholar
has two damaging effects. It makes questioning the humanities'
usefulness to society easy: an individual scholar is easier to
dismiss than a group of collaborators. Perhaps more importantly, the
assumption of solitude (and the career-related interpersonal politics
that follows close behind) is such a pervasive view that it has become
the truth. Hence all the dire warnings to graduate-students-to-be:
don't go into it unless you can't imagine doing anything else.
Graduate school in the humanities will kill your love for the subject.
   Worse: when you do achieve the coveted goal, your troubles are just
beginning. And on and on, endless rants about the tenure system, the
cut-throat before and the complacency after, bitterness etc.

Perhaps I misspoke when using the word "polymath". In science fiction
terms, when it comes to preserving our cultural essence, computing and
the network are moving us towards a hive mind. Having a less
hierarchical and more distributed network of knowledge containers
(which is not to imply that all of the nodes would have an *equal*
amount of knowledge) would make it less important who has which bits.
But it would make it crucial for us to be able to communicate with
each other much more effectively than we can get away with now.
Hopefully, such an approach to storing knowledge would encourage us to
re-juggle the ways in which we communicate it, and make it easier to
advance in a collective understanding of who we are.

You're right, this is well under way in humanities computing. The
relevant conferences, and the Humanist list, are a breath of fresh air
in this regard. I hope to see this trend seep further into the
humanities as a whole. With luck, humanities computing projects that
facilitate interdisciplinary communication will have a large-scale,
formal effect on the institution. Eventually.

Head in the clouds,

Vika Zafrin
Director, Virtual Humanities Lab
Brown University Box 1942
Providence, RI 02912 USA
Received on Fri Apr 29 2005 - 02:33:12 EDT

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