19.519 on the solstice: critical thinking and Christmas

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 21 Dec 2005 11:02:47 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 519.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 21 Dec 2005 10:45:04 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: critical thinking and Christmas

The two terms of my subject-line are related by assonance,
coincidence and antonymy. But perhaps the last of these relations is
mine alone, and I claim it only to demonstrate a local truth. This
year the boiler is declaring its imminent intention to resign from
active service, the espresso machine has finally manifested in full
the consequences of its poor design and the man who sells Christmas
trees seems unaccountably to have vanished from the pub car-park
where, I am assured, he has appeared, with trees, every day except
those when I have sought him out, and every year for every day
in the days immediately preceeding Christmas for the past 10 years.
Do I need critical thinking or just better luck?

If thinking is simply what goes on in the head ("what are you
thinking?!"), then critical thinking is a kind of it, and so we
should be inquiring into what this kind is, exactly. The OED suggests
the following alternatives:

(1) given to adverse or unfavourable criticism, fault-finding, censorious
(2) nice, exact, accurate, precise, punctual
(3) skilful
(4) of the nature of, or constituting a crisis
(5) involving suspense or grave fear as to the issue
(6) decisive, crucial
(7) constituting an extreme or limiting case
(8) distinguished by slight or questionable differences (and so
critical to a classification system)

The above would seem to sort into qualities that are at once
characteristic of the situation I am in (4, 5, 6, 7) or of the mental
state it tempts me to enter (1), needful under these circumstances
(2, 3, 6) -- or suggesting the detached retreat from care that
Christmas offers the fortunate person raised in its traditions (8).
In other words, as illustrated by the current example, the
marvellously flexible term "critical" seems to offer little more than
a phatic buzz.

Today, at last, I choose alternative 8, and so start regarding big
problems as small ones, and then as merely nice distinctions which,
being only nice, cause the whole infrastructure to dim into
insignificance. Until early January, that is. But before I depart the
virtual scene briefly to enjoy the benefits of its wisdom (and, I
hope, continued heat), allow me to reflect further on the form of
"critical thinking" that seems increasingly to be what humanities
computing teaches.

As our teaching of the subject has progressed, we have witnessed the
shift from a large majority of students innocent of computing to a
totality for whom the standard applications are familiar. This has,
of course, been a most welcome change, as it has liberated us from
having to teach the most basic skills. (I wonder, does anyone use the
term "computer literacy" in urban centres any more?) To choose a
single example, we may now assume that students go first to the Web
for the work that they do, and that most if not nearly all of them
will be able somehow to construct a credible web-page. But
observation suggests that, as one contributor recently put it, they
are just reaching the age at which "critical thinking" begins to kick
in. So for online resources, there's one subject we have to teach.
What is it, beyond the relatively straightforward checklist of
reliability indicators?

If "critical thinking" is simply thinking in a serious way, or
perhaps simply thinking analytically, then the focus has to be on
what we mean by "thinking" in the context of computing. In a
wonderful essay, "'Style' for Historians and Philosophers", in his
book Historical Ontology (Harvard, 2002), Ian Hacking remarks that he
prefers the term "reasoning". "This is partly because thinking is too
much in the head for my liking. Reasoning is done in public as well
as in private: by thinking, yes, but also by talking and arguing and
showing" (p. 180) --
and by manipulating things, physical things, and by metaphorical acts
of construction. As technologists we're on the side of the engineers,
designing against constraints over which we have no control but which
in their resistance teach us.

Well, let us say, for the purposes of a generous Christmas argument,
that this is so, and see where it leads. It leads, I think, to a
greater emphasis on making things as a means of critical or analytic
reasoning, to a greater emphasis on laboratory work in humanities
computing, to laboratory practices. Or, if the sciences cause you to
break out in metaphorical spots, or have a metaphorical fit, then to
the practices of craftsmanship, to the practitioner-scholar as
end-maker. What laboratory practice does have to offer is a fair bit
of intelligent historical, philosophical and sociological analysis
done of it -- and certain very useful habits, such as the keeping of
a notebook to record what what does while it is fresh in the mind and
hand. My students now keep lab notebooks, and the practice has proven
very useful indeed.

After the rush up to and indulgences during the coming holidays have
gone, or perhaps before they have entirely, it would be good, I
think, to have some *critical* reflections on the above line of
*reasoning*, with a focus on what we teach our undergraduate
students. It would be useful to avoid the uncritical cant of
"critical thinking", find its germ of truth, figure out what that
means for us and build better curricula with it.

But enough. For those members of Humanist who have been here for a
while, a Christmas message from me is recognizably traditional. This
year the cosmic cycles have brought Christmas and Hanukkah into very
close proximity (the latter begins at sunset on the 25th), so the
message can easily serve a celebratory function for a wider audience
than is sometimes the case. Today is the solstice. Other events dot
the multifaith calendar (www.interfaithcalendar.org) around the dying
of the light and its re-emergence, though carefully, to mark the fact
that it is not guaranteed by nature, not insofar as it matters to us.

Allow me then once again to wish you all the very best and most
joyous survival into what I hope is a new and better year, when
Humanist turns 20. Not just another day, not just another year.

All the best.


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Wed Dec 21 2005 - 06:19:32 EST

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