21.323 the Pigeonhole Problem

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 30 Oct 2007 07:29:13 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 323.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 30 Oct 2007 07:10:07 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: the Pigeonhole Problem

Yesterday I spent a delightful and enlightening time talking to an IT
instructor and an historian in a local public school about
establishing a relationship between this school and my department.
The IT instructor confirmed my sense that students in the UK system
(which streams its students rather narrowly) tend simply to go from
their major subject in school straight into the corresponding
department in university. They choose what they know, and they know
what to choose by the familiar label which each subject carries. So,
he pointed out, the digital humanities needs a pigeonhole, and the
pigeonhole requires its tag. The historian asked me to tell him what
"digital humanities" signifies in at most two sentences. I came up
with one: "It trains students to think with and against the
computer". What would be your sentence?

The problem with our kind, or with my kind of our kind, is our love
for complexity, for difficulty, for problems challenging enough to
give us the cognitive exercise we crave. As David Hilbert said in his
famous lecture of 1900, we need problems "difficult in order to
entice us, yet not completely inaccessible, lest it mock at our
efforts". But he also quoted some "old French mathematician": "A
mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have
made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you
meet on the street." The latter is the real challenge. Indeed, I'd
say that you can't rest until you can explain the subject you teach,
and/or in which you do your research, to schoolboys and girls. Name
that pigeonhole!

The lamentable fact is not that students need it but that our
colleagues do also, and many of them lost their curiosity many years
ago. The blinkering effect of disciplinary training is a hard lesson
to learn. But perhaps if we get our pigeonhole appealingly labelled,
the path which students beat to our door will lead blinkered
colleagues from what they can see to what they cannot.

Name that pigeonhole!


Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Tue Oct 30 2007 - 02:48:30 EST

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