3.611 humanists and computers, cont. (165)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Fri, 20 Oct 89 21:23:54 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 611. Friday, 20 Oct 1989.

(1) Date: Fri, 20 Oct 89 11:39:05 BST (56 lines)
From: Donald Spaeth 041 339 8855 x6336 <GKHA13@CMS.GLASGOW.AC.UK>
Subject: Humanists and computers (3.610)

(2) Date: Fri, 20 Oct 89 10:33:00 EDT (53 lines)
Subject: Humanists and computers

(3) Date: Fri, 20 Oct 89 13:09 EST (32 lines)
Subject: Humanities Computing Education

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Fri, 20 Oct 89 11:39:05 BST
From: Donald Spaeth 041 339 8855 x6336 <GKHA13@CMS.GLASGOW.AC.UK>
Subject: Humanists and computers (3.610)

I read the contributions of Kevin Cope and Willard McCarty
on this matter with some amusement (directed at myself).
I agree with Kevin that humanities academics find it
difficult to come to terms with computers and that this
has much to do with the limitations of their education. What
amused me was that this is exactly the argument I have
been using against the English university system, holding
the North American system up as a model!

This is because the English system encourages specialisation
at a young age. At sixteen, youths choose three fields
to specialise in for the next two years (A-level).
Particularly in the sciences their choice is likely to be
determined by their university plans. At university, there
is no system of "liberal arts" education or of distribution
requirements. The expectation is that a history student
will spend three years reading history and potentially
nothing else, and this is true of every other subject.
What are known as additional subjects (at some universities)
enable students to sample 1 or 2 courses in another subject.
This system has its advantages, but it makes no attempt to
bring about the communication between the so-called "two cultures"
which the American system does manage, if not entirely satisfactorily.

I should add that English universities are not the only providers
of undergraduate education in the U.K. Polytechnics, Scottish
universities and a handful of English universities provide
a more distributed curriculum, in some cases based on
a unit system as in America.

To change tack slightly, many science academics do not make much
use of computers either and I suspect that they find them just
as difficult to learn to use. After receiving one's last
degree, it's easy to be intellectually lazy about learning new
types of things. It's bloody hard work! Of course, teaching
and research are hard work too, but they don't involve the
psychological trauma of having to start from the beginning
and reveal one's ignorance.

One further thought: If using email requires logging on to
a mainframe it is not the easiest application to learn by any
means, as I've learned to my own cost. Besides the
complications of logging on, a problem with email is that it
is worth using only if one knows other people who use it!
An obvious point, perhaps, but there it is. Also, one has
to receive and send quite a bit of email (HUMANIST qualifies!)
to make it worth logging-on every day.

Don Spaeth
CTI Centre for History
University of Glasgow
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------60----
Date: Fri, 20 Oct 89 10:33:00 EDT
Subject: Humanists and computers

Both Kevin Cope and Willard have offered useful comments on "Humanists and
Computers," but I would like to add a few observations on both the causes for
this ignorance and the refusal to deal with the problems. First of all, it is
incorrect to refer to the group as "humanists," when in fact it is at best a
sub-group of humanities students we should call "academics." Perhaps there
are some humanists still left in N. America, but most of them don't have the
use of BITNET. Most academics would call these humanists dilettantes anyway.
Two important features of academic life affect the approaches to problems
of these "humanists." Academics are basically individual entrepreneurs held
together loosely by various administrative arrangements. Like their
counterparts in the sciences, they are dependent on grants and other forms of
professional recognition to achieve their purposes, which we can briefly
describe as "prestige" in its various forms. Certain kinds of scholarly
projects will gain recognition; others will never be considered serious or be
supported. I noted with some shock of recognition in a recent piece in the
supplement to the latest TLS called "Liber" an article by Roger Chartier
suggesting that "the meaning of the text derives not only from its verbal
content, but also from its graphic devices -- script, page layout, the surface
written upon." This was the subject of an unsuccessful proposal of mine to
the NEH for a summer seminar some ten years ago. The critique stated that the
proposal was excellent and well thought-out, but that the NEH seminars weren't
intended for librarians and there wouldn't be a sufficient audience of
other humanists for this topic. Like scientists, there is little
encouragement for humanists, especially junior (i.e., untenured) faculty, to
undertake research in areas that will not be supported.
Further, to study in the fields of say anthropology, sociology, and modern
European history, to take three disciplines that seem to me central to any
modern understanding of classical antiquity, the sheer time and effort to
accomplish this is more of a commitment than many academics can or wish to
make. Like the study of computers, it can be a black hole that can absorb
endless amounts of human energy. It is so much easier and more rewarding to
stay in the old tracks, directing one's attention to old problems, offering
old solutions, and knowing well that this work will be acceptable to those who
edit and publish the journals and books in one's field. To look at it from
the other direction, only a well-known sociologist like Pierre Bourdieu would
be able to publish a reading of Virginia Woolf's *To the Lighthouse* (see the
same TLS supplement mentioned above).
I certainly agree with Willard that "computing in the humanities...has
become the home for those who don't fit in the specialist's straitjacket...."
Kevin Cope mentions that "it is possible to proceed straight to the PH.D.
without knowing the slightest thing about computing, physics, astronomy, or
anything else." I would only add that it is possible to proceed straight to
the A.B. being trained to avoid anything that might not be immediately
"relevant" to one's "goals and life style," as the vocational counselors would
put it. For the modern academic, it seems that the unexamined life is truly
the only one worth living.
James W. Halporn, Classical Studies/Comparative Literature, Indiana U,
Bloomington, IN 47405 (HALPORNJ@IUBACS)

(3) --------------------------------------------------------------36----
Date: Fri, 20 Oct 89 13:09 EST
Subject: Humanities Computing Education

Willard asked an interesting question about how humanists could be educated to
better understand computing, or at least to accept it and/or deal with it.
I was reminded of a not very successful attempt on my part a few years ago
to further such a cause. When I was on the Computer Science faculty at
Loyola University in New Orleans, there was considerable discussion
about ways to improve the Presidential Scholars program there, an
honors program providing full scholarships to outstanding students t
o study a humanities based curriculum along with their major subject.
It was and is an excellent program, partly because all the best faculty
like to teach really smart students (don't we wish there were more of
them to go around) and because they constantly discussed ways to improve
the program. At one point I recommended a sort of theme for the humanities
courses, such as natural language processing. My argument was that the
students would be required to consider an interdisciplinary subject from
a variety of points of view as they went through the curriculum, learning
along the way, a lot about langauge and linguistics, computer science,
psychology and philosophy (in particular epistemology and logic). The
idea was that each course they took would have some aspect devoted to
natural language processing so they would build on their knowledge of
each of the humanities subjects as well as their capabilities in NLP.
The idea did not go over with the Loyola faculty. I wonder what the
HUMANISTs think.

Mary Dee Harris