11.0031 editing, the humanities, and CS

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Thu, 15 May 1997 18:27:00 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 31.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: mgk3k@faraday.clas.virginia.edu (18)
Subject: Re: 11.0026 editing for whom/what?

[2] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (85)
Subject: computer science

Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 22:16:33 -0400
From: mgk3k@faraday.clas.virginia.edu
Subject: Re: 11.0026 editing for whom/what?

Everything on Hope's wish list here is curently within our technical reach,
albeit to greater or lesser extents. But, while the medium will never be as
friction-free as we'd like it, the real issue here is not technology -- it's
time. It takes time to do the various things Hope describes, and it takes
even more time to do them well. Scholars are protective of their time, and
with good reason; few of us have the luxury of expending it without adequate
institutional support, a euphemism that translates most immediately, it
seems to me, into funding for research and rewards when promotion and tenure
decisions come around.

Electronic editing, and humanities computing more generally, cannot be
abstracted from the institutional culture in which the technology is
deployed. I don't mean to imply that Hope or anyone here is suggesting
otherwise, but, in order to "take advantage of 50 years of computer science"
(as Ian Lancashire has it in a separate post) we will need . . . time.


Matthew G. Kirschenbaum University of Virginia
mgk3k@virginia.edu Department of English
http://faraday.clas.virginia.edu/~mgk3k/ The Blake Archive | IATH

Date: Thu, 15 May 1997 14:55:47 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: computer science

The question of dialogue between computer science and the humanities is an
interesting and challenging one. Recently I attended a meeting in Washington
DC organised by NINCH in collaboration with the National Academy of Sciences
(U.S.) on the relationship between the humanities and computer science.
There were very few humanists there, as we usually define the kind, but
several computer scientists. I found it curious and encouraging that the CS
people were so interested in the question of this relationship. My thought
at the time, perhaps too self-flattering, was that they had at last realised
how very interesting our material is, and so were seeking out some way to
get connected with it.... :-)

The two chairs of the meeting, Bill Wulf (Virginia) and Stan Katz
(Princeton), certainly represented the view that there has not been much of
a dialogue and that one is urgently needed. So the question of why we have
not taken advantage of the achievements in computer science, and I would
think vice versa, is at least in the U.S. very much on some people's agenda.

There are, I suppose, many reasons. It would be good indeed to have some
comments on this question from CS people who happen to be here.

One reason, I would suppose, is that in general computer scientists are
interested in computer science, which seems to have rather different
objectives from the applied fields. Like most if not all other disciplines,
serving interests outside its own is not high on the list of priorities. So,
one tends to hear about things that might be quite useful in the humanities,
but these devices, which are constructed for research purposes in CS, seldom
are translated into a form that most of us would find accessible. It's easy
to understand why: the researchers, having milked them for their own
purposes in CS research, are not interested in spending the enormous amount
of labour required to put these into a robust form, with a user-friendly
interface, for one of the platforms that humanists tend to use. Humanists,
on the other side, have too much of their own work to do to have the time
for all that is required to get the translation done, providing of course
that somehow they can find out about what's happening in CS, penetrate the
differences in terminology, etc., so that they can decide whether the
translation would be worth the effort.

To mount and manage a project for something we need rather badly, e.g. the
"son of TACT and daughter of OCP", poses an enormous problem in organisation
and resourcing, although I would suppose that from a computer science point
of view the problems involved are not anywhere near the cutting edge of
research, and so difficult to get exercised about. If we were as well funded
as the computational linguists apparently are, then perhaps one of us would
be willing to give up his or her entire career to raising funds and
administering a centre at which such software could be written. But we aren't.

What to do? To open up the dialogue between the humanities and CS,
humanities computing would seem to be the right place in general, and
perhaps Humanist in particular. I'm sure that a long conversation between
the two disciplinary areas would be very welcome. Would someone like to take
charge of this and see that it happens?

As far as our making it on our own, I can think of two things we might do,
one public and communal, the other private.

The first would be for us somehow to organise our cottages into an industry
that makes good software for humanists. We have lots of little hands, each
of which could be making small bits of something large if only they could be
coordinated. Humanist could be the place to agitate for the communal effort.

The second is simply to go on as we are, doing what we can with what we
have. That sounds selfish or blinkered, perhaps, but it isn't all bad.
Actually some very fine work can be done with computing mostly in one's own
head, with a few easily available pieces of software when these are needed.
It may be our fate, as it were -- and I mean here only an historical
description of what happens, not a rigid formula for what must happen -- to
sit well back from the leading edge of computing as such, on another leading
edge, and use what happens to be available, poor as it may seem, old as it
may be, to do what we can. I recall once attending a seminar at the
Semiotics Institute in Toronto, with many thanks to Professor Paul Bouissac,
given by an Indian computer scientist (from Bombay) who got us to design a
computing system that could not possibly be built, at least for the next
several generations, based on current theories of how children learn. A
brilliant seminar that taught me what one does with computing when one does
not have the resources of an MIT to tempt one down a different path.

We are so easily dazzled by what we perceive science to be, so easily
envious. Indeed, reports from the other side can be quite arresting. As I
continue to read Carl Djerassi's autobiography, <cite>The Pill, Pygymy
Chimps, and Degas' Horse</cite> -- a fascinating story -- I often am deeply
envious of his scholarly/industrial environment, where abundant money can
power very fine research, allow for those who are good teachers to teach,
attract the best minds around by being able to offer them jobs, all that. Oi. I
guess, as a teacher of mine once exhorted me, "do what you can do with all
your might"!

This is certainly not a call to complacency. I hope we never stop kvetching
about the real problems we face. If we did, then Humanist would fall silent!


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk