Date: Fri, 15 Oct 1999 07:55:06 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Subject: humanities computing and editing & al.
Recently a colleague pointed out to me that in my attempts to think through
what we call "humanities computing", computer-assisted projects that
prepare editions, archives and other electronic resources did not seem to
fit. I'm not an editor by trade, though my primary (traditional) scholarly
focus for the last decade has been on preparation of a reference work, and
this has involved me with many issues common to editing. So I feel
qualified to reply, and I reply in public because I think the basic
question is important.
In my project I distinguish between two sorts of activity:
(1) everything involved in preparing the reference work, including research
on problems raised in its traditional scholarly field and those that occur
in the course of using computational methods;
(2) study of the consequences and implications of those computational methods.
It seems to me that (1), however scholarly and consequential to the
traditional field in which I work, does not constitute humanities computing
per se, only (2) does. Now the two are of course so intimately intertwined
and grown together that in fact they cannot be separated, but they can be
Let us say for the purposes of argument that I did (1) but not (2).
Actually this happens all the time by scholars in traditional areas who
either don't have the time to pursue (2) while they are doing (1) or don't
think (2) important, or perhaps don't even notice it. Would, then, my
project properly qualify as "humanities computing"? I think not -- it would
only be one of the many that unselfconsciously use computing on a
humanities project. (It would also have much, much less to contribute to
its traditional field, but that's a whole issue in itself.)
If we were to say that all projects qualify in which the computer plays a
significant role, then we would have more difficulty finding research that
did not qualify than research that did. But in so enlarging the domain of
our practice, we would in effect be declaring that it had no intellectual
integrity, no distinguishing point of view, no definition.
Philosophers, for example, like to say that their field includes all
thought, historians everything that has ever happened, biologists all
living systems, linguists all language. Works well in promotional blurbs to
attract students and does root each field solidly in human culture. But of
course when you enroll in a programme in one of those fields you discover
that only some aspects of thought, happenings, life, language are of
interest and the ways of looking at them are sharply focused. Excluding
most happenings from history neither denigrates those happenings (such as
being in love, or finishing one's dissertation) nor kills history. The
limitations thus imposed make the field able to put the excluded phenomena
into meaningful context and so inform these phenomena.
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Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 848 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 848 5081
Humanist Discussion Group
Information at <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/>