20.001 Happy 19th Birthday to Humanist

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sun, 7 May 2006 12:36:40 +0100

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 1.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sun, 07 May 2006 12:30:39 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: Happy 19th birthday!!!!!

Today, 7 May 2006, Humanist completes its 19th year and begins its 20th.
By automatic count there are 1446 subscriptions, up 63 from last year at
about this time, and a few less messages -- we are getting more to the
point? For some years Humanist has been in a steady state and, being
somewhat of a social institution, would seem to have a good chance of
stability for a long time to come. In recognition of its primary
function over the last many years, no longer so much of a revolutionary
banner as a social bonding agent, I've changed its epigraph, as follows.
Formerly the homepage quoted Colin Cherry's stirring remark,

>Inventions themselves are not revolutions;
>neither are they the cause of revolutions. Their
>powers for change lie in the hands of those who
>have the imagination and insight to see that the
>new invention has offered them new liberties of
>action, that old constraints have been removed,
>that their political will, or their sheer greed,
>are no longer frustrated, and that they can act
>in new ways. New social behaviour patterns and
>new social institutions are created which in
>turn become the commonplace experience of future
>generations. Colin Cherry, "The Telephone
>System: Creator of Mobility and Social Change",
>in Ithiel de Sola Pool, The Social Impact of the
>Telephone (Cambridge MA, 1977): 112-26.

Now that we are the first of those future generations, and so share that
"commonplace experience", it's time, I thought, to draw attention to its
vital force, calling on Benedict Anderson and Robert Asen to articulate
what might otherwise go unnoticed, though no less constitutive:

>"Communities are to be distinguished... by the
>style in which they are imagined." "Collective
>imagining... takes shape through discursive
>engagement among interlocutors.... Discourse
>functions in this context not as a vehicle for
>transmitting information and beliefs but as a
>constitutive force." Benedict Anderson, Imagined
>Communities (rev. edn., 1991): 4; Robert Asen,
>"Imagining in the Public Sphere", Philosophy and
>Rhetoric 35.4 (2002): 349.

We know from your messages that change in the field continues apace,
however. To point to one kind of evidence for positive development, this
Humanist-year there have been more jobs in humanities computing
advertised here, and more explicitly academic jobs, than ever before --
most recently an endowed chair (at Dartmouth -- may it be well filled).
It seems likely that this trend will continue. To point to another
positive sign, we now have at long last a peer-reviewed online journal,
the Digital Humanities Quarterly, and an umbrella organization, the
Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, www.digitalhumanities.org,
to cover all our activities world-wide.

What, then, is on the event-horizon for us?

As many here will recall, I've recently asked about the relationship
between humanities computing and computer science. Although the
manifestations of such a relationship are badly under-theorized from the
perspective of the humanities, the growing number of true collaborations
between HC practitioners and CS people is highly significant, as is the
demonstrable increase in published discussions, speculative reports and
conferences, symposia and meetings within the last few years, though
most of them have been more wishful than incisive. By my undoubtedly
incomplete catalogue, omitting the few article-length writings, these
are as follows: 1990 (1), 1992 (1), 1997/8 (1), 1999 (1), 2003 (2),
2005(1), 2006 (3). It is still true, and will remain so, that many
invididuals will not be able to see that such collaboration is even
possible -- I was told by one senior computer scientist recently that it
was unthinkable. Perhaps so, but it is happening. Partly the cause for
interest from CS may be declining enrolments in that discipline and its
maturation to the point at which tackling real problems in the
humanities has become feasible. On our side we also have matured to the
point of being able to realise that our theoretical ideas are bent out
of shape if not inhibited by the assumptions embedded in commonplace
tools -- and, especially, in their data models and system designs. (A
few of us have been saying this for years, I know.) What I as a
researcher need, for example, lies midway between relational database
design and text-encoding; for the moment I am siding with the former,
but the work I am doing needs technical rethinking in a way I do not
know how to do.

My question has another aspect to it that also lies on our
event-horizon, something I already mentioned in passing: the theorizing
of current activity. The basics seem clear enough to me, presuming the
standard story of CS and the traditional view of humanities scholarship.
But practice has a way of surprising us, especially computing practice,
at least partly because the methodological perspective reveals
disciplinary friends among strangers, and these friends require some
adjustment on our part, more than a little expansion of our field of
vision. Here the problem extends way beyond the involvement with CS to
all interdisciplinary involvements. In labs, offices, seminar rooms and
so forth, even as I write, mostly unobserved collaborations are
happening -- mostly unobserved because in the heat of the moment, with
an eye to results, what's happening doesn't seem important enough in
itself, and there's the rub. It is clear to me from the lab notebooks
that my students have started keeping that were a record kept and
analyzed as a standard part of our practice, we'd be quite a bit wiser
than we are now. Social scientists with a knowledge of computing are
needed. Numerous PhD dissertations are waiting to be written on the
basis of participant-observations. Very good training for them, I would
think. Very valuable meta-results for us.

Part of the theorizing of practice involves our relationship to the
older humanities over the question of method. It's easy to conclude that
method (by which we tend to mean algorithmic procedure) is our friend,
and to note the traditional antipathy of the humanities to method, as
discussed for example by Gadamer in Truth and Method. But the apparently
tidy picture gets messy when one looks into the details: like all other
disciplinary terms I've examined, "method" is relative to the style of
reasoning, and that is an historical as well as local phenomenon. (See,
for example, Coleridge's Treatise on Method and Descartes' Discourse.)
I'd think that figuring out how a discipline is methodical is a first
step toward constructing a productive relationship between computing and
any discipline. Hence philological studies of more disciplinary terms
are in= order.

Speaking of PhD students, we at King's College London started a PhD
programme in the Autumn of the current academic year. Without
publicizing the degree until the last minute, when we were allowed to
advertise for a studentship, we've gained a fair number of applicants,
and with them the intriguing problem of what, exactly, a PhD in
humanities computing (or in the digital humanities) might be. We're in
the process of figuring that out, but it does seem highly likely that
the norm will be something like a collaborative degree with at least one
other department, with of course humanities computing playing the major
role. If it is to do so, as here at King's, then I'd think that a
practical component to the PhD is a requirement, as I'm starting to
insist. It isn't obvious what positions PhD students in the digital
humanities are training for, but I point again to the increase in the
number of jobs and to the chicken-and-egg dilemma that must be avoided
by some judicious risk-taking. One wonders what will happen to the field
when in years hence it is populated by those holding such degrees.

There are undoubtedly other things on that horizon, but I'll stop here
with my speculations on them. In a little over a week's time I head off
to New York to receive the Lyman Award, and once again I am surprised
and delighted at the attention to Humanist -- a great collaborative
phenomenon if ever there was one. The occasion demands reflection on the
past, my past in particular. Forgive me for attempting here to draw an
historical lesson or two from what seemed at the time more or less a
Brownian motion of random events and circumstances. Looking at one
thing, seeing another -- can we make meaning out of the world in any
other way? What I see, peering into the murk of just-happenings and
trying very hard to speak with unforked tongue, is that Humanist is just
about the only professional thing I've done from which I never expected
reward. I wasn't and isn't that I don't like rewards. Rather because
Humanist is unrefereed, self-published and very demotic, it never seemed
the sort of thing anyone important would pay any attention to. And I've
also never been able to ignore the fact that doing Humanist is its own
reward. Yet again, nevertheless and quite unexpectedly, it motivates a
giving. Full of hope I conclude that the great principle of reprocity
actually works: do ut des, I give that you may give. I also take delight
in the fact that DO UT DES is the name of a Tuscan wine.

All the best to all of you starting into Humanist's 20th year!


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 Sun May 07 2006 - 08:00:20 EDT

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