20.595 ruining lives

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 27 Apr 2007 06:25:24 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 595.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 26 Apr 2007 12:18:00 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: ruining lives

In his review of three posthumous books of Bernard Williams' s essays
collected from scattered sources ("Unhappy thoughts: How we see
ourselves and how the world sees us", TLS 5430, 27 April), Alan Ryan
recounts his first experience of hearing the great Cambridge
philosopher speak. "Bernard Williams", he writes,

>did as much as any one to ruin my life. I first encountered him when
>I was a twenty-year old undergraduate, convinced that a prosperous
>future as a tax lawyer lay before me. The hours would be long, but
>the holidays would be good, and the work interesting. Williams
>arrived to read his paper "The Idea of Equality" to us; he had left
>the physical paper behind, so he laid his hands on the table, stared
>at his fingers, and delivered his paper as though reading from his
>fingertips. About halfway through the paper, it dawned on me that I
>had no intention of becoming a tax lawyer. What lay ahead was,
>instead, poverty and a lifetime of wishing I were just that bit
>cleverer than I was ever going to be. Where the magic lay, it is
>hard to say: partly in that dry, ironic and amused voice that must
>surely have been the model for Michael Caine's in The Ipcress File,
>partly in the quickness and sharpness of his intellect, and, perhaps
>more than anything, in the implicit promise that muddle and
>incoherence could be dissolved, and one could come to know what one
>believed and why.

Allow me, if you will, a bit of sermonizing, toward a question I
think worth asking.

Ryan describes humorously but accurately, it seems to me, the noble
calling of the teacher in the humanities, and so implies the enormous
gulf between what we are compelled to say in public, in all those
forms and forums of self-justification, pretending that we're in the
*business* of producing or improving tax lawyers et sim., and what we
must actually be doing as moral beings as well as academics. Part of
what we have to deal with is the big question of practice in the
digital humanities -- what it is, what teachnical problems it is good
for, how it is done well, how we teach others to do it well etc. But
we have as well the question of what is practical, for the actual
lives of those who won't be academics, technical experts et al. These
days it is, of course, no good pretending that such questions can be
waved aside. Students want to know the answers before they sign up,
work hard (we hope) and get massively into debt. So what is a
*practical* education in the digital humanities? What do we say that
it trains someone to do? The right lives will, I fervently hope, be
"ruined" in Ryan's sense if we communicate adequately why we're in
this game, but in order to get sufficient candidate lives so that the
right ones will turn up, we have to address what (to quote the OED
s.v. "practical") is "likely to succeed or be effective in real
circumstances". What do we say?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Fri Apr 27 2007 - 01:40:17 EDT

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