20.599 ruining lives

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 28 Apr 2007 07:08:07 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 599.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: Pat Galloway <galloway_at_ischool.utexas.edu> (20)
         Subject: Re: 20.595 ruining lives

   [2] From: "Joris van Zundert" <joris.van.zundert_at_gmail.com> (100)
         Subject: Re: 20.595 ruining lives

   [3] From: Wendell Piez <wapiez_at_mulberrytech.com> (74)
         Subject: Re: 20.595 ruining lives

         Date: Sat, 28 Apr 2007 07:04:29 +0100
         From: Pat Galloway <galloway_at_ischool.utexas.edu>
         Subject: Re: 20.595 ruining lives


Well, I am over in this little corner of digital humanities, teaching
future digital archivists to preserve born-digital objects. My
students have already archived a part of Michael Joyce's oeuvre and
are presently working on the digital files (relatively vast in
extent) of Arnold Wesker and the digital originals of Norman Mailer's
outgoing mail--all for the Humanities Research Center here at the
University of Texas. Soon they will begin working on keeping alive a
significant computer game collection just acquired by the Center for
American History. And of course most of them will go on not to
archive literature, but the records of governments to guarantee their
accountability. Granted, they are Master's students, but we don't
have much trouble convincing them that this is worthwhile work. And I
think they ARE the right ones, not some kind of second tier group in
service to "creatives." They know that without their work the whole
emergent digital culture will go down the drain, and they are
preparing to do something about it.
Pat Galloway

School of Information
University of Texas at Austin

         Date: Sat, 28 Apr 2007 07:05:20 +0100
         From: "Joris van Zundert" <joris.van.zundert_at_gmail.com>
         Subject: Re: 20.595 ruining lives

Dear Willard,

Allow me to put in a few words from a digital humanities software
developer perspective.

If there's one thing I'd train digital humanists to do, it's to share
and collaborate. At least in The Netherlands 'traditionalist'
humanities research is often if not most of the time solitary
research. This tradition of splendid isolation has imho led to a
practice of software tools also being developed as a solitary mission
in this field.

But whereas fine theory and eloquent reasoning may thrive on a
singular engagement with paperware, effective and endurable program
code is the result of the intense involvement of people on multiple
levels. It's somewhat like the fact that you can write the script by
yourself, but you can't make the movie work without others.

Most digital instrumentation developed in the past has died off, was
abandoned or simply got lost after the chief and only developer moved
on to other projects. But in fact there's quite a number of software
development practices and processes that could have prevented such
loss (of knowledge). So, I'd teach digital humanists to apply those
practices to ensure the endurance of what was gained by putting in so
much effort. And by doing so I'd probably ruin their lives because
those practices focus on sharing knowledge by painstakingly applying
completely boring software development process methodology. Which is
stuff that is about as dry as baked Sahara sand to teach. I wonder if
even Bernard Williams for all his brilliance and wit of elocution
would have been able to lend it humanists-seducing power.


Mr. Joris J. van Zundert (MA)
Huygens Institute
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
Contact information can be found at
A disclaimer is applicable to this e-mail, for more information please refer to
         Date: Sat, 28 Apr 2007 07:04:50 +0100
         From: Wendell Piez <wapiez_at_mulberrytech.com>
         Subject: Re: 20.595 ruining lives
Dear Willard,
Writing as someone who has pondered this problem, like you, it
strikes me that in my own life I've reversed it. Unfortunately, this
doesn't give me a good answer, except for myself.
At 01:25 AM 4/27/2007, you wrote:
 >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?
If I could, I'd say "let the practical take care of itself".
I can say that because my own work is immensely practical, and
doesn't really presume to be anything but that. My company's
successes, as demonstrated by our clients who go away happy,
energized and informed, and return only years later with more work
for us to do, are due entirely to our practical contributions, to
what appears in the end in their bottom lines, since by and large
they aren't coming to us for fun. I succeed in my own work when I
manage to help my colleagues and clients to make it past the next
payroll, by doing something that the world finds worthwhile and worth
the remuneration.
But I also know, from practical experience, that this tends to happen
most readily and most satisfactorily when we don't fret only about
the practical. Though we keep in mind the actual constraints of
operation, the limits of the possible, we couldn't do our work if
that's all we thought about. On the contrary, our clients find
happiness, and energy, and information, not when we are focused only
on the ground in front, but when we invite them to look with us at
further horizons, to weigh the practical with the possible. When we
do this, it helps that we can bring the broad view, share with them
lessons we've learned in far away worlds, propose practical
possibilities, engage our critical faculties -- Is the way you've
always done it the best way? Can you help us understand how you got
where you are? What is your strength; what do you want to build?
This requires a spirit of openness and acceptance along with a
willingness to play and to grow beyond our present selves.
Such a spirit is not cultivated only in the humanities, of course, as
you know. It is not the exclusive preserve of any discipline or any
sect. It is an engagement, instead, with paradox: the most practical
thing of all is that which is not practical in the least. What was
terribly practical only fifteen or twenty years ago, today is a
rusting relic. What is most dazzlingly practical today, was barely
imaginable back then, just an impractical idea in some impractical
person's head.
So, what are the "real circumstances" in which your interlocutors
would like to guarantee their success and effectiveness? How are we
to ensure that our preparations for the real circumstances of today
do not prove to be just so much wasted effort tomorrow? The only way,
it seems to me, is by focusing on developing those strengths of mind
and spirit that we will need in any circumstances in which we might
find ourselves. Breadth of knowledge, alertness to the world,
security of temperament, keenness of curiosity, recognition of common
interests and opportunities, abilities to communicate and to reveal
perceptions without clouding them with inessentials, faith in good
work for its own sake and will to persist in it -- any of us could
spin a list. But none of these intangibles are to be found by a
fretful and miserly reduction of everything to a fleeting judgment of
what is "practical" and what is not.
Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez_at_mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street                    Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207                                          Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD  20850                                 Fax: 301/315-8285
    Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML
Received on Sat Apr 28 2007 - 02:18:11 EDT

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