Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 382.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2002 07:49:39 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Subject: solstitial greetings
We are but a few days from the darkest of the year, and for those of us
here in SE England the late rising of the sun and early fading out of it,
combined with dim streetlamps and old, wet brick, makes for a gloomy time
indeed. It is my habit and yearly pleasure to take the opportunity on or
about the solstice to reflect on all manner of things connected or
connectible with humanities computing, as everyone but the recently joined
will know. Often seasonal observations crowd in -- since 1996, when I moved
to this country, the chill, the damp, the dark and the cozy joys of an
English Christmastide. This is a wonderful place to live, despite what many
But it is all too true that there are problems, and very serious ones.
British higher education, for example, is not in good shape, as I have been
recently and repeatedly reminded. Physical decay of buildings,
deteriorating services and so on are not the problem, only one of the
effects. The cause seems obvious: many years of systematic underfunding,
which both expresses and tends to bring out the worst in people. But I
real cause goes much deeper -- and, paradoxically, is something we have it
in our hands to do something about.
The first is a fragment of an interview I overheard on Radio 4
(http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/) a couple of weeks ago. Someone fairly senior
was commenting on research his department had done into what the commercial
sector wanted from British higher education. Every time we ask our
informants in the commercial sector, he said, they tell us, students who
can think critically. They don't want us to do job-training, he continued,
since they can do that far better than we can. Yet we persist in behaving
as if our new mandate depends on our ability to train the future workforce
in job-related skills. Why?
The second is an experiment I conducted with my students during a review of
the material covered this term in my first-year humanities computing
course. The review consisted of two parts, first the "mechanical skills"
covered in the units on electronic publishing and text-analysis, then the
"cognitive skills". Between these two parts I gave them the following
(admittedly in the latter parts a straw-man, but one with serious
quantities of annoying straw):
>The doctrine of "transferrable skills"
>(a) The worth of a subject is determined by its practical
>applicability to real-world problems;
>(b) This applicability may be calculated from the proportion of
>skills that are directly transferrable to the workplace;
>(c) Therefore subjects should be taught in such a way as to maximize
>this transfer, and
>(d) Those subjects for which very little transfer is possible should
>not be taught.
I asked them how many of the above could they give their assent to. I was
enormously gratified that they balked even at the first of these and could
get no further without qualifying what is meant by "practical
applicability" and "real-world problems". One young woman commented, "it
isn't enough that a subject is useful, it also has to be interesting". Ah,
in the depths of our darkness there is light. It's coming from the students
-- and, actually, there's no small measure of it from our immediate colleagues.
I said I thought we could do something about the root-cause of the problems
in higher education. This cause, I would argue, hides its true nature -- a
fundamental loss of confidence in the ends of higher education -- with
garments of practical applicability almost as crude as the above. I think,
however, that as computing humanists we're in exactly the right place at
the right time to demonstrate not merely that the most applicable tool of
all raises problems fundamental to the humanities (which are their
life-blood) but also that in so doing so it gives us exactly what we need
to equip our students to handle the problems of the world and to make the
kind of difference we hope for.
Three years ago, on New Year's Eve, at the turn of the millennium (as here
in London the Dome was providing its brief moment of costly glory, such as
that was), I was privileged to hear Desmond Tutu preach a sermon on the
last 1,000 years and what we can hope for in the years to come. (See
http://home.earthlink.net/~hammondja/tutu4.htm> for the text.) His review
of our bloody and cruel past was unblinking, yet he somehow managed to
extract out of human experience a vigorous message of joyous hope. I try no
such thing here, but following Tutu's example I think that real hope
depends on not making the situation out to be better than it is. The point,
I would think, is to see as clearly as we can, to derive our mandate and
larger agenda from the situation in which we find ourselves.
What does this have to do with the solstitial crisis? Light from darkness,
and all that, of course. Renewal. Except, of course, that for us no
clockwork planets make it happen automatically. We must reach for and use
well the tool at hand -- like the young boy in that fine movie, Black
Orpheus, who makes the sun rise by playing his guitar from the hilltop slum
Humanist will be silent in the coming week but will resume shortly after
Happy Christmas, a good Yule to you all!
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || firstname.lastname@example.org
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