Defining Digital Humanities
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Defining Digital Humanities

A Reader

Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, Edward Vanhoutte, Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, Edward Vanhoutte

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eBook - ePub

Defining Digital Humanities

A Reader

Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, Edward Vanhoutte, Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, Edward Vanhoutte

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About This Book

Digital Humanities is becoming an increasingly popular focus of academic endeavour. There are now hundreds of Digital Humanities centres worldwide and the subject is taught at both postgraduate and undergraduate level. Yet the term 'Digital Humanities' is much debated. This reader brings together, for the first time, in one core volume the essential readings that have emerged in Digital Humanities. We provide a historical overview of how the term 'Humanities Computing' developed into the term 'Digital Humanities', and highlight core readings which explore the meaning, scope, and implementation of the field. To contextualize and frame each included reading, the editors and authors provide a commentary on the original piece. There is also an annotated bibliography of other material not included in the text to provide an essential list of reading in the discipline. This text will be required reading for scholars and students who want to discover the history of Digital Humanities through its core writings, and for those who wish to understand the many possibilities that exist when trying to define Digital Humanities.

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Humanities Computing


Is humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?

Geoffrey Rockwell
University of Alberta
Geoffrey Rockwell (1999). Originally published online after being presented at “Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?”, An Interdisciplinary Seminar Series, November 12, 1999, Institute for Advanced technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia.
Note from the Editors:
During the late 1990s, a significant theme in the ‘What is Humanities Computing’ literature was whether the field could be defined and categorised as an academic discipline. Rockwell presented this paper, published in 1999, to a seminar held on this topic in the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia (other papers presented at this seminar by leading figures in humanities computing remain available1). In it he argues that the ontological questions of what the discipline ‘is’ may never be satisfactorily settled; therefore, he argues for the importance and value of considering this question from an administrative and institutional perspective. In order to do this he discusses at length his experience of setting up a ‘Combined Honours in Multimedia and Another Subject’ programme at McMaster University. He also explains the decision to use the term multimedia as opposed to that of humanities computing to describe the programme. In essence, the term multimedia could be used to communicate to prospective students and colleagues (especially those of the senior, administrative and budget-approving persuasion) what the programme would entail and the traditions it would draw on. However, the term humanities computing was, he argued ‘a liability and confusion’.
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when the begot me.
(Sterne, Tristram Shandy, p. ch02.html#page_35)
I propose in this paper to tackle the question of whether humanities computing is an academic discipline from an administrative and instructional perspective by recasting is thus, “Who should humanities computing benefit and how should it be administered and taught to benefit them?” I would have you think concretely about the child you will beget by concentrating less on the issue of what humanities computing is than on questions about its administrative and instructional details. I have two reasons for begging your indulgence as I digress from the original question. The first is that woven into the purpose of this seminar are questions about the administrative and instructional potential of humanities computing. To ask if humanities computing is an academic discipline is anticipated by the question of whether it can be administered and taught as other disciplines are in the academy. This precedence can be seen, for example, in the purpose page for this seminar where the author sets up a hierarchy of questions proceeding from the instructional question to the ontological.
This seems a good time to ask whether we should be offering such a degree— but before we can answer that question, we need to have a clear idea of what the field is, and whether it is, in fact, a field of scholarly inquiry. (, accessed on October 27, 1999)
While I sympathize with the view that we need to know what humanities computing is before we can ask whether it can be taught, I can’t help suspecting that the ontological question will never be answered to your satisfaction, especially in a seminar which could be argued is an administrative form designed more for appreciating questions than answering them. Rather, the ontological question could become the subject of the teachable discipline. Therefore at some point you will have to confront the administrative question and confront it without the certainty of knowing what humanities computing is.
My second reason for digressing, and I should warn you that this paper will be nothing but digressions, is that what little I have to offer after the excellent presentations you have already heard lies in the area of administrative and instructional experience, namely the experience of setting up a Combined Honours in Multimedia and Another Subject program at McMaster University. Thus these digressions will attempt to abstract from the experience of those of us who conceived and carried this program to term in a fashion that will eventually lead to an answer to the question you should have asked.

The Place of Administration

In a well known passage in Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates discusses the invention of writing by telling a story that has come down from the forefathers about the invention of writing: Theuth, an Egyptian god, brought his inventions including writing before the king Thamus who made it his business to evaluate the inventions before passing them on to the Egyptians. Theuth is excited about writing; it “will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.” Thamus like any good philosopher king is not so enthusiastic. He first distinguishes the role of the god as inventor from his role as legislator. Theuth is so enamored with his offspring writing that he can’t see whether it will really profit or harm the citizens. Thamus answers Theuth’s enthusiasm thus,
O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. ... And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows. (Plato, Phaedrus, 274e–275b)
This story of Socrates’ has become an important text in the current discussion about the place of technologies of information in society. Neil Postman in Technopoly turns to it in his first chapter to remind us of the importance of technological criticism and judgment. I have my own reading of this story.
One of the first points I would make about Socrates’ myth of writing is that it is presented as a short dialogue between Theuth (often known as Thoth) and Thamus. (Phaedrus actually questions Socrates about the place of such stories in their dialogue, but that is another story.) Your seminar might likewise end up being such a formative dialogue if it is open to questions around the administration and instruction of technology. What story will be told about this symposium?
Second, Socrates’ story connects the ontological issue of what a thing is, in our case humanities computing, with the administrative question of whether it will be of benefit or not to others. Socrates does this dramatically by distinguishing characters and introducing the role of the administrator Thamus who asks about the implementation of the invention. He wants to know what good the technology will do, and I would argue a discipline is an administrative technology. That is my challenge to you; you aren’t really asking only what humanities computing is, but you are also asking what it would be like at UVA and who would it serve, however distasteful such administrative questions are. (Our distaste for administration in academia is another issue.) Bring them out into the open; play another role for a moment.
Third, Socrates distinguishes between a technology that helps tell about wisdom from the teaching of wisdom. (Much of the Phaedrus can be read as a demonstration by Socrates of this difference.) He provides us thus with a clue as to what would constitute an administratively appropriate implementation—one that does not fill us with the conceit of wisdom, but one which is pedagogically appropriate. Which is why I have recast the question, to ask what might be taught.
Fourth, Socrates’ criticism of writing could very well be updated to sound like current criticism of computers in the humanities, namely that they are not devices (or methods) for acquiring deeper wisdom about texts but a recipe for forgetting about books. To put it more generally, any new technology, especially those that are supposed to assist us with the study of other things, can also hide that which they are meant to reveal. This is a danger we are all struggling with in humanities computing—to what extent does it hide or distract us from that which it was supposed to compute. This danger reveals itself in the different tacks we take to the administration of humanities computing. Willard McCarty is trying to keep it connected to the humanities by advocating interdisciplinarity. Others, myself included, are trying to identify a new subject area which humanities computing can reveal through humanistic inquiry. McCarty wants to bring computing methods to traditional objects of study, I want to argue for bringing the culture of the humanities to new objects, those that surround us on CD-ROMs and the WWW.
Let me summarize this section with a collection of questions I will attempt to answer in the rest of the paper. Who is humanities computing for? How can it be administered to benefit others? How can it teach rather than tell? What should be taught and to whom? How can we create a community that will continue to ask about computing in the humanities? How can we create a community of research? I propose to answer these questions by wandering off along the path of humanities computing at McMaster.

A Brief History of Humanities Computing at McMaster

In 1986 the Humanities Computing Centre was founded out of the existing Language Labs. Dr. Samuel Cioran, who was the Assistant to the Dean for Computing and director of the Language Labs at the time, began moving the courses from traditional audio instructional technology to computer-based instruction by developing a series of language modules built around the mcBOOKmaster authoring system. He also took the Faculty of Humanities out of a system of central computer labs when they were unwilling to upgrade their computers with CD-ROMs and sound cards. He negotiated an arrangement with the central Computing and Information Services whereby the Faculty took over the computer labs for humanities students and merged them with the Language Labs to create a hybrid set of labs and media classrooms that could serve our purposes better. This arrangement still exists so that, while our labs are partially funded by the central administration, we manage them and adapt them to our purposes. I cannot stress how important it has been to have in place a set of labs and staff under the academic control of the Faculty and therefore responsive to our instructional needs. Reading Susan Hockey’s description of the problems she faced putting on a single course I am thankful for Dr. Cioran’s foresight. To put it bluntly, you need labs under the academic control of the discipline if you are going to mount courses on a regular basis and especially if you are going to mount a program with any multimedia courses. Do not count on resources that do not answer to the needs of the unit. I know of too many humanities computing courses that stumble along fighting for time in labs and appropriate configurations of tools to believe a program can be mounted with good intentions.
When I was hired to replace Dr. Cioran in 1994 I was asked to introduce courses in Humanities Computing almost as an afterthought. The first course, “Introduction to Humanities Computing,” was taught in the winter term of 1995. Three courses were introduced at that time, including “Introduction to Multimedia in the Humanities” and a course on electronic texts and computational linguistics. These courses were to be courses for all humanities students to provide them with suitable introductions to information technology in an academic context. In 1998 as a result of donations and internal competitions two new faculty members were hired and we introduced six new courses in multimedia and communication. In effect, the creation of a Humanities Computing Centre and the introduction of courses in the area was due to a series of administrative decisions that had little to do with questions about the existence of any such discipline. The Faculty got their labs (and hence a Centre) partly because multimedia language titles could not be developed for central labs that at the time were aimed at computer science and statistics students. Courses were introduced because faculty were brought on board to help administer the facilities and because funding was available only for positions connected to technology. I am, of course, exaggerating, but my point is that humanities computing at McMaster (and I imagine at many other places) evolved along faculty lines and out of existing administrative structures. If we didn’t have faculties of humanities would we have humanities computing? That is not to say that one should be ashamed of such lineage, rather it is a series of often inconsequential administrative decisions combined with stubborn personalities which can put one in a position to make bold initiatives. Has it been any different at Virginia?
In the summer of 1998 we were alerted that the Province of Ontario had created the Access to Opportunities Program (ATOP) to encourage the expansion of programs that prepare students for careers in the advanced technology sector, specifically Computer Engineering, Software Engineering, and Computer Science. We ...

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