How much should a humanist know?

August 23rd, 2010 § 3

Hello all, How about a session discussing the question of how much technical knowledge or programming language a humanist should aquire to be able to claim to be a digital humanist or to feel confident in working with digital tools?

A recent post on the Humanist discussion list on the subject of getting involved stated:

“I think, rather than envisioning some program or initiative to spur the development of code literacy among humanists, or the creation of an amazing and intuitive new programming language that makes semantic sense to humanists, that the only real way to change this situation is for scholars to think that understanding data structures and code is necessary for the study and use of digital scholarly media.” ([Humanist] 24.270 getting involved)

While another contributor to the thread said:

“… I think that digital humanity producers need to understand how information moves in the world of electronic production.  How does this still-new medium impact writing and narrative structure and visualization and so forth.  I believe that the future relationship between scholarship and electronic publication is too important to wait for scholars to become conversant in XML or TEI.  That said, I do think that scholars need to understand what XML and TEI, or whatever, do — how it shapes their product.  But I do not think they need to be able to do it themselves.” ([Humanist] 24.265 getting involved)

Is Willard McCarty right when he says, “The solution to the problem seems to be to involve educating the imaginations of these colleagues. And it seems to me that the way to do this is somehow to involve them in hands-on making of digital things. I see far too much standing back and talking about static results engineered by someone else, too little engagement, too little scholarly craftsmanship.” ([Humanist] 24.263 getting involved, but how?)

How much should we learn? And how do we know it’s worth learning?

§ 3 Responses to “How much should a humanist know?”

  • S_Russell says:

    The interpretation and production of texts seem to be very different problems to me, viewing this through the disciplinary lens of history.

    To the extent that disciplinary history texts require specifically digital skills, many of these problems are being resolved for the generation of normal electronic texts. A blog post is a medium element. An encyclopedia article is still an encyclopedia article. Currently scholars having wildly varying capacities to support their own generation of texts to a publishable standard. There is a “last hundred meters problem,” which Knuth identified quite early on, in relation to specialised type-setting services. Given we’re still waiting on a comprehensive humanities solution for bibliography management, I don’t hold out hopes of the last hundred meters of text production finding a user controlled solution very soon.

    In relation to reading digital texts there are a wide variety of problems relating to the discovery, archiving, indexing, retrieving, and interpretation. Data sets of specialist or technical composition will require (as existing ones do) specialist and technical analysis. Files in under-documented and under-supported formats will become difficult to read. For example, in a poll of 25000 users, had approximately a thousand users claiming personally produced files with timestamps prior to 1980. ( ) This discussion includes the boast, “I have an INK timestamp on my punch card box”. These texts are probably ASCII or EBCDIC plain text files of source code for programs, probably of little interest to the humanist.

    In comparison, one of the largest useful open archives of interest for stylistic or historical analysis of digital culture, USENET, is locked behind a crippleware wall of Google’s private control. contains an archive of 1083897 posts, fewer than 10000 of which are accessible. Given access to the archives, useful work could be conducted, and the genre, style, audience, author and header conventions could well be learnt by the humanities reader.

    The particular experience of writing and receiving on an 80 column by 24 line display, editing in vi, is probably not worth replicating beyond current examples documenting the practice. Similarly, we have documentation of the experience of cutting a stencil, or typing carbons.

    I’m a bit concerned at the shallow time analysis involved in assertions about an impact on writing and narrative structures. Texts prefiguring the current bundle of social information sharing ought to go back to the late 1970s. I’m thinking ephemeral archives of interactions by email, group email / newsgroup, and simulations of presence of identity (BBSes and talkers leading to irc/im equivalents) should go back to the 1970s. The facebook-like role of _finger_ and _name_ are probably lost with the user accounts of dead mini-computers. Isn’t this an acculturation issue relating to reading?

  • conal_tuohy says:

    I think McCarthy is right – it is necessary for humanists to make digital stuff in order to grasp it comprehensively, and that does mean technical knowledge, and know-how.

    TEI, for instance, is not that hard to learn (if you can find someone to teach it to you). People who are literate and have learned to format papers and bibliographies to suit journals are also capable of learning TEI. But you won’t learn just by reading the TEI Guidelines – you have to actually encode some text, and for a reason (i.e. you have to bring some semantics to the text you’re encoding).

    There’s a chicken-and-egg situation where humanists have to feel the need to adopt digital methods, but they first have to understand what digital methods can do (for them). It’s a boot-strapping process.

  • ingridm says:

    Well, I can already feel my antennae quivering so I think “yes” a session on what technical knowledge or programming language humanists would benefit from knowing about could be useful.

    However, I think though rather than a session on “what” and “how much” in the manner of a “computing driver’s licence for humanists” which I’m sure some could find a little patronising, I’d like to assume, rightfully or wrongfully, that some (hopefully many) humanists want to compute in the way they have wanted to write and think.

    It might not be a particularly popular view to hold for the humanists who don’t want to take on new tools and methods but for those that do want to compute – let the world of learning be their oyster (so to speak).

    I’d admittedly like to talk more about what benefits are gained by getting up close and personal with computers with a humanists mind and what “pings” and gets people excited what “clangs” and spooks humanists. This is with a view to getting more humanists interested in taking up computing. I think social media can be a great means of doing this and easing people into digital realms.

    So, I agree with Con – hands on wins.

    I don’t think humanists can properly critique and make use of tools and methods and thereby demand different tools and methods until they become intimately acquainted with those tools.

    What does acquaintance constitute? Well, for some it might mean a conceptual understanding and that’s what it is – conceptual, for others it means getting to know is augmented by doing and that is a more intimate understanding.

    I’d also like to offer that for humanities students coming through their studies today, many require “off screen” time and expect computing in some way to be part of their work habits. So the next generation of humanists is heading in this direction anyway…

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