[Humanist] 23.574 finding software, or perhaps not

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jan 17 10:42:40 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 574.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Susan Brown <sbrown at uoguelph.ca>                         (125)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.569 finding software, or perhaps not

  [2]   From:    Virginia Knight <Virginia.Knight at bristol.ac.uk>           (27)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.564 finding software

        Date: Fri, 15 Jan 2010 10:06:01 -0500
        From: Susan Brown <sbrown at uoguelph.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.569 finding software, or perhaps not
        In-Reply-To: <20100115084025.97F0D4669F at woodward.joyent.us>

I find this an extremely interesting thread, not least because I am  
just now teaching a graduate course in digital textuality, outside of  
a dedicated DH program, for the first time, and am faced with the  
question of how to get people who are keen and curious but for the  
most part untrained technically up and running with projects that will  
allow them to see the potential of DH tools for their future work.  
It's one thing to read about what others have done, and another to try  
something that connects with your own research and get some  
interesting results.

I think that having tools that can help such people is essential, in  
order to help those who are " serious about exploring the  
possibilities of using technology" take the first step, and also for  
helping DH methods to push out further into the disciplines. No, these  
students won't be able to do the kinds of highly sophisticated  
analysis that someone like Matt can engage in, but I hope that they  
will leave the course excited about the possibilities and keen to  
learn more (including, perhaps, some programming), rather than  
discouraged at having encountered tools that are not--yes--user- 
friendly enough that students can, first of all, grasp them well  
enough to get them to work on their stuff and, secondly, transparent  
enough in how they work that the methodological implications can be  
grasped without a background in statistics.

I don't think we want anything as stupid-making as MS Word, and I  
agree strongly with Martin that we need some software systems that  
have enough flexibility in terms of application and good enough  
interfaces that they really do offer people a way to get started  
without their having to take on faith that once they invest a year or  
two to learn some programming they will be able to use computers to  
aid in their research. What, after all, is the point of investing all  
that the time in standards-compliant digital materials if we are not  
aiming to make it possible for others to repurpose, for example, those  
lovely TEI-encoded texts to other ends? If we do not strive for this,  
we will leave the DH community isolated and its relevance always  
questionable from beyond that group of techies, because others will  
not have the chance to experience what computational techniques can do  
for their own inquiries. This would be a great pity both for DH and  
for the mainstream humanities disciplines. We need, as Martin  
suggests, to be aiming towards a spectrum of tools that would allow  
people to move from the simple ones that provide instant gratification  
but not a great deal of analysis, through those that require a little  
more investment of time and effort but that still seem doable from a  
novice perspective and that really do provide some serious analytical  
purchase, to those that require the kind of lengthy (and early?)  
training that the more cutting-edge work undoubtedly does.

I think there will always be research trajectories that demand a  
lengthy process of training and practice similar to that of learning  
to play a musical instrument, but I think we should be working to  
provide a range of accessible and well-documented applications (I  
think of TAPoR recipes here) that help people move from making toast  
(30 seconds), to sauces, to (pace _Julie and Julia_) deboning a duck.


On 15-Jan-10, at 3:40 AM, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:

> Date: Thu, 14 Jan 2010 10:53:21 -0600
>        From: Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.566 finding software, or perhaps not
>        In-Reply-To: <20100114061256.5D62F46714 at woodward.joyent.us>
> -
> Richard Lewis' comment raises a central problem, even though his  
> conclusion may be a little too pessimistic. I have from time to time  
> warned about the Devil User-Friendly.  It takes a little while to  
> learn how to ride a bicycle, not to speak of learning how to play  
> the violin. But people think that you should be able to perform all  
> manner of complex computational operation by just pushing a button,  
> or at most two.
> This is possible if the complex operations serve goals that have  
> been previously and narrowly defined. But that is not what happens  
> in research, where you constantly adjust your goals and methods as  
> you go along.  However gifted you are as an interface designer, you  
> will never be able to anticipate all the things that users will want  
> to do. Applications designed for business or entertainment can hone  
> in on the half dozen most popular or useful operations and perfect  
> them. But that is not  a plausible model for research.
> On the other hand, Richard Lewis may state the opposition in  
> somewhat too stark terms. In Ellen Ullman's splendid book 'Closer to  
> Machine' there is a page where she contrasts Microsoft Word as a  
> program that makes users stupid with Microsoft Excel as a program  
> that encourages ingenious data exploration. You don't need to be a  
> programmer to do interesting things with Excel, but you do need to  
> think about your data, and more is involved than pushing buttons.
> There is not much software in the Humanities that operates at an  
> Excel level.  There is also very little work on maintaining and  
> delivering data in formats that support post-processing and  
> encourage users to pick up data manipulation skills that can be  
> learned in days or fewer weeks than can be counted on the fingers of  
> one hand. As a result, we live in an either-or world.
> On the one hand, there are the hackers, often with experience that  
> stretches back into their teens and skill levels that are virtually  
> impossible to replicate once you're twenty. Somewhere in this world  
> there may be a person who started playing the piano at 20 and played  
> the Appassionata at speed at 23. But there aren't too many of them.  
> And it may be the same with programming skills.
> On the other hand, there are the users and the interface designers  
> who believe that humanities computing operations must follow a  
> 'thirty-second model': if it takes more than 30 seconds to formulate  
> the commands for an operation or wait for its results, FORGET IT.  
> Not much good will come from such an approach.
> Somewhere between these extremes is an 80/20 solution where you  
> start from more realistic, i.e. higher expectations of what users  
> need to bring to the table but also do your best to lower the time  
> and expertise cost of working with digital data. I remember reading  
> in some manual of the R language that performing a statistical  
> operation is often simpler than wrangling the data into shape.  But  
> R the last time I looked at it didn't have a built-in or black box  
> routine for importing Excel data -- a small but striking example of  
> an unnecessary obstacle.
> So I agree with Richard Lewis that "the things that make  
> computational scholarship interesting can't, I think, be packaged up  
> in an end user application." But there are still a lot of things  
> that can be done to lower the entry barriers for scholarly and  
> exploratory analysis of primary humanities data in digital form.


Susan Brown
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph                                      				
Visiting Professor, English and Film Studies, University of Alberta
sbrown at uoguelph.ca / susan.brown at ualberta.ca

        Date: Fri, 15 Jan 2010 16:31:27 +0000
        From: Virginia Knight <Virginia.Knight at bristol.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.564 finding software
        In-Reply-To: <20100113061317.0563945889 at woodward.joyent.us>

It's good to see an appreciative user of Intute drawing the list's 
attention to it. However, I'm sorry to say that JISC is cutting funding for 
Intute from August 2010. 'After this date, Intute will still be available 
but with minimal maintenance.' It is likely that certain parts of Intute 
such as the Virtual Training Suite will continue, but unless alternative 
funding is found there will be no further additions to the database of 
resources after that point.


Virginia Knight

Dr. Virginia Knight, Senior Technical Researcher
Institute for Learning and Research Technology
Tel: +44 (0)117 331 4369  Fax:  +44 (0)117 331 4396
University of Bristol, 8-10 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1HH
Virginia.Knight at bristol.ac.uk
Official homepage: http://www.ilrt.bris.ac.uk/aboutus/staff?search=cmvhk
Personal homepage: http://www.ilrt.bris.ac.uk/~cmvhk/virginia.html
ILRT homepage: http://www.ilrt.bristol.ac.uk

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