[Humanist] 23.197 making a difference

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jul 29 07:15:02 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 197.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Stephen Ramsay <sramsay.unl at gmail.com>                    (51)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.192 making a difference

  [2]   From:    Tim Finney <tjf2n at VIRGINIA.EDU>                           (27)
        Subject: Re: What difference does digital make?

        Date: Tue, 28 Jul 2009 09:47:19 -0500
        From: Stephen Ramsay <sramsay.unl at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.192 making a difference
        In-Reply-To: <20090728060054.82585328D6 at woodward.joyent.us>


> Again I ask, with tongue somewhat in cheek, of what USE is classics, or
> history, or whatever? We all are asked to come up with explanations these
> days, prose for the undergraduate prospectus etc. An important exercise, I
> think. But the task of such prose is in my view to seize the question of
> usefulness and make it into a much better question, e.g. what are we that
> we
> find certain things useful, others useless? How might we find more of the
> world relevant to our humane uses -- by becoming more magnanimous, more
> imaginative?

I think many of my colleagues regard me as a kind of bomb-throwing radical,
what with all this digital sorcery.  But as I go on in this business, I find
myself asking more and more what the purpose of humanistic study really is
and arriving at startlingly traditional answers.

There are many -- among them the redoubtable Stanley Fish -- who think
"becoming more magnanimous" ("tolerance" would be the preferred term on my
side of the Atlantic) is a deeply naive proposal for the project of humanist
education, and that something like "pleasure" (the less serious half of
Horace's maxim) comes closer to the mark.  Even that is an astonishing claim
in a field like mine (literary study) that hesitates to offer even the most
basic apologia toward usefulness or definition.

I am more and more convinced, though, that humanistic inquiry is a deeply
ethical endeavor -- that it can and should lead to something that was once
called "wisdom."  Certainly, I believe that of the classroom.  But I am also
coming to believe that unless we put forth a basically ethical definition of
what we do as researchers, we might well be doomed.  The idea that the
"liberal arts" so called would make you a more tolerant, compassionate,
understanding individual -- that it would make you less prone to knee-jerk
reactions and reductive generalizations -- is one that persisted for
centuries, but it seems like an idea that embarrasses us today.

That, at least, is the conclusion I draw from a yearly ritual in the U.S. in
which the panels at the MLA are publicly mocked in the pages of prominent
national magazines, and we respond with chilly silence.  I suspect that our
real response to such charges -- something like what I've briefly and
tentatively outlined above -- feels a bit too conservative to us.  But then
I wonder *why* we regard such ideas as conservative, and not liberal in the
positive, traditional sense.

There are complex reasons for this feeling, of course -- quite legitimate
ones that have to do with our legacy as an occupation of the wealthy and the
leisured.  But that doesn't itself make the idea of humanistic inquiry as an
ethical endeavor illegitimate, and I, for one, would like to see this motive
reclaimed by the academy.


Stephen Ramsay
Assistant Professor
Department of English
Center for Digital Research in the Humanities
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
PGP Public Key ID: 0xA38D7B11

        Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2009 02:33:34 +0100
        From: Tim Finney <tjf2n at VIRGINIA.EDU>
        Subject: Re: What difference does digital make?

Dear Martin,

Here is an (unfinished) example of something I would not like to try
without the help of computers:


The analysis has brought new things to light; there has been an advance
in knowledge that would not have been achieved without digital


Tim Finney

> On Jul 24, 2009, at 2:11 PM, Martin Mueller wrote:
> > The other day I had a conversation with a colleague who in a 
> > friendly, but skeptical and pointed way asked whether all this 
> > digital stuff made an important difference.  It is still a good 
> > question. In the domain of text-based scholarship, classical 
> > philology (broadly construed) is an important test case. It is the 
> > only discipline of substantial generic, linguistic, and diachronic 
> > scope of which it can be said that all or most of the relevant 
> > documents exist in fairly good and moderately interoperable form. 
> > There is no TLG or anything like it for English, German, or any 
> > other language. There is All of Old English and All of Old Norse, 
> > but those are boutique operations.

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