[Humanist] 23.264 BBQ and fire

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Sep 3 07:01:52 CEST 2009


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 264.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Øyvind_Eide <oyvind.eide at iln.uio.no>                     (45)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.263 the BBQ and the fire,or the joy of
                negative entropy

  [2]   From:    Sterling Fluharty <phdinhistory at gmail.com>               (229)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.263 the BBQ and the fire, or the joy of
                negative entropy

  [3]   From:    Shane Landrum <srl at brandeis.edu>                          (82)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.263 the BBQ and the fire, or the joy of
                negative entropy


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Wed, 2 Sep 2009 08:18:51 +0200
        From: Øyvind_Eide <oyvind.eide at iln.uio.no>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.263 the BBQ and the fire,or the joy of negative entropy

> -- 
> [2 
> ]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>        Date: Wed, 02 Sep 2009 06:41:22 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: where's the fire?
>        In-Reply-To: <20090821054656.C55A434C3E at woodward.joyent.us>
>
> Dear colleagues,
> [...]
> There may also be a problem for us with the label that seems now to  
> have
> taken over, i.e. "digital humanities". It comfortably convers  
> anything a
> humanist does involving digital stuff, most of which isn't research
> except in the field of application, if there. So blanketing everything
> we do is a thick, muffling carpet of trivial applications dressed up  
> in
> trendy colours. It certainly doesn't help that yet again we're told  
> that
> since quite soon everything in the humanities will be digital, the  
> term
> is more or less tautological and us specialists are reaching our point
> of professional obsolescence -- though some will continue to be needed
> to do the XML equivalent of fix the printer.
>
> What can we point to that is both intellectually exciting and not the
> property of computer science? How would you attract an intellectually
> exciting person who wanted to do his or her own research (as opposed  
> to
> get a job doing someone else's)? Have we forgotten what it is to be
> ourselves excited by the radiant energy of our primary materials?

I sometimes wonder about my arguments for doing my work in Digital  
Humanities and not somewhere else. I build computer tools to help me  
doing my research, but if I needed wooden tools to assist me, I would  
make them as well. Would I then call my research Wooden Humanities? Or  
starting from the term Humanities Computing, Humanities Carpentry?

Maybe what I am doing is cross-thematic or general humanities  
research. Because that does not exits in the organisations relevant to  
me, or in my mind, I go where I find a structure for it - Humanities  
Computing.

Kind regards,

Øyvind Eide
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Unit for Digital Documentation, University of Oslo



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Wed, 2 Sep 2009 08:44:13 -0600
        From: Sterling Fluharty <phdinhistory at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.263 the BBQ and the fire, or the joy of negative entropy

Willard,

I suspect the work of scholars in computer science counts of "research" for
two reasons: 1) it follows a long tradition of abstract, logical, and
mathematical theorizing, and 2) it is often an interdisciplinary enterprise
that transforms and extends the methodologies of the disciplines it
engages.  If scholars in the digital humanities or humanities computing wish
to have their work similarly counted as research, they need to either stress
the theoretical nature of their research and/or actually create new
methodologies for humanistic disciplines.  And I don't believe the pursuit
of applications needs to be perceived as a weakness in DH/HC.  It seems to
me that there exists a healthy synergy between the production of
applications and the pursuit of theoretical inquiry in CS.  CS didn't vanish
or lose its identity when large numbers of mathematicians, economists,
physicists, linguists, and cognitive scientists incorporated computational
methods into their research.  DH/HC has a chance to stick around if it sets
its own research agenda and becomes the pacesetter in the humanities.  Some
disciplines (like education and math) spend a lot of their time serving
other disciplines; I don't think CS is beholden to other disciplines and I
am not sure how wise it is for DH/HC to serve the interests of the
traditional humanities overlords.

Best wishes,
Sterling Fluharty
University of New Mexico


--[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Wed, 2 Sep 2009 12:03:08 -0400
        From: Shane Landrum <srl at brandeis.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.263 the BBQ and the fire, or the joy of negative entropy

Willard wrote:

> What can we point to that is both intellectually exciting and not the
> property of computer science? How would you attract an intellectually
> exciting person who wanted to do his or her own research (as opposed to
> get a job doing someone else's)? Have we forgotten what it is to be
> ourselves excited by the radiant energy of our primary materials?

I can hardly generalize about such questions, but a personal narrative
(by way of introduction) may shed some light on your question.
Probably like many on this list, I have an unusual background for a
humanities Ph.D.: an undergraduate double-major in computer science
and American studies. After half a decade of being a software engineer
in the early dot-com boom (c.1998-2004), I went for a history Ph.D.
partially because of reasons you mention: I wanted to do my own work
rather than be someone else's tool of production. Also, I love working
with primary sources-—particularly the letters and personal-papers
collections that are staples of US women's/gender/sexuality history.

I'm currently finishing a dissertation that straddles a bunch of
historical subfields-- legal/political history,
women/gender/sexuality, public health, history of technology. My use
of fulltext searching in newspaper archives lets me answer some hard
and interesting questions. If the research funding I've received is
any indication, people find the project "intellectually exciting." I
think I'm a kind of person that "digital humanities" as a
specialty/community wants to attract, but I'm a latecomer for a few
different reasons:

1) Scarcity of available formal training or mentoring. In graduate
school, I've received excellent training within my discipline. On the
other hand, "digital methods for historians" isn't something one can
just take a class in anywhere, and I wasn't in a position to pick and
choose a graduate program just because of the program's (or a single
faculty member's) reputation for doing interesting digital-methods
work. Like most technologists, I can RTFM all day long if I need to
know how software works, but autodidacticism has its limits.

2) Limited time/funding for digital work at the graduate level. I'd
love to be doing more digitally-intensive work with my sources-—in
particular, a major publicly-accessible collection of women's history
materials which I use extensively-—but I'm busy trying to write a
dissertation in a limited time with limited funding.

Most of my digital materials are photographs of archival
materials--largely letters and government documents. I've spent
substantial time developing my own ways of filing and adding
rudimentary metadata to thousands of JPGs and PDFs. Mostly, I've made
things up as I go along, because nothing I've found online has offered
more than generalized suggestions. This issue-—how to manage gigabytes
of personal photographs of archival materials-- is something that
trips up *every single historian* I've talked to about it. The Center
for History and New Media at GMU is doing some amazing work, but
Zotero isn't the right tool for everything. Consumer-level photo
management software (affordable by graduate students) isn't either.

My Americanist-historian peers are comfortable with a whole range of
online archival materials-- with metadata and search systems built by
someone else-- but we don't have easy access to training or
best-practices descriptions on how to build our own metadata-based
filing systems. For the intellectual questions I want to ask about my
sources, tags aren't good enough. I'd happily build a tool that does
what I think I want in this regard, but there's only so much time in a
day.

3) The spectre of tenure lurking in the distance. Students at top
graduate programs usually want to aim for tenure-track faculty
positions, which are scarce to begin with. Once we get a position, the
three pillars of tenure--teaching, research, and service-- don't leave
much room for spending 20 hours a week hacking on software tools. (I
could make an argument that open-source software development is a
valid form of service, but it's not as visible within a department as
sitting on a faculty committee.) I can't imagine any faculty member
having time to teach even 2 classes, work on her own
humanities-discipline research, and participate in a community-run
software project to any substantial degree. (At least not with any
degree of work-life balance, but that's already an issue with faculty
careers.)

If there are alternative career paths that are specific to the digital
humanities--positions which combine technology/toolsmithing with one's
own research-— then graduate students and undergraduates need to know
about them far enough in advance to seek training in both a humanities
discipline and computer science. Also, the opportunities need to be
there in enough quantity to be visible on H-Net and other major jobs
lists. Otherwise, I think, Willard's "intellectually exciting" people
will tend to fall out of the digital humanities pipeline, whether
towards private-sector software engineering or towards a more
traditional humanities faculty path.

Shane Landrum   <srl at brandeis.edu>
Ph.D. Candidate, American History, Brandeis University





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