[Humanist] 23.653 Yale, the past and the future

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Feb 24 09:50:18 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 653.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 23 Feb 2010 09:44:12 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: watersheds

Thanks to Amanda Gailey in Humanist 23.649 for supplying a context I had in
mind but did not transcribe in reporting on the recent event at Yale. As is
my habit, on reading Amanda's note I went immediately to the OED to check my
understanding of what "watershed" commonly means. "A parting of the ways" or
"a big change" seems the common meaning. Not very satisfactory for my sense
of the moment.

During the discussion, if I recall correctly, someone remarked that
recognition of digital scholarship has proceeded at a rate inversely
proportional to institutional prestige. In broad terms, yes, I suppose
there's some truth in that. Would it be fair to say that innovation tends to
come from the 2nd- and 3rd tier institutions (by some vague but more or less
commonly observed measure)? So, by that sort of argument, when a
prestigious, old and quite traditional university becomes at last the site
of such recognition, it signals that our common project is no longer so new
and perilous as it once was. Because such institutions are influential, it
is a moment for all to celebrate, since it means the change for which so
many have worked for so long is now solid. Those afraid to act until a
precedent can be cited among the top universities can then act.

When one looks closer, the institutional history of digital scholarship
becomes much more complex. Centres of activity at Oxford, Cambridge,
Toronto, Bergen were early on the scene. (Harvard was very active in
computing from the time of the Mark I, built by Howard Aiken and completed
in 1944; its Program on Technology and Society, 1964-1972, was an early
attempt to assess what was happening more broadly.) Some, esp the e-text
centres, were clearly set up in a way that did not challenge the divide
between support of research and research itself, yet in time they also
vanished. I suspect that if the study were done we'd find more than one
reason for the disbanding of centres. I'd like to be able to argue that over
time we've been evolving ever better institutional models but don't have
sufficient data to hand. 

I think what we really want to look for is recognition that digital
humanities (in the singular) is itself a scholarly enterprise, not merely a
step'n'fetchit infrastructure. We want to know about the vigour of the
research programme for which it is directly, primarily responsible. That
vigour is now widely distributed. Now we very much need the socially
strongest castles to pull up the portcullis and throw open the gate. As
Amanda more or less said, many of us have been working for years toward the
point at which scholarship in digital humanities becomes as an unremarkable
a possibility as any other of the older kinds. And I for one have been
waiting a long time to witness the more slowly moving institutions get

Beyond that point is less excitement than a more calm, critical attitude
toward the work done. What I think was most hopeful in the Yale event was
the degree to which the graduate students and recent graduate students were
thinking critically and quite practically about actual work in the archives,
manuscript rooms and so on. One senior scholar (repeating a very old theme,
articulated yet again e.g. by Anthony Kenny in his 1991 British Library
lecture) said he was waiting for the results that would bring forth some new
discovery that could not have been made otherwise. I wonder where he's been
looking, and not looking. But, I'd argue, the important changes are less of
that kind, much more of the kind that takes place quietly, gradually. We do
need people to document, study and discuss such changes so that they won't
simply be taken for granted and slip by unnoticed. A "Paradise within thee,
happier far"?


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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