[Humanist] 25.206 subtle changes (and not so subtle)

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Aug 2 22:20:59 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 206.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 2 Aug 2011 04:51:27 +0200 (CEST)
        From: marjorie.burghart at free.fr
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.205 the subtle changes?
        In-Reply-To: <20110801202700.48B711936C2 at woodward.joyent.us>

> Consider, if you will, simply the masses of stuff. What does it mean 
> for scholarship to have all this to hand? Does the TLG have anything 
> to teach us here? Perseus?

Sometimes, I feel that having all this to hand means, for scholarship, an insidious decline. 

Consider a 19th century Medieval Studies student. To get a grip on the texts he was studying, the merry fellow needed to be, say, as familiar with the Lombard's Sentences as any medieval Parisian student, know his Latin Bible, and in a word, have the same cultural references as the world he was studying. He had to become acquainted with the very culture of the medieval writers, what really shaped their thought, not just the ideas and sketches, but a strong knowledge, carefully commited to memory - again like any medieval scholar before him. 

Consider a 21th century Medieval Studies student. To get a grip on the texts he/she is studying, the merry fellow *needs* exactly the same thing as the former one. But he/she does not *have* to make the same effort, he/she does not *have* to make the same efforts, acquire the same level of familiarity with  the medieval cultural background, and make the same use of his/her memory. 

What we gain in instant access to references, easy identification of obscure far-fetched sources, etc., I am afraid we lose it in true erudition and connivence with the culture of the ancient worlds. This is not, of course, true of all scholars, but there's a dangerous temptation here, especially at a time when young scholars are expected to master a wider range of skills. 

Searchable and browsable masses of texts allows us to have an idle, even random and unplanned access to source texts, and to make "discoveries" (this author used that unexpected other one as a source, for instance) at a much lower work cost. It allows us to spare a precious time and effort. 

But where do we put this spared time and effort? And what skills might we lose, out of "uselessness", in the process? 

Best wishes, 
PS: I am, of course, reacting here as a (grumpy) historian - linguistics does not follow the same path, given how profoundly this discipline has been reshaped / defined by the availability of huge masses of digital texts. 

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