[Humanist] 25.208 subtle changes (and not so subtle)

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Aug 3 22:23:02 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 208.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 3 Aug 2011 13:31:09 +0100
        From: Leif Isaksen <leifuss at googlemail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.206 subtle changes (and not so subtle)
        In-Reply-To: <20110802202059.108EF18CCF9 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Marjorie

I'm rather grateful for you bringing this up because I think it is a
quite commonly held view while also believing that it is profoundly
wrong for a number of reasons. I hope you will forgive me laying them
out in order to, respectfully, provoke debate.

- first of all I think we need to clearly distinguish between
capability and scholarship. In a world with wide access to resources
it is both possible to have narrow and focussed scholarship as well as
wide-ranging overviews (and mixes of the two). In a world with limited
access only narrow and focussed scholarship is possible. What people
choose to do is of course an important issue (which you raise) but
having a cjoice must surely be a better state of affairs than no
choice at all.

- 'masses of stuff' is of course an an entirely relative phrase.
No-one in their right mind would today claim that 10th Century Toledo,
the invention of the printing press, or the development of academic
journals has had a deleterious effect on scholarship, but the thing
that connects them is that their fundamental role was to produce
'masses of the stuff'. It's hard to see why the rise of the Web is
qualitatively different form these earlier developments.

- The most intuitive, but insidious, argument is that back the
(g)olden days the material we had access to was 'good' and we are now
swimming in garbage. This seems patently false. Not only was it of
highly varying quality, the stuff people had access to was entirely
arbitrary depending on the library facilities available to them. The
merry fellows of Paris (and London and Oxford and Cambridge) may be
better catered for. Those anywhere else were definitely not. That
scarcity in turn tends to have made them largely the preserve of those
wealthy enough to afford to study in such places which is not, in and
of itself, conducive to a meritocratic academy. And if the new stuff
really is so bad why do people complain about not having access to
post-1900 Google Books when (almost) everything before then really is
now freely available?

- ultimately, and I think this is what I feel most passionately about
- if we are concerned about the quality of scholarship we should focus
our criticism on that. Bad workmen blame their tools. In the digital
humanities it seems we blame other people's. I am the first person to
concede that much drivel has been written based on superficial
readings of source material and misunderstood technology. No doubt
I've contributed to that torrent myself from time to time. But it was
ever thus. Arguing that by limiting scholars to only reading 'the
right books' we can make them better academics seems to put the cart
before the horse. Surely it is the ability to judge what good material
is that makes one a good scholar?

In the rush to respond between email triage and a skype meeting I've
probably judged the tone of this email all wrong so I do hope I've not
have caused offence, but I think the idea that the level of
scholarship is declining and that access to resources is to blame
cannot go unchallenged.

With all best wishes


On Tue, Aug 2, 2011 at 9:20 PM, Humanist Discussion Group
<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 206.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                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,
> Marjorie
> 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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