[Humanist] 27.374 great works of scholarship

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Sep 25 05:43:40 CEST 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 374.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 24 Sep 2013 23:23:59 -0400
        From: Paul Fishwick <metaphorz at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  27.370 great works of scholarship
        In-Reply-To: <20130924075351.50D8E306C at digitalhumanities.org>

 Some questions and comments below.

On Sep 24, 2013, at 3:53 AM, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 370.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Mon, 23 Sep 2013 10:18:36 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: great works and black boxes
> In response to Tara Andrews about software systems as black boxes, and so
> their impenetrability to inspection:

Text can be impenetrable to inspection: ancient scrolls that may be partially
decayed or fragmented and, so, require interpretive skills, good knowledge 
of the history of the period, and technology to assist in this complex process.
This is not my area, but such reconstructions and interpretations of past
societies are fascinating.

> I wasn't saying that code could not be
> understood by reading it. Clearly it can. As a youth writing Fortran and
> assembler language for some big machines I spent many hours reading and
> sometimes understanding code. But when software systems grew beyond the
> ability of any one person to hold the whole thing in mind -- around the time
> when the DEC-10 operating system was superseded, I'd guess --  then I
> suspect that we could no longer say that such systems could be known for
> what they might do, however legible individual components might be. The
> distinction I was drawing with mathematics was one between code that states
> ("x equals 1") and code that commands something be done ("set x equal to
> 1"). When the balance of a work shifts from the former to the latter, and
> becomes complex in the technical sense, then we have to refigure how we
> understand and judge it, yes?
> I was asking from the perspective of a scholarly user of a large online
> system, how can he or she tell what it is doing? How could anyone know
> whether such a system is a great work of scholarship -- as opposed, say, to
> a great resource with which to do scholarship but which itself is not a work
> of scholarship, or which puts its critical, scholarly work beyond the
> inspection of the user? 

Instead of a user asking what a system is doing, shouldn't we be treating all
media on the same level playing field, and instead, asking about the
array of experiences obtained through the media? It is the experiences
that are important, and different media and technologies can create vastly
different experiences (e.g., an immersive experience like Dear Esther vs.
a hard-bound book).

The word "scholar" appears throughout your post. Can you give me a definition?
I can find dictionary definitions, but I wonder if "scholar" is being
 biased toward the written word rather than media in general (diagrams,
illustrations, text, video, etc)? Without the written word, we would be
in deep trouble, especially in these emails; however, I hope that we are not
suggesting that "scholarly" = "text-only product creation" ? scholars in science
and engineering make products but also use text and diagrams to make the
case that these products provide originality and novelty. Surely, Digital Humanities
is afforded similar freedom? What does having to look deeply at the innards of
software or platforms have to do with scholarly research any more than understanding
the precise chemistry required to form sheets of paper. Let us measure, and celebrate,
the human experience, not the physical medium unless that too is novel and
original, in which case it should also fall under the umbrella of scholarly activity.

> Let's consider, say, a scholarly edition of a work, such as an edition of
> the glosses to Martianus Capella, De nuptiis, recently published in the
> Corpus Christianorum series. This edition, I happen to know, was critically
> compiled from 25 widely distributed mss, involving considerable travel and
> then detailed work over several years. In practical terms no one except the
> editor, or very, very few other scholars, will ever see all 25 mss, until
> all the libraries holding these mss digitize them. (Don't hold your breath.)
> So how does a reviewer tell that the new edition is a great work of
> scholarship, if it is?

Peer review?

> The editor, since she knew what she was doing,
> worried about this, and so made sure that the prose introduction

Is the "scholarly edition" limited to prose?

> on the mss
> was as complete and thorough as possible, that the Latin was correct, that
> every possible clue was provided, all of what she had learned about the mss
> from examining them and her reasoning processes explained. The publishing
> house, Brepols, made sure no turned stone was left undescribed. Still, of
> course, much remains necessarily hidden from the sight of the rest of us,
> but the amount of explanation is quite astonishing.
> What do the makers of our great works of digital scholarship analogously do
> to allow them to be as thoroughly known?

Presumably, they entice humans who experience the work in novel and
original ways. Therein lies the research -- in the creation of those experiences.

> I'm not saying our works of digital scholarship, great or otherwise, fail in
> this regard. Rather I was trying to get us beyond making unsubstantiated
> claims of greatness.

What is an unsubstantiated claim of greatness? Do you have examples?

> I was saying in effect, you cannot tell a book by its
> cover, then (to follow the metaphor) asking how far beyond the cover -- and
> table of contents and index -- can we get with an online system as it is
> presented to the ordinary user?


PS. Let me know if I am totally off the mark. I am simply not understanding
the metaphor as described.

> A good software review will tell us whether
> the thing does as advertised, and it will also make informed judgments as to
> whether the design fits the purpose. Doesn't saying that a system is a great
> work of scholarship reach considerably further than that?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
> Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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