The Most Wonderful and Hopeful Article I Read as a Graduate Student

As an outsider to the field/subfield/whatever, I spend very little time these days listening to Digital Humanities & related folks. But because several of my closest friends are theorists/practitioners in the field/subfield/whatever, it’s inevitable that I hear something about what’s Going On, and rare is the day that I don’t mentally refer back to Bethany Nowviskie’s post “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities”.

But I usually have another publication in mind when I’m listening to these conversations. I’m going to quote liberally from it and then let’s play a little game.

To cite but one example, the so-called information’ explosion has affected all areas of knowledge, scientific and humanistic alike, making analyses both increasingly complex and time-consuming.

An overriding problem, or challenge, if you will, is the integration of this new knowledge into the existing world of scholarship as well as the dissemination of these new ideas and concepts within the intellectual community. at large. Here again, one turns inevitably to the computer. In fact, we have now reached the point where even an anthropologist speaks about the heritage of a culture being stored in physical objects such as books and computer tapes! More important, however, is the existence of data processing and information retrieval as a new and useful tool of tremendous potential; a fact that must be recognized and accepted by the nonscientific community of scholars.

Unfortunately there is a great deal of suspicion, fear, and ignorance on the part of the humanist concerning the computer and its legitimate role in scholarship. Some see the machine as eventually making decisions that man himself should make. Others find sinister implications in every technological advance, maintaining the attitude that the humanities and technology don’t mix. Finally there are those who, ignorant of mathematics, fear they are totally and forever incapable of comprehending the computer and therefore dismiss it. Although no one would suggest burning .at the stake the maker of a computerized concordance, as was almost the fate of the first person to make a complete concordance of the English Bible in 1544, the computer-oriented humanist does face some formidable oppositions.

Historians have faced a new impetus for the application of social science research techniques to the analysis of historical political data. The InterUniversity Consortium for Political Research at Ann Arbor is amassing a vast amount of raw data transferred to tape storage on American political history. In addition to the formation of a data repository committee, with close ties to the American Historical Association, is the development of an automated data retrieval system to make available to historians and politicat scientists alike large bodies of information.

However, it is in the area of textual analysis that computer-oriented research in literature shows exceptional and exciting promise for the future. The massive comparison of text where there are several or even dozens of sources presents an almost insurmountable problem for the scholar. To compare in complete detail as few as 40 manuscripts might take the better part of a lifetime. It is this type of activity that cries for the use of data processing techniques.

In quite another application of computer techniques in the analysis of musical style, a program can be written to search for meaningful patterns and relationships which; because of the number and quality of variables, might remain obscured and undiscovered if left to the human brain. From these very patterns, the researcher can then develop new and significant hypotheses. An interesting example of this is the proposal of Professor Jan La Rue of New York University to evolve machine language to describe stylistic phenomena in 18th century symphonies, thereby permitting complex correlations and comparisons far beyond the reach of the hand tabulation.

The projects I have just described to you represent but a few highlight from the growing roster of scholars using the computer in humanistic research. A list of such activities published last spring by the American Council of Learned Societies reveals well over a hundred individuals involved with the tools of data processing.19 When compared to the state of the sciences versus the computer some 10 years ago, the prognosis for the future is good indeed.

…within a short time, I believe a knowledge of data processing will become part of the “common baggage” of research tools and techniques required of every graduate student in the liberal arts. I am even tempted to go a step further and state that with the increasing number of courses in programming being offered at our universities the time may come when some students in the humanities may be as fluent in programming as in writing English composition. Certainly, the computer is fast becoming an important and indispensable research tool for faculty and students alike.

With all due respect to Jerry McGann, whose books fill my shelves and I re-read for fun because they are beautiful, the particular article from which I quoted above was the single most wonderful and hopeful article I read when I was a graduate student. It is full of individual stories of faculty and their digital humanities projects, and discusses the same dreams, desires, and issues that my friends and their colleagues discuss every day.

Go ahead and guess when it was written. 2005? 2000? 1994 when the World Wide Web was shiny and new?

Keep going.

E. A. Bowles, “The Role of the Computer in Humanistic Scholarship,” AFIPS, pp.269, 1965 Proceedings of the Fall Joint Computer Conference, 1965.


Less yack, more hack indeed.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.