Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?
Lou Burnard, Humanities Computing Unit, Oxford University

Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?

You have had the benefit of hearing many, and wiser, remarks on this topic already; coming as I do at almost the very end of the parade, I feel a little like the clown who comes in to release the tension and dispell the pent up emotions after the matador has done his heart-in-mouth stuff. So I will be blunt, and perhaps unscholarly. You have all maybe made up your minds already about the answer to the eponymous question posed by this seminar: moreover if the answer were really and truly "no", you'd hardly have stayed the course so far; indeed, I think my hosts might be feeling a little sheepish at having suckered you into doing so. So let's be clear about what the question is really asking.

Like many questions (such as "Can you reach the salt?"), this one has an implicature which demands more attention and a better answer than does either of the two comparatively unimportant and uninteresting questions it seems to ask What is an academic discipline? and What is humanities computing?. But before turning to that more interesting implicature, let me rapidly dispose of the unimportant ones.

An academic discipline is, in my view, best defined as an institutionalised subdivision of the various activities making up an academy. It is thus an organizational, bureaucratic concept, effectively determined by socio-politcal considerations. Some of my colleagues (many of them German) find this an insufficient definition: for them a discipline must also have some underlying theoretical framework, some inner truth illuminating and unifying its intellectual achievements. I'm as fond of such frameworks as the next gauleiter, but I also note that there is almost as much evidence of successful theory-free disciplines as there is of wonderful unifying theories that have failed to achieve institutionalization. Perhaps it would be safer to say that the presence of a theory predisposes towards institutionalization, rather than the reverse. So I conclude that an academic discipline is a purely social construct and propose that one might equally well call it a gang, a social network, a peer group or a posse. Of course there are a number of additional interesting topics to discuss about why some such posses come into being rather than others, and much to be said about their histories and inner dynamics, but those of the Academy are in no significant respect different from those out on the streets.

The nature of Humanities Computing has been exhaustingly discussed at various times and in various places familiar to you from your reading list. I am tempted to say that I like best Matt Kirschenbaum's definition of it as what we do in the intervals of writing grant applications (Humanist, recently), since this is an operational definition. You have perhaps encountered the view that Humanities Computing must develop a methodology and a discrete theory to justify its existence; the view that Humanities Computing is no more than a rag bag of techniques and methods; that Humanities Computing is purely an accidental consequence of divers social and (primarily) funding and administrative decisions; and of course you have also encountered the view that Humanities Computing is a true renaissance art which has the potential to heal the divisive wounds currently afflicting the academy and re-establish the traditional humanities at the centre of our culture rather than at its periphery. If this sounds an overly dismissive summary, I hope you will forgive me.

Well, I run a Humanities Computing Unit and so, whether you choose regard it as a (Humanities Computing) Unit, or a Humanities (Computing Unit), I could also just define the scope of Humanities Computing as co-extensive with the activities of that Unit, current, planned, and accidentally forced upon us by parochial conditions. That would also be an operational definition of the term. I will spell out some of its implications in more detail later. For the moment, I will simply list some of the characteristic features of Humanities Computing which other speakers in this seminar have more eloquently argued for: for me, as for most of them, humanities computing is

Its interdisciplinarity is partly a consequence of the fact that digital technologies now interweave almost every aspect of our cultural life, but perhaps more to do with the simple observation that the digital medium both facilitates and encourages the breaking down of artificial barriers between studies which focus on the visual, aural, or linguistic aspects of artefacts, and thus the emergence of a new holistic vision of such objects. It also has much to do with the fact that both the underlying technical problems and the opportunities afforded by the use of digital technologies are identical, whether one is dealing with ancient, medieval or modern materials, whether those materials originate in European, American, or Asiatic cultures, and (almost) for whatever cultural role such materials were designed. The community of scholars and others now engaged in the production, dissemination, assessment, analysis, and conservation of what we now like to term digital resources is correspondingly huge and diverse, both professionally and socially. In particular, the collapse of the boundary between consumers and producers of digital media is something of a commonplace in this field: not that the two roles are not distinct, but rather that the transition from one to another is far easier than was the case in most earlier mass media.

By saying that Humanities Computing is methodologically focussed, I mean chiefly that it values results and favours empirical approaches above introspective ones. This is not to say that introspection is without value in this field, but rather that the practitioner of Humanities Computing is more interested in its consequences than its performance. The systems we design and build must work, and we spend a lot of time not only making sure that they do, but also in determining what exactly constitutes "working" for us. Our interdisciplinary focus also predisposes us to prefer general mechanisms above specific ones, to aim for well designed and coherent solutions rather than the ad hoc or idiosyncratic, and to ground our interpretations in an objective framework rather than an idealistic one. I am well aware that this pragmatic attitude occasionally leads us to endure the odium of some incorrigibly or constitutionally anti-realistic colleagues, but on balance I think the price is worth paying.

In stressing the social necessity of Humanities Computing, I perhaps run the risk of invoking some kind of intellectual imperialism, of sounding as if I believed we had a moral duty to save our poor benighted non-computerate brethren from the perils of marginalization -- as if evangelism for things digital was a latter day white man's burden to be shouldered at all costs. I hope that is not the case. All the evidence to hand suggests that the proper application of computing methodologies in the Humanities can have an enriching effect rather than a reductive one, that the traditional humanist can do more, achieve better results, gain richer but still essentially humanistic insights by applying digital technology to their traditional concerns. Our task is to make that proper application more accessible to more people, since if we do not do it, there is a very real danger that those traditional concerns and values may disappear or be subverted. Let me invoke here another rhetorical threat to put against that of scientific imperialism: that of the Mickey Mouse University, a term used by Derek Law in the opening plenary at this year's DRH Conference to describe the danger of entrusting the preservation of digital culture to Microsoft or to Walt Disney. And let us be under no illusions about the length of the spoon needed to sup with such forces if we are to do so.

Finally, by insisting that Humanities Computing should be historically grounded, I am of course taking advantage of the right that I (like everyone else over the age of 25) have of rewriting history to accomodate my experience of it. Nevertheless, I continue to be best satisfied by an explanation of Humanities Computing which traces its emergence to a purely empirical response to the existence of the two cultures debate that characterized much educational theorizing during the fifties and sixties. In those distant times, new technology was an occasion for unbridled enthusiasm, not only amongst politicians but also in lesser role models like Nigel Molesworth -- author, let it not be forgotten, of a book called "Whizz for Atoms". And later in the sixties, enthusiasm for technology migrated underground along with everything else: some of you may have parents who remember for example Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog a wonderful compendium of applied technologies which only lacks a section on humanities computing because no-one had yet invented a way of getting computers to work on solar energy.

The founding fathers of Humanities Computing also responded to that enthusiasm, and did so in a way that I think we should continue to emulate, now that there are signs of a re-emergence of enthusiasm for technology. When in 1949 Father Busa approached IBM Italia for help in his preparation of a scholarly edition of the works of Aquinas, he did not consider that he was betraying traditional academic goals. On the contrary, he saw the potential that new technology offered to enhance the pursuit of those goals. In his case, it was the ability to lemmatise, collate, and organize the lexis of Aquinas as manifest in the surviving written records, more efficiently and on a grander scale than had ever previously been possible. In the same way, when at the beginning of the sixties, Henry Kucera and Nelson Francis initiated the creation of the Brown Corpus of Modern English Adapted for the Use of Digital Computers, they were responding to a need for evidence of language usage on a scale that only new technology could supply. In neither case were they attempting to redefine their respective disciplines. In both cases, the technology served to support and enhance such traditional scholarly goals as the widespread sharing and exchange of information; the creation of reusable resources; the enhancement of pedagogic practice; and even the preservation of cultural values.

We ignore the importance of these four traditional scholarly goals at our peril; more significantly, perhaps, the business of Humanities Computing should be to assess how well those four goals may now be served by current digital technologies. Not to labour the point: digital technologies have transformed scholarly communication; have enormously facilitated effective sharing of scholarly resources; have immense potential for enhancing the practice of teaching; and offer us new cost-effective means of preserving (or failing to preserve) all manner of cultural artefacts. In short, we would do well to focus on continuity, while remaining aware of change.

Continuity and change in Humanities Computing

I have already made reference to several key "issues" (in the rather specialised sense of things we worry a lot about) surrounding Humanities Computing but there are, I suggest, a number of such concerns that appear regularly throughout the literature, and which it might therefore be reasonable to regard as part of the context in which we are all going to have to continue to operate. One of them is the underlying theme of this seminar: whether our activities may be regarded as fitting within an academic discipline or rather as belonging with a range of specialised professional services. The case is not as simple as it may appear; from the point of view of career development, the establishment of Humanities Computing as a (rather specialised) professionalism rather than as (yet another) academic discipline might well have much to recommend it.

Other familiar tensions all have in common a fundamental anxiety about the position of Humanities Computing with reference to the unregenerate non-computing Humanities. How far should we be driven by an evangelism, and how far by perceived and immediate relevance to existing academic concerns? Is technological pull being applied in areas where there is pedagogic push -- in other words, to quote the title of a recent conference paper) If we build it, will they come? And how far is it our business to deal with the entirely unreasonable expectations that the non-computerate have of the medium?

From a historical point of view, Humanities Computing has embraced a number of topics. It begin with an obsessive interest in concordancing, indexing, and lexical analysis, with applications in the mechanistic determination of style and authorship; a backwater which is still producing the occasional canard. During the seventies and eighties, it flirted with a number of topics, in response to the changing capabilities and availability of the technology -- word-processing in non-Roman fonts; computer-aided learning; expert systems; database analysis and design; statistical techniques spring to mind; a quick search through the titles of the back run of any of your favourite journals will reveal others.

To conclude this analysis of the distinctive features of Humanities Computing offer, I will try to imagine myself answering a question from someone I like but who is unaware that a computer might be used to do something other than (say) provide access to megabytes of soft porn. The question is What use is this thing to my academic concerns? and here are some of the answers I would not be ashamed to offer. Perhaps you can think of some others.

What's the real question?

I implied at the start that the question under discussion was not the real subject of this seminar. Perhaps by now I have said enough to indicate what I believe that subject to be: put in crude terms, it seems to me that there is an agenda behind asking such a question now, and in such a context. We are all, I think, agreed that the Humanities can benefit from the application of computing technologies, and that Humanities Computing, whether socially or theoretically defined, is therefore here to stay. As you heard from Geoffrey Rockwell last week, the real question is how to organize the administrative structures which will support it productively. This is a question which exercises many Europeans as well: for example, there is an ongoing effort to define the components of a trans-national masters degree in "Advanced Computing in the Humanities" (the AcoHum project). Coincidentally, also last week, I participated in a conference at the University of Rome where a number of distinguished speakers addressed this same topic. I would like to conclude by discussing two particular issues which seem to emerge from this kind of debate, wherever it is located.

Firstly, the interdisciplinary nature of Humanities Computing has very difficult implications for the highly discipline-specific administrative structures which characterize European universities. One of the more successful components of the Oxford HCU is the CTI Centre for Textual Studies: this has for many years performed highly regarded outreach activities in inculcating best practice in teaching with computing and communication technologies across a broad range of academic disciplines. As my colleague Mike Fraser has noted elsewhere, not the least curious thing about this success is that it has been obtained under the name of "Textual Studies", which, if it exists at all as a recognised discipline, should be a rather obscure subset of literary studies focussing on the transmission of written materials, rather than (as Mike and his predecessors have successfully made it) a glorious amalgam of all forms of culture, in all languages, embracing linguistics, media studies, film, and performance as well as the strictly written. This eclecticism is one of the strengths and the glories of our activities, yet it is hardly one facilitated by the UK's recently established Arts and Humanities Research Board (our version of the NEH) which has nine subject-oriented review boards. Nor is it likely to be facilitated by the new Learning and Teaching Support Network Centres, each of which also has a rigidly defined subject focus.

Secondly, there is much concern about the need to equip the next generation of humanities scholars with relevant skills, which will enable them to participate in what Brussells likes to call the emerging Information Society; specifically, there is much (often justifiable) skepticism about the ability of existing bureaucratic structures to adapt in response to that need. This skepticism is often perceived (sometimes justifiably) as administrative luddism driven by populist anti-clericalism, but that does not make it go away. A more creative response might be indeed to tackle the unspoken question behind this debate and propose a reorganization of the traditional humanities disciplines which could take advantage of the opportunities presented by new technologies, providing an articulate response to the challenges implied by the applications of that technology in society at large, while remaining true to the original goals of the humanities. That is a task too large for this paper, or for this seminar, but I would like to make a few gestures towards specifying some of the components of such a reorganization.

We might begin by extrapolating from current discernible trends in the creation, consumption, and distribution of those artefacts which have either already made the transition to digital media or are beginning to do so. We should ask ourselves how well our existing structures can cope with an enormous expansion in the numbers of those able to access, and anxious to understand an equally enormously expanded base of primary cultural artefacts; we should also ask how well they will cope with an enormously increased divergence in kinds of accessors (in terms of language, age, social class, and other factors) and kinds of resource. And we should ask how well we think our existing structures prepare learners for dealing with a fragmented digital world in which everything may be linked, but the sense it all makes has to come from within.

Being incurably optimistic, I believe that traditional humanistic skills are going to be increasingly valuable, not less, in that world, but we cannot take for granted that it will be easy to apply them. As a trivial example, consider the ways we try to encourage students to cite sources, to question over-simplified assertions, to seek independent corroborative evidence, to take little on face value, to sift dispassionately through available documentary evidence. What techniques will students need to learn in order to maintain those intellectual habits in a digital world? It seems to me that they will need a lot more information about how the digital world is constructed, and by whom, than is currently available to anyone but a few. We urgently need to develop new ways of analysing and comprehending the demographics and sociology of digital culture, appropriate to the coming media meltdown.

Equally, from the opposite point of view, because the digital world so greatly increases access to original unmediated source material (or at least a simulation thereof), the esoteric techniques developed over the centuries in order to contextualise and thus comprehend such materials will need to be made accessible to far more people. We urgently need to develop new methods of doing textual editing and textual exposition, appropriate to the coming digital textual deluge.

Our traditional humanities masters degrees have always combined training in methodology with training in hermeneutics: generations of Oxford DPhil students have had to learn how books were printed, as well as what was printed in them. And the final outcome of the traditional masters degree has traditionally been yet another book to add to the stacks, for future generations to interpret. At present, if humanities computing fits anywhere, it fits inside the methodological component of such degrees, with the natural consequence that if the implications of digitization are addressed at all, they are done so from a purely pragmatic viewpoint uninformed by theory. But there is a theory that could help us here: as Robinson, McGann, and many others have insisted time and time again, the preparation of a digital edition has more in common with the preparation of a traditional critical edition than with the preparation of a facsimile. Let me express deep gloom at the amount of effort currently being sunk into preparation of digital facsimiles, unbalanced by any more ambitious project of true digital encoding. I would like to propose an alternative agenda, which I will call "Towards the uncritical edition". An uncritical edition is one which does not attempt to settle controversy, but to ignite it. It invites the exercise of the insights of critical editing and edition philology, re-applying them in a new context. It uses the tools and techniques we have developed in thirty years of applying computers to the processing of human language in order to problematize the textuality that a traditional critical edition tends to gloss over. Its creation thus implies a fruitful synergy of insights from semiotics, from textual study, and from hermeneutics.

At the very heart of this enterprise lies the process of transferring text, text interpretation, text analysis, and context to digital form in such a way as to make accessible and amenable to processing all of these ontologically distinct facets of a cultural object. Another word for that process is markup. And you will not therefore be surprised if I conclude with a brief sermon on that topic.

The term markup covers a range of interpretive acts. Like other semiotic systems, markup has its own lexis and its own syntax. The former determines which features are available for marking, the latter how those features co-exist; we focus here on the former. It seems clear that no violence is done to the term markup if we give it a rather wide ranging scope. We may use it to describe the process by which individual components of a writing or other scheme are represented, and for the simple reduction to linear form which digital recording requires. We can also use it for the more obvious acts of representing structure and appearance, whether original or intended. And markup is also able to represent characterizations such as analysis, interpretation, the affect of a text, or the contexts in which it was or is to be articulated -- the metadata associated with it. Since the range of such features is now more or less co-extensive with the range of interesting things one might want to say, the term is probably in need of some subcategorization. I therefore propose here three broad classes for the myriad textual features which text markup may make explicit:

Some typical compositional features include the formal structure of a text -- its constituent sections, chapters, headings etc., as well as its linguistic structure -- its constituent sentences, clauses, words, morphemes etc. From a different perspective, we might identify astake on a more than esoteric technical interest. And even here, in the world of archival stores and long term digital archiving, a consideration of hermeneutic theory is necessary. The continuity of comprehension on which scholarship depends implies, necessitates indeed, a continuity in the availability of digitally stored information. Digital media, however, are notoriously short lived, as anyone who has ever tried to rescue last year's floppy disk knows. To ensure that data stored on such media remains usable, it must be periodically refreshed, that is, transferred from one medium to another. If this copying is done bit for bit, that is, with no intervening interpretation, the new copy will be indistinguishable from the original, and thus as usable as the original.

In that last phrase, however, there lurks a catch. Digital media suffer not only from physical decay, but also from technical obsolescence. The bits on a disk may have been preserved perfectly, but if a computer environment (software and hardware) no longer exists capable of processing them, they are so much noise. Computer environments have changed out of all recognition during the last few years, and show no sign of stabilizing at any point in the future. To ensure that digital data remains comprehensible therefore, simple refreshment of its media is not enough. Instead the data must periodically be migrated from one computer environment to another. Migration, in this context, is exactly analagous with the processes of decoding and encoding carried out by a human being when copying from one stored form of a text to another: there is a potential for information loss or transformation in both decoding and encoding stages.

Where digital encoding techniques may perhaps have an advantage over other forms of encoding information is in their clear separation of markup and content. As we have seen, the markup of a printed or written text may be expressed using a whole range of conventions and expectations, often not even physically explicit (and therefore not preservable) in it. By contrast, the markup of an electronic text may be carried out using a single semiotic system in which any aspect of its interpretation can be made explicit, and therefore preservable. If moreover this markup uses as metalanguage some scheme which is independent of any particular machine environment (for example international standards such as SGML, XML, or ASN1), the migration problem is reduced to preservation only of the metalanguage used to describe the markup rather than of all its possible applications.

  1. Humanities computing is as much of a discipline as anything else in the academy.
  2. Recognizing it as such may involve some reassessment and readjustment of existing administreative structures
  3. Humanities computing is nothing to be ashamed of: in fact, it's more important to more people now than it has ever been before
  4. We need to articulate a new theory of the "uncritical edition", at the heart of which lies an understanding of the importance of textual studies (in the traditional sense).
  5. Such a theory should provides us with a single semiotic system for expressing the huge variety of scholarly knowledge now at our disposal, through which, by means of which, and in spite of which, our cultural tradition persists.
  6. Text markup is currently the best tool at our disposal for ensuring that the hermeneutic circle continues to turn, that our cultural tradition endures.