Transforming Disciplines: Computer Science and the Humanities
JANUARY 27, 2003
Humanities Scholars, Scientists, and Engineers Explore Common Ground in the New World of Digital Technology
Humanities scholars, museum administrators, librarians, publishers, computer and information scientists, technologists, and engineers met at the National Academies in Washington, DC, January 17-18, 2003, to celebrate pioneering models of scholarship that employ digital technology and to address the considerable challenges to further progress. As the conference, "Transforming Disciplines: Computer Science and the Humanities," convened, William Wulf (National Academy of Engineering) suggested that humanists and engineers shared the problem of creating "macro scale" systems out of billions of minuscule componentsówith unpredictable results. If humanists could resolve this problem for themselves and for engineers, they would usher in a revolution comparable to the development of Einstein's theories and quantum mechanics at the beginning of the twentieth century. The necessityóand revolutionary potentialóof cooperative working relationships between humanists and computer scientists and engineers, and the notion that they might be able to help answer essential questions in each other's disciplines, became an important theme of the conference.
Presenters included historians, classicists, art historians, engineers, media studies professors, computer scientists, and representatives of cultural and educational institutions. Will Thomas (University of Virginia) discussed his work with the American Historical Review to create a new genre of scholarship, playfully titled "a work formerly known as an article." In the related arenas of teaching and textbook publishing, Richard Baraniuk (Rice University) offered an ambitious vision of the cooperative development of a "commons of free teaching materials," based on the collaborative model of Linux software development. Taking advantage of the computer as a visual medium, art historian Stephen Murray (Columbia University) presented a graphic simulation of the construction of Amiens Cathedral, and Douglas Greenberg (Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation) gave conference participants a glimpse of the complexities of indexing and making accessible the videotaped testimonies of more than 52,000 survivors of the Holocaust.
All of the projects examined during the conference demonstrated both the rich possibilities and the limits of current technology and led to speculation about new tools, training, and shifts in disciplinary thinking that might allow more fruitful relationships between the humanities and computer science. Participants frequently returned to the problem of inertia within disciplinesóparticularly in expectations for promotion and tenure, minimal training in technology for graduate students, and the lack of adequate cooperation with university libraries and librarians.
Resisting the general tide of multi- and cross-disciplinarity, Michael Joyce (Vassar College) sounded a call in favor of the traditional disciplines and the need to explore all that is not known within those disciplinary boundsóto "husband doubt, rather than suffocating in knowingness." Janet Murray (Georgia Institute of Technology) argued that perhaps lack of total understanding between computer specialists and humanists is useful, creating a space of play and adaptation in which both are able to formulate overly ambitiousóand creatively valuableóprojects.
By the time the meeting adjourned, participants had developed a wish list of new tools, training, and cooperation, but recognized that they must balance the desire to experiment creatively with the constraints of existing tools and models, limited departmental support, and looming cuts in federal, state, university, and foundation budgets.
"Transforming Disciplines: Computer Science and the Humanities" evolved from the 1997 Computer Science and Humanities Initiative and a subsequent September 2000 workshop that began exploring cross-disciplinary cooperation. The Initiative is supported by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH), the National Academies, and Princeton and Rice Universities and is funded by generous grants from the Carnegie Corporation.
More information about computing and the humanities is available on the NINCH Web site (http://www.ninch.org). The conference Web site (http://carnegie.rice.edu) will soon include more detailed information about the presenters and links to a variety of digital humanities projects.