Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Schools of Schools of "Humanities Computing"

Posted: Feb 14, 2009 11:02;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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When I went to Yale to begin my PhD in 1989, the English department—or perhaps just the graduate students, a group that tends to feel these things more strongly—was mourning the decline of the “Yale School”. New Historicism was the increasingly dominant critical approach at the time, and while it seemed that all the Deconstructionists had been at Yale, none of the major New Historicists were—Stephen Greenblatt got his PhD (and B.A. and M.A.) from Yale, but, like Michel Foucault, seems never to have held a faculty appointment there.

I was thinking of this sense of “school” yesterday, while I was attending the University of Alberta’s Humanities Computing Graduate School conference.

To call the Humanities Computing programme (HuCo) at the U of A a humanities computing school is a little of a misnomer—the students’ interests range far more widely than the traditional definition of the application of technology to the study of humanistic topics. This programme included papers on the design of a commercial children’s game (albeit one tied to musea and libraries), the visualisation of pre- and co-requisites in an undergraduate programme planning application, the development of a controlled vocabulary for medical education, attempts to regulate cybercrime, the standardisation of library icons, a game for teaching boolean searching, and approaches to analysing contributions to wikis by students and researchers.

There were some papers that might be considered more traditionally to belong to the domain of the “digital humanities”—I gave a talk on ontologies and scholarly editing, and there were papers on Heidigger and textual media in 19th India, a discussion of the computer as metaphor for cognition, and a paper on amongst other things fears of co-evolution found in the popular American work of German writer Heinrich Hauser. Significantly, though, these were given by people who were to a greater or lesser degree outside the current school: the two keynote speakers, a PhD student from the psychology department, and a graduate of the HuCo programme (albeit one of the lead organisers of the conference itself).

The interesting thing for me is not that so many papers were more informatics than the digital humanities more narrowly defined—I have heard many papers from members of HuCo students and faculty in the traditional digital humanities. Rather it is the relative consistency of focus on analysis, design, and usability that tends to characterise work of students from this school, a consistency that might well even allow us to speak of an Alberta “School” (in fact, this concentration, perhaps due to projects like TAPoR, and in earlier days, TACT, might even be something that could characterise a broader trend in Canadian digital humanities). The contrast in focus is certainly very striking, for example, when compared against a programme such as that of the Incontri di Filologia Digitale in Verona this past January, or even, in a way that I’m finding harder to define, most of the papers on digital topics presented at the MLA in San Francisco. I suspect this focus might also mark the “Alberta School” apart from, for example, the focus of the Centre for Humanities Computing (CCH) at King’s College, London—a school that can also be considered a “School,” albeit of a fairly different kind based on the work of so many of its most prominent graduates, students, associates, and faculty.

I was discussing this with Geoffrey Rockwell, late of the New Media programme at McMaster, and now one of the newer senior members of the programme at the University of Alberta, and he suggested to me that this diversity of institutional approaches is a sign of strength in the discipline. And I think he is right. The problem when I went to graduate school in English in the early 1990s was the sense among the graduate students that the rise of other “Schools” was part of the reason for the decline of Yale’s. In the case of the Digital Humanities, however, this rise of “Schools” with important differences seems primarily to involve the development of complementary strengths.

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