Is Humanities Computing An Academic Discipline?

An Interdisciplinary Faculty/Graduate Student Seminar


We propose an interdisciplinary seminar to address the question "Is Humanities Computing An Academic Discipline?" This seminar would involve faculty and graduate students from a number of departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as faculty and graduate students from the School of Architecture and the College of Engineering, and invited outside visitors.

The question is important for a number of reasons. In the most general terms, the traditional scholarly fields that comprise the humanities have, over the last decade, become increasingly involved with information technology, and humanities computing has begun to present itself as a discipline in its own right--in the most recent MLA job list, for example, there were tenure-track humanities computing jobs in English departments. In more local terms, the University of Virginia is already internationally recognized as a leader in the field of humanities computing, but at present the University offers no graduate (or undergraduate) degree in this field. This seems a good time to ask whether we should be offering such a degree--but before we can answer that question, we need to have a clear idea of what the field is, and whether it is, in fact, a field of scholary inquiry.


This seminar would tie into, and capitalize on, activities already underway in the University's Libraries (in particular, the Library Digital Centers), its division of Information Technology and Communication (in particular, the Teaching + Technology Initiative), its individual departments and Colleges, and several of its research institutes (in particular, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Virginia Center for Digital History). Moreover, it would continue, in a narrower and more sustained discussion, the Faculty Senate's 1998-99 discussion of information technology's impact on the University. Finally, it would coincide with the appointment of the new Media Studies Chair in Arts and Sciences, and would provide an excellent opportunity to integrate the newly appointed Chair into ongoing University activities, and introduce him or her to interested colleagues, in the context of a discussion with direct relevance to the scope and direction of a Media Studies program at the University.

Issues to be Addressed

In "What is Humanities Computing?" Willard McCarty offers the following answer to his question:

Humanities computing is an academic field concerned with the application of computing tools to arts and humanities data or to their use in the creation of these data. It is methodological in nature and interdisciplinary in scope. It works at the intersection of computing with the arts and humanities, focusing both on the pragmatic issues of how computing assists scholarship and teaching in the disciplines and on the theoretical problems of shift in perspective brought about by computing. It seeks to define the common ground of techniques and approaches to data, and how scholarly processes may be understood and mechanised. It studies the sociology and epistemology of knowledge as these are affected by computing as well as the fundamental cognitive problem of how we know what we know. Its tools are derived from practical work in computer science, but like that work its application of them uses models of intelligence developed in cognitive science and philosophy of mind. It tests the utility of these models to illuminate particular objects of study by direct involvement in the fields of application. Its object of knowledge is all the source material of the arts and humanities viewed as data. Like comparative literature it takes its subject matter from other disciplines and is guided by their concerns, but it returns to them ever more challenging questions and new ways of thinking through old problems.
On the other hand, as Stanley Fish has pointed out, "being interdisciplinary" is difficult, if not impossible, especially with respect to graduate education, and more especially when the disciplinary mix ranges from Computer Science to Art History. There are significant issues to be addressed when one contemplates an interdisciplinary graduate degree: for example, how would one teach a graduate student whose background is in music, in a graduate humanities computing course whose focus was architecture? And how, more abstractly, would one structure a graduate education in humanities computing so that it covered the breadth of issues, applications, and processes that would constitute training worthy of a degree, while still providing training in courses that also addressed a student body training in other, more discrete, academic fields?

Perhaps there are "common...approaches to data" and common cognitive problems that only appear clearly in the field of humanities computing but, by definition, we won't know what these problems or insights might be if we rest within the boundaries of our established scholarly domains, departments, and specialties. We need to come together in an extended discussion in order to discover whether we believe that humanities computing is, in fact, scholarly, and--if it is--what that scholarship consists in, and how it might best be cultivated and transmitted.


This seminar would meet once a week during the two semesters planned. For four of the roughly fourteen weeks in a given semester, we would have outside speakers or visitors, from other humanities computing programs for the most part. For the other ten meetings, local participants would present brief written position papers or provocations for discussion. These meetings would be devoted to specific questions, announced in advance and coordinated with readings--for example: What is the role of visual analysis across the humanities, and how might humanities computing consolidate or theorize disparate visual-analytical activities? or, What can humanities computing learn from the convergence of linguistics, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and anthropology that is called the cognitive sciences? During sessions not devoted to visiting scholars, we would hope to involve, by invitation, resident scholars in areas of interest to the seminar, even if those scholars were not themselves seminar participants.

Also, probably during the second semester of the seminar, we would like to sponsor three events organized by, and for, graduate students--one focused on humanities computing and teaching, one on humanities computing and research, one on humanities computing and non-traditional employment. We envision these as public panel discussions involving both graduate students and faculty, and more than likely involving some demonstration of methods, materials, and projects relevant to the panel topic. For example, in the panel on humanities computing and teaching, the graduate student organizers might recruit panelists who have experience in using web-based assignments and resources in teaching standard humanities undergraduate courses; in the case of the panel on humanities computing and research, organizers would probably look for panelists (graduate students and faculty) who could speak to the trials, and also the transformations, that come along with using the computer as a research tool. In the case of the last panel, we'd like to bring back to Charlottesville some recent graduates who have taken humanities computing jobs in a wide range of institutional settings, from the Smithsonian museum to academic departments to independent non-profit cultural organizations.

Provisional List of Faculty and Graduate Students To Be Involved:

The following faculty and graduate students have already expressed an interest in participating in the seminar, should it be approved. Others, especially graduate students, will be invited to add their names to the list as well. Where outside speakers are invited to the seminar, we would announce those visits as widely as possible, and hold them in venues that could accomodate a larger number of people than might regularly participate in the seminar.

Outside Visitors To Be Invited:

The following have agreed to participate in the seminar, representing programs at other universities that treat humanities computing as an academic discipline:

These outside participants are each connected with programs that teach humanities computing as an an academic discipline at the University level. They approach this discipline from a fairly broad range of perspectives: Aarseth has a recent book from Johns Hopkins on considerations of genre in electronic texts and games; Lou Burnard is Manager of the Humanities Computing Unit at Oxford University Computing Services and the European Editor for the Text Encoding Initiative, which produced the markup standard most widely used in encoding literary and linguistic texts; Susan Hockey was the first director at the Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities and was for thirteen years the chair of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, and she is currently providing technical direction for the Orlando Project, a history of women's writing in the British Isles; Stuart Moulthrop is a theorist, historian, and author of hypertext, internationally known for his own hypertext fiction, and editor of the oldest electronic journal in the humanities; McCarty is a classicist and long-time host of the oldest and largest email discussion group in the humanities, Humanist; Nerbonne's background and interests are in linguistic computing; Rockwell's training is in philosophy; Slatin is in the English Department at University of Texas at Austin, and is well known in the computers and writing community.


We believe that the proceedings of this seminar (formal papers and minutes, plus related materials) will be of interest to others at and outside the University, and we believe the proceedings may well be of interest in the future. For that reason, we propose to publish those proceedings on the Web. The Web would also be used for assigned readings, announcement of seminar-related activities, and information about visiting speakers.


Costs for this seminar fall into two categories: travel, and administrative stipends. In the travel category, we would use the funding to bring to the University of Virginia representatives from existing Humanities Computing departments and programs (mostly in Europe), and recent graduate students who have taken non-traditional humanities computing jobs. Modest administrative stipends would be paid to graduate students who would organize the three second-semester graduate student panels, and to one graduate student who would take meeting minutes and superintend the web site for the seminar. More detailed estimates of the seminar budget categories follow:

Travel ExpensesAdministration
First Semester4 outside speakers @ $1200 per visit = $4800Web Administration, Minutes: $1200
Second Semester4 outside speakers @ $1200 per visit = $4800

3 Employment panelists @ $1000 per panelist = $3000

Web Administration, Minutes: $1200