Is humanities computing an academic discipline?

Geoffrey Rockwell, McMaster University

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when the begot me; ... (Sterne, Tristram Shandy, p. 35)

I propose in this paper to tackle the question whether humanities computing is an academic discipline from an administrative and instructional perspective by recasting is thus, "Who should humanities computing benefit and how should it be administered and taught to benefit them?" I would have you think concretely about the child you will beget by concentrating less on the issue of what humanities computing is as on questions about its administrative and instructional details. I have two reasons for begging your indulgence as I digress from the original question. The first is that woven into the purpose of this seminar are questions about the administrative and instructional potential of humanities computing. To ask if humanities computing is an academic discipline is anticipated by the question of whether it can be administered and taught as other disciplines are in the academy. This precedence can be seen, for example, in the purpose page for this seminar where the author sets up a hierarchy of questions proceeding from the instructional question to the ontological,

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 scholarly inquiry. (/hcs/purpose.html - accessed on October 27, 1999)

While I sympathize with the view that we need to know what humanities computing is before we can ask whether it can be taught, I can't help suspecting that the ontological question will never be answered to your satisfaction, especially in a seminar which could be argued is an administrative form designed more for appreciating questions than answering them. Rather, the ontological question could become the subject of the teachable discipline. Therefore at some point you will have to confront the administrative question and confront it without the certainty of knowing what humanities computing is.

My second reason for digressing, and I should warn you that this paper will be nothing but digressions, is that what little I have to offer after the excellent presentations you have already heard lies in the area of administrative and instructional experience, namely the experience of setting up a Combined Honors in Multimedia and Another Subject program at McMaster University. Thus these digressions will attempt to abstract from the experience of those of us who conceived and carried this program to term in a fashion that will eventually lead to an answer to the question you should have asked.

The place of administration

In a well known passage in Plato's Phaedrus Socrates discusses the invention of writing by telling a story that has come down from the forefathers about the invention of writing; Theuth, an Egyptian god brought his inventions including writing before the king Thamus who made it his business to evaluate the inventions before passing them on to the Egyptians. Theuth is excited about writing; it "will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom." Thamus like any good philosopher king is not so enthusiastic. He first distinguishes the role of the god as inventor from his role as legislator. Theuth is so enamored with his offspring writing that he can't see whether it will really profit or harm the citizens. Thamus answers Theuth's enthusiasm thus,

O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. ... And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows. (Plato, Phaedrus, 274e-275b)

This story of Socrates' has become an important text in the current discussion about the place of technologies of information in society. Neil Postman in Technopoly turns to it in his first chapter to remind us of the importance of technological criticism and judgment. I have my own reading of this story.

One of the first points I would make about Socrates' myth of writing is that it is presented as a short dialogue between Theuth (often known as Thoth) and Thamus. (Phaedrus actually questions Socrates about the place of such stories in their dialogue, but that is another story.) Your seminar might likewise end up being such a formative dialogue if it is open to questions around the administration and instruction of technology. What story will be told about this symposium?

Second, Socrates' story connects the ontological issue of what a thing is, in our case humanities computing, with the administrative question of whether it will be of benefit or not to others. Socrates does this dramatically by distinguishing characters and introducing the role of the administrator Thamus who asks about the implementation of the invention. He wants to know what good the technology will do, and I would argue a discipline is an administrative technology. That is my challenge to you; you aren't really asking only what humanities computing is, but you are also asking what it would be like at UVA and who would it serve, however distasteful such administrative questions are. (Our distaste for administration in academia is another issue.) Bring them out into the open; play another role for a moment.

Third, Socrates distinguishes between a technology that helps tell about wisdom from the teaching of wisdom. (Much of the Phaedrus can be read as a demonstration by Socrates of this difference.) He provides us thus with a clue as to what would constitute an administratively appropriate implementation - one that does not fill us with the conceit of wisdom, but one which is pedagogically appropriate. Which is why I have recast the question, to ask what might be taught.

Fourth, Socrates' criticism of writing could very well be updated to sound like current criticism of computers in the humanities, namely that they are not devices (or methods) for acquiring deeper wisdom about texts but a recipe for forgetting about books. To put it more generally, any new technology, especially those that are supposed to assist us with the study of other things, can also hide that which they are meant to reveal. This is a danger we are all struggling with in humanities computing - to what extent does it hide or distract us from that which it was supposed to compute. This danger reveals itself in the different tacks we take to the administration of humanities computing. Willard McCarty is trying to keep it connected to the humanities by advocating interdisciplinarity. Others, myself included, are trying to identify a new subject area which humanities computing can reveal through humanistic inquiry. McCarty wants to bring computing methods to traditional objects of study, I want to argue for bringing the culture of the humanities to new objects, those that surround us on CD-ROMs and the WWW.

Let me summarize this section with a collection of questions I will attempt to answer in the rest of the paper. Who is humanities computing for? How can it be administered to benefit others? How can it teach rather than tell? What should be taught and to whom? How can we create a community that will continue to ask about computing in the humanities? How can we create a community of research? I propose to answer these questions by wandering off along the path of humanities computing at McMaster.

A brief history of humanities computing at McMaster

In 1986 the Humanities Computing Centre was founded out of the existing Language Labs. Dr. Samuel Cioran, who was the Assistant to the Dean for Computing and director of the Language Labs at the time, began moving the courses from traditional audio instructional technology to computer-based instruction by developing a series of language modules built around the mcBOOKmaster authoring system. He also took the Faculty of Humanities out of a system of central computer labs when they were unwilling to upgrade their computers with CD-ROMs and sound cards. He negotiated an arrangement with the central Computing and Information Services whereby the Faculty took over the computer labs for humanities students and merged them with the Language Labs to create a hybrid set of labs and media classrooms that could serve our purposes better. This arrangement still exists so that, while our labs are partially funded by the central administration, we manage them and adapt them to our purposes. I cannot stress how important it has been to have in place a set of labs and staff under the academic control of the Faculty and therefore responsive to our instructional needs. Reading Susan Hockey's description of the problems she faced putting on a single course I am thankful for Dr. Cioran's foresight. To put it bluntly, you need labs under the academic control of the discipline if you are going to mount courses on a regular basis and especially if you are going to mount a program with any multimedia courses. Do not count on resources that do not answer to the needs of the unit. I know of too many humanities computing courses that stumble along fighting for time in labs and appropriate configurations of tools to believe a program can be mounted with good intentions.

When I was hired to replace Dr. Cioran in 1994 I was asked to introduce courses in Humanities Computing almost as an afterthought. The first course, "Introduction to Humanities Computing" was taught in the winter term of 1995. Three courses were introduced at that time including "Introduction to Multimedia in the Humanities" and a course on electronic texts and computational linguistics. These courses were to be courses for all humanities students to provide them with suitable introductions to information technology in an academic context. In 1998 as a result of donations and internal competitions two new faculty members were hired and we introduced 6 new courses in multimedia and communication. In effect, the creation of a Humanities Computing Centre and the introduction of courses in the area was due to a series of administrative decisions that had little to do with questions about the existence of any such discipline. The Faculty got their labs (and hence a Centre) partly because multimedia language titles could not be developed for central labs that at the time were aimed at computer science and statistics students. Courses were introduced because faculty were brought on board to help administer the facilities and because funding was available only for positions connected to technology. I am, of course, exaggerating, but my point is that humanities computing at McMaster (and I imagine at many other places) evolved along faculty lines and out of existing administrative structures. If we didn't have faculties of humanities would we have humanities computing? That is not to say that one should be ashamed of such lineage, rather it is a series of often inconsequential administrative decisions combined with stubborn personalities which can put one in a position to make bold initiatives. Has it been any different at Virginia?

In the summer of 1998 we were alerted that the Province of Ontario had created the Access to Opportunities Program (ATOP) to encourage the expansion of programs that prepare students for careers in the advanced technology sector, specifically Computer Engineering, Software Engineering, and Computer Science. We held discussions with the Ministry of Education officer responsible for the program in order to determine if a proposal for a program based in the Humanities would be acceptable and were encouraged to submit a draft of the proposal in August to get clearance for the submission of a full proposal. Once we received clearance in late August we had to put together a full proposal with courses and get it through the relevant committees so that it could be approved by the University and submitted in December of 1998. The program was subsequently approved for funding and started this year with a target enrollment of 30 students a year for a steady state of approximately 110 students over four years. (See for details.) The demand we have experienced for the first year courses has been such that we are planning to expand the program to accommodate 50 students a year for a steady state of just under 200 students.

In a province where base budget funding to universities has been declining ATOP was one of the first opportunities to compete for an increase in ongoing funds which explains the support we got from the administration in designing a program so quickly and moving it through committees. This is not only true of Ontario, governments and administrations are increasingly targeting new funding instead of providing across the board increases. We are constantly told that one cannot simply argue for funds to do the same (old) things and that therefore when framing any funding request we need to be a) innovative, b) interdisciplinary, c) interinstitutional where it is appropriate, and d) relevant to the information age economy. This puts the humanities in the unfortunate position where it can only get funds to try new things, sometimes at the expense of excellence already established in traditional areas. We are forced to either dig in our heels and fight the trend or to try to pour our well aged wine into digital bottles. This is an unfortunate state of affairs if you believe (as I do) in the excellence of a humanities education even without computing. It puts those of us in Humanities Computing who can propose new programs in the position of proposing things in the face of a lack of appreciation for exactly the programs we came from and respect. We struggle with our colleagues who think we have sold out to business and we struggle with the danger that what we do may hide the traditions we were taught to love. Administratively and concretely we have to struggle to make sure new programs do not come at the expense of existing ones but enhance them creatively. Whatever else we do we should bring new resources in, not steal from the already strained departments.

While in a perfect world one could plan new programs carefully, the reality of most funding opportunities is that they open unexpectedly and disappear quickly. If you want to create something new without stealing from existing programs you need to be able to move quickly. To be more precise, you need to have most of the work done in anticipation of support and then you have to listen, lobby and wait until the right opportunity arises. If you have developed a preliminary consensus about the administrative structure and developed a tentative program you can then start circulating it for discussion and try to attract the funding needed. In our case we had in place a lab structure, we had done a substantial amount of work designing courses, we had hired faculty and were even preparing a Certificate proposal when the opportunity for a full program arose so it was not a great leap to design the full program. This gets back to administration and Socrates. Don't just ask whether Humanities Computing is a discipline, ask what the discipline and a program would look like? What will it cost? What sorts of resources will be needed and who will provide them? What would you have taught? What will your students look like? You should not be afraid of the concrete or the administrative, it is an application of the ontological. Which is why I will turn now to the particular program we designed and our reasons for not mounting a humanities computing program.

The Name of the Discipline

The ATOP proposal guidelines that we had to follow were typical of the administrative questions new programs face today in Ontario. We were asked to show that there was student demand, to show that there was a societal need, to secure industry and community support, to show that the program was in the area of computing and to show that we had the resources to implement the proposed program. We started with a name, Multimedia. Why Multimedia and not Humanities Computing? The following are some of the reasons we had for choosing to propose a Multimedia program.

What is multimedia?

Having chosen a name and taken the position that we wanted the program to connect to the arts and therefore include design courses, we set about to try to define multimedia not humanities computing. (To be honest none of what follows was put on paper before this seminar, but I am trying to make it sound like a rational process.) Here are some definitions I have found for multimedia.

A multimedia computer system is one that is capable of input or output of more than one medium. Typically, the term is applied to systems that support more than one physical output medium, such as a computer display, video, and audio. Occasionally, multimedia is used to refer to the combination of text and images on a computer display terminal. Although text and images are in fact distinct carriers of information, hence media, this usage of multimedia is not preferred. After all, newspapers with text and images are not considered to be multimedia publications!

The term medium can also refer to an input device such as a keyboard, mouse, microphone, camera, or other sensor. Regarding computer input, multimedia then refers to the capability of using multiple input devices to interact with a computer system. (Blattner, Multimedia Interface Design, p. xxiii)

Blattner and Dannenberg also make the observation that "Multimedia systems strive to take the best advantage of human senses in order to facilitate communication." (Blattner, Dannenberg, p. xix). The Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines Interactive Multimedia thus,

any computer-delivered electronic system that allows the user to control, combine, and manipulate different types of media, such as text, sound, video, computer graphics, and animation. Interactive multimedia integrate computer, memory storage, digital (binary) data, telephone, television, and other information technologies. Their most common applications include training programs, video games, electronic encyclopedias, and travel guides. Interactive multimedia shift the user's role from observer to participant and are considered the next generation of electronic information systems. ("interactive multimedia" Encyclopædia Britannica Online. <> [Accessed 25 October 1999])

In the book Multimedia Demystified it is defined in this fashion,

In its most basic definition, multimedia can be thought of as applications that bring together multiple types of media: text, illustrations, photos, sounds, voice, animations, and video. A combination of three or more of these with some measure of user interactivity is usually thought of as multimedia computing." (Haykin, Multimedia Demystified, p. 3)

One of the interesting features of these definitions is what they are defining. The first defines a "multimedia system", the second "interactive multimedia" while the third defines multimedia applications. I have settled on the following definition that combines many of the features in the others with a focus on multimedia as a genre of artistic work.

A multimedia work is a computer-based rhetorical artifact in which multiple media are integrated into an interactive artistic whole.

Let me go through the parts of the definition.

Computer-Based - The word multimedia has been used synonymously with "mixed-media" to refer to works of art that combine traditional artistic media like paint, found objects, metal and so on. Only since the 1980s has to it come to mean exclusively those works that are computer based, which is the way I take it. In this definition I am therefore excluding mixed-media works if they were not created to be accessed through a computer. This also excludes works that might have been created on a computer like a desktop publishing file, but were intended to be accessed through print. A multimedia work proper is one that is viewed or browsed on the computer. Thus the computer in this view of what humanities computing should deal with is not just a tool for study of other objects, it is the delivery vehicle for content. This raises interesting questions about the limitations and possibilities afforded by the computer as form which I take to be one of the theoretical issues in multimedia.

Rhetorical - A multimedia work is one designed to convince, delight or instruct. It is not a work designed for administrative purposes or solely for communicating information. Nor is it a solely technological artifact from the perspective of the multimedia student. Technical questions about bandwidth and compression algorithms are for computer scientists and engineers. Multimedia is about the computer as a rhetorical performance.

Artifact - A multimedia work is a work of human creation or art. I am not defining what multimedia is in general or what a multimedia computer is, but focusing on a multimedia works.

Multiple Media - Central to all definitions of multimedia is the idea that multimedia combines types of information that have traditionally been considered distinct because they had different means of production and distribution. This combination or convergence is made possible by the computer that through digitization stores all information, whatever its original form, as binary digital data. Thus the computer allows the combination of media because they are on the computer all stored in the same fashion and accessible to the same procedures. In particular, multimedia works can bring together media that are incompatible in other formats like audio (which is time-dependent) and text (which is not.) The possibilities for design when one can combine media and the problems of interpretation of works that do so are the central problems of the field. I believe these problems subsume those traditionally articulated for humanities computing.

Integration ... Artistic Whole - A multimedia work is not just a collection of different types of media concatenated into a collection. By this definition the integration of media is the result of deliberate artistic imagination aimed at producing a work that has integrity. My hard drive has multiple media encoded on it, but it is not a multimedia work because those different media were not consciously integrated into a single work for rhetorical purposes. That said, one of the interesting features hypertext theorists find in hypermedia is a blurring of the boundaries of the artistic work. My colleagues are trying to get me to back down on this point and agree that we do not expect unity in a multimedia work, that hypertextual links outside the work are an important difference to multimedia. What do you think?

Interactive - One of the new media integrated into a multimedia work is the interactivity or the programming that provides for the viewers experience. Some level of interactivity is assumed in any computer-based work, but by this definition interactivity becomes part of the palette of media being woven into a whole. The type of interactivity is thus important to the artistic performance. We might go further and say that interactivity is the dominant media that integrates the others and that the computer is what bears interactive possibilities to the creative arts. Multimedia is therefore about computing in that it is about the possibilities for interactive integration and performance.

Implementation of a multimedia program

This defining choice and the trajectory set by the administrative guidelines that constrained us led to a particular implementation of a humanities computing program in the form of a multimedia program. This implementation has the following advantages from an administrative point of view.

As we brought the Multimedia program proposal through the various committees we were asked a number of questions which I suspect any program in this area has to face. Most of these questions came from our colleagues, especially those in administrative positions that understood the dangers of new programs. In fact humanists were the most skeptical of the program, which is a sign of health, I believe. I have summarized them here along with the answers that were offered.

What evidence do you have that this is a discipline? Are there similar programs elsewhere? Are there journals in the area? Are there books that one can point to as original research in the area?

It is interesting that they did not ask if it was a discipline, but we were asked to provide evidence that others thought it was a discipline. In order to answer this we gathered a number of different types of evidence that multimedia was a viable discipline. We prepared a dossier of WWW sites of similar programs and courses elsewhere. Harold Short and others at King's College London were particularly helpful with information about their "Humanities with Applied Computing" BA minor which like ours is meant to be combined with a traditional discipline. We also compiled a list of sample books in the discipline, journals, conferences and graduate programs to which students apply.

Should a program with a strong technical component be in the humanities? Should university programs have technical components?

Questions about the place of technical instruction in the humanities were the most difficult to answer. On the one hand we pointed out that in art, drama, and language courses techniques are taught. A printmaking course, for example, is partly about the craft of printmaking. Language classes teach practical language skills which only with practice lead to critical application. On the other hand we designed the program and each course so that the technical skills were always taught in a communicative context. This manifests itself at different levels. First, the program, like the King's program, is a Combined Honours program which means it has to be combined with another program. As I have mentioned above, central to the design of the program was the idea that it was not to be a stand-alone degree, but one which would enhance traditional humanities degrees and hence students could not escape untutored in criticism or theory. Second, the courses were all designed so that they would have readings and critical assignments that complemented the technical skills acquired. Mastery of a technique is not sufficient in any course, student assignments ask that students apply techniques to communicative, creative, and critical problems. Thus it is not enough to be able to create a WWW site for a course, building the site is like being able to type a paper, it is the threshold of participation. The WWW site, like a paper, is assessed in terms of the issues dealt within the course as an creative contribution. Third, we made sure there were courses in the program that would focus on philosophical, critical, and communicative aspects of multimedia independent of technology. Finally we made sure that none of the courses were about a particular and therefore time-dependent technology. There is no course on Macromedia Director as you would find in a college program. There is a course on Advanced Multimedia where students currently learn Director this year, but the technical skills taught will change as the industry changes.

My colleague Andrew Mactavish in a paper we coauthored for the 1999 ACH/ALLC at UVA went further and asked What are the assumptions about technology, technical skill, and intellectual skill that underlie the anxieties expressed in objections to our program? In that paper, which I will not digress too far to summarize, he raises the possibility that such objections are based on an unexamined and essentialist view "which supports the division of technical skill and intellectually enriched knowledge, gets played out in a host of symbolic social divisions, including those that structure and intersect with education, class, and culture." (Mactavish, "Whisperings in the Hall", p. 11) Needless to say, we did not accuse our colleagues in public of such anxieties, but the very place of technical skill in the humanities which the introduction of such a program raises needs to be worked out further.

Why isn't this a stream in computer science? Why don't we leave this to the community colleges?

The question of which type of institution or which department is best suited to teach multimedia and humanities computing gets to the heart of the Socratic legislative question. In Canada there is a hierarchy of institutions and degrees from college certificates that generally take a year to complete to honours BAs that take four years. Generally speaking technical skills like carpentry and graphic design are taught in community colleges while universities offer bachelor degrees that focus more on the

Aren't students likely to start coming who already have the technical expertise in multimedia? Do we therefore need to have a program that teaches skills that will soon be universally taught in high-school?

This is like asking if we should ditch our English program if students came to university able to write. Regardless of their technical skill level the university should be a place where they can study multimedia further and in an academic fashion. I also doubt we will see this mythical student which knows everything there is to know about computing.

Are we just doing this to get money and recruit students?

No, it should not be done simply because it can be funded. It should be done because we are interested in creating a community that studies multimedia.

What evidence is there that this program would be successful? How can we be sure students would enroll in such a program instead of just taking a course or two?

To answer this question we gathered statistics not only from existing courses but also from other programs in related fields.

What would students do with such a degree? Are there graduate programs that they could apply to?

As I mentioned above we gathered lists of possible careers and graduate programs that such a program would prepare a student for. The ATOP guidelines also forced us to get letters of support from industry, in our case multimedia design firms and computer firms. These letters, while solicited, provided the perspective of people in the position to hire graduates. The short answer is that the multimedia content industry is expected to need more an more technically skilled and articulate designers, writers, animators, and artists.

What are the hidden costs to such a program? Will this program compete with others in the humanities and steal students from traditional programs?

Essential to taking this program though various often antagonistic bodies was a clear accounting of the costs so that humanists could see that its concrete implementation would not draw on their resources. The spreadsheet in this case spoke better than the word. To imagine the concrete financial consequences of a particular implementation of a new discipline should not be left to the last moment, but should be part of initial planning even when funding opportunities don't exist. I have often found that if I can put a price to an activity it much easier to find the opportunity than if I leave it a vague academic wish. As for competition, the program was designed to be combined with others not to replace them in a fashion that would attract students that otherwise would not consider the humanities.


While answering questions in committees is one of the administrative challenges to designing a healthy program it is important to keep in mind who the program is for and how it will meet your objectives. At the suggestion of the Instructional Development Centre we also embarked on a more comprehensive diagnostic process which was one of the most useful things we did in terms of the final outcome. What we did first was to try to describe in concrete terms what our students would be able to do once they graduated. What would they know and how would that manifest itself? What aptitudes and attitudes might they have? What would they be able to discuss? We were encouraged to describe the outcomes in details like, "Students should enjoy reading computer magazines in the bookstore like Wired." We decided to abstract our expectations into a spreadsheet of competencies charted against courses. Competency was chosen as the term to cover both skills and knowledge. We boiled down what we wanted students to know into a series of competencies and then looked at our courses to see if these competencies were properly introduced, properly developed, and then reinforced. The competencies are of three types:

When you take the time to ask whether your combination of courses called a program actually does what you want it to do you discover courses that are overloaded, competencies that are not taught or not reinforced, and you discover things that are missing. You can link out to a slow loading HTML version of the spreadsheet here.


I can finally now, in the concluding section of this paper survey all these digressions and plot a course back to your problem. I therefore place a Table of Digressions here rather than where it should be in a well-formed paper.

Map of Digressions

Is humanities computing an academic discipline?

It is if it can be taught and administered as a discipline within the academy. No discipline can exist in theory. The theory of the discipline should be one of the questions discussed by practitioners within an appropriate administrative and instructional context.

Is humanities computing a teachable discipline?

That depends on who you think your audience is and what you think you can teach them. The problem is what would benefit students in the humanities and how to best implement such instruction.

Who do you think will benefit from instruction in computing within the humanities?

Students who want to participate in the creation and criticism of multimedia. Students who want to be the artists, designers, writers, and critics of computer-based multimedia works.

How can we be of benefit to them?

By introducing teaching them the creative skills within the context of the traditions of interpretation of the humanities. By teaching them to apply the critical and theoretical learning that comes with a humanities education to new media and its culture.

Why should we worry about the administration of humanities computing?

Because the health of a discipline lies in the administrative details. A discipline exists in implementations for which reason you have to ask what implementation would foster a healthy community of inquiry at your institution?

OK, how should humanities computing be administered?

It should be funded appropriately without endangering the disciplines with which it connects. It should be integrated appropriately into the administrative structure of the humanities. It should be taught. It should have spaces at its disposal where students, faculty and staff can pursue their studies and gather.

Is it a field of scholarly inquiry?

It is if the structures are put in place to encourage people to inquire into it, but that inquiry should be more than the activities associated with textual disciplines. Inquiry in the humanities should include the performance, artistic creation, and musical interpretation. Administrative structures in a field where the object of study is evolving before our eyes should encourage the creation of multimedia not just its criticism. Scholarly inquiry should not be only about computing, it should be in computing.

There is another story of the creation of technology which is probably more appropriate to this age and that is Mary Shelley's story of Frankenstein and his daemon. Let me take you back to the "dreary night of November", not unlike this coming evening, when Frankenstein animates his creation.

With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? ... Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, ... (Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 52)

Frankenstein at the moment of creation is appalled by his child. I am not the first to comment that for Mary Shelley it is not so much the creation of artificial life that is the animating sin of this story as the abandonment of ones creation. When Frankenstein's wretch finally has a chance to talk to him he says "Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us." (Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 101) Socrates in his unrealistic Platonic way would have us be philosopher-midwives who judge the health of the children of our thought and abandon those found wanting. Mary Shelley confronts us with a technologist who does just that and is haunted by his abandoned creation. In her story the question is not what do we make, but how do we respond and care for our inventions. Computing is here in the humanities, the problem is to do with it once we have overcome our anxieties? Our students want to participate in the discovery of raising this invention to an unforeseeable maturity. We can ignore the call to play with computing and leave it to its own horrific devices or we can pay attention to it and care for it in the ways we care for other artifacts, through study, through artistic interpretation, through dialogue, and through teaching. I ask you who are reconceiving humanities computing with a view to giving birth to a discipline and program, will you take responsibility for this creation or will you judge it a catastrophe and abandon it? Will you ever know what it is before you care for it?


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