ACH Panel: Humanities Computing and the Rise of New Media Centers: Synergy or Disjunction?

Allen Renear, Moderator
Scholarly Technology Group
Brown University

Espen Aarseth
Department of Humanistic Informatics
University of Bergen

Nancy Kaplan
School of Communications Design
University of Baltimore

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Department of English
University of Kentucky

John Unsworth
Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities
University of Virginia

John Lavagnino
Center for Humanities Computing
King's College London

Summary of Topic

Empirically, humanities computing is easily recognized as a particular academic domain and community. We have our professional organizations, regular conferences, journals, and a number of centers, departments, and other organizational units. A sense for the substance of the field is also fairly easy to come by: one can examine the proceedings of ACH/ALLC conferences, issues of CHum and JALLC, the discussions on HUMANIST, the contents of many books and anthologies which represent themselves as presenting work in humanities computing, and the academic curricula and research programs at humanities computing centers and departments. From such an exercise one easily gets a rough and ready sense of what we are about, and considerable reassurance, if any is needed, that indeed, there is something which we are about.

But computing humanists have never been comfortable with the unexamined life, and, not surprisingly we have had, like many other academic communities, a little anxiety about exactly how we fit into the more established ecology of disciplines, fields, methodologies, and the like. Some of this concern may be a purely intellectual curiousity, some may be more existential - and certainly some is motivated by a practical concern about how to shape our institutions and our professional lives in a way that will allow us to make our best contributions. (Any discussion of the nature of humanities computing must of course reflect the seminal work of Willard McCarty - see the papers listed on

The recent explosive growth in use of computers by humanists - by all academics in fact - has added a twist to these ruminations: today all humanists are computing humanists, even if all are not professionally engaged in humanities computing. This reminds us that, in fact, it is not just using computers that distinguishes us as members of the humanities computing community, but how we use them, or how we think about this use. In addition, and probably even more importantly, the growth in computer use suggests that the theories, methods, and techniques which our community has been developing over the last 25 years are now vitally relevant to all humanists - which should move our community center-stage in the academic world.

Against this background comes a striking and thought-provoking recent phenomenon: the very rapid development of centers and programs for the study of New Media or Digital Media. These centers seem to be distinguished by such things as a focus on digital media and culture in particular rather than cultural products in general, a relative de-emphasis of traditional disciplinary methodologies from the humanities, and an incorporation of production as a fundamental aspect of their work. Now common in both Europe and the United States, they are sometimes staffed by researchers who are also part of the ACH/ALLC humanities computing community, but just as often by academics whose background is completely different and who have had no involvement with this community.

At first glance new media studies (NMS) and traditional humanities computing (HC) may not appear to have a lot in common, at least their most characteristic problems seem exclusive and distinctive: HC's techniques for concordance development, or carefully thought-out markup of texts, contrast vividly with, for instance, NMS's multimedia production projects, or theories about the politics of virtual reality. But a closer look also suggests considerable similarity, and, in fact, there seem to be at least some common problems and projects. HC, for instance, has long had a general analytical interest in digital culture, conducting multi-disciplinary analyses of multimedia systems, educational technology, the use of technology in the arts, and the use of technology in publication and communication - and certainly nothing digital is alien to the HUMANIST.

One particularly distinctive feature of NMS is the way it seems to have taken to heart Robert Scholes' prescription that the production component should be restored to humanistic studies. In The Rise and Fall of English Scholes claims that in English studies, rhetoric as oratory gave way first to the philosophy of rhetoric and then to philology and, finally Theory - and that we are all the worse for it. Is this a deep difference between NMS and HC? Perhaps, but then again members of the HC community are certainly among the busiest producers in humanities: they are typically hands-on practitioners creating electronic primary sources of all kinds, as well as multimedia systems and computer tools.

But perhaps any effort to establish some principle of differentiation is not only idle, but could obscure the opportunities presented by the commonalities of these two communities. In this spirit the goal of the panel is to investigate the relationship of new media studies to established humanities computing not so much as an exercise in taxonomizing practices and disciplines, but more to share ideas and see how these two communities can continue to learn from each other and collaborate.