High Tech Lures the Humanities
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — WHEN scholars at the University of Virginia gathered last fall to evaluate technology on campus, they quickly discovered a glaring weakness: the humanities.
Liberal-arts departments here aren't exploiting new advances in computers and telecommunications. No more than one in five humanities professors fully uses a computer, estimates Ira Jacobson, who is directing the university's technological push. "The place that's least advanced and needs the most help is ... the liberal arts," he says.
The University of Virginia is not alone. Most humanities professors around the world lag behind their computer-literate colleagues in the sciences, engineering, and business. By falling behind, they're missing big opportunities, technology proponents say. Among them:
* Better scholarship. As more texts become available in electronic form, scholars will spend less time searching for material and more time analyzing it.
* Enhanced communication. Professors all over the world will be able to write to one another, leave general messages on electronic bulletin boards, and roam the electronic ether for new insights into their field.
* More efficiency. Professors collaborating on a project will accomplish far more by using computer networks. Mr. Jacobson recently finished a collaborative paper that would have taken three months using typed manuscripts. On a computer, it took three weeks.
"We are the last group - the humanists - to be into it," complains Paul Fortier of the University of Manitoba in Canada, a leading proponent of humanist computing. Even when humanities professors do use the technology, it's mostly for typing papers or some other low-level function.
"Most computer-using humanists seem at the moment prepared to confine their use of the computer to word processing, with an occasional concordance thrown in as evidence of involvement in the technology revolution," wrote Joseph Raben, in the December issue of Computers and the Humanities, a bimonthly journal.
So here at the University of Virginia, as elsewhere, officials are busy building computer networks, wiring dormitories and offices, and introducing new resources to bring humanities professors up to speed. The university will offer seminars and make computer experts available to faculty who have a specific problem. By moving into the future, the university is rediscovering its roots.
Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia to be an "academical village": Professors lived in pavilions connected to student dormitories; the library stood at the lawn's end; every professor and book was within a three-minute walk for students.
The idea made sense in 1825, when 123 students attended the university's first fall term. Today, with some 200 buildings and 18,000 students, it's obsolete.
University officials hope to recreate the "village" by linking faculty, staff, and students with the next generation of technology. Instead of personal computers, they're investing in faster work stations. Instead of a network capable of carrying text, they're installing 10 megabyte-per-second cables that can transmit images and, eventually, video. They call this project the "electronic academical village."
"It's people interacting in the same way that, in Jefferson's time, a student might run into a professor on the lawn and might have an interaction beyond the classroom," says Glen Bull, an instructional-technology professor at the university's Curry School of Education. "In Jefferson's time you had to come to the geographic vicinity of the lawn." Now, computers and telecommunications are making geography irrelevant.
When Daniel Brink held a literary-computing conference at Arizona State University last year, no program committee got together. Conferees sent in their papers electronically via Internet (a huge system that links universities and major research laboratories). The papers were reviewed on-line by United States and overseas readers. They selected the best submissions, then invited their authors to speak at the conference.
"We were able to tap expertise worldwide," says Mr. Brink, the university's associate dean for technology integration. Some of the submissions came from as far away as Eastern Europe.
Here in Charlottesville, Va., Professor Bull is using the new technology to break barriers between public school teachers and the university. The system, called Virginia's Public Education Network, lets teachers, even those in isolated rural areas, tap into university resources electronically. The network carries text but no video. The university's Continuing Education Division offers live video courses to remote classrooms but has no computer network. Linking these technologies - voice, video, and data - is what the electronic academical village is all about.
Not everyone agrees with the technology push. Many humanities professors doubt computers add much value to scholarship. Those who embrace the technology are often viewed with suspicion - or pooh-poohed. Colleagues praised one professor when they learned he was giving a paper at the prestigious annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. When he told them the title, which included a well-known computer term, they questioned his paper's validity.
Mr. Raben doubts that computer-using humanists will get much respect any time soon. "The accusation [is] that they substitute methodology for substance because they really have little to say," he says.
Some of the skepticism is justified. Previous attempts to merge computers and humanities have backfired, such as historians' computer-driven statistical projects in the 1970s. The most famous study concluded that slave labor was just as productive as free labor in the South before the Civil War. But several scholars attacked the study's methods. Historians turned away from computer evaluation.
"People were skeptical in the humanities," says Edward L. Ayers, a history professor and the University of Virginia's technology committee humanities representative. "We had seen the `millennium' before, and it didn't work."
Professor Ayers is optimistic that technology will catch on this time. "The difference is that we're really not talking about number-crunching now, but rather the manipulation of text and images," he says. "And I think this is going to be the common denominator that's going to tie together people who are interested in archaeology, anthropology, English and the other languages, and history.... Computing is just getting powerful enough for humanists actually to use." (See related story, Page 12.)
Adds Jacobson: "It's our belief that the revolution that will occur ... is minuscule in the sciences compared with what it will be in the arts and humanities."