Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Humanities in the Digital Age: Alison Byerly & Steven Pinker

Communications Forum

Nice discussion, courtesy of MIT World: Distributed Intelligence.

There are many conservatives (in name only - a true conservative would never advocate for this) who would love to see the humanities no longer taught in colleges in universities, or at least not in those that are publicly funded.

They would love to see university education focused on career paths, not on providing a well-rounded liberal arts education. Maybe it's that word, liberal. Or maybe it's that well-educated people tend to be more independent thinkers and less likely to be knee-jerk reactionaries (i.e., fundamentalist conservatives).

Humanities in the Digital Age

Reports of the demise of the humanities are exaggerated, suggest these panelists, but there may be reason to fear its loss of relevance. Three scholars whose work touches a variety of disciplines and with wide knowledge of the worlds of academia and publishing ponder the meaning and mission of the humanities in the digital age.

Getting a handle on the term itself proves somewhat elusive. Alison Byerly invokes those fields involved with “pondering the deep questions of humanity,” such as languages, the arts, literature, philosophy and religion. Steven Pinker boils it down to “the study of the products of the human mind.” Moderator David Thorburn wonders if the humanities are those endeavors that rely on interpretive rather than empirical research, but both panelists vigorously make the case that the liberal arts offer increasing opportunities for data-based analysis.

Technology is opening up new avenues for humanities scholars. In general, Byerly notes, humanities “tend to privilege individual texts or products of the human mind, rather than collective wisdom or data.” More recently, online collections or data bases of text, art and music make possible wholly different frameworks for study. Pinker cites his own use of automated text analysis in Google books to research the history of violence, tracing the rise and fall of such words as “glorious” and “honorable” -- connected in times past with nations’ war-making. Humanities scholars could routinely deploy tools like this to strengthen argument and interpretation, says Pinker, allowing them “to say things are warranted, true, coherent.”

Humanists are adopting new tools and methods for teaching and publishing as well. Byerly describes the freedom afforded her as a professor of Victorian literature when she can direct students to specific interactive websites for historical and cultural background, allowing her to focus on a specific novel in class. As Middlebury provost, she has been broadening the concept of publication to include work in different media online. However, as Pinker notes, the process for publishing articles in scholarly journals remains painfully slow: in experimental psychology, a “six year lag from having an idea to seeing it in print.” He suggests a “second look” at the process of peer review, perhaps publishing everything online, “and stuff that’s crummy sinks to the bottom as no one links to or reads it.” Pinker looks forward to a future where he no longer has to spend a “lot of time leafing through thick books” looking for text strings, or flipping to and from footnotes. “We could love books as much as we always have, but not necessarily confine ourselves to their limitations, which are just historical artifacts,” he says.

Such changes in the humanities may not come a moment too soon. In spite of relatively stable numbers of graduates in the U.S., the liberal arts may be increasingly endangered. Byerly sees “an inherent aura of remoteness about humanities: It studies the past, and distant past. At a time when technology seems to be speeding things up, bringing information to us faster, humanities’ pace doesn’t seem in tune with the times.” Pinker’s “nightmare scenario” is the “disaggregation of practical aspects of undergraduate education of students, and humanities,” akin to the way newspapers lost classified advertising. Humanities faculty, who tend not to bring in grants the way science faculty do, may prove an irresistible target for budget cutters. To protect these fields, Pinker proposes, integrate them with social sciences: connect English literature to the sciences of human nature, for instance, or music theory to auditory perception. “Make humanities’ faculty indispensable,” he urges.


David Thorburn headshot

David Thorburn - MIT Professor of Literature
MacVicar Faculty Fellow Director, MIT Communications Forum

More on David Thorburn


Alison Byerly headshot

Alison Byerly - Professor of English & American Literatures, Middlebury College

Byerly's Middlebury website

Steven Pinker headshot

Steven Pinker - Harvard College Professor, and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology

Pinker at Harvard | Department of Psychology Faculty Bio

Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists

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