Southampton University

10-11 April 1987

Computers and Teaching in the Humanities

CATH 87 (as it will no doubt come to be known) was an unusual event in several respects. For one thing, as Nigel Gardner (CTISS) pointed out in his introductory remarks, it approximated to that perfection proposed by David Lodge, a conference with no formal papers. For another, instead of published proceedings at some vague time in the future, all delegates were presented at registration time with a collection of essays by various hands covering most of the topics addressed by the conference, now published by Ellis Horwood as "Information Technology in the Humanities", edited by S. Rahtz.

Another unusual aspect of the proceedings, at least from my cloistered viewpoint, was that just as many of the 100+ delegates came from Polytechnics and other institutions in the 'public sector' of higher ed, as came from Universities and similar bastions of privilege. This burgeoning of interest may have something to do with the coming into existence of a working party on IT in the Humanities (public sector only) sponsored by the CNAA. This working party is chaired by David Miall and is currently conducting a survey, planning a workshop on the theme this autumn and aims to set up a clearing house of some description.

There were in fact two formal papers: one at the start, from the charismatic Richard Ennals, and one at the end, from the even more charismatic (because French) Jean-Claude Gardin. Ennals, who is now at Kingston CFE, was inspirational (at least in intent) on the importance of the humanities and their under-rated powers which, he insisted, could be made more effective still by the appropriate use of computers. AI, the 'technology of thought', might provide a way of bridging the gap between the "two cultures" (Ennals is clearly a child of the sixties); the absence of Theory from the humanities might be a strength; Piaget's beneficial influence on primary school teaching needed to be carried through into the secondary system; logical positivists were a lot more 'dehumanized' than computers; rules (as in expert systems) could be descriptive rather than delimiting; input from the Humanities was needed because of the complexity of the problems to be tackled. These and similar ideas served to illuminate, fitfully, Ennals' final proposition of "computational politics" - that software engineers could profitably learn from social engineers. This highly seductive notion relied on what (I suspect) is a purely metaphorical similarity between the transition from single CPU to parallel architectures on the ne hand, and the transcending of solipsism in the modern democratic state on the other. It was a bravura performance.

In between the two formal papers, there were six parallel workshop sessions, each on specific topics, and also three introductory tutorial sessions. The organisers of the workshops had been briefed to stimulate discussion and argument rather than simply read out papers, which for the most part they did. The range of topics covered was impressive, as was the concentration of expertise. I attended workshops on Concordances (P. King from Birmingham), Programming (Wendy Hall from Southampton), Art, History (Dave Guppy and Will Vaughan from UCL), Classics (Kevin O'Connell from Exeter), Linguistics (L. Davidson from Leeds) and Literature (Tom Corns from Bangor), thus missing inter alia S. Rahtz on Archaelogy, R. Trainor on History, G. Davies on CALL, J. MacGregor on Theology, A. Pearce on Music and P. Salotti on Databases.

I found the Concordances Workshop rather disappointing, though it did stimulate much discussion. King was anxious to demonstrate his own concordance generator which runs on an Amstrad word-processor, though he did bring out several useful applications for its output (fairly rudimentary KWIC lists) in teaching non-native speakers of English to identify patterns in contemporary usage. There was much argument about the normative effect of such exercises. Several people enquired about micro-OCP.

The Programming Workshop was equally ready to tackle fundamental issues. Wendy Hall quoted Dijkstra on the malignant effect of BASIC to great effect and also (clearly) took a quiet pleasure in the total absence of any evidence that teaching programming was a good way of training people to reason logically. Dave de Roure advocated LISP; Sebastian Rahtz Icon. Several people pointed out that the programming environment probably mattered more in determing the ease with which a language was acquired than the language itself; there was some agreement that the difficulty of structured languages might in fact be no bad thing. A gentleman from IBM endeared himself greatly to me by asserting that (a) any progamming skills acquired at universities were totally useless in a commercial context and (b) it would be a lot more use to teach people how to organise and structure their data properly.

After dinner (bearable) we were rewarded for our persistence in trekking half a mile through pouring rain by a postprandial entertainment from Jon Nicholl of Exeter's Education Department. This consisted of demonstrations of three applications ('authorizations'?) of the LINKS program, a simple expert systems shell for use in comprehensive schools. One recreated a detective story apparently familiar to every former B.Ed student; one (written by a ten year old) impersonated a mediaeval physician; one had to do with Devonian placenames. The second was the most fun; the subtext of the presentation was that teaching project work in this way could actually be a lot more fun as well as getting across some interesting principles of abstraction. Though I wondered whether hierarchic tree structures might not turn out to be just as mentally crippling as BASIC.

Dave Guppy opened the Art History Workshop with a sceptical survey of possible computer applications, including image processing, storage problems, indexing problems etc etc. For him Art History was about fundamentally difficult and affective aspects of experience. Will Vaughan tried to redress the balance by pointing to the possibilities of new storage media as means of manipulating images, but had to agree that there still very few real applications outside museums. As case study Guppy provided us with two very nice pictures of naked ladies, one by Giotto and the other by Titian, together with commentary by a distinguished art historian called Freedberg and the workshop eventually cohered in a long discussion about how a computer could possibly have assisted in his analysis. (Not a lot it transpires)

The Classics Workshop was somewhat of a misnomer and also nearly floored completely by an uncooperative AT. Fortunately Kevin O'Connell was too much of a professional to let this seriously impair his presentation of how Nichol's LINKS could also be used to represent the plot of Antigone, though it did slow down somewhat his description of an expert system (programmed in micro Prolog) based on the "Roman World" flash cards which are apparently now widely used to teach classics (if 'widely' is the right word). The claim was that a model of the inter-relationships recorded on Latin inscriptings from Lugdunum could be adequately represented and easily manipulated using micro Prolog; I remain unconvinced.

Of those I attended, the Linguistics Workshop probably adhered closest to the organisers' brief, perhaps because Leeds is one of the few places where computing is taught as an essential component of the Linguisticscourse. Davidson described in some detail the various parts of this teaching, plotted against two axes which he saw as mutually exclusive, viz the type of amount of purely computational skill needed and direct relevance of the skill acquired to the academic subject. He raised a number of pedagogically important issues, notably that current research in linguistics seems to be depending more and more on computational models which owe little or nothing to formal linguistics (which did not use to be the case). One prime case is the 'simulated annealing' parsing project at Leeds which uses a purely stochastic model; another is the need for socio-linguists to employ purely sociological data, such as census returns. Most of the discussion centred on what actually gets taught. Leeds' BA students apparently thrive on a three day intensive course covering the rudiments of CMS and OCP together; there was little support (presumably as a result of bitter experience) for my view that general courses on operating systems were better left to computing centre staff.

Tom Corns began the Literature workshop by asserting simply that literature was very difficult for humans, let alone computers, because of the complexity and subtlety of readers' responses to it (which was one of the strengths of the case according to Ennals). Perhaps more significantly, (and certainly more memorably), he remarked that literary criticism remained "totally innocent of computer-aided achievements", despite the fact that the subject itself was still alive and well. Stylistics, which had once seemed to offer the computer an entree, had been effectively killed off by the likes of Fish on theoretical grounds, while the McCabe/Eagleton radico-deconstructionist-feminist axis had no time for the "toys for the boys" technological ethos. But as all good critics (and readers of Kipling) know, ignoring the technology of your day simply marginalises your discipline. The bulk of his presentation therefore concentrated on immediate strategies to raise the level of awareness of computational possibilities amongst the current crop of students. The discipline had always required high standards of presentation and well organised bodies of data; the word processor, the database, and even the concordance were all highly effective means to those ends, if they had no more theoretically seductive claims on students' time. In the future of course, there would be other possibilities; amongst these he adumbrated the possibilities of an Old English CALL system, and something called "advanced study aids", by which (I think) he (or rather Margarette Smith who shared the honours of this presentation) meant hypertext systems, incorporating a user-modelling component.

The proceedings were wound up by Prof Jean-Claude Gardin's formal paper which (I regret to say) I did not fully understand, largely because of its use of mathematical formulae to express types of inferential methods and other habits of mind alien to my anglo-saxon soul, but which I suspect would have been congenial to Fish. Gardin has been eminent in the sphere of interpreting archaelogical finds and other cultural manifestations for the last thirty years but (he said comfortingly) the only progress he could detect had been the recognition that there could be no independent standards to describe such objects: there are as many descriptions as there are research goals. Like Ennals, he saw interesting opportunities in AI systems not just because they are well funded, though that should not be ignored, but because they paralleled his current research strategy. A given set of semiological components (representation systems) can be acted on by different processing components to reach, different conclusions, according to different goals; in the same way, a given set of facts and rules may be acted on by an inference engine to construct a knowledge based system. The recursiveness of deconstructive criticism was exemplified at some length: Jakobson & Levi Strauss' study supposedly saying all there was to be said of Baudelaire's "Les Chats" had stimulated 28 critical responses, which they had dutifully included in a revised edition, und so weiter. He also felt the need to preserve'bilinguism', that is to present their results in ways appropriate to (their expectations of) their readers' likely expectations.

If Ennals began this conference by assuring us that the humanities had something to offer the world, then Gardin closed it by reminding us that whatever that might be it was not certainty, and that scientistic rigour was as out of place in the humanities as we had always hoped. In between, we had had ample opportunity to see what the technology could do and how it could be shaped to our ends, provided of course we could determine what those might be. I have already remarked on various unusual aspects of this conference; perhaps not the least significant of these was a general willingness to confront and discuss quite fundamental issues at a non-trivial level.