Changing Faces

Humanists are reaching new levels with technological tools. Have they replaced traditional interests with advanced technology?

By Sundi Lofty, Matthew Lorenz, and Amanda Schultz

David Seaman was handed the subject of his science experiment for the day: a battered, once-white piece of paper. Determine what quote has been scribbled out, he was told. It sounded easy enough, but the two inks overlapping on the paper were identical in color. So he went to his computer. "We asked the machine to find minute differences between the two inks and exaggerate them," Seaman remembers. His experiment was successful. "In this case, we were actually able to use the computer to, quite literally, see something that was unseeable in its original form." Sure sounds like a science experiment, but Seaman isn't a scientist; he's a scholar in medieval literature.

People often associate technology with the sciences before they do the humanities, but Seaman doesn't think it's that easy. His exacting, British-accented opinions result from being an innovator in humanities-related technology. "It's not that the humanities make sort of kiddie use of the technology," he says. "What we ask of it is often as demanding, and in some cases more demanding, than the sciences would ask of it."

Seaman, founding director of the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia, recognizes the intrinsic differences between the humanities and the sciences, and he makes no attempt to foster any union. "There may be nothing fundamental to the humanities that requires technology beyond a pen and a piece of paper," he says. Seaman readily admits that, on certain levels, the sciences have more technological demands. But that doesn't decrease the demand for similar technology in the humanities. "Our needs are often quite severe and certainly we strain the edge of what even the higher technology can do."

Ann Kovalchick agrees. While working as a technician researcher for the Office of Information Technologies, she has noticed that technology is increasingly being used in the humanities. She also believes that in some respects technology is beginning to unite both the humanities and science fronts. However, Kovalchick notes that interplay between the sciences and humanities "focuses on technical things like operations, applications, skills, and new software." And since the technological dialogue between the disciplines often relates to form, when it comes to content scholars in both arenas are not necessarily seeking common ground. "You would hope that they would get to know each other's content, but that is not happening," she says.

However, Kovalchick, like Seaman, recognizes the differences between these disciplines: The humanities are using technology by exploring new notions of narrative and text, while the sciences are interested in revealing the previously unseen, manipulating at atomic levels and simulating chemical reactions.

Kovalchick, also an instructor at U.Va., teaches a course entitled "Computers and Media in Teaching." Because of her experience in educational technology, Kovalchick is aware of the surge in developing technology for the humanities. One example is the Teaching and Technology Initiative, a program sponsored by the University's office of Information Technology and Communication (ITC) that selects twelve faculty members a year to develop new technology. Many faculty members have chosen to focus on the humanities. This marks a radical change, since in the past this discipline was rarely associated with technology. "The science people have been using technology for so many years. There is definitely experience there," Kovalchick says. "The humanities have typically been concerned only with word processing." But no longer, she adds.

Technology use in the humanities has also increased in day-to-day use. For example, the Web allows U.Va. English Professor John Unsworth to publish articles and communicate with scholars around the world. Unsworth has created the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) in order to foster computer-based humanities research. Much of his research and opinions about technology and the humanities can be accessed through his Web site at http://www.village.virginia.edu/~jmu2m/mla-94.html.

At universities and colleges across the country, Unsworth has experienced strong arguments against the "technological threats of depersonalization" that loom in this age of computers. But faith in the Web is necessary for the humanities to advance and prosper in this technological age, Unsworth says. He notes that the computer offers "many-to-many communication," presenting more research material to a broader audience. He continues to commend the open-endedness of the Web that allows for input and opinions from its visitors.

Through the Institute, Professor Edward L. Ayers of the U.Va. history department has created a Civil War archive that accepts contributions from the public. Art History Professor John Dobbins created the Pompeii Forum Project, a "classroom without walls" where the entire cyber universe experiences Pompeii through a virtual tour.

Where can scholars of diverse disciplines unite and exchange ideas in an intellectual environment, without leaving their offices or homes? IATH is just the place for academic discussion and advancement. The Institute continues to grow and improve, while reaffirming its success through the 100,000 requests the server receives weekly. Unsworth writes that "computers, which heretofore had seemed fairly irrelevant to the research activities of humanists, have been transformed by being networked, and are in turn culturally transforming local and global spheres with their electronic scholarship."

But with all this innovation, what distinguishes these technocrat-humanists is their refusal to lose track of the "human." While embracing the possibilities of computer technology, the humanities continue to recognize the limitations of every computer. "It doesn't answer questions for you, and it doesn't even tell you what questions to ask," Seaman says. Nonetheless, while humanists maintain traditional interests, the face of the humanities continues to change along with its technological tools.

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