Author: Sean McAneny

Thinking and Living with Computers: Making a Digital Humanist

I can remember a time when I believed computer science and the humanities represented what Stephen Jay Gould would call non-overlapping magesterium. In other words, the two fields emerged from completely different epistemic origins; they had little (if anything at all) to do with each other. This had to be true. I hated working with computers, I became easily frustrated doing so, and I felt inherently different from those of my peers who found computing so natural. The TI-84 on my trig class desk would taunt me for 40 minutes a day throughout all of 10th grade. Meanwhile, I felt at home in my literature and history classes. I loved books, both for their readability and their materiality. I enjoyed my copy of Grapes of Wrath for both the story and the pulpy pages themselves. Hence, I began to develop a sense that computers had simply no place in my humanist education and, likewise, it made sense that my STEM focused peers would have such a distaste for reading books. I can remember this time because it was not too long ago. In fact, it wasn’t until last semester that I uncovered the deeply human nature of the device on which type right now.

Working with Dr. Schacht last fall on a versioning project about W.B. Yeats’s later poetry not only made me more familiar with my computer; it granted me access to a whole new plane of thinking about language. Writing xml documents for this project in Atom and Oxygen created a discussion between my computer and Yeats’s manuscripts. In this way, computers can be Rosetta Stones, engaging different languages simultaneously to present new ways of expressing similar ideas. While I was never one for computer based assignments, this kind of work reminded me of the fun I would have translating Virgil and Catullus in high school Latin. Both demanded a delicacy and respect for the texts. Perhaps the most exciting prospect of this work, though, was the potential of expanding the accessibility of the humanist education.

There is a momentum to digital communication. Too often, books remain on shelves or in the backpacks of disinterested students. By bringing humanist work to the computer, the probability of it reaching more people skyrockets. With social platforms abound, people will run into more and more content that (hopefully) reflects their interests and the continuation of sharing can go on ad infinitum. The self-organizing aspect of some internet tools can be admittedly quite scary and I am not even remotely close to grasping the behind-the-scenes activity of this kind of communication. However, I see a very democratic potential in all of this. One of my main focuses in creating a digital version of Yeats’s poetry was bringing the text to those who couldn’t access the pricey and rare Cornell Manuscript Series. This semester of work got me excited to do more investigating with my computer and ultimately prompted me to take English 340 this spring.

After a few short months of learning more than I had in the previous 20 years, I feel much more comfortable with my computer. However, I recognize the limitlessness of such an endeavor and realize that I may never master these skills which, in a way, is why computing is so similar to the humanities. We don’t seek mastery of literature, rather we read in order to read more; there is no endpoint. Similarly, the reading we’ve done until now will help us in the reading we look forward to doing. In learning xml I didn’t learn all coding and all codes, but I did come to understand appreciate the symbolic nature of such languages and learning one has certainly made learning the next easier. There is a logic to this. It is no mistake that themes in both my English classes and my STEM classes here at Geneseo can find their beginnings in that one philosophy class I took freshman year: Introduction to logic.

It would be a fallacy to say that I am much more comfortable with computing only as a result my humanities classes. Sure, literature helped me step into the cold water of this new way of thinking, but thinking of the two as overlapping has given me the confidence to dive deeper. Thus, while I may not always understand my computer, I am now all the more excited to try and figure it out. What I once saw as a walled-off territory of inaccessible knowledge I now see as an horizon that beckons for further exploration.