Engineering the Humanities


When I landed my first academic job at the University of Florida in the mid-80s, I began a slow and steady life journey of knowledge enrichment, which included making friends and colleagues in different schools. One of the things that confused me then, and continues to be a puzzle now, is the schism existing between and among areas such as arts, humanities, science, and engineering. Here is one example of a schism, or perhaps more of a deep canyon.  Recall that the humanities are traditionally very old subjects--been around a while and dominated by reading and writing: Scholarly production. Then, consider the arts, and by "arts," I am referring to the arts of the senses such as fine art, ceramics, sculpture, and performing arts such as theatre and dance. Tasks that involve making live in the art building. People are making things--paintings, kinetic sculptures, cinema. Tasks that involve writing are somewhere else on campus--in the humanities building. There is a deep schizophrenia where the people who "make" and the people who "write" don't talk much with each other. As an engineer, I find this peculiar because in engineering, not only are writing and making in the same place, they are also in the same person. All engineers are expected to form carefully worded arguments about what they contribute to knowledge through making; engineering has a high degree of scholarship as do most areas within the university. All of this causes me to wonder whether what is going on in "digital humanities" is actually a leaking of engineering culture into the humanities. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so, and let's not muddy the waters in the digital humanities with misleading phrases like "using a tool"  or "using technology." These have nothing to do with what is occurring at a fundamental, philosophical level within the humanities. At the core, the transitions are about a social and cultural osmosis from science and engineering. Similarly, there are big shifts--rooted in the arts and humanities--occurring in science and engineering, but that is the subject of another post.

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