Monday, 5 November 2007

The Mind Tool

With The Mind Tool. Computers and their Impact on Society, Neill Graham wrote a classical textbook 'on both the promise and the threat of the computer' (Graham, 1976, p. xi) illustrated with graphs and black and white photography. This book offered suggestions for further reading and remediating questions after each chapter, included a hands-on section on BASIC, and it came with an instructor’s manual (Daughenbaugh, 1986) with a test-bank of multiple choice questions from its fifth edition onwards (1989). The book is conceived in two parts, the first of which takes up the nature of the computer and introduces the student to what the computer is, how it works, how it is programmed, and what it can do. The second part discusses the applications of computers in many areas of society such as medicine, politics, transportation, business and finance, crime, employment, information access, and the fine arts. This last chapter addresses visual arts, computer music, and computers and literature but devotes only just over half a page to literary concordances, stylistic studies, and readability research in literary research.

Grace Hopper’s and Steven Mandell’s Understanding Computers (1984) was also conceived from an outspoken didactic point of view with elaborate supplementary educational material gathered in the accompanying study guide for the student, a complete instructor resource package with transparency masters reducing administrative efforts for the lecturer, and a test bank of nearly 1,000 multiple choice questions. Additional media included a student oriented audio-cassette and interactive microcomputer software packages for laboratory sessions. The book itself covers most of the topics of Graham’s book, but with more graphs and full colour pictures. It also includes an introduction to BASIC, and each chapter concludes with revision and discussion questions. Although there is a chapter devoted to computers in science, medicine, and research and design, no mention, however, of any humanities research is made. Also, the section on computers in the arts focuses on adjuvant capabilities in stage lighting, dance notation, word processing, and poetry emulation only.

These books became respectively the fourth and the third most frequently used textbooks in the teaching of computing to humanities students by 1987 (Rudman, 1987a). The champions were Computer Methods for Literary Research by Robert Oakman (1980); and A Guide to Computer Applications in the Humanities by Susan Hockey (1980).

Now, more than ever, I experience truth in Graham's analysis that:
Few products of technology are so important to the public and yet so poorly understood by them as is the computer. When people think of computers they are apt to think of the dire warnings they have heard concerning the dangers of computerized data banks, or perhaps of someone who received an erroneous computerized bill and had trouble getting it corrected. Relatively few people have any information as to what computers actually do or how they can be used for the benefit of humanity. (Graham, 1976, p. xi).

I called this blog The Mind Tool because of two reasons. First, it wants to provide information as to what computers can do for the benefit of the humanities in general and the discipline of textual editing in particular. Second, it serves as a mind tool to me, freeing my desk from scribbled on loose pieces of paper, post-it notes, notebooks, napkins, and beer maths. As such I hope to entertain both the technology-sceptics of traditional academe and the growing community of humanities computing professionals