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Introduction to the Project

The introduction of computing tools for research in the humanities has brought about many changes in the way scholars work. But we do not yet have a firm grip on the stylistic changes in reasoning and expression developing from the altered forms of practice. Lorraine Daston and others have commented on the curious lack of attention to the epistemology of the humanities – to the question, as she says, of how we know what we know. Computing provides both motivation and means for addressing that lack, since digital scholarship must articulate and implement its research methods. By forcing us thus to make explicit and to externalize the formerly inarticulate stages of research, humanities computing draws attention to method and the question of method, generates the need for observant, self-reflective practice and problematizes traditional forms of expression. The dynamic, open-ended nature of computing strongly suggests that being observant of scholarly practice is not a temporary flicker in the transition from print-based to digital scholarship but a durable virtue, if not requirement, of good work in the new media.

Methods of investigation, externalized as tools, become themselves epistemic objects and so forms of scholarly expression, but they speak in a language we lack the training to understand. Much recent work on the material culture of these epistemic objects – e.g. in the history of science, anthropology, textual editing, aesthetics and art history – provides a lively context in which to ask about their communicative properties and about the new habits of reading them that we need to develop. Problems in scholarly peer-review and publication follow.

At the same time as intellectual capital is invested directly into the design, development and use of the research machines we find difficult to read, the “paradata” of their making and use – e.g. decisions of design, application and interpretation that guide subsequent work, apparently unrelated or inexplicable, but potentially revolutionary, anomalies – tend to be lost. We need to find ways of preserving the footprints of these processes, so that others can understand and evaluate our analyses and choices. We need to consider what types and scope of paradata should be disseminated with research outcomes such as 3D reconstructions of historic buildings or artefacts to make them susceptible to such evaluation.

The use of equipment that continually demands attention, the externalization of research methods in explicit form and the ludic qualities of work with computing all point toward a precedent in the experimental sciences. This is not to scientize the humanities, rather to suggest that neighbourly help is to be found in experimental practice with a long and distinguished history. This practice suggests, for example, the use of laboratory notebooks and recommends whatever else may assist re-enactment of exploratory research. It suggests as well that the traditional rhetorical forms of scholarship in some fields may not be adequate because they obscure or erase the historical development of the ideas expressed in them. Hybrid kinds of documentation that combine, for example, aspects of the traditional essay with those of the laboratory report may be needed.