While we are tired of discussing whether humanities computing is a discipline or an interdisciplinary field, it is still worth looking at what it is to become a discipline. Starting with a discussion of disciplinarity I argue that when a field begins to control the means of its academic reproduction through programmes it becomes a discipline. This founding moment of rupture with the surrounding disciplines should not be overlooked, nor should the dangers inherent in the defining of a field that happens through formalization in educational structures. In multimedia, in particular, there is a rupture around the place of the crafts of digital creation that places us in conflict with ideas about the liberal and servile (applied) arts. This will be the contribution of the digital humanities – a reorientation to craft and creative art in the humanities.

There is no more stunning fact about the academic profession anywhere in the world than the simple one that academics are possessed by disciplines, fields of study, even as they are located in institutions. With the growth of specialization in the last century, the discipline has become everywhere an imposing, if not dominating, force in the working lives of the vast majority of academics.[1]

A discipline is born when a field takes control of its means of reproduction, specifically the ability to produce ›disciples‹ or students. The founding of a discipline is a rupture in the existing structure of institutions, one which is outside the founded discipline, being the condition of its becoming. The founding of a discipline is a liminal moment that defines the relationship between the discipline and those surrounding institutions. Humanities computing (HC) is becoming a discipline as it struggles to understand itself, struggles with existing disciplines and finds a new place within institutions. This paper will look at the emergence of humanities computing programmes as the founding of a discipline and the possibilities for rupture.

Is Humanities Computing a Discipline?

A branch of learning or a field of study characterized by a body of intersubjectively acceptable knowledge, pertaining to a well defined realm of entities, systematically established on the basis of generally accepted principles with the help of methodical rules or procedures [...].[2]

The question of the disciplinarity of humanities computing was raised in a sustained fashion by a seminar organized at the University of Virginia in the 1999-2000 academic year.[3] The reason Virginia had for organizing a year-long seminar was the development of a graduate program in humanities computing – a program for which they needed »a clear idea of what the field is, and whether it is, in fact, a field of scholarly inquiry.«[4] The answers to the question of that seminar were as varied as the presenters; for my talk I argued that Humanities Computing is a discipline and that it is better called Multimedia partly because it would thus be clear what our object of study was. Here I will not belabor the issue of whether the discipline is best called Humanities Computing, Multimedia, or, for that matter, Digital Humanities (as Virginia chose to call their program), and I will use the terms interchangeably. There is now a perception that the issue has been exhausted for which reason this paper is not so much about whether humanities computing is a discipline as it is about what we are becoming and what choices we have before us, whatever the name we choose for the coming state of affairs.[5] I am going to do that through the question of disciplinarity, but this is about a particular moment in the development of our field, namely the birth of a self-perpetuating institution through instructional programmes.[6]

To return to the question through definitions and the etymology of ›discipline‹ we can imagine what Humanities Computing is becoming.

First, »Discipline« comes from the Latin for pupil or »disciple«. A »disciple« is a particular type of pupil who is trained to spread the doctrines of his or her masters which suggests that a discipline is an institution that perpetuates itself through the ongoing preparation of its teachers. With the first undergraduate and graduate HC programmes graduating disciples we have an important change in the field.

Second, a ›discipline‹ is mental training that is designed to teach one to think appropriately rather than master a set content. Such training can be enforced by ›discipline‹ in the sense of punishment that aims to develop obedience and habits. Mental training as a goal has a long history in American liberal arts education. The Yale Report of 1828 proposed that the college should provide students with »discipline and furniture of the mind«.[7] Discipline is the formation or shaping of a liberal house of the mind in contrast to the content or furniture with which the mind is filled. Discussions around HC programmes have been much exercised with the issue of exactly what should be taught, a discipline of thinking about the use of computing in the humanities or certain content. The choices of early curricular designers could determine the discipline and content of the field.

Third, a ›discipline‹ is a branch of knowledge with a family of objects of study, research methods, discourses and teaching habits. These shift over time and are the subject of debate, especially at founding moments when a field wants to claim the prerogatives of disciplinarity, as HC does now and the Virginia seminar noted. That said, there is a tradition of objects of creation and study, a tradition of methods, and a tradition of discourse that can be loosely identified as that which is published in our leading journals.[8]

Another way to ask about disciplines is to look at them as an ethnographer would and ask not what they should be, but what they are seen from the outside. The following are characteristics drawn from Becher's Academic Tribes and Territories, Clark's The Academic Life, Bordieu's Homo Academicus, and essays from Kockelmans' (ed.) Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education. They correspond loosely to the components of the third definition proposed above.

Who. A discipline is composed of a group of people who self-identify as belonging to the discipline. In the case of academic disciplines these are typically faculty, researchers, specialists, and students who at any point in time consider themselves to be working in that field. In HC these would be the usual suspects that regularly attend the ACH/ALLC conferences. It is worth noting the tension Clark highlights in the quote at the start of this paper; that academics, even if they work in institutions like universities and colleges, are still ›possessed‹ by disciplines playing these two modes of affiliation off each other.

What. A discipline has objects of study and a discourse in common. This includes not only what we believe we are studying, but the texts that we typically use, the jargon of the discipline, and the typical objects created when working in the area – for example, web sites, electronic texts, concordances, and multimedia works. Of special importance is the field as an object to itself – that way in which a discipline is an object to itself. A discipline maintains common stories of its founding and a history complete with heroes (Father Busa), monsters (English Departments) and timely achievements (the publication of the TEI P4).

How. A discipline has agreed upon methods and practices for the study of its objects. This is the characteristic that Willard McCarty has drawn our attention to – that humanities computing shares (and develops) a set of computing methods with which to model problems in and for the humanities.[9] There is also, however, a second set of practices that distinguish a discipline, and those are the organizational mechanisms with which a discipline controls itself from project management to graduate instruction. Despite what we think we do, there are practices that define us, in particular the practices associated with large electronic text projects. This is what is changing now as we institutionalize through curricular foundation.

Where. A discipline has places where it conducts its activities like institutes, university departments, laboratories, conferences and academies. Humanities computing has long had a special relationship with the computing laboratory as it has, in many universities, grown out of service units that maintained such facilities for faculties of humanities. We also, of course, claim a special relationship with the non-site or virtual site of the Web.

In sum, one could say a discipline is a loose family of people who tend to gather in certain places to discuss certain things in certain ways and who perpetuate that discussion through mechanisms. We are defined by our journals, our conferences, our membership in societies, our speech, what we do, and where we do it. Of all these characteristics, many of which are shared by interdisciplinary fields, that which distinguishes a discipline is the control over the means of educational reproduction. A field becomes a discipline when it develops ways to control its reproduction, specifically (and typically in Western universities) through educational programmes. And that is what is happening to us now, we have seen the first undergraduate and graduate programmes created by members of the field to train future practioners.

Another way of telling this story is that while most of us wandered into humanities computing, learning on our own, without the support of courses or programmes (and proud of this self-sufficiency), we are now about to see the first graduates consciously trained in the field. They have been trained through apprenticeships at research institutes like IATH and MITH and now are getting degrees in the field. And that is a difference that makes a discipline. We are about to see practitioners formally trained also in humanities computing rather than trained soley in other disciplines as we were. Ironically, in making a discipline in our image through formal curricula we are engendering practitioners that may close the discipline to those like us who took the self-study road. Therein lies a rupture.

The Liberal and Servile Arts

A review of the models for HC instruction illustrates the change in how humanities computing is starting to discipline students. It explains the importance given here to the development of university programmes.

Skills Training Model. First there is the skills model where computing is introduced within existing university disciplines in the form of research methods and career skills. Alternatively it is introduced in colleges as professional skills programmes. In this model HC courses or modules supplement other courses or disciplines and focus on computer skills applicable to humanities practices including research practices. In Canada we have an entrenched division between the college system that teaches professional skills and trades, and the university system.[10] Many Canadian colleges like Sheridan College and the Vancouver Film School have mounted excellent certificate and diploma programmes in new media. The well-known Sheridan programme in Computer Animation is, in fact, a post-graduate diploma which means typically only students with a B.A. are accepted.[11]

Enrichment Model. The second model is to offer courses as enrichment to existing disciplines. This is the approach of those institutions that have added HC courses to the electives available to humanities and arts students. At McMaster, for example, three courses were introduced in 1994 that were open to all arts and humanities students, Introduction to Computing in the Humanities, Electronic Texts, and Multimedia in the Humanities. Other universities have introduced similar electives for arts and humanities students.

Somewhere between the enrichment model and the next model, are minor programmes like the King's College, London minor programme in »Humanities with Applied Computing.«[12] The McMaster University Combined Honours in Multimedia and Another Subject programme was similarly designed to combine with existing Humanities and Social Science programmes.[13] The McMaster programme is not a minor, but it can only be taken in conjunction with another programme as a double major, so there is the assumption that it enriches existing disciplines. To a certain extent this is also the model behind the University of Alberta new M.A. in Humanities Computing and the M.A. just starting at King's both of which are designed to work with existing graduate programs.[14]

Disciplinary Programme. The third model is to teach HC as a discipline with its own history, canon, and research agenda independently of other programmes. The Multimedia Combined Honours at McMaster is part way there, but a better example is the Georgia Institute of Technology M.S. in Information Design and Technology.[15]

Written into many of these programmes is a modesty or caution as to their disciplinary rights. It is typical of the transition between the predisciplinary phase of a field and the field's coming out as a full fledged discipline that it is cautious about claims for its education. For political reasons and for theoretical reasons they hold on to connections with the existing disciplines and claim to be contributing new methods, enrichment and professionally valuable skills. At McMaster, for example, we would not have been able to introduce a stand-alone honours programme at a time when chairs in Humanities were concerned about losing students and therefore losing funding for renewal. A combined honours was a way of mitigating the rupture. While the designers of other programmes may genuinely want to keep HC as subservient (in an enriching way) to the disciplines we came from, the inevitable pull of disciplinarity along with the ongoing institutional tensions around students will force programmes to become increasingly independent. The disciplines we came from will not appreciate our interdisciplinary gestures when it comes to funding and students. They will rightly point out that such programmes control their own resources, credentials, and curricula, which is structural independence, not the sign of interdisciplinarity.

[T]hat alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation.[16]

The heart of the matter, at least in the world of English speaking universities, is a deeply ingrained belief in the superior value of the liberal arts over the ›servile‹ and professional arts. This model found in the Yale Report is more famously articulated in John Newman's The Idea of a University. A ›liberal‹ education focuses on the disciplines which have only their own development as an end, especially the humanities, theology and the classics, while the professional or service arts have external ends, for example the preparation of trained professionals or the training of methods for other liberal disciplines. Andrew Mactavish in his doctoral thesis traces this unexamined hierarchy of value closely. It affects multimedia education in pernicious ways. The obvious way this value affects us is the way computer training becomes a site of conflict between HC and other humanities disciplines within institutions. To justify HC programmes that include significant training we are tempted to present ourselves as servile, providing enrichment programmes that service the liberal ones. This hides one of the innovative contributions of HC, namely its challenge to the distinction between liberal education and skills training. We are in a unique position to break with the artificial division of skills and liberal knowledge and develop a model similar to the fine arts where there is room for craft in a discipline.

Another way the value put on knowledge for its own sake affects us is that it forces us into unnecessary contortions of self-legitimization. In order to justify teaching computing within a hierarchy of value that is dated and dubious (and manipulated by other disciplines) we are tempted to twist ourselves into a liberal art, though what that art is, once purified of computing, is more or less nothing. The alternative to servility is to cleanse ourselves of any hint of training in order to not look like applied computer science without the science. Not much remains after this exercise except traditional specialties like the history and philosophy of computing. Imagine if you will, an HC programme that produced students who, because training was exiled, couldn't actually do anything on the computer, who couldn't edit an electronic text or create a Web site. The absurdity of the situation is that, of course we have to do training, but we are shackled to a philosophy of education that is deprecates it and splits it from the important stuff. The doing of humanities computing is inextricably linked to the craft and our traditions of creation. That is what we should celebrate and teach in a disciplined fashion. The struggle to define this hybrid craft of computing and the humanities may lead, in the short term, to a rupture with the ethereal privilege of the pure humanities, but in the long term it will contribute to the breadth and health of the humanities.


The Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico in his New Science writes about the birth of institutions and notes that the founding of an institution involves a rupture with or crime against the surrounding thicket of institutions. The founding of institutions, in his mythical reconstruction of a general model, happens when they take control over the means of reproduction and begin to bury their dead. This theme is picked up, though without reference to Vico, in Jacques Derrida's lecture at the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Columbia's Graduate School in 1980. In a lecture published in Logomachia as Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties Derrida returns to Kant's The Conflict of the Faculties to reflect on the founding of institutions, the conflict between pure and applied disciplines and the best lever (mochlos) or means for refounding. Derrida rightly points out that a new institution with new laws cannot be founded within the laws of existing institutions. The founding is a rupture with existing institutions and their regulations that can, at best, be leveraged off the existing. The same applies to disciplines as institutions. It is also worth noting that the rupture that creates an institution is rarely tolerated by that institution once firmly established. Nations that secede from others rarely tolerate secession within their borders. Derrida ends the lecture, after mentioning the late hour, with quotes from Kant on the leverage of stepping first with the left foot, the philosophical foot, before leaping with the right foot of the applied faculties.

If I am right that we are at such a point of rupture where we are becoming a discipline through the taking control of curriculum, then we should also ask about the rupture and think about the best lever or mechanism for shifting the humanities. I conclude with these reflections.

1. Typically departments mediate between disciplines and universities. Departments are part of the university administrative structure while being organized along disciplinary lines and providing a context for disciplinary realities. Whether humanities computing is a discipline or not,issues around departmental affiliation will and have arisen. If HC programmes are to remain interdisciplinary we might ask; where should they be put and how do you guarantee that they are managed following best practices in our field? Are the tensions between HC and, for example, English such that we will be forced to lobby for our own departments in order to have the freedom to manage our field and teaching?

One of the ironies of the movement to create programmes that reproduce practitioners, mentioned above, is that those of us leading this did not take that route. In order to create well trained computing humanists we are creating institutions that didn't exist during the predisciplinary phase of the field that defined most of us. The stories of the lonely struggle to master computing in antagonistic traditional departments are important to us, but they are going to become stories of the »bad old days« that are treasured into nostalgia. The issue is not only whether there was something important to that struggle, but whether we will close the door to the likes of us by the development of credentials and a bureaucracy of disciplinary control. This is the danger of disciplinary professionalism – a danger to consider when a movement for recognition changes into a discipline of regulation.[17]

Further, the sense of struggle regarding existing institutions can end up being used to legitimize inappropriate disciplinary imperialism in the future. Revolutionaries are rarely tolerant once in office and as we build institutions we have to be careful that we don't become as intolerant as those who obstructed our initiatives. A sense of being oppressed by the traditional disciplines could easily be used to legitimize intolerance. If we are to discipline our speech let us be careful about a discourse of aggrievement. From the perspective of some disciplines we have fared well when it comes to grant funding and new initiatives. It is doubtful we could mount a credible argument that humanists who incorporate computing in their practices are discriminated against now.

Trying to hide the rupture and pretend we really are only serving the traditional disciplines also has its dangers. While tactically prudent it distorts what we might do by imposing external values especially in the difficult area of computing craft and its place in the curriculum. Rather let us be swift and confident that we have something of value to do and be frank about the need for disciplinary independence to do it. No one will notice anyway, and should they notice, they will not be surprised. After all, HC isn't the only discipline emerging; specialization, disciplinary fission and the fusion of new disciplines from old ones is the pattern of postwar higher education.[18]

The site of the rupture is around the curriculum and specifically the place of training in the curriculum. We cannot leave that issue to others, be they inherited philosophies of liberal education, or other disciplinary institutions. Whatever the solution it must come from within the field through experimentation and discussion. Whatever else we do and whatever we are, this curricular experiment will be part of the definition of the field. Weaving craft seriously into a humanities programme is the lever or means for the leap. Skills, after all, are about means and leverage. Working this out as a discipline may be how we can truly serve the arts and humanities.

There is unwillingness in polite company to discuss the feudal realities of academic administration and institution building, yet we cannot avoid such a discussion if we care to know about ourselves in our (inter)disciplinary roles.

I conclude therefore with a quote from the opening of Derrida's founding lecture, inspired no doubt by Socrates.

If we could say we (but have I not already said it?), we might perhaps ask ourselves: where are we? And who are we in the university where apparently we are? What do we represent? Whom do we represent? Are we responsible? [...]. The university, what an idea![19]

Humanities Computing, what an idea!


Tony Becher: Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press 1989.

Pierre Bourdieu: Homo Academicus. Trans. Peter Collier. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press 1988.

Burton R. Clark: The Academic Life: Small Worlds, Different Worlds. Princeton: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning 1987.

Joseph J. Kockelmans (ed.): Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press 1979.

Andrew Mactavish: Making the Link: The Politics of Multimedia in the Humanities. Dissertation. University of Alberta 2000.

John Newman: The Idea of a University. London: Longmans 1907. See <> (1.9.2002).

John Newman: The Idea of a University. Edited with an introduction and notes by I. T. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon 1976.

Richard Rand (ed.): Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press 1992.

Giambattista Vico: La nuova scienza. Bari: G. Laterza & figli 1953.

Giambattista Vico: The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Trans. Bergin, Thomas Goddard; Fisch, Max Harold. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1966.

Yale: Reports on the Course of Instruction in Yale College; By a Committee of the Corporation, and the Academical Faculty. New Haven, 1828. See the site <> (1.9.2002).

Geoffrey Rockwell (Hamilton)

Prof. Dr. Geoffrey Rockwell
School of the Arts
Humanities Computing Centre
Togo Salmon Hall 312
McMaster University
Hamilton, ON L8S 4M2

(8. November 2002)
[1] Burton R. Clark: The Academic Life: Small Worlds, Different Worlds. Princeton: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning 1987, p. 25. This is how Clark starts the second chapter of The Academic Life.
[2] Joseph J. Kockelmans (ed.): Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press 1979, p. 127, [»Why Interdisciplinarity?«].
[3] »›Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discpline?‹ An Interdisciplinary Seminar«, see <> (1.9.2002). At that site you will find a number of papers, including one by me, on the subject. The result, also available at that site, was a plan for an M.A. in Digital Humanities, which has been approved and will, once funded, be implemented.
[4] From the »Purpose of the Seminar« see the site <> (1.9.2002).
[5] An example of the turn away from the question can be found in an online preliminary draft of an entry »Humanities Computing« for The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science by Willard McCarty. See <>, (1.9.2002). In this excellent introduction to the field McCarty writes »Asking if it is a ›discipline‹ is unproductive because to do so begs the question of what a discipline is such that accepted departments of learning qualify, and to that is no easy answer.« Obviously I believe that, easy to answer or not, the question has been begged and is worth pursuing if only to know our institutional self better.
[6] This paper was first presented at a conference organized by Ray Siemens of Malaspina University College called, The Humanities Computing Curriculum/The Computing Curriculum in the Arts and Humanities, November 9-10, 2001, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. This conference, I believe, marked an important self-conscious moment in the evolution of the discipline – the moment when we gathered to discuss how we will self-perpetuate through curriculum – which is the point of this paper.
[7] »The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge. The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two.« Page 7 of Reports on the Course of Instruction in Yale College.
[8] The two official journals of the major disciplinary associations would be a place to start. Computers in the Humanities is the official journal of the Association for Computers and the Humanities. Literary and Linguistic Computing is the journal of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing.
[9] Willard McCarty, Knowing Things by what their Mockeries be. Modelling in the Humanities, delivered in Toronto at the May, 2002 COCH/COSH conference. See the following site <> (1.11.2002).
[10] My colleague Andrew Mactavish has commented on such a division between college and university education reflects unquestioned divisions in intellectual labour.
[11] See <> (1.9.2002).
[12] See the site <> (1.9.2002). The opening paragraph of the programme's Web site reads, »The B.A. minor programme, Humanities with Applied Computing, allows an undergraduate student at King's to concentrate for approximately one-third of the degree programme on the application of computing to his or her main area of study. Some attention is given to the ideas underlying the tools and techniques of computing, but students are encouraged always to consider how computing affects and changes the subject areas in which it is applied, whether academic or further afield.«
[13] See <> (1.9.2002).
[14] See <> (1.9.2002). For the King's programme see as well the following site: <> (1.9.2002). Note that the Overview page to the programme starts with, »The MA in Applied Computing in the Humanities assists students to develop the analytical and practical skills that will enable them to understand and apply computing to the source materials and problems of the humanities.«
[15] See, accessed September, 2002. The Web site for the program includes the statement that, »The program rests on the assumption that digital media belong to an historical, aesthetic, and conceptual continuum, whose legacy and future must be addressed in order to understand the digital artifact in its own right.«
[16] John Newman: The Idea of a University. London: Longmans 1907, p. 108. See also the site <> (1.9.2002).
[17] Swoboda in Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity: A Historical Perspective points out that, »The rise of disciplines, as we have seen, is inextricably linked with the growth of bureaucracy within academic institutions and outside of them in diverse professions related in varying degrees to particular disciplines. The general characteristics of bureaucracies – self-maintenance, inertia, rule- rather than goal-orientation, and the like – are at work within disciplines as strong counters to any attempt at basic reform.«, in Kockelmans, Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education, p.79 (footnote 2).
[18] Clark reports that »Notably, 90 percent of the 1985 [disciplinary] associations have been formed in the twentieth century, with over 60 percent since 1940.«, The Academic Life, p. 37 (footnote 1). I added the word ›disciplinary‹ as that is in the title of the chart he is commenting on.
[19] Jaques Derrida: Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties. In: Richard Rand (ed.): Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press 1992, p. 3.