One of the hosts of the English Subject Centre is the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King's College London, which for some years now has offered an undergraduate minor in ‘applied computing’ that may be coupled with many of the humanities degrees at King's. Some students and observers think that the point of the combination is to add something to a humanities degree that is actually useful; but of course existing humanities degrees stand up perfectly well on their own, and the real value of the combined degree is to give computing skills their proper application through understanding of a humanities discipline.
We teach some skills in the use of particular software packages along the way. But that's not the focus of the program, which could hardly justify itself if it were: by the time students received their degrees, the skills they learned in their first year would be quite dated. Our programme's real focus is on understanding what you're doing and on thinking about how to explore and research texts and images using computers; it is more a course in doing research than in clicking on things. You need some computing skills for that, but you also need the skills a ssociated with humanities degrees: the ability to interpret, to see beyond the direct statements made by a text, and the ability to synthesize, to see how different pieces of evidence fit together. In the electronic world new approaches to research are possible; but the best preparation for creating and extending such approaches is a thorough knowledge of traditional methods.
Many people are disoriented by the largely unsorted and uncontrolled jumble of texts on the Internet; but there's little reason to believe this will become much more orderly, especially as it merely continues what was always the case with texts in the real world, outside libraries. The teaching of English has already been moving towards much greater use of texts in their native forms, rather than processed into textbooks and readers; that's a change that will help students deal with the electronic world, too.
Newsletter Issue 1 - May 2001
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