About the Lecture: “Reports of the demise of the humanities are exaggerated, suggest these panelists, but there may be reason to fear its loss of relevance. Three scholars whose work touches a variety of disciplines and with wide knowledge of the worlds of academia and publishing ponder the meaning and mission of the humanities in the digital age. Getting a handle on the term itself proves somewhat elusive. Alison Byerly invokes those fields involved with “pondering the deep questions of humanity,” such as languages, the arts, literature, philosophy and religion. Steven Pinker boils it down to “the study of the products of the human mind.” Moderator David Thorburn wonders if the humanities are those endeavors that rely on interpretive rather than empirical research, but both panelists vigorously make the case that the liberal arts offer increasing opportunities for data-based analysis.
Technology is opening up new avenues for humanities scholars. In general, Byerly notes, humanities “tend to privilege individual texts or products of the human mind, rather than collective wisdom or data.” More recently, online collections or data bases of text, art and music make possible wholly different frameworks for study.
Humanists are adopting new tools and methods for teaching and publishing as well. As Pinker notes, the process for publishing articles in scholarly journals remains painfully slow: in experimental psychology, a “six year lag from having an idea to seeing it in print.” He suggests a “second look” at the process of peer review, perhaps publishing everything online, “and stuff that’s crummy sinks to the bottom as no one links to or reads it.” Pinker looks forward to a future where he no longer has to spend a “lot of time leafing through thick books” looking for text strings, or flipping to and from footnotes. “We could love books as much as we always have, but not necessarily confine ourselves to their limitations, which are just historical artifacts,” he says.”