John Unsworth
Born 1958

Northampton, MA

Relevant Work “What Is Humanities Computing, and What Is It Not”


 Biography Edit

  • Unsworth was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1958.
  • Attended Princeton University and Amherst College as and undergraduate until 1981.
  • Received his Masters in English from Boston University in 1982.
  • In 1988, he received his Ph.D. in English from University of Virginia.
  • In 1990, he co-founded the first peer-reviewed electronic journal in the humanities, Postmodern Culture at North Carolina State University (now published by Johns Hopkins University Press, as part of Project Muse).
  • He also organized, incorporated, and chaired the Text Encoding Initiative Consortium, co-chaired the Modern Language Association's Committee on Scholarly Editions, and served as President of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and later as chair of the steering committee for the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.
  • Later in his career, he became a professor of English at UVA as well as the first director of the school's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.
  • In June 2016, he was appointed university librarian and dean of librarians at UVA and holds the position to this day.
  • (Ref: Wikipedia and

“What Is Humanities Computing, and What Is It Not” Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Key Words and Terms Edit

Humanities computing: "a practice of representation, a form of modeling or, as Wallace Stevens has it, mimicry. It is also (as Davis and his co-authors put it) a way of reasoning and a set of ontological commitments, and its representational practice is shaped by the need for efficient computation on the one hand, and for human communication on the other."

Charlatans: "people who present as humanities computing some body of work that is not that." The work presented as humanities computing is based on surface effects, immediate production, and canned conclusions. The work doesn't have a way to be wrong. Charlatanism in humanities computing can be measured in degrees, with "pure charlatanism" being a project providing no interactivity nor opportunities to frame new research questions.

Exemplars: Those who produce work that is thorough and thoughtful in representation and in planning and testing infrastructure; expensive, time-consuming, and difficult. Digital Humanities (DH): an area of study at the intersection of computing/digital technologies and the disciplines of the humanities. It includes the systematic use of digital resources in the humanities, as well as the reflection on their application. DH can be defined as new ways of doing scholarship that involve collaborative, transdisciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publishing. It brings digital tools and methods to the study of the humanities with the recognition that the printed word is no longer the main medium for knowledge production and distribution. (Wikipedia)

Surrogate: a substitute, especially...deputizing for another in a specific role or office (Google).

Concordance: an alphabetical list of the words (especially the important ones) present in a text, usually with citations of the passages concerned (Google).

Key Quotations Edit

"...One of the many things you can do with computers is something that I would call humanities computing, in which the computer is used as tool for modeling humanities data and our understanding of it, and that activity is entirely distinct from using the computer when it models the typewriter, or the telephone, or the phonograph, or any of the many other things it can be."

"[I]t is important to distinguish a tool from the various uses that can be made of it, if for no other reason than to evaluate the effectiveness of the tool for different purposes. A hammer is very good nail-driver, not such a good screw-driver, a fairly effective weapon, and a lousy musical instrument."

"I would hazard a guess that everyone reading this uses a word-processor and email as basic tools of the profession, and I expect that many readers are also in the humanities. Even so, you do not all do humanities computing – nor should you, for heaven's sake – any more than you should all be medievalists, or modernists, or linguists."

"Having said what I think humanities computing is, it remains to say what it is good for, or why it matters. Why do we need to worry about whether we can express what we know about the humanities in formal language, in terms that are tractable to computation, in utterances that are internally coherent and consistent with a declared set of rules? Why indeed, when we know that to do this inevitably involves some loss of expressive power, some trade-off at the expense of nuance, meaning, and significance? – My answer? Navigation and exchange."

"The bad news here is that all humanities computing projects today are involved in some degree of charlatanism, even the best of them. But degree matters, and one way in which that degree can be measured is by the interactivity offered to users who wish to frame their own research questions."

"We are by now well into a phase of civilization when the terrain to be mapped, explored, and annexed is information space, and what's mapped is not continents, regions, or acres but disciplines, ontologies, and concepts. We need representations in order to navigate this new world, and those representations need to be computable, because the computer mediates our access to this world, and those representations need to be produced at first-hand, by someone who knows the terrain."

"[T]he form of the poem is important as a kind of substrate for references to proper names, and that by paying attention to the categories in which named things participate, we can learn something important about this poem."

Discussion Edit

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

The major criticism with any sort of Humanities Computing/Digital Humanities, something that Unsworth addresses throughout, is that it typically takes a broad study without focusing on the specific factor that might help contribute to it. This can be things like race, class, gender or any other specific categories. Others claim that it is a study that either rejects old manners of Humanities or does nothing to further Humanities.

Related Works Edit

References Edit

Unsworth, John. “What Is Humanities Computing and What Is Not?”Http://,