ACO*HUM Advanced Computing in the Humanities

Chapter 1


Koenraad de Smedt
University of Bergen, Norway

1.1 Humanities education meets computing

In a three-year cooperation, leading experts from over one hundred universities in Europe have reflected on what is happening with humanities in the information age.

Our private and professional lives have been thoroughly invaded by computer creations.  The text you read now, the music you listen to on the radio, the words you speak in your mobile phone, have all at some point been represented and transmitted as digital signals consisting of bits - electronic ones and zeros.  How is the information age affecting humanities scholars?  How are students and staff coping with digital language, music, and culture?  Are the humanities adopting the new technologies passively, or are they actively shaping new forms of computing?

Such questions were taken up by a SOCRATES/ERASMUS thematic network project on Advanced Computing in the Humanities (ACO*HUM), which started in September 1996 and concluded its third year in August 1999.  The project has proceeded through meetings, conferences, surveys, and other communication.  This book presents an overview of the network partners' analyses, proposals and recommendations.

The findings are overwhelming, but not entirely unexpected: the pervasive influence of the information age is the single most important factor that has brought about changes in humanities education during the past decade.  Perhaps less expected is that the humanities are also changing computing, and are helping to transform computers from being calculators into machines that talk and listen.

These are ongoing processes which continue to present challenges as well as opportunities for humanities education.  Therefore, the present work does not claim to say the final word; it is only meant to provide a temporary common ground for further international cooperation and to promote a better understanding between institutions for higher education and other partners in society.

As typical humanities subjects we will for the present purposes consider at least literature, languages and linguistic studies, history, history of art, philosophy and logic, religion, music, archaeology, cultural studies and philosophical anthropology, without excluding others.  These disciplines are traditionally taught at Humanities faculties, which may of course go under various names in various places: Arts, Geisteswissenschaften, Historisk-filosofiske fag, Sciences de l'homme, Scienze Umane, Filología, Letteren, and so on.

It must be noted, however, that the range of disciplines and departments covered by humanities faculties varies considerably from country to country.  Moreover, the level of cooperation with many other disciplines in order to integrate computing in the humanities is substantial and receives attention in the present work.  Consequently, we certainly do not wish to confine the area of the present investigation too strictly by the boundaries of traditional humanities at any one place.

What scholars of the humanities subjects all have in common is that they study expressions of the human mind, ranging from language, rhetoric and logical thought to artistic creation, religious belief, the meaning of history, culture and others.  Increasingly, these products of the mind are encoded in digital form.  Even today, the majority of texts, music and pictures produced for publication already exist somewhere on a computer medium.  These digital representations may not all be equally suitable for scholarly purposes, as will be discussed in later chapters.  Since the very materials and methods of humanities studies are affected by the new media, we need to reflect on the consequences of this rapid development for the survival and renewal of education and research.  Conversely, if we fail to take into account the new technologies, the humanities may soon become fossils.

Computers are no longer adding machines.  The numbers have become outnumbered by the letters, sounds and colours making up our language, thoughts and feelings in digital form.  Libraries and publishers are making literature available online, not only by scanning and digitizing older paper documents, but increasingly by publishing electronically from the start, using DVD-ROM or the Web as media.  The fact that students and staff have a computer on their desks instead of a pile of books is one visible change affecting the learning and teaching situation, even if it is a superficial one.

Deeper, more methodological changes may be less visible, but will eventually have a stronger impact on how we teach and learn.  Computer technology has mediated in the development of formal methods in humanities scholarship.  Such methods are often much more powerful than traditional research with pencil and paper.  They include, for instance, parsing techniques in computational linguistics, the calculus for expressive timing in music, the use of exploratory statistics in formal stylistics, visual search in art history, and data mining in history.  Although scientific progress is in the first place due to better methods, rather than solely due to better computers, new advanced methods strongly rely on computers for their validation and effective use.  Put in a different way, if you are going to compare two texts, you can do it with traditional pencil and paper; but if you are going to compare fifty texts with each other, you need sound computational methods.

Most humanities curricula have a long way to go towards an integration of new computational methods, for a variety of reasons.  Among the bottlenecks is the fact that students need access to computers, while appropriate hardware and software are in short supply at humanities faculties, compared to the massive student numbers.  Another problem is that large numbers of teaching staff are themselves in urgent need of retraining before they can use the new and rapidly changing technologies.  While some of the academic staff are at the forefront of humanities computing research, others lack training or are unaware of the opportunities.  Finally, there is insufficient cooperation between institutions with respect to the possibility of sharing resources, both human resources and computer resources.  These problems need urgent attention from those responsible for educational strategies.

Not only can we use computer methods to study traditional, albeit digitized, objects, but we also find that new objects of study are entering the humanities field.  The medium affects the message.  Multimedia and hypermedia represent the convergence of several media into a new whole which is more than the sum of its parts.  Creations in the new digital media cannot easily be studied as if they were traditional literature plus traditional music plus traditional art, etc.  An adaptation and integration of our old rhetoric and iconic theories is badly needed to study creative and cultural expressions using new technologies, such as computer games, non-linear hyperliterature, computer music, and various new hybrid artforms including interactive sculptures even bio-electronics.

The world is shrinking with the explosive growth of the Internet.  Technologies for bringing people together are entering homes as well as classrooms and will increasingly affect both what students learn and how, where and when they learn.  Students who now use search engines on the Web as an extension of the library may soon also be using the Internet as an extension of the classroom, through special distance learning environments, chat rooms, MOOs and other discussion fora with students all over the world.  Through virtual classrooms, the ideals of life-long learning schemes, cross-cultural integration and multilinguality are becoming more viable (cf. also Sánchez-Mesa Martínez et al., 1997).

This shrinking world may create opportunities for renewal in our traditional educational structures, to make them better and more effective in giving students the competence they need.  However, huge practical and organizational obstacles remain.  The particular degree structures and the various teaching and learning environments at our universities are the result of local and national influences over the centuries.  While differences between institutions and between national states reflect a rich and useful cultural variety, some organizational discrepancies may be less desirable when it comes to practical questions like moving from one country to another, or even establishing a dialogue between teaching staff at different institutions.

With respect to computational methods in the humanities, it can for instance be observed that different solutions are implemented at different places (cf. chapter 2).  While some 'mainland' European universities have established special Humanities Computing departments and degrees, it is worth pointing out that some British universities, for instance, work on a collegiate system and structure their courses differently, thus making it difficult (at the moment, anyway) to synchronise teaching and learning on a  Humanities Computing degree or joint degree, and also enforcing the need for a centralised support structure like the Humanities Computing Unit not tied to any faculty or department.  Such differences need to be accepted but at the same time an openness to adaptive cooperation needs to be achieved.

We will, in the remainder of this volume, refrain from advocating one single solution.  Instead, we would like to point at opportunities to promote understanding between different systems and creating flexible interrelations enabling mobility and cooperation.  The work on ECTS (the European Credit Transfer System) has already represented an enormously useful step in this direction.  The relative novelty of humanities computing curricula offers both opportunities and challenges.  On the one hand, due to the interdisciplinary nature of the endeavour, great organizational differences exist between places; at some institutions, the field is not even part of humanities, but instead of computer science.  On the other hand, the very novelty of the field has the advantage that local solutions may not yet be deeply entrenched; they may still be flexible to adaptation in response to international coordination, although time is short.

We have concentrated in our work on the situation in Europe.  However, we do not want to take an isolationist standpoint.  While it is evident that European cooperation still faces a lot of practical internal obstacles, Europe needs to remain fully open to cooperation with the other continents.  One specific reason for global cooperation in this area is that the objects of study in many humanities disciplines are inherently international in nature (for instance, foreign languages, see chapter 5).  Another reason is the desirability of truly international standards for the digital coding of materials for humanities scholarship.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that institutions of higher education are not the only providers of knowledge.  Other actors in society, such as archives, libraries, museums, the media and other content providers hold vast amounts of materials that are indispensible for humanities scholarship.  The actors in these sectors have indeed often engaged in offering courses at various levels.  However, they also have a wider responsibility and are often conducting their own computing initiatives for independent services to the public, such as virtual museum exhibits and electronic libraries.  It is important for institutions of higher education to keep an open dialogue with these partners in society, in order to ensure a mutual compatibility of initiatives aimed at effective cooperation.

1.2 The ACO*HUM thematic network project

The SOCRATES/ERASMUS thematic network project on Advanced Computing in the Humanities (ACO*HUM) has been aimed at investigating the use of new technologies in Humanities teaching and learning, identifying opportunities, problems, and good practice with respect to the integration of advanced computing into the wider humanities curricula.  Following the network's policy symposium in Granada in November 1997, the following objectives were defined:

Humanities education: needs for change

Humanities education: innovation in curricula

Humanities education: new processes for learning

In ACO*HUM, more than one hundred universities in seventeen countries have worked together with learned societies, existing groups of Universities, companies, museums and other humanities content providers, and with other international networks such as ELSNET.  The network office was based at the University of Bergen.  Coordination and management of the various project elements has been the task of the project coordinator, Prof. Koenraad de Smedt, supported by a steering committee, working groups and a project administrator.

The activities of the network were meant to be relevant for a wide range of areas in humanities scholarship.  In order to make the network manageable, a number of working groups were established to initiate and conduct activities in different pilot areas.  A structure with vertical and horizontal working groups was adopted.  Four vertical working groups have been linked each to one or more traditional humanities disciplines:

  • Computational linguistics and language engineering
  • History and historical informatics
  • Computing in history of art, architecture and design
  • Computing for non-European languages
  • These were complemented by two horizontal working groups taking truly humanities-wide perspectives, cutting across many disciplines:
  • Textual scholarship and humanities computing
  • Formal methods in the humanities
  • This structure suggests an interplay between the working groups which can be graphically depicted in the following diagram:

    working groups structure

    The working group meetings have been important instruments to initiate activities and gather results.  Activities have included sessions at conferences, workshops, surveys, area meetings, curricula research, ODL tests, information infrastructure and joint activities with other networks and associations.  ACO*HUM has encouraged wide participation and ensured effective dissemination of results throughout the network by meetings and Internet-based communication and resources.  A website was established at

    As to the network's pedagogical and didactic approach, it was recognized that the humanities need an approach to new technologies which is critically different from that in other areas of study.  This can be seen in a wider perspective based on the recognition that new technologies are having a different impact on different scientific disciplines due to different needs for methods and tools.  The resulting desirability of diversification by discipline-specific methodology implies, in the case of the humanities, that the standard commercial tools for word processing and image handling are totally insufficient for learning and teaching at university level.  In dealing with language and culture, humanities scholars need refined computing tools which are support the study of sound and meaning, words and images, logic and art.  Moreover, humanities are no longer affecting society through books only, but by multimedia publications, virtual art exhibits, and so on.  The project's pedagogical and didactic aims have been approached by the following methods, among others:

    In order to realize these approaches, various strategies were deployed.  In the spring of 1997, a preliminary survey was held via e-mail and the ACO*HUM website.  The results, obtained from twenty-one universities, indicate that there is a great willingness to change, but also that there are considerable obstacles.  Institutions see a need for integration of computer methods and even information engineering in the humanities, in order to enable graduates to survive in a job in the information society.  The use of new technologies is also associated with the increasing demand for collaborative practice.  This is perceived to be a radical shift away from the cult of the individual towards the development of a new perception of the individual practitioner as a member of a team, or part of a network of relationships, both within and across disciplines.  Among the challenges, we note that departments still have problems in convincing chancellors and deans of the irreversible presence of computers in the humanities and the need to introduce them effectively in teaching and not only in research.  Also signaled as problems are the lack of training and the varying attitudes of teaching staff, ranging from those who bar innovation to those who favour innovation, but due to lack of understanding and resources are unable to deploy the technology effectively.

    With a view to establishing a forum for breaking through discipline boundaries as well as through national boundaries, and to build a bridge between research and current educational practice, a large international conference was held in Bergen on September 25-28, 1998.  This event was organized in cooperation with the ODL project Euroliterature and with the additional financial support of the Norwegian Ministry of Education, the University of Bergen and the City of Bergen. The conference received moral and practical support from AHC, ALLC, CHArt, CRE, EACL, EAIE, EDEN, ELSNET, HUMANITIES, Norwegian Council of Universities, Norwegian National Library, SIU, SOCRATES, TRANSCULT, and Kulturby Bergen 2000.

    Through the conference programme (De Smedt & Apollon, 1998), the event addressed the following objectives:

    At this unique event, the dynamism generated by the introduction of advanced computing in the humanities field came to light, perhaps for the first time in history, and was viewed in an overwhelmingly positive light by its nearly 200 participants from 23 countries.

    However, even though the conference was reported as a major outcome of the network project, it was also felt that a more systematic presentation of findings, proposals and recommendations was needed.  During the third project year (1998-1999), the writing of the present volume was undertaken.  Through surveys, meetings and electronic communication, a composition was achieved in which the following elements are given attention:

    The result of this work can be seen in the next chapters.  The first and second chapters set the scene by taking mostly horizontal, i.e. humanities-wide perspectives.  While chapter 2 focuses on the methodological implications of computing, chapter 3 pays special attention to textual scholarship, which - when taken as a broad notion - is a common binding element between almost all humanities disciplines.  The next chapters provide in-depth views of fields associated with specific humanities disciplines: linguistics and computational linguistics in chapter 4, non-European languages in chapter 5, and history of art, architecture and design in chapter 6.  The book concludes with a concise summary of the main recommendations.

    1.3 References

    ACO*HUM website:

    De Smedt, Koenraad & Apollon, Daniel (eds.) 1998.  The future of the humanities in the digital age: Problems and perspectives for humanities education and research.  Extended abstracts of a conference, Bergen, September 25-28, 1998.  University of Bergen, HIT-senteret (also available at

    Sánchez-Mesa Martínez, D., Lambert, J., Apollon, D. & Van den Branden, J. (eds.) 1997.  Crosscultural and linguistic perspectives on European open and distance learning.  Universidad de Granada.