Section 1
The Teaching of Humanities Computing Across Europe
by Tito Orlandi

Preliminary Observations

1. This section presents the results of a survey conducted personally, and not through some sort of questionnaire, on the web pages of the European universities. We have chosen this way, because the personal assessment of a situation has been deemed superior to any kind of statistics, and although it is possible that some courses, not well apparent in the web, have been neglected, it is also true that humanities computing teaching groups who are not capable of being well visible in the Internet, and clearly showing the frame in which they act, may be dismissed altogether.

2. The focus of this survey is in the teaching of Humanities Computing, not in research activity. Therefore the reader may not find the mention of some otherwise interesting Centres.

3. While research in the field of Humanities Computing has a long history, beginning with the projects of automatic translation in 1947, the inclusion of official courses in Humanities curricula is relatively recent, and this may result in contradiction and sometime confusion.

4. Of the two levels of studies common in European universities (undergraduate/postgraduate; licence/maîtrise; etc.) we are interested especially in the first level, because the presence of Humanities Computing in the second level is much more common and raises fewer problems of method and organization.

5. This survey avoids the fields of «information» and «communication» sciences, and the application of multimedia in this context, insofar this has been considered as part of the «social sciences» rather than humanities.

Cf. e.g. Paris X - Nanterre

Université de Liège , Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres, Licence en information et communication.

Universität des Saarlandes, Philosophische Fakultät, Fachbereich 5 (Grundlagen und Geschichtswissenschaften) has a Fachrichtung: Informationswissenschaft, where Journalistische Nachrichtenauswahl is placed together with Datenbankanwendungen [But cf. FB 8, infra].

It is an interesting position that of Berlin, Technische Universität , where humanities disciplines are included in: «Fachbereich 1, Kommunikations- und Geschichtswissenschaften», but where even the Fachgebiet «Medienberater, Medienwissenschaft» has very few computing courses.

6. In our comment we shall sometimes refer to national peculiarities, which certainly are to be found in the curricula of the different countries. This does not prevent the existence of many contradictory features within national rules.


1. Prehistory

At the beginning (years '60) non official courses were part of the activities of special laboratories:

2. Most usual situation.

Some kind of technically oriented «alphabetization» courses is placed inside some curriculum: linguistics, history, literature, etc. This solution seems especially characteristic of the German universities. The field which first used this possibility, and is still prevalent, is that of linguistics. Although it seems natural, and adherent to commonsense, it should be seen as highly improductive, because it fails to assess the special symbiosis created between computing procedures and humanities applications.

3. Exemplar Models

A few universities have organized a group of courses to teach the methodology of computer applications, and putting them together with more technically oriented courses, have formed special divisions (namely departments or schools) of Humanities Computing inside the Faculty of Arts (Humanities, Letters, etc.)

Groningen, Humanities Computing (Alfa-Informatica)
Vast range of courses; Theoretically and methodically oriented
(cf. the inaugural speech ).

Utrecht, Faculteit der Letteren, Specialisatieprogramma: Documentaire Informatiekunde.
Only postgraduate, but very important for the stated motivation of the discipline.
Theoretically and methodically oriented.
Vast range of courses
«Informatiekunde is het in de praktijk toepassen van algemene principes die in de Informatica zijn ontwikkeld en gebruik maken van informatietechnologie. Informatiekunde richt zich altijd op een afgebakend (wetenschappelijk) vakgebied. De informatiekunde maakt derhalve deel uit van andere disciplines; zij is gericht op het toepassen en niet primair op het verklaren, zoals de Informatica. Het ontstaan van de diverse informatiekundes is onder andere het directe gevolg van het feit dat de Informatica mensen opleidt die goed kunnen verklaren, maar die in de problemen komen zodra zij hun kennis moeten toepassen. Het ontbreekt hen dan immers aan specifieke materiedeskundigheid.»

London, King's College . Humanities Computing courses are part of the Humanities group

Introduction | Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies | Classics | English Language & Literature | European Studies - Interdisciplinary course | French | Geography | German | History | Modern Foreign Languages with Education/PGCE | Music | Philosophy | Portuguese & Brazilian Studies | Spanish & Spanish-American Studies | Theology & Religious Studies | United States & Latin-American Studies | War Studies | Combined Studies)
under the title «combined studies», and therefore rather technically oriented. But the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, which takes care of the teaching, is very broadly, and methodologically oriented: «The primary objective of the CCH is to foster awareness, understanding and skill in the scholarly applications of computing. It operates in three main areas: as a department with responsibility for its own academic programme; as a research centre promoting the appropriate application of computing in humanities research; and as a unit providing collegial support to its sister departments in the School of Humanities.»
«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.»

In Glasgow, Humanities Computing for undergraduates is mainly offered as «pairs of subjects» for the honors. But the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII), which «runs an expanding academic programme in humanities computing at introductory, honours, and postgraduate level. It also organises a popular summer school on digitisation for heritage professionals» is keen also on methodology.

Aix-en-Provence, Secteurs Lettres et Sciences Humaines, has one «Centre Informatique des Lettres et Sciences Humaines» with a vast number of courses. Unfortunately the rationale for this choice is not explicitly declared.

Milano, IULM has a special «indirizzo» for humanities computing: «umanistico-informatico»: «Si tratta dell'indirizzo forse più innovativo, non a a caso attivato solo nella nostra Università, giacché suppone un'interazione di specificità scientifiche e tecnologiche del tutto particolari, e sulle quali l'Università IULM ha da tempo investito persone e risorse. L'ispirazione dell'indirizzo consiste nel coniugare il sapere umanistico alle strategie di elaborazione e diffusione proprie del mezzo informatico.»

Bergen, Faculty of Arts has a Section for Humanistic Informatics: Grunnfaget i humanistisk informatikk bygger på delfag i Humanistisk informatikk, (tidligere kalt edb for humanister). Det som angis nedenfor, er bare tilleggskravene for grunnfaget. Det er mulig å ta full grunnfagseksamen (delfag pluss grunnfagstillegg) i høstsemesteret, men undervisningsopplegget er tilrettelagt for at studentene tar delfagseksamen i vårsemesteret og grunnfagstillegget i høstsemesteret. Undervisningsopplegget forutsetter videre at studentene kan studere på heltid og følge normal studieprogresjon.

Paris, École Normale Supérieure: division des lettres, has a special section for Informatique Littéraire. «A priori, l'informatique est juste un outil qu'il s'agit de maîtriser au plus vite, qui reproduit et prolonge les méthodes propres à chaque discipline. Mais cet outil, composé de quincaillerie et de langages, n'est pas «neutre» ni transparent. Il est truffé de codes culturels: par exemple, les pictogrammes présents sur tout écran font appel à une culture récente, non pleinement stabilisée; Les protocoles de «communication» d'un modem ne sont guère socialisés... L'écriture hypertextuelle de l'Internet ou du cédérom en est à ses premiers balbutiements, avec très peu d'auteurs qui la maîtrisent, l'imaginent, et presqu'aussi peu de lecteurs capables de la «lire».»

Copenhagen , det Humanistiske Fakultet. There is special section inside the «humanistiske studier» for «Humanistisk informatik». «På Humanistisk Informatik beskæftiger vi os med videnskaben om udformning, omformning og analyse af information ved hjælp af datamater. Uddannelsen sigter mod beskæftigelse i informationssektoren, såvel offentligt som privat. Forskningen og undervisningen ved instituttet retter sig især mod formaliseringen af informationens indholdsside, og har dermed berøringsflader med datalingvistik og kognitionsvidenskab på den ene side og med kulturvidenskabernes fortolkningsmetoder på den anden side. Hertil kommer såvel praktisk som teoretisk beskæftigelse med designspørgsmål af systemer og grænseflader, samt informationshåndtering i netværk og databaser.»
The courses are responsibility of the section Humanistisk Informatik in the Institut for Filosofi, Pædagogik og Retorik.

4. Lost occasions

It is remarkable, and worth discussing, that some universities, which are fully equipped with important facilities and personnel to produce computer applications in the humanities, have failed to recognize one or more disciplines forming an individual sector in the Faculty.

Louvain-la-Neuve, Univ. Catholique has two introductory courses: Initiation à l'informatique: application au traitement des documents; Analyse de textes et informatique: travaux pratiques.

Oxford See debate



5. In the opposite direction

Some universities have chosen the quite opposite point of view, organizing inside the computer science departments the courses dedicated to the students of the humanities. This seems rather common in the UK.

Lancaster : «The Computing Department at Lancaster University is a leading British computer science department with research interests that include distributed multimedia systems, software systems engineering, CSCW and natural language processing.» «Lancaster University was a pioneer (in the early 1980's) in showing the importance of probabilistic techniques in natural language analysis. The research carried out at Lancaster under the aegis of UCREL (Unit for Computer Research in the English Language), which contains members of the Departments of Computing and Linguistics & Moden English Language.»

Newcastle Dept. of Computing Science: Computing Science may also form part of a Combined Studies in Arts degree.

Sheffield Department of Computing Science, «Computer Science and French, German, Hispanic Studies or Russian. These four-year Dual degrees, with the third year spent abroad, add a European dimension to the subject and graduates can expect to be well-placed to enter the international arena of the future. Each of levels one, two and three are divided equally between the arts and sciences. The science half is Computer Science; the arts half is devoted to the major language and a minor subject that may be linguistics or one of the other three languages. Between levels two and three one year (normally the third) is spent working in the country of your major language. In the Computer Science half of the course, the core is covered at levels one and two and three intermediate or advanced options are taken at level three.»

Sussex , School of Studies: Cognitive and Computing Sciences (COGS). BSc in Computer Science with European Studies. The Major component is similar to Year 1 and 2 of the BSc in Computer Science. The Minor component is mainly devoted to becoming proficient in either French, German, Italian, Russian or Spanish, and you also take courses in European culture.

Pisa: the courses of Elementi di informatica, Informatica documentale, etc., depend on the Dipartimento di Informatica, «legato prevalentemente alla Facoltà di Scienze Matematiche Fisiche e Naturali.»

6. Special cases

Particularly interesting is the case of the university of München, where one of the four Institutes in the Faculty of Philosophy has developed special courses addressed to the students of Computer Science. «Zudem kann Logik und Wissenschafstheorie als reguläres Nebenfach in den Fächern Informatik, Mathematik und Statistik gewählt werden. Einen besonderen Schwerpunkt des Instituts bilden die theoretischen und praktischen Beiträge im Bereich der Informationstechnologie»

In the university of Rostock there is an Institute which covers most of the computer applications in the humanities, also with typically technical implications, like historical cartography or statistics, and desktop publishing (Infographik).

7. Final Observations

Apart from the obvious problem of how to provide the students in the humanities with some competence in computing, some other problems should receive much more attention than is generally the case.

1. Where should the teachers of humanities computing be trained, and consequently hired?

2. It is a common experience that computer science people do not easily understand what really the study of humanities is like. The consequences of depending on such people may be grave.

3. The aim of an academic course should be of discussing methodology as much as technical skill. Technical skill alone should be left out of the scope of an academic course.