Building a Place for Multimedia Studies in the Humanities

  1. 1. Andrew Mactavish

    Humanities Computing Centre - McMaster University

  2. 2. Geoffrey Rockwell

    Department of Modern Languages - McMaster University

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Building a Place for Multimedia Studies in the

Humanities Computing Centre McMaster


Department of Modern Languages McMaster


University of Virginia

Charlottesville, VA





Does multimedia as a discipline of study fit within the academic model of a
traditional humanities faculty? Or do multimedia programmes belong in
computer science departments and technical colleges where technological
skill is usually highlighted over critical inquiry? Recently, these
questions were the topic of faculty-wide debate at McMaster University in
Hamilton, Ontario, where a small group of humanities-computing faculty
brought forward a proposal for a new B.A. Combined Honours in Multimedia.
The road to approval raised important issues about how the humanities
envisions multimedia and how it can accommodate the new forms of creative
endeavour made possible by the electronic combination of multiple media.
In this paper, we raise the question of how to build a place for multimedia
in the humanities. We will begin by giving a history of our degree proposal
and mapping out the process of approval, including the opposition we faced
and the responses we developed in our evaluation and promotion of multimedia
as an appropriate and justifiable course of study in the humanities. We will
use our practical experience as a base upon which to theorize on matters of
legitimacy, technical skill vs. critical skill, and the more general problem
of placing multimedia in the humanities.
The major parts of this paper are:
1. A short history of humanities computing at McMaster
2. The rationale for a B.A. in Multimedia and an outline of the
program proposal, including a handout with course outlines.
3. An analysis of the approval process, including the nature of
the opposition we faced and our strategies for positive engagement
with these challenges.
4. A discussion of the theoretical issues arising from making a
place for multimedia in the Humanities.

A Short History of Humanities Computing at McMaster University
Humanities computing at McMaster officially began with the founding of the
Humanities Computing Centre (HCC) in 1986 and with the establishment of an
Assistant to the Dean (Computing). In 1994, Geoffrey Rockwell became the new
Assistant to the Dean (Computing), a position he holds to this day.
McMaster's first humanities computing course (Introduction to Computing in
the Humanities) was taught in 1995. The Humanities Communications Centre--an
extension of the HCC--was opened in December of 1996. A group of new courses
in the area of multimedia design was introduced in 1998 and a new faculty
appointment was made at that time to teach them. To support the new BA
programme, we have added 14 new courses in multimedia and we are hiring new
faculty and technical staff.

Programme Rationale
As multimedia spreads as a viable and popular form of communication and
entertainment, it becomes all the more important that universities study it
and empower students with the knowledge of it. As J. Hillis Miller points
out, students and scholars of "this new generation have been to a
considerable degree formed by a new visual and aural 'culture'," which
increasingly includes multimedia-based artefacts.Miller, J.
Hillis. "Literary and Cultural Studies in the transnational University."
Culture and the Problem of the Disciplines.
Ed. John Carlos Rowe. New York: Columbia UP, 60. Since the
humanities traditionally studies communication and representation, whether
in the form of fiction, language, philosophy, history, music, or the visual
arts, it makes sense to include multimedia in humanities' course
If multimedia is to be a legitimate area of study in the humanities, however,
we must envision it as a field of inquiry that includes both the production
and critical analysis of multimedia artefacts. It follows that teaching
multimedia in the humanities means teaching students more than how to use
the tools. We also need to teach them how to be critical of multimedia, both
in its particular instances and in its larger social context. In other
words, to address what Willard McCarty calls the "urgent need for a critical
understanding of the new medium," we need to combine the technical, the
creative, and the analytical.McCarty, Willard. <>
Students whose strengths span these skills will graduate with a balanced
knowledge and appreciation of multimedia and, therefore, will stand the best
chance of success in their post-degree endeavors.

Programme Outline: Interdisciplinarity
At this point, we will outline the program design, including the core set of
multimedia courses. Copies of the course descriptions will be available for
attendees. We designed the programme's courses to fit and enhance
traditional humanities programmes offered at McMaster. We build upon the
textual disciplines by offering courses on hypertext and electronic texts;
we build upon the visual arts by offering courses in graphics and digital
video; we build upon drama by offering courses in animation and the design
of space; and we build upon music by offering courses in audio and
electronic music.
Our decision to adopt a Combined Honours format, where students must complete
an Honours degree in Multimedia and another subject in the humanities or
social sciences, reflects what we believe to be the interdisciplinary nature
of multimedia. Since multimedia involves combining artefacts in various
media--artefacts that are the basis of study in disciplines across the
humanities--it makes sense to promote an interdisciplinary approach. So, we
ask students to combine their study of multimedia with another subject area.
One benefit of this approach is that we will not compete with other
departments in our faculty. On the contrary, we hope to attract new students
to McMaster who would otherwise attend post-secondary institutions

The Approval Process: Budgets and Balances
Bringing the proposal through the approval process not only meant securing
financial support, but it also meant negotiating a route through faculty
assumptions about the technical and the analytical. Finding money is one
thing, but challenging notions of humanities scholarship can be just as

a) BudgetingHere we will describe our experience seeking
government and industry support and the importance of preparing a
detailed and thorough budget. This section will end with a short
discussion of long-term budgeting and the presentation of a budget
b) Internal SupportWhile industry and government were attracted
by the potential employability of our programme's graduates, members of
our own faculty distrusted what they perceived to be an over-emphasis on
technology and employability. Even after reviewing updated versions of
the proposal that stressed the programme's commitment to the traditional
elements of humanities scholarship, some colleagues still wondered why
an arts faculty should support what they assumed belongs in a technical
college. It is as if there was an instinctive distrust of technology and

Legitimizing Multimedia in the Humanities
While we are optimistic that our programme has a stable future, the process
of programme approval raised more questions than it answered about
legitimacy in the humanities, and, by extension, about competing visions of
the humanities. The final section of our presentation will focus on some of
these questions.
It comes as no real surprise to find that government and industry seem
willing to envision a humanities that embraces technology and employability.
After all, the humanities is facing increasing pressures to be more socially
relevant and accountable.For a sampling of recent scholarship on
the humanities and social responsibility, see Kaplan, E. Ann and George
Levine, eds. The Politics of Research. New
Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997, and Readings, Bill. The
University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP,
1996. But how should we respond if these visions of a
technologized humanities rest upon a uncritical belief in fuelling the
economy by training producers and consumers of technological goods and
services? While humanities-based multimedia programmes might indeed increase
producers and consumers of technology, we need to make sure that our
programmes in humanities computing retain critical and analytical dimensions
that challenge economic forces primarily interested in the accumulation of
capital regardless of the cost to social equity. At the same time, we need
to recognize that multimedia students may find themselves in the fortunate
position of being highly desirable on the job market. For this reason, when
we build relationships with industry, we must be sure to maintain control
over curriculum.
It is also unsurprising to find in the humanities a general distrust of
technology's apparent complicity with technical skill and employability. Yet
we might wonder about what kinds of difference the humanities sees between
the technical skills used to create digital works and the technical skills
used to create critical works of scholarship, not to mention works of art.
If the differences can be found in a hierarchy of cultural value that
privileges the intellectual over the physical, then how do we reconcile this
with the physical techniques learned in drama, painting, sculpture, print
making, etc.? The humanities recognizes that physical technique in the fine
arts has an important intellectual component; however, once computer
technology enters the scene, it is as if mechanization and automation remove
human intellect. But as Malcolm McCullough reminds us, "technology has both
intellectual and physical elements."McCullough, Malcolm. Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand.
Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996, 67.
Building a legitimate place for multimedia in the humanities at McMaster
University has meant developing and promoting a concept of multimedia that
connects the physical and the intellectual and that emphasizes multimedia as
a legitimate mode of representation deserving and requiring humanities
scholarship. Indeed, if the humanities is to help give an equitable and
ethical shape to the digital age, then it needs to engage with new
communications technologies at the level of criticism and of practice.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia, United States

June 9, 1999 - June 13, 1999

102 works by 157 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (19), ALLC/EADH (26), ACH/ALLC (11)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None