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Interview with Nick Montfort

Interview with Nick Montfort

Earlier this year, the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee was again home to the Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference, an annual event that hosts graduate research from across the nation. We were privileged to have Nick Montfort conduct a creative code studies workshop, where attendees briefly explored how simple computer programs can produce generative texts.

Kris Purzycki: How did you initially get involved with HASTAC?

Nick Montfort: Through the conferences -- I had a co-authored paper in the first one, but didn't manage to attend; I presented at the next two. Later I nominated a student as a HASTAC scholar and found a lot to like about what such scholars were writing online.

KP: Your work has consistently been interdisciplinary in scope. What would you say is the importance for this approach to scholarship within the HASTAC community?

Nick Montfort conducting workshop at MIGC 2016NM: To start, I have to note that being interdisciplinary isn't a single approach -- it means a lot of different things, ranging from "interdisciplines" that are now fairly well-formed ... to combinations of artistic practice with scholarship and research ... to attempts (sometimes successful) to form new disciplines ... to, in contradiction to the previous idea, attempts to offer resistance to disciplinary models. I enjoy working with other people who, individually, have interdisciplinary expertise. For instance, people who program computers, thinking computationally, and are also writers with literary concerns. Instead of following an industrial model based on expertise, with the need for hierarchical organization, and instead of being concerned about how to combine different approaches in the first place, or whether it's allowable to combine them, we can focus on how to learn and create in new ways.

That said, what sort of interdisciplinary work is most interesting to you?

KP: To be honest, the most interesting interdisciplinary work comes from my first-year comp students - especially where they're teaching me as much (if not more) as I'm teaching them. As the majority of them are aiming for careers in criminal justice, engineering, nursing, or the sciences, their experiences in writing typically follow the trajectory that their discipline requires. These students are often ambivalent towards any type of writing that risks being interpretive. However, once we start getting into discussion about how all works are subject to critical inquiry we all start discovering the similarities between the lab report and the English research project. To be successful in my class, then, the students have to compose projects that marry their own expertise with the needs of the class. One student, for example, is composing a search warrant indicting the prison system to break down his investigation into alternatives to incarceration. What it boils down to, it seems, is that we're all just using different jargon to talk about the same thing.

NM: My sense is that disciplinary boundaries and the focus on particular subjects and approaches can be limiting, and you are glad to see people whose thinking doesn't need to respect these established categories. That is one aspect, and important one. But that's not all there is to a discipline (or an interdiscipline).

For instance, think about the martial arts. A person who knows no "discipline," who hasn't trained at all, is uninteresting as a martial artist, even if that person is willing to flail around in ways that disciplined martial artists are not. Someone who knows a little bit about several martial arts and mixes them together still isn't a very good fighter. But if you have someone who knows a martial art that is good at close-in fighting, knows another that is good for grappling on the ground, and knows another that is good for striking powerfully from a distance -- really knows these, well, as a disciplined fighter -- that person can be interdisciplinary and integrate these styles.

So, for instance, a poor writer who knows a little about programming doesn't seem ready, with regard to computational writing, to do any sort of interesting interdisciplinary (or cross-practice) work, even if this person is ready to transgress boundaries. (I'm not saying that characterizes your students; I'm just speaking to the issue of breaking out of categories, by itself.) The person would need to develop strength in both writing and computing. I admit, though, that such strength could be developed through doing "crossover" projects instead of standard CS work and typical essay-writing. It would have to be developed, though.

So my point with CS and the humanities is that there is very little true interdisciplinary work of this work. Compared to computational linguistics, computational biology, computational economics, where there are rich fields, with conferences and journals full of work that is strong
in computing and in the other discipline, there really is very little that joins computing and the humanities. Some projects, yes, and a few academic events such as the (very small) Computational Linguistics for Literature Workshop, but that's it. Perhaps if we get more humanists programming, and developing both computational and humanistic strengths, this area will develop.

KP:  As someone who has nurtured the union between computer code and creative writing, what direction do you see the conjoined fields of computer science and the humanities heading in? What opportunities will emerge? What obstacles do you anticipate?

NM: I don't see CS and the humanities as very cojoined or connected, and my major effort to have humanists program is not an attempt to teach them the science of computation, but how to think (as humanists) with computational assistance. In short, I think if humanists learn to seriously use computation to think, explore, sketch, and research, we can have an intellectual revolution. Just as we now have computational economics, computational linguistics, and modern-day architecture -- and in all of these cases, computation cannot be ignored when assessing the field -- we can have the computational humanities. Right now the so-called digital humanities are fascinating, and some people love to talk about them, but DH has yet to prove itself intellectually essential to the humanities.

But where is it that you do see computer science and the humanities coming together?

KP: Though my experience is still developing, I chose to pursue game studies as one of the few areas in which it felt one could critically engage programmatic works. Although I agree that there are certainly resistances to this in academia (why is game studies couched in English departments?), there seems to be progress. Fortunately for me, I've had advisors who've allowed my use of computational approaches like game engines and JavaScript plugins to compose instead of essays. Because of this, I've been pushed to see through the surfaces to the code that's behind it.

NM: Game studies has produced some very good results about the cultural significance of games -- and how that relates to the computational nature of games. But I think you would find many more computer scientists going to talks and reading papers by computational linguists, for instance, because those researchers do work that informs CS. I think there are only a few cases where game studies is offering new computer science insights.

KP: Considering the previous question, do you find that the humanities or computer sciences are protecting their territory by resisting this kind of work? What, do you think, is the source of this ambivalence towards computational thinking and exploring?

NM: I'm not sure that either the humanities or CS is really threatened in a territorial way by CS/humanities collaboration and new interdisciplinary results. I think people in both fields are skeptical that the results will be intellectually important, and they would rather run along the well-worn and productive paths of their disciplines. If we can show that there are radical, important contributions made by truly interdisciplinary work, how could the traditionalists resist the intellectual results that are being powerfully demonstrated? There weren't successfully resisted when computational linguistics, computational biology, and computational economics came about. We shouldn't grouse about those who have a limited, traditional mindset -- we should do the work and show the results that can't be denied.

KP: How might the HASTAC community work to participate in this effort as well as those within the digital humanities?

NM: I would say that just as humanists have been willing to theorize, critique, and investigate "out loud" by sharing papers, presentations, books, journals articles, along with blog posts and tweets, they should bring the ways they are thinking with computation (including programs and data sets) into their broader conversations.

KP: What are your hopes for higher education in relation to these efforts?

NM: Programming and using computation are tremendously powerful new ways to think; this has been proven already in a number of fields. Right now, those in the humanities, to speak broadly, don't really understand that there is intellectual power of computing. Computation is seen as a way of communicating, an important part of the contemporary media and social world, a way of publishing and sharing results, maybe a nice skill for some freelance work or if tenure-track opportunities don't work out, and only in a few cases as a new way of undertaking core intellectual work. So, my first hope is that we learn to see computing and programming as a way to really amplify existing humanistic methods of research and thought, to develop new types of thinking and new ideas.

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