They took a chance: an interview with Susan Hockey

The interview with Susan Hockey that is included in Computation and the Humanities: towards an oral history of Digital Humanities was carried out via skype on 21 June 2013. You can read the text of the interview here or listen to the audio of the interview here.

During the interview, Hockey recalls how, in the 1960s, her early interest in Humanities Computing was piqued by Andrew Q Morton’s Observer articles about his work on the authorship of the Pauline Epistles and other texts. I recently read Morton’s “A Computer Challenges the Church” (Observer, Nov 3, 1961) and found it a gripping read. Because it is behind a pay wall I’ll give you a short summary of it.

Morton opens with an overview of the mid-nineteenth century work that was carried out in the University of Tuebingen by the New Testament scholars F.C. Baur and colleagues. They argued that just four of the fourteen letters of St Paul were written by St Paul and they drew attention to various inconsistencies and disparities in the Bible. Had religious scholars and church theologians accepted Baur et al.’s findings, they would have had to revise established understandings of St Paul, the history of the early church and various doctrines of Christian faith. Instead, they “reviled [Baur et al.] as no New Testament scholars have been reviled before or since. … Not surprisingly, the works of Baur and his disciples were placed on the Index of Books prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church”. Their work was still on the Index when Morton wrote the article I’m summarizing.

He goes on to explain how he collaborated closely with G.H.C. Macgregor, former Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University (who had died in 1963). Morton triumphantly reports that through their work, and

by the use of modern scientific techniques, including the operation of a computer, Baur and his colleagues have been vindicated and it has been proved beyond doubt that Paul himself wrote only four major Epistles.

In the rest of the article he draws sharp distinctions between the work he and Macgregor did versus “the most respectable theologians [who] are used to treating evidence in a most unscientific way”.  He outlines the techniques he and Macgregor used to establish the authorship of the Pauline Epistles and other texts that they worked on. He emphasizes the central role that electronic computers had played in their work from the outset.

Morton also discusses the wider context of his work, influences on it and the reactions that it met with. An important influence was his colleague, Dr W. C. Wake, who had established “sentence length as a reliable indicator of authorship for writers of homogenous Greek prose” and this approach was one that they used in their analysis of St Paul. He recalls that in 1960 the Carnegie Trust gave them “£800 to buy the machine needed to type out Greek text on paper tape so that it could be read by a computer”. He also recalls how colleagues in theology versus colleagues in science reacted to their work:

The first technical article I wrote I sent to the Scottish Journal of Theology. It arrived back within three days. I sent it to the Expository Times. A letter came back: Dear Mr. Morton, I do not understand this but I am quite sure that if I did understand it, it would be of no value. I sent it to Science News, whose editor came up to see me about immediate publication.

And, as if this were not enough to underscore the contentiousness of his research, the article ends with “NEXT WEEK: The Bishop of Woolwich and other eminent Biblical scholars will reply to this article.” Dum dum duuuummmmm.

Morton’s article shows that he has a gift for expressing complex ideas in a clear and accessible way.  He has a striking turn of phrase. Of course, he had an agenda to communicate through his article and he is anything but subtle in the way that he goes about it. Yet, his reflections on how various academic communities responded to his research findings raise important questions about the purpose of knowledge and the vested interests that can influence academic communities’ gate keeping of new knowledge. Indeed, those questions are as relevant to present-day Digital Humanities as they were when Morton wrote his piece. He also published a more detailed retrospective of his work, which examines these themes in more detail in Computers and the Humanities

As I’ve indicated above, Morton draws a sharp distinction between the reactions he received from his contemporaries: “it was the scientists and the mathematicians, not the theologians, who encouraged us”.   For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Hockey’s interview is the way she emphasizes how she benefited from collaborations with well-known Humanities scholars. She also speculates that many of those working in Humanities Computing benefited from such alliances. Given the interdisciplinary nature of Humanities Computing / Digital Humanities it seems almost certain that this was the case; nevertheless, such overtly positive recollections of collaborations with ‘mainstream’ Humanists are less common in the interviews that I’ve done than are recollections of resistance and marginalization. I explore this issue further in chapter 17 of the book, Revolutionaries and Underdogs.

 


Julianne Nyhan

Senior Lecturer (associate Prof) in Digital Information Studies, University College London. Main research: Digital Humanities, Oral History & History of Computing. Publications page: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/dis/people/juliannenyhan / Research: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Julianne_Nyhan

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