State University of New York at Buffalo
15 October 1997
William R. Greiner
UB has grown and changed dramatically over the last five decades. And over the last two years, we have initiated discussions to bring about changes that will help our university meet the challenges of the next century. UB has extraordinary capital, both in terms of physical facilities and in human capital--our outstanding and dedicated faculty and professional staff. By carefully laying plans to build on that human capital, we can position UB as the premier public university in the northeast, and a leadership institution in all of American higher education.
The convocation addresses will now be presented by two members of our Distinguished Professoriate: Bruce Jackson, State University of New York Distinguished Professor, Samuel Capen Professor, and member of the Department of English; and Professor Hari Srihari, Director of the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition and member of the Department of Computer Science, who is being inducted this afternoon to the rank of State University of New York Distinguished Professor.
Bruce has titled his talk "Reptiles of the Mind." But first, Hari will speak about information technology and the future of the academy.
Sargur N. Srihari
Information Technology in the Academy
Last summer I was at an event at the Epcot center in Walt Disney World that was devoted to technological innovations. There were a few celebrities invited to the symposium, one of whom was LeVar Burton, who plays a scientist in the Star Trek series. Also present was Marvin Minsky, of MIT, a real scientist who has made important contributions to computer science. Marvin remarked to me that after Carl Sagan (the astronomer) died, there were no living scientists that the general public has heard of. Sagan had the talent of making complex scientific subjects very interesting.
After I returned from Florida, I had to describe to prospective students a graduate course on pattern recognition. Since the course involves a good dose of mathematics, many students tend to shy away from it. I took a cue from Carl Sagan and introduced the topic as processing of billions and billions of bits so that we can assign postal envelopes to one of millions and millions of mail boxes. I hope this will help keep my students interested in remaining in graduate school and not move to Silicon Valley for high-paying jobs soon after getting their Master's degrees.
My topic today is "Information Technology in the Academy." A new industrial revolution has been upon us for several years now--one grounded in information technology, or IT. The soaring US economy is now largely driven by the direct and indirect effects of IT, be it Intel or Microsoft, which create IT, or General Motors or Ernst & Young, which use IT to make their products and services cheaper and better.
The academy has been and will be profoundly affected by IT. It is central to how courses are taught, how students learn, what courses are taught and what students need to learn. We should not forget that the academy itself produced much of the innovation in computers and communication technology that brought about this Information Age. The best part of IT of the future is that it will be truly multidisciplinary, not just restricted to the technical fields.
Silicon Valley has its origin in nearby Berkeley and Stanford. Boston's Route 128 has its roots in MIT. No surprise that three of the top four computer science programs are at Stanford, Berkeley and MIT. The fourth is Carnegie-Mellon's school of computer science, which is not only changing the reputation of its university, but also the economy of Pittsburgh, a former steel city. Stony Brook and Columbia have strong IT-related graduate programs that will lift the economy in Long Island and New York City.
The future will need large numbers of individuals who can create IT, and the academy will be the place that will produce them. IT is labor intensive, although the labor is intellectual. The need will be not for just those who can write and debug code, but those who can relate just about any area of human endeavor to IT. Reading and writing in the programming language Java will not replace reading and writing in English. But the need for interaction between the professor of Java and the professor of English will necessarily grow. Yahoo, the Internet search company, employs several library scientists, and the MIT media lab project on "wearable computers" includes people in fashion design!
The presence of high-quality academic IT programs will be increasingly important to the economy of the region. Academic IT programs can make a difference to the overall reputation of the University and region, create trained computer and information scientists and engineers which this region and other regions are in short supply of, meet student demand and requests from employers, and create spin-off economic activity in the form of software start-ups.
After a commitment is made to the future of IT, the next issue is: what is the proper home for organizing and nurturing IT-related disciplines in the academy today? These disciplines straddle arts, science, engineering and more. Since government support for the academy has declined, there is a need to reorganize disciplines and make judicious use of academic resources.
Should the academic home of IT be 'engineering and applied science'--because so much of IT is concerned with designing useful artifacts? Should IT be allied with 'mathematics--because computer programming is based in logic and analysis requires mathematical skills? Is IT a 'hard science'--because it relies on experiment, observation and inference? Is it 'the arts'--because the most useful applications are found in electronic publishing? Or is it 'social science'-- because future advances require computers to capture human cognitive skills? The problem I've been working on--getting computers to read English handwriting fast--straddles every one of these disciplines. Each expert, depending on his or her perspective, has an opinion of where and what IT should be.
This brings to mind the famous Indian legend, "The Blind Men and the Elephant." I take the liberty of reciting the story in verse, encouraged by the presence of my friend Bruce Jackson. This is John Godfrey Saxe's (1816-1887) version:
It was six men of Indostan To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk
Cried, "Ho! what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp? To me `tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up he spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out an eager hand, And felt about the knee:
"What most this wondrous beast is like Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope.
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
It was six men of Indostan
And all were in the wrong!
Like the elephant of legend, the disciplines supporting IT provide many descriptions, none of them complete.
While the IT-related faculty will have to interact with members in every section of the academy, they will also need to have a home where the University can best find the resources. Finding a home for IT in the academy needs the perspective of the institutional goals of creating what is best for the region and the state. This has to take into account experiences with IT reorganization at other universities.
The solution will have to be implemented with sensitivity to bridge the gap between several groups within IT-related disciplines. This will include groups the scientist Freeman Dyson critically refers to as "the pure scientists who have become more detached from the mundane needs of humanity and the applied scientists who have become more attached to immediate profitability."
I believe that if we have the will and capability to make the proper choices, the future of this academy and this region will be bright.
Reptiles of the Mind
My teacher for freshman composition in Newark College of Engineering was a man named John T. Shawcross. John T. Shawcross seemed to me to be a senior citizen, but since he was working on his PhD thesis then and he's still teaching now he couldn't have been that much older than I.
The thesis John T. Shawcross was working on had to do with Milton's spelling. When he told me his topic I thought he was surely one of the silliest persons in the world. He had shoebox after shoebox filled with three-by-five-inch index cards, thousands upon thousands of those cards, and on each card was a word and a listing of all the works of Milton in which that word spelled that way appeared. He had cards for every variant spelling of every word in "Paradise Lost," "Paradise Regained," "Areopagiticia," "Samson Agonistes," "Il Penseroso," and all the rest. He told me he'd been filling in and sorting these cards for several years and it would be several years more before he was finished.
I was no better at hiding my feelings then than I am now, so he quickly intuited what I thought about this enterprise.
"I don't care about Milton's spelling," John T. Shawcross said to me. "What I care about is Milton's writing, his ideas. You can't understand the development of his writing and his ideas unless you know the order in which the poems and essays and letters were written. English spelling wasn't standardized in the 17th century. Milton spelled things differently in different years. The spelling is the key to the order of Milton's work, so it's the key to the working of Milton's mind."
A few years later, John T. Shawcross's first book was published, an edition of Milton's work that reordered the dates of composition of all the major poems. No scholar who has written about Milton since then has been able to ignore what John T. Shawcross did with his thousands of three-by-five-inch index cards.
I'm telling you about that conversation with John T. Shawcross for two reasons. The first is, I think it a wonderful example of the way passionate devotion to humanistic inquiry plays out in even the most mundane and dreary daily work. I now think Shawcross was like an architect who digs his own mud and shapes and fires his own bricks. John T. Shawcross couldn't get to the point of asking the questions he wanted to ask until he formulated the materials with which those questions might be answered.
The second reason I'm telling you about John T. Shawcross is one I'm sure has already occurred to you: if what he was doing seemed silly in our conversation at Newark College of Engineering in 1957, it would be downright deranged now. Because now, if we were to ask that kind of question, we wouldn't use those cockamamie three-by-five-inch index cards; we would instead sluice all that dull data into our computers. We'd scan the accurate editions of Milton's works and we would type the unpublished manuscript texts on our keyboards. (Well, I wouldn't type them. Hari Srihari is my pal so I'd just take those manuscripts over to him and he'd have his wonderful machines scan them for me.) Then we'd tell the computer what we wanted to know and by nightfall we'd have it all sorted out.
In the first Batman movie: the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, sees Batman using his dazzling devices. "Where does he get those toys?" the Joker says to one of his cronies. Well, I know where we in the humanities get our toys: they come from the scientists and those toys have changed the ways most of us work. They shape the kinds of questions we permit ourselves to ask. They shape the way we relate to one another and the ways we teach. The world of humanistic inquiry I now inhabit is radically different from the one I inhabited when I was a graduate student. The nature of the inquiry is constant--we still investigate how things of the mind are made and what they mean and what they're good for--but the character of the work has been changed by the astonishingly powerful tools of documentation and communication now at our disposal. International exchanges that took weeks a few years ago now occur as fast as we can type. Images we could just clumsily tell our students about, now appear on their monitors. When I began doing field research in 1961, my audio recording equipment weighed sixty pounds, occupied a cubic foot of space, and required alternating current to operate; I now do interviews with a Sony microcassette recorder that measures about 2½" by 2" by ½", weighs 3½ ounces loaded with an hour's worth of tape, and is powered by a single triple-A battery.
Changes. All those changes. Each of them requiring changes in the ways we think about things and the ways we deal with things. There is a wonderful line about change in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water & breeds reptiles of the mind." Reptiles of the mind. Scaly unfriendly things that crawl or envelop and stifle. "The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water & breeds reptiles of the mind."
I think where we live--us, you and I--is just the opposite of that, or should be. People in our business, we're always in a state of change. Someone like John T. Shawcross comes along and reorders the dates of composition of Milton's major poems and we see Milton in a new light. Someone like Hari Srihari develops a technology for document analysis that helps the post office and that same technology offers new ways for literary scholars to deal with manuscripts, letters and diaries. Someone develops techniques of depth imaging and we see for the first time the layers of creation in paintings and the states of writing on antique vellum.
All that technology is so lovely. But in the humanities, we don't live in a simple world of technology. We also live in the messy world of politics and priorities and programs. These are difficult times for workers in the arts and humanities. The mood of the country is conservative. Both NEA and NEH have been subject to vicious attacks and budget cutbacks. Federal and state support for education has been slashed. In New York and California, the enormous amounts of money taken from education have been given to corrections. You want to talk about high tuition? The tuition at Attica and San Quentin is close to $40,000 per year. We all suffer the effects of that wretched economy. The English department at UB has gone from 75 faculty to 45. It's difficult to maintain programs with losses of that magnitude, let alone think and perform creatively. People get grumpy, they get snappish and defensive.
In addition, the arts and sciences on this campus--everything but the professional schools--are going through major reorganization. We know that the three faculties will somehow meld into a college of arts and sciences, but we don't know what that new college will look like, how it will behave, what it will be like for us to live and work within. All we know is that five years from now this university will probably be very different than it is now.
So there is all this stress: technological stress, budgetary stress, ideological stress, programmatic stress, future stress, idea stress, bureaucratic stress! Woof!
We all know that stress compresses; I want to tell you that it can also free. It was in January 1940, during the Blitz, the bombardment by Germany of civilian centers in England, that the British government established the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. The Committee's name was soon changed to the "Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts." In 1946, the government again changed the name, this time to the Arts Council of Great Britain. It continues to this day. While citizens were being destroyed on the streets and in their sleep the British decided they would not be victims, they would instead cherish and propagate the things in life that really mattered, the things that defined who they really were.
Here's something about the John T. Shawcross story I didn't tell you earlier. John had all those good reasons for doing the work he did but there was one more, and it's one every single one of us in this room shares: he did it, we do it, because it's fun. It's a perfect delight to be able to look into the heart of a complex work of art and ask it questions no one ever asked it before and listen to the answers it provides. It's even a greater delight to ask those same questions again as we learn more about more things. You and I work in one of the few businesses where we can ask the same question twice, come up with different answers, and it's not just okay, but it's terrific.
I quoted Blake to you--"reptiles of the mind"--because I love what he says about the need to confront and deal with change. I also love what he was: a poet and a painter, a thinker and a doer, a man who challenged old forms and created new forms and all the while tried to make sense of the world in a way that let reason and passion coexist, but never too comfortably, a man who cared more than anything about seeing and feeling the light. Which is to say, he exemplifies all the best of what people who teach arts and humanities are about.
That's us as individuals, but we are not only individuals. We are also partners, collaborators, family members in the enormous and complex enterprise that is this university. We do not function alone. What happens to Sociology affects what happens in English; hires or retirements or increases or decreases in funding in the humanities affect what happens in the social and physical sciences. What we are in the core disciplines defines the broader environment in which the professional schools find their ground. We share technology, money, students, faculty, and, more and more frequently, subjects of concern.
I want to leave you with a well-known passage by John Donne. I'll ask that you think of these familiar words in terms of us, in terms of what we do in this time of sometimes dazzling and sometimes terrifying change:No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or if thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Sargur N. Srihari, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, is the founding director of UB's Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR). The work of CEDAR has led to address reading systems widely in use today by the United States Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service. Professor Srihari holds five United States patents and is an author of more than 150 papers and a tutorial book on computer text recognition and error correction. He received his Ph.D. from the Ohio State University.
Bruce Jackson is Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB. He is also SUNY Distinguished Professor of English and director of UB's Center for Studies in American Culture. He is the author or editor of 21 books and more than 100 articles. In collaboration with Diane Christian, he has produced and directed five documentary films. Before joining the UB faculty in 1967, he was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard.
William R. Greiner is the President of, and Professor of Law and Jurisprudence at, State University of New York at Buffalo. He received his LL.M. and J.D. from Yale.