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Obi-Wan McCarty: Episode 1

At last year’s Digital Humanities conference (DH2013, in Lincoln, Nebraska), Willard McCarty received the sixth Roberto Busa Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Digital Humanities.  Professor McCarty (henceforth just “Willard”) is Professor of Humanities Computing in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, and holds a similar faculty post at the University of Western Sydney, Australia; but he is perhaps best known as the founding and long-time editor – since 1987! – of Humanist, an “electronic seminar” of great historical and continuing current importance to the digital humanities profession and community.

Obi-Wan McCartyIn his introduction to the award and its accompanying prize lecture, U. Nebraska’s Matt Jockers offered a warm, and true, anecdote characterizing Willard as something like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the digital humanities, and citing a long-ago conversation with me as the source of this metaphor.

Willard is now preparing his Busa Prize address for publication, and his editors have asked whether there is some citable source for his claim to this esteemed sobriquet. This is my attempt to provide such a source, to add one small brushstroke to the canvas of DH history, and to offer a note of personal gratitude not only to Willard, but to the spirit of the community to which he’s made such important contributions.

First, I can confirm the truth of Matt's slightly stylized story, as far as it goes, of our 2001 conversation as the source of the Obi-Wan analogy. But I can also add a bit of the prehistory.  The image first came to me many years before that, and has never faded: I first met Willard McCarty at the 1995 CETH Summer Seminar at Princeton. (CETH, the Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities, was a Princeton-Rutgers initiative led by Susan Hockey, who had recently come to the States from a long career at Oxford, and would soon become the third recipient of the Busa Prize).

Willard was on the faculty, as was Michael Sperberg-McQueen (a creator and founding editor of the Text Encoding Initiative), Dan Greenstein (then a young professor, soon to be head of Digital Library Federation, and then of the California Digital Library, and now a senior official in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Geoffrey Rockwell  (a rising star, now a tenured professor, at the University of Alberta), Jerome McGann (University of Virginia), and others I remember less clearly.   These people were, and are, true DH pioneers.

But I was a lowly Berkeley grad student and library temp, and that was my very first experience with anyone in the Humanities Computing community (aside from the library co-worker who had first introduced me to the mind-expanding ideas of the TEI).

I remember being enormously touched and impressed by the collegiality and ease that all of the CETH faculty had with all of us students (including some other grad students like me, but also librarians, English professors, and academic technology types). We all stayed together in the same spartan dorms, both faculty and participants. On the very first evening, as we were all settling in, someone invited me into a mostly-faculty gathering in somebody else's dorm room, where the very editor of the TEI tried, quite unsuccessfully, to teach me how to drink scotch – and he had apparently brought along the good stuff! – but to no avail.  In spite of being an early-stage recovering teetotaler, in spite of my failure at appreciating one of the finer things of life, I felt completely welcome and at ease in that gathering, like a real colleague.

Sometime near the end of our two-week Seminar, I remember a lovely – and rather loftier! – conversation with Willard about the long traditions and beauty of wine in general, and of intoxication in particular. It went way beyond the "in vino veritas" sort of cliche, and almost certainly involved Ovid (Willard’s lifelong passion). Since I had already been reading Willard for a time, observing his wise editorial guidance on Humanist, it seemed an even greater honor to have gotten so much of his attention. (The same was true of my interactions with the other Seminar faculty, and especially with Michael S.-McQ. – who, I like to claim, "got me” my first job a few years after that, at Stanford, with an extremely kind and totally undeserved letter of recommendation. But that's a different story for another time. And I don’t have nearly as striking an analogy for Michael.)

It's funny to realize that I am now certainly older than Willard was in 1995 – and I certainly didn't think of him as an old man then! – but his well-spoken and calm manner; his kind guidance; his equanimity and thoughtful conversations with "us kids" in spite of obvious differences in seniority and "fame"; the part he played in introducing us to the deeper mysteries of humanities computing; the recognition that his was the wise, disembodied scholarly voice of Humanist – and of course his bearded slight resemblance to Sir Alec Guinness – made the Obi-Wan association inevitable for me. (I hasten to add that I was no Luke Skywalker, not even in my youthful imagination.)

The fact that the image meant so much to me at such an important time in my career; the fact that it summed up so well my initiation into the field – that experience of interacting closely with Willard, of course, but also the general atmosphere of collegiality in our field; and the fact that my casual remarking of it to Matt many years later resonated with him for so long: this is the important evidence that it's a good and true analogy.

And Willard is a good and true colleague and mentor – not only to me (and not so significantly, except to me), but to countless others, around the DH galaxy: for our remarkable community, a truly lifelong achievement.