Monthly archives for July, 2010

Jane Austen

With ease I could make a list of my favorite women writers. As effortlessly as breathing, I would type Donna Tartt (The Secret History), Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged), Norman Rush (Mating) – okay, he’s not a woman, but his female narrator is so brilliantly authentic that he earns honorary status, Ruth Heller (Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall on Your Knees), Joyce Carol Oates (The Gravedigger’s Daughter), and Jane Austen (The Complete Works).

Austen merits her own special status. And it’s not because the titles that flow so instinctively from my thoughts form an unnaturally dark theme, amidst which her works provide a solitary bright spot. No, it is because among my favorites, it’s Jane Austen’s works that I’ve read and read and read again, viewed in numerous film adaptations, and shared with my husband (who, though he’s never read a word of her novels, has sat through nearly all of the film adaptations with me, has cultivated a compelling affection for an impartial interest in Austen, and has formed strong opinions about observed which actors, if someone must do it, play the best Darcy, the best Mr. Bennett, and so on…).

Austen as a topic is seduction enough to tempt me to read or view related (though nowhere near Austen in caliber) works such as The Jane Austen Book Club, Lost in Austen, and Becoming Jane. (I admit that even though I am familiar with what little there is of Austen’s biography, I wept with grief over fictional Becoming Jane’s heartrending goodness, where in a grand act of profound self-sacrifice and honor, Jane relinquishes her claim on her beloved, who, in my view, is a complete rogue when compared to the likes of Darcy and Wentworth anyway)

My favorite composer, Vivaldi, is often described as having composed the same work a hundred different ways (alternately, he composed his many different concertos in entirely the same way). For me, Austen is the Vivaldi of literature; her works are rhythmic and predictable; her motifs always repeat; and she’s instantly recognizable within the first line. Her heroines may be flawed, but they have strong, silent type suitors as tutors; pride and prejudice are always subdued, and the stories always end well.

So what if Austen’s morals are Victorian and her protagonists can’t inherit? Her plots offer commentary enough on the problematic social status of Victorian women, and I can’t imagine Austen espoused values such as honor, integrity, or charity will ever become passé.

When I lived in Iceland as a Fulbright scholar I was invited to various social gatherings at the US Embassy in Reykjavík, an art showing, a party for the retiring director of the Fulbright Program, and so on. The ambassador’s residence was elegant, by Scandinavian standards luxurious, and the gatherings were as gracious as the guests were interesting (that is to say wonderfully!). Even years later I can recall the fare as well as the floral arrangements, but it was the fact that the ambassador kept a Jane Austen collection displayed prominently where any guest might see it that most fully captured my imagination.

But I’ve never wanted to become an Austen scholar. I never wanted to ruin the pleasure I find in Austen’s moral tales, where deserving Elizabeths, Emmas, and Elinors win happy marriages to Darcy, Knightley, and Edward in spite of conspirings against them by ‘soul[s] of discretion’ [sic] like Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Elton. No, I wouldn’t want to ruin my Austen by subjecting her to exegesis or (with all due respect) to some literary or feminist critique.

And I still don’t. But I am really, really thrilled about the new Jane Austen Fiction Archive, which appeals both to the Austen lover and the academic in me. This archive doesn’t ask readers to critique or analyze Austen’s plots (though readers might use the archive to do so). Rather, it invites readers to examine diplomatic (i.e. unedited) transcriptions of her writing, to view facsimiles of her manuscripts, and, in doing so, to gain a more intimate understanding of her work as a writer, an extraordinary writer who composes extraordinary fiction but a writer who in revising and editing engages in the writing process nonetheless.

What’s more, the archive presents occasion to merge two things I love: textual editing and Jane Austen! I’m in the midst of writing a post about the reasons I actually want to return to campus this fall. This archive is among them, as it will undoubtedly grant me (and many others) justification to assign a novel I happen to love to my students, whom I hope will appreciate reading it while working with the archive as a wonderful opportunity to engage Austen in an exciting new way.

Publish or Perish?

This tired, old, politically charged (yet apt) saying has finally caught up with me, just not in a way I ever would have expected. In the midst of cooking my way through The Grit Cookbook (a gift received during a recent visit home – thanks, Mom!), trying (sadly, like Sisyphus) to get through at least of few pages of my summer reading list, and swimming, biking, and otherwise trying to keep up with a tireless soon-to-be second grader, I’m debating the future of a publishing project I’ve devoted the majority of my research time to over the last year, and I’m confronted with a kind of bifurcation I didn’t anticipate: Should I proceed toward publication? Or should I let the project perish?

The perish prospect is appealing and frustrating at once. Publishing is demanding. I’ve been teaching for nearly ten years, and it’s one thing to evaluate stacks (at least they’re virtual) of student papers and, reluctantly, eventually, to terminate the research, writing, and peer review processes students are (ostensibly) engaged in by assigning grades (grading is a thorny topic on its own, so I’ll save further comment for another day…). It’s another thing to reject an author’s manuscript.

Researching and designing a publication; developing the publication; announcing the publication; and engaging in the editorial process that ensues? These are tasks (much like engaging students in the writing process) I care deeply about and am willing to invest inordinate amounts of time on.

And although awarding a student the grade he or she has earned when that grade is an F and rejecting an author’s work are tasks I’d gladly relinquish to someone else, it is possible to accomplish these things with an eye toward positive outcome by encouraging revision or by supporting an author in identifying another venue for publication.

It’s the politics I’m not so keen to wrangle with. And, I am more than a little confident that I am not disclosing any big secret here when I point out that, eventually, the politics are inescapable.

Like, what happens when colleagues want to take equal credit for work they haven’t contributed to?

Just now I can imagine the expressions of my own students who, I hope, only very, very, very occasionally, run in to a comparable problem (esp. since I require group work – ‘it simulates a real-world working environment,’ I argue — and, students, if you’re reading, you already know that I recognize that in rare and troubling cases, the rewards of a ‘supposed’ collaborative effort are outweighed by the difficulties*). My own students can attest that I acknowledge openly that this can happen. Thus, when they complete group work in my classes, they are required to complete an anonymous evaluation rubric where they evaluate the work of every member of their group (including themselves). Since I grade individually rather than by group, the rubric is each student’s opportunity to identify inequities (positive or negative) that may not be otherwise apparent.

What I suppose I haven’t acknowledged openly enough with my students is that while my collaboration-based assignments are designed to emulate real-world working situations, my evaluation practices reside in a more idealistic realm where I work very hard to ensure fairness and to honor individual differences.

In the real world, unfortunately, (I’ll put this gently) things can get a little dirty.

And when I am not taking dirty as a sign on my son’s knees that he has had a good full day of nature, I am taking it as a sign that it’s time to seriously re-evaluate my investment in a project. Do benefits like the possibility of contributing positively to a field and supporting others in disseminating thought-provoking, important, and useful work outweigh drawbacks like months and months of trying, and trying, and trying to make the best of working with a difficult colleague?

Do I really care that much if someone else shares credit for work I’ve done? Most of the time, no. In fact, if my work can support someone else’s, that’s an excellent outcome, a sign that scholarship is accomplishing what it ought to: supporting others in doing more, even better work. But some situations are just different.

And just because I’m the kind of person who once thought that a plump little horned tomato worm deserved at least a little share of the veggies in my garden doesn’t mean I’m a total sap. It means that, sometimes, I err on the side of being a little too trusting and a little too generous.

So, my position on politics and dirt? No thanks. That really is my exit sign, or at the very least a sure sign that a serious shift in course is in order.

I do admit that leaving my project to perish would be a bit extreme. And I am working toward a positive outcome, for everyone involved.

But I will need to be a lot more vigorous to ensure that my garden doesn’t get devoured by tomato worms – I did discover that the ‘sweet little fellow’ was anything but, and a day after I’d found him, my son and I used a scissors to cut off the more-than-a-dozen branches inhabited by the creature and his buddies. But we were kind; we set them off – far off – in the woods on branches containing ample leaves and green tomatoes to feed them for another day, at least.

(and for my students who can’t relate to gardening, in situations like these, a little music therapy always helps)

*A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States. See section 4.6.2 “Unsuccessful Partnerships,” which points out that “[s]eventy-eight percent of centers reported partnerships that were, in some measure, unsuccessful” and lists some of the reasons why (34-35). So, even though it, well, it just sucks when things go badly, it turns out that it’s fairly common. On the other hand, section 4.6.3, “Elements of a Successful Partnership,” suggests that we do get it right much of the time, and this would be consistent with my experience in every other collaboration I’ve been involved in.

digital humanities, semantics, and a WOTY suggestion for ADS

I’m a little sheepish about admitting this, but I’ve been delinquent in offering my own definition of DH. While I’m more than willing to take academic risks and to define and contribute to new scholarly endeavors, I’m more reserved when defining something I’ve been a student rather than a founder of; and, in such situations, I prefer to sit at the feet of the masters and to leave the enlightening to them.

But my hesitation on this count in no way reflects a lack of interest. Rather, as evidenced in this question I recently asked during an interview with Julia Flanders:

I’ve studiously avoided referring to Digital Humanities as a field, as a method, or as a discipline during this interview in order to remain definition-neutral, but the question of definition is an important one. Although you’ve responded to it before in a number of different contexts (e.g. “Julia Flanders @ MITH”), I’d like to pose it again in part because, in the broadest sense, the debate over definition persists, as evidenced, for instance, in the repeated raising of the question in contexts such as Day of Digital Humanities (“How do you define Humanities Computing / Digital Humanities?”), and in part because a definition, if one is codified, will surely play a role in determining the future of Digital Humanities (be it constrained, i.e. restricted as a method or set of methods, or expanded, i.e. institutionalized as a discipline warranting, for instance, departmental standing with a corresponding curriculum within academic institutions). So, for teachers, researchers, and students who are new to Digital Humanities and want to understand its role within the larger humanities community as well as its implications for the community, how do you define digital humanities?

I think the answer is terribly important. And I think it’s time for all of us working in DH formally to weigh in. But doing so, from my perspective, requires a survey of the landscape first. So I’ve turned to several dictionaries, google, and the DH community at large in a quest for a bit more information.

here’s what I learned:

Despite the fact that today the terms “digital humanities” and “digital humanist” return  208,000 and 7,970 google results, respectively (actually, that’s not much when considered beside terms like “linguistics” and “linguist”, which return 20,900,000 and 3,430,000 results, respectively; and “chemistry” and “chemist” which garner 140,000,000 and 17,900,000 returns), we’ve not gained enough presence in speech and writing to merit OED inclusion, as digital humanities is not listed as an entry or sub-entry in the OED (linguistics isn’t in there either; though sociology, biology, physics, and chemistry are…). And while designations for individuals working in many fields are present, including linguist, digital humanist has not earned a place.

Digital humanities and digital humanist are not in Urban Dictionary either yet (to my fall 2010 DH students: feel free to work ahead on one of your assignments: add the entry!). And we’ve yet to make the cut at Merriam-Webster.

(we really need to rectify this. ADS, would you consider nominating digital humanities for 2010 WOTY?)

But, no surprise, we do make an appearance in Wikipedia (crowdsourcing, you rule).

Those of us working within DH (ADHO, ACH, DH Conference, Day of DH, DHQ, TEI, etc.) have come to some consensus regarding who and what we are, at least in a general sense:

  • ACH: ‘computer-aided research in literature and language studies, history, philosophy, and other humanities disciplines, and especially research involving the manipulation and analysis of textual materials’
  • DH: ‘digitally-based research and teaching across the arts and humanities disciplines’

but I think Terras is right in arguing that we need to be more even more explicit in defining DH and – I would add – even noisier about our role as shapers of new directions and new questions in the humanities and, by extension, shapers of new directions in fields that are increasingly influenced by our work. We may feel ubiquitous and obvious, but, as google search returns illustrate, really, we aren’t.

from feet to shoulders: defining the terms

In the absence of the feet of the masters, standing on the shoulders of the lexicographical giants at the OED seems like a pretty good strategy. According to the OED online, humanist is defined as follows: n. 1. a. ‘A person who pursues or is expert in the study of the humanities’

And while digital can pertain to a finger or a numeral, its adjectival use in this entry in OED’s draft additions comes closest to representing the meaning I intend:

digital divide, n. (a) ‘a division between those in favour of the extensive use of digital technology (esp. computers) and those against it’; (b) (now the usual sense) ‘the gulf between those who have ready access to current digital technology (esp. computers and the Internet) and those who do not; (also) the perceived social or educational inequality resulting from this’

Deconstructing this definition is easy; on the one hand, there’s divide, which has to do with ‘favoring or opposing something’. On the other hand, and of use here, there’s ‘the extensive use of digital technology (esp. computers),’ which has to do with behavior. And this adjectival part of the entry provides a pithy and useful reference of my own intended meaning.

how do I define DH?

By extension and definitional amalgamation, digital humanities is ‘the study of the humanities’ as accomplished by means of ‘extensive use of digital technology (esp. computers)’

It follows therefore that a digital humanist is ‘a person who pursues or is expert in the study of the humanities’ and who engages in ‘the extensive use of digital technology (esp. computers)’ in support of this study

That was easy and pretty accurate. The more challenging next steps: defining by example, providing a richer etymology (an earliest attestation would be nice, as would a richer discussion of the shift from humanities computing to digital humanities – The Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing  was founded in 1973, and the Association for Computers in the Humanities was founded in 1978; when was digital humanities conceived?), and – of course – lobbying ADS.

DH 2010: A lesson in crowdsourcing

London was brilliant. We walked miles and miles each day to keep up with our overly ambitious tourist itinerary (it was my little one’s first time in the city and Garrick and I wanted him to see everything), and it was hot (30 practically every day) and filthy (no comment), but the English are unfailingly friendly and helpful, and we punctuated our wanderings (which I actually love) with stops for cocktails and art, ice cream and medieval history, chips and soccer, and sandwiches and siege weapons firings, so I can’t possibly complain. And my son had a blast!

Yet even amidst the vibrant settings and amazing fare of London, I was terribly distracted by work. The DH conference I was actually in London to attend was outstanding, and I left the city with much more than Big Ben to think about. The conference emphasis on crowdsourcing was particularly intriguing. The Transcribe Bentham project which was described during the closing plenary, for example, aims to engage the public in transcribing the writings of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. I’ve worked with manuscripts quite a lot, so this kind of transcription endeavor struck me as a) brilliant, b) questionable, c) demanding. It seems ‘brilliant’ because it promises to engage readers, and, in doing, to draw them into the project as educational and scholarly partners. Plus, if the reader-cum-transcribers’ work is good, the project has the potential to advance quickly and to gain a commodity that is invaluable in academia: community support.

It raises the ‘questionable’ note for me because transcription is time consuming and detail oriented. Even if the reader-transcribers do amazing work, the transcriptions must be checked, and I would love to know how the costs (fiscal, that is) of the crowdsource endeavor might compare with those of the same endeavor designed as a traditional large-scale transcription project. Though, still, even if there are costs (literally in the fiscal sense but also in the figurative sense) the idea – and notably in this case the practice – of community engagement via crowdsourcing for me carries so much appeal on so many levels that I can wholly appreciate the rationale for risking it.

And it seems ‘demanding’ because transcriptions necessitate scrupulous review, whether they originate from a crowd or from experts. Though again (I confess, being so drawn to this whole idea does make it difficult to offer critique), perhaps the point is to leave the project open all along, allowing even corrigenda and emendations to be community driven.

As I described the Bentham project to a colleague, he immediately thought of the reCaptcha project, which is very cool in its own right but less community-engaging in that while via reCaptcha anyone might become a potential transcriber in typing in the graphemes displayed on a Captcha sequence, none is made aware that in doing so he or she is in fact contributing to text digitization.

Even ADHO is crowdsourcing a bit: During the conference the organization sent out an email asking conference attendees to view and then offer comments to support ADHO’s in-progress new website. And TEI by Example, an outstanding new educational project launched officially at DH 2010 but which kept its website open throughout the development stage also leveraged the TEI and Humanist listservs to call for feedback in support of post-launch improvement.

Undoubtedly, the openness of Transcribe Bentham, ADHO, and TEI by Example is impressive, but it’s also strategic and plain smart.

My primary project over the last year (which I must acknowledge has been possible only through the support of Garrick Bodine, Helmut Doll, and Elaine Gustus) has been researching, designing, and developing TEI-EJ. The project’s born digital publishing suite (see the related DH abstract here) currently resides safely behind a secure log in, a decision, thanks to each of the projects noted above, I’ve come to question.

Should I open the project for broader critique, especially before publication? I’ve given out logins to more than a handful of individuals, but the site logs indicate that by and large (with very few exceptions) these individuals have either a) never logged in or b) have spent too little time on the site to comment or contribute meaningfully. Maybe casting a broader feedback request and community support net is in order…

The prospect of shouldering the yield (I’m fearing lots of old boots and, if I’m lucky, maybe a few juicy fish) of such a net is, well, a bit scary, but then again my work on the TEI-EJ project has been inspired precisely by my commitment to education (and I have no complaints about doing so much of the learning myself) and community engagement. Opening the project and asking for critical feedback seems like an obvious next step.

So, thanks DH. As usual, I left the conference inspired, invigorated, and with far more than I came with.