An Interview with Julia Flanders: Introduction

1. Background

During summer 2007 I had the great pleasure of attending the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) where I participated in a seminar on text encoding facilitated by Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman. In a word: the class ruled. Julia and Syd are exceptional teachers, and, as a pair, they endowed the curriculum with technical insight (PhD in literature + senior programmer = intensely rich content), wisdom of experience, and the knowledge of scholars whose own work has figured prominently in shaping the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and Digital Humanities (DH) communities — all of that, plus a tremendous, infectious passion for their subject matter.

I have no doubt that I am not the only participant to have left the week-long seminar (or any one of the other text encoding seminars they teach) with new-found methodological prowess, confidence that I could implement what I had learned, and a gnawing impatience to return home and unleash my fingers to attack my (then) current project.

For all of these reasons, it was an honor and a pleasure to have Julia and Syd as teachers.

When, in my role as TEI Education SIG co-convener, I was involved in a DH-related publishing project, among the most appealing aspects of it were the possibility of including interviews (my inspiration: the pithy and insightful interview series coordinated by the Journal of English Linguistics) and the prospect of choosing whom to interview first (pardon the aside, but the promise of conducting or just listening to long conversations with scholars whose work is not only fascinating but also foundational within DH was for me like winning the academic lottery).

Because the project and the interview were conceived first and foremost as educational and community-building resources and because her background spans teaching, administration, project management, and scholarship, asking Julia Flanders to serve as the first interviewee was such an obvious and indisputably fitting choice that I never considered anyone else (Syd, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook just yet…).

2. The Questions

In determining the questions I’d ask, I was reflective and research-driven, but I confess I was also selfish. Let’s face it: I had been thinking about TEI and DH a lot in recent years and I was deeply interested in the perspective of a teacher and scholar whose work I greatly respect. But I also tried to adopt the role of students, graduate and undergraduate, as well as TEI- and DH- community members and community observers, and I explored the kinds of questions that, in speaking with individuals sitting in precisely those positions, I suspected would yield insights that are authentic, practical, and candid.

3. The Process

In conducting the interview, well, I tried to imagine what Terry Gross would do and to do that. Though I’ve been likened to a ‘court reporter’ in my ability to transcribe spoken text, I’ve yet to earn anything like a ‘Terry Gross’ accolade, and for good reason – interviewing is incredibly challenging work!

It’s a… well, it’s a þrekvirki ‘a feat of great strength’ (this is an Icelandic term I call upon when I’m at a loss for an English equivalent, and it’s suitable in precisely this kind of situation) to stay on script, not to interrupt, and not to generate spontaneous new questions when listening to responses that all but compel you to do just that.

In terms of discourse rules, it feels like a terrible violation not to offer continuants or phatic comments (in this case like: “that’s so interesting,” “I completely agree,” “you rock!”).

So, alas, I am not Terry Gross, but, at least most of the time, I managed to keep my enthusiasm in check and to stay on course, guiding the interview narrative via carefully researched questions, yes, but leaving the ultimate direction of the conversation to rest on the shoulders of the interviewee.

4. Dissemination

The intended home for this interview was recently placed on hold, but I suspect I am not the only DH educator who will find this piece useful in classes this fall. So until the interview finds a more permanent home, the interviewee has graciously granted me permission to share it here in this informal setting.

5. The Format

Naturally, the interview was encoded in TEI-XML, and I’ll make that version available as well as the mp3 podcast and a traditional, human-readable version posted as a blog entry.

6. Forthcoming: Parts Two and Three

I’ve decided to share the piece in two additional parts: Part Two: The questions & Part Three: The answers. I wanted to separate the two for several reasons.

First, it was crucial from my perspective for readers to know that while the questions were researched, written, edited, and reviewed in advance, the responses were not. Indeed, the interview itself was a two-part process.

It was also important to me to convey that to the best of my knowledge the answers represent a genuine conversational artefact; that is, they are spontaneous, unrehearsed, and therefore, I sense, precisely the kind of responses any other student or scholar might receive in a conversation with Julia.

Second, I wanted the questions to stand alone (without answers) at the outset because, from my vantage point, they are important ones (I’d like my own students to consider and respond to several of them initially without the benefit of Julia’s answers). And while I find Julia’s answers thought-provoking and profoundly significant, the kind that urgently warrant dissemination, they still represent only one part of what I hope will be a larger conversation.