An Interview with Julia Flanders, Part Two: Questions

A. Introductory Questions

1. Although you’ve been involved in Digital Humanities for nearly two decades, you’ve indicated elsewhere that you “came to computers late,” remonstrating as an undergraduate student that “perhaps [you] might never own a computer” (“Day of Julia Flanders”). How did you become involved in Digital Humanities — What were the decisive factors that “detour[ed]” (Digital Humanities 6) you from doctoral study in literature and directed you toward the Women Writers Project and therein to your longstanding, integral involvement in the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and humanities computing?

2. Have you had any mentors who particularly influenced your early work (within Digital Humanities or within TEI specifically), and, if so, could you describe their contributions?

3. 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?

a. And a narrower strand of that same question: What do you view as the role of TEI within Digital Humanities?

b. Thinking again about those who are new to this area: What works – articles, books, projects, Guidelines (e.g. TEI) and so forth – would you recommend as seminal within Digital Humanities and thus as essential reading for the emergent digital humanist?

c. And for those who are interested in learning more about TEI, what would you suggest as some of the best resources or avenues for learning or learning about text encoding?

4. In writing about your professional identity in Digital Humanities and the Politics of Scholarly Work you describe inhabiting a “hybrid role as a researcher and an administrator/consultant” and explain that consistent with this “mixed professional identity” (7) your typical work week might, among other activities, include “design[ing] a database, writ[ing] an academic article on textual editing or on text markup, writ[ing] a grant proposal, fill[ing] out payroll forms, or serv[ing] on an MLA committee” (6-7).

a. What does this kind of synthesis suggest about the role of a digital humanist with regard to the division of higher and lower order tasks within the humanities, what you describe (and I’ll return to this shortly) as the “modal separation of head and hands…” (128)?

b. Do you think this kind of synthesis is requisite to the professional identity of a digital humanist (or should some but not others of these tasks be seen as essential strains of the work of a digital humanist), and if it is, what might be its broader academic-political implications?

c. On a more personal note, how has your own work changed in the past five years — How would you today describe a typical week in your role as the Director of the Women Writers Project, Editor of Digital Humanities Quarterly, past Vice President and past President of the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH), current ACH President, TEI Board Member, teacher of numerous text encoding workshops and seminars, and so on? And what do you relish most about this work?

B. Questions stemming from Digital Humanities and the Politics of Scholarly Work (Flanders’ dissertation completed at Brown University in 2005) as well as questions pertaining to several other of the interviewee’s important contributions to Digital Humanities and TEI.

5. While I could point to any number of your publications, invited lectures, or administrative roles as having been highly influential within Digital Humanities, to many, your work as an educator, offering text encoding workshops (e.g. “WWP Workshops”, DHSI workshops where you’ve taught nearly 100[1] participants) and scholarly text encoding seminars (e.g. “WWP Seminars”) has been among the most significant of your contributions.

a. What compels you to contribute so actively and so prominently in your role as an educator?

b. How would you describe your approach to teaching TEI in particular; what practical and theoretical guidelines underpin your approach?

c. As a community which defines “training and outreach” as components of its goals and mission (“TEI: Goals and Mission”), what are some areas of opportunity for TEI; how can the TEI community improve its efforts to offer education and outreach?

6. In writing about the Women Writers Project, you’ve discussed the role of the search interface as one example to illustrate how digital resources can be designed to encourage and enhance educational usage by college students (“Learning, Reading, and the Problem of Scale: Using Women Writers Online” 52). With this in mind, could you offer some general guiding principles for text editors who aim to develop archives or editions as educational resources?

7. In my discussions with students, they point out recurrently that Digital Humanities remains virtually absent at the undergraduate level, and they would like to know why. From your perspective, why isn’t there more emphasis on Digital Humanities at this level?

8. The motif of division, dichotomy, really, recurs throughout your dissertation (as well as in subsequent publications, e.g. “Data and Wisdom), where you interrogate: the notion that the “machine” stands as an antagonist to humanism (14); the “body” and “soul” binary and the classification of computer as soulless body (17); Swinburnes’s “singer” and “poet” in opposition to his “pedant” and “sciolist” (72-73); the “higher” art literary criticism beside the “lower,” artless textual editing (81); and the “modal separation of head and hands, brain work and tool work” (128). Together, these putative divisions embody one of the most prominent arguments against Digital Humanities – that the machine and machinist are not only lower on the intellectual hierarchy but are, perhaps worse, antagonistic to humanism.

a. How might digital humanists respond to this sort of argument?

b. In your dissertation you also write at length about the history of humanities and its influence on the humanities community’s wary reception of digital methods. How would you characterize the role of more recent humanities history as it expresses humanists’ acceptance of Digital Humanities — Has the landscape changed in the past five years; do humanists in general still flinch in “’revulsion,’” to use McGann’s term (qtd in “Digital Humanities” 23), at the prospect of a digital humanities?

c. And specifically with regard to TEI: Today, the publication of digital editions, digital archives, and a wide-ranging variety of TEI-conformant scholarly projects is commonplace. One might argue therefore that TEI is to some extent altering methods of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. From your perspective, how is TEI contributing to and thus influencing scholarship in these areas, and how is the academic community responding?

9. You’ve written about some scholars’ misunderstandings of Digital Humanities; for example, you’ve recounted the details of one reviewer who misconstrues a John Burrows article on text analysis in the works of Jane Austen. Could you describe and respond to some of the more pervasive misconceptions about Digital Humanities and TEI. Which of these demand rectification? (e.g. Burrows’ Jane Austen study; see Digital Humanities and the Politics of Scholarly Work 76)

10. What do you view as the most significant challenges facing the Digital Humanities community over the next decade?

a. And what do you view as the most significant challenges and opportunities for the TEI community — Where should the TEI be directing its efforts as we look toward 2020?

11. In “Learning, Reading, and the Problem of Scale: Using Women Writers Online,” you critique the American educational system, pointing out that a system which offers students “careful guidance on what to read” and holds them “accountable for only the contents of the syllabus for a given course” (50) sets up a model where intellectual exploration is effectively dis-incentivized.

This argument is to some extent taken up again in your dissertation where you describe the ‘liberationist’ approach to electronic editing, an approach which embraces the “world of digital copia” (40) where an edition “can include every source, every piece of relevant context, every conceivable addendum (maps, biographies, family photographs), every possible sensory mode (audio clips of poetry readings, video clips of performances)” (40). And you argue that this kind of digital edition “has the potential to become an emporium of readings, a textual superstore” (42).

But the fundamental problem introduced by the liberationist approach, you suggest, is precisely the problem of choice: While digital editions create choices, readers are ill-prepared to make them because, as you argue, “our educational system and all of our prior reading habits have disabled us to inhabit this new world of responsibility and agency” (42-43).

Given your commitment to pedagogy and your profound expertise in this area, as a closing question, it seems fitting to ask: What kind of “re-education” (43) do you envision might prepare individuals to inhabit a world of intellectual choice, a world of “responsibility and agency,” the world currently being developed in part by digital humanists? And what role should humanists play in shaping this re-education?


Flanders, Julia. “Data and Wisdom: Electronic Editing and the Quantification of Knowledge” Literary and Linguistic Computing 24.1 (2009): 53-62.

—. “Day of Julia Flanders.” A Day in the Life of Digital Humanities 2009. 17 Feb 2010. <>.

—. Digital Humanities and the Politics of Scholarly Work. Diss. Brown University, 2005. Print.

—. “Julia Flanders @ MITH.” The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. 24 March 2010. <>.

—. “Learning, Reading, and the Problem of Scale: Using Women Writers Online.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 2.1 (2002): 49-59.

—. “Text analysis and the problem of pedantry.” The Face of Text: The 3rd Conference of the Canadian Symposium on Text Analysis. 10 Feb 2010. <>.

“How do you define Humanities Computing / Digital Humanities?” Taporwiki. 12 March 2010. <>.

Ottenhoff, John. “Renaissance Women, Text Encoding and the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Julia Flanders.” Academic Commons. 8 Feb 2007. 28 Feb 2010. <>.

“Participants at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute.” DHSI: Digital Humanities Summer Institute. 15 Dec 2009. <>.

“TEI: Goals and Mission.” TEI: The Text Encoding Initiative. 9 May 2010. <>.

“WWP Seminars on Scholarly Text Encoding.” Brown University Women Writers Project. 24 April 2010. <>.

“WWP Workshops on Text Encoding with TEI.” Brown University Women Writers Project. 24 April 2010. <>.


Thanks to Marisa Peterson, my spring 2010 Undergraduate Editorial Assistant, for assistance in researching the questions developed for this interview.

[1] My count is based on the participant lists available at: “Participants at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute.”