I’ve posted before on an undergraduate digital editing project for my final year English degree students, but Adam Kirsch’s recent summary and critique of digital humanities has prompted some further thoughts about my students’ work and what I’d hoped to help them achieve. I’m not going to presume to add to the solid body of responses to Kirch’s piece (see Mark Sample’s piece), so this is a focused and brief reaction to his depiction of “the application of computer technology to traditional scholarly functions, such as the editing of texts” as ostensibly “minimalist” digital humanities work. Part of the problem in this back-handed compliment is that it devalues what Ryan Cordell’s response rightly characterises as “arguably the longest-standing and most influential thread of digital humanities’ history in literary studies: the preservation, annotation, and representation of historical-literary works for the new medium of our time.”
But more importantly, I don’t think my students would recognise their work as either minimalist or traditional. In this project I ask for volunteers to create an online digital edition of an eighteenth-century text in conjunction with the scholarly digital platform 18thConnect (Mandell, IDHMC, Texas). The project was built out of my belief that digital technology could offer English Literature students a way to demonstrate their critical skills in a more tangible way than in written coursework: to create an artefact that carries them beyond the confines of the hermetic world of student/tutor/institution. Simultaneously, it was a response to what I perceived to be students’ limited knowledge about the nature of the digitized texts they accessed via databases such as EEBO, ECCO, or even Google Books.
Crucial to the project was the ability of students to reflect upon and rationalise the use of digital technology; in effect, their answers to the questions: ‘What is a text in a digital context?’ ‘Why digital?’ and ‘Who is this for’? The interconnectedness of these questions draws upon two definitions of digital humanities easily misread as dichotomous. Stephen Ramsay’s post ‘On Building’ posited that “the move from reading to making” enables a different experience of interpretation and so produce new insights. In this project, for example, encoding their edition in XML / TEI demands – and enables – students to reflect upon the nature and authority of the text in new ways. The ‘why digital’ question also asks students to think about audience: what are the best ways of building digitally to render biographical, literary, or historical meanings? So the students reflect upon, as Mark Sample put it, “the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge” (‘The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing’). The project, then, is about how students can explore the intimacy between (contra Kirsch) interpretation and digital creation, building and sharing.
Note, this is a summary of a more expansive talk I gave at the Digital Humanities Congress 2014 in Sheffield, hosted by the HRI and Centernet, and at the ‘Teaching Digital Humanities’ conference at the University of Reading. Here are the slides:
Students, building, sharing – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires
“Lego Brick”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lego_Brick.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lego_Brick.jpg