Category Archives: Digital humanities

Spiralling: teaching undergraduate digital literary studies

Corporal Trim's spiral, from Tristram Shandy. Courtesy
Corporal Trim’s spiral, from Tristram Shandy. Courtesy

It was a privilege to be invited to deliver a keynote talk at the Digital Humanities Congress 2016, hosted by the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield. My sincere thanks to the organiser Michael Pidd for both the invite and a vibrant and supportive conference.

My talk concerned the practice of teaching digital literary studies to undergraduate students (slides and audio recording are here). I wanted discuss the English literature student’s experience of technology in the classroom. I also talked about the meaning of digital humanities as it is deployed by both scholars and university managers; how the relationship between a discipline and the digital  – from both an academic’s and a student’s point of view – is very different from the kind of learning technology that tends to manage students rather than a pedagogy that enables students to become creators. Finally, I argued for a tactical pedagogy that focuses on small-scale praxis, and a focus on building and enabling connections between academic colleagues, between academics and students, and students and the world beyond the institution.

CFP: Digital Humanities panels at ASECS 2016

Omni William Penn Hotel
Omni William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh, PA.

The Digital Humanities Caucus invites paper proposals for two panels (see below) for ASECS 2016, Pittsburgh. Deadline for proposals to be sent to panel organisers: 15th September.

1. “Small-Scale Digital Humanities” (Roundtable) (Digital Humanities Caucus). Stephen H. Gregg, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Bath Spa University, Newton St. Loe, Bath. BA2 9BN, UK; Tel: (044) 7771702912; E-mail:

A large, but largely unreported, amount of digital humanities work occurs outside of big research centres or well-funded collaborative projects. Such work might be undertaken by a scholar who is the sole academic in their Faculty – or one of a small handful of academics in their University – engaged in the digital humanities. They might also be working on a highly focused or a relatively small-scale digital project. This is a roundtable panel that seeks share the experiences of small-scale digital humanities work and the lone digital humanist. It seeks to engage with the challenges facing such scholars, such as:
· building value and recognition at home
· creating networks and collegial support at home
· networking outside the home University (regional, national, international)
· finding funding
· issues of technical support and training

2. “Building an Eighteenth-Century Corpus” (Digital Humanities Caucus) Scott Enderle, Skidmore College AND Mark Vareschi, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 600 N. Park St. Madison, WI 53706; Tel: (908) 420-1396; E-mail: and

The Digital Humanities Caucus invites proposals on the politics, possibilities, and practicalities of building an Eighteenth-century corpus. While much focus in the digital humanities has been on the analyses of corpora, this panel considers the selection and construction of corpora necessary and prior to such analyses. How possible is it to create a “complete” or “representative” corpus? As we build corpora, how should we address the problem of archival silences? Further questions this panel may explore: What processes might we use to select works in a corpus? (Selection by “hand”? By some algorithm? Based on this or that metadata? What kinds of arguments are these different methods useful for?)
How should we think about the disjoint temporality of corpora? (An unplanned corpus — the books on a bookshelf — may include works from many different periods. A planned corpus built using temporal constraints may include just those texts from a given period, but only if they have been preserved by successive generations.) What could, for example, an eighteenth-century corpus tell us about the Victorian era or the seventeenth century? Might histories of reading help us build corpora? (How accessible were different kinds of documents? What reading habits did they invite?). This panel invites interdisciplinary perspectives and innovative presentation formats.

Play, experiment, and digital pedagogy

CSIRO_ScienceImage_7630_test_tubesFirst of all, a hat-tip to Willard McCarty: during a talk at Bath Spa University in March of this year, he quoted early-twentieth-century English critic I. A. Richards and it was this that crystallised my scattered thoughts on my students’ encounter with digital approaches to English literature. Richards prefaced his book Principles of Literary Criticism with the highly suggestive notion that ‘[a] book is a machine to think with’. Richards’ image was not an idle one: an ardent believer in the interplay between the arts and sciences, both his book and the book in the abstract – like any piece of technology from the automated looms of the late eighteenth century onwards – embodied human-designed creative procedures. Through the book, by bringing to bear those same human processes of thought, we are able to examine civilization and what it is to be human: the very task the book was designed to ‘re-weave’.[1] In the digital age it is hard to avoid the resonances: the preeminent machine of our age – the computer – is also governed by human procedures (programming) and ‘processing’ has now become almost entirely associated with computers. Yet we forget that books are, as Richards is implying, an invitation to be (re)processed by humans. What I want to emphasise is that this re-processing – what we less starkly call literary criticism – can be envisioned as a series of procedural building blocks.

What I’m also drawing upon has been defined by Ian Bogost as ‘procedural literacy’. Developing the idea that computing programming is a kind of literacy, Bogost proposed that ‘any activity that encourages active experimentation with basic building blocks in new combinations contributes to procedural literacy.’ Such a literacy in processes and procedures (such as I have described) becomes a foundation that can be applied elsewhere: ‘[e]ngendering true procedural literacy means creating multiple opportunities for learners—children and adults—to understand and experiment with reconfigurations of basic building blocks of all kinds.’[2]

This movement between play, experimentation and a critical awareness in the processes of interpretation was evident during a session on my undergraduate module Digital Literary Studies. Students were introduced to distance reading and invited to work with Voyant Cirrus on eighteenth-century novels. It was apparent in the workshops that the preliminary results of this analysis were not immediately significant or meaningful. So, the next stage involved playing with word choices, selecting synonyms to create clusters of meaning, or choosing antonyms to gain critical leverage. Given these were historical texts, another step involved researching historical inflections using the OED. Some students wanted add another interpretative layer: using Google’s N-Gram Viewer (with caution) they zoomed out even further. It was interesting to watch. The movement between these steps was not linear: some students moved back into the print copy of the novel for a close reading; some students shuttled back and forth between a few key procedures.

The initial surprise that textual visualization did not produce an immediate interpretation was a useful warning about the technological lure of instant answers. Instead, results became merely a first step in a series of experiments: each set of word choices – let’s call them hypotheses – required us to re-think the interpretative assumptions about the text(s). Moreover, the significance of the results was also subject to constant discussion, as if the text itself was changing shape. What my students discovered via this experimentation is the fascinating tension between different processes of interpretation: between what I. A. Richards might call re-weaving and what Lisa Samuel and Jerome McGann termed ‘deformance.’[3] The aim of the session was to generate some analyses of the literary history of the novel between 1660 and 1799; but the session also enabled students to slow down and reflect on their processes of interpretation: it trained them to be procedurally literate.

I started with citing I.A. Richards, part of a group of critics and intellectuals who in the early twentieth century placed close reading at the heart of English Studies. Despite its varied fortunes it is still there. What is most resonant for me and my students is the interplay between close reading, digital reading and procedural literacy. Experimentation puts both students and tutor at the very edge of their knowledge, but it is a place that is productively challenging. In also helping students to see their learning as series of processes that can be modified and reiterated, we are also enabling them with a critical and creative self-awareness that fits them for the rapidly changing twenty-first century world.

[1] I.A Richards Principles of Literary Criticism. 3rd ed. London: Keagan Paul, 1926, vii.

[2] Ian Bogost, ‘Procedural Literacy: Problem Solving with Programming, Systems, & Play.’ , 52:1&2 (Winter/Spring, 2005), 32-36.

[3] Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann, ‘Deformance and Interpretation.’ New Literary History 30:1 (1999), 25-56.


What is a novel in the eighteenth century? Some numbers …

Some of my undergradutes playing with data…

Digital Literary Studies

Students Ben Franks and Alice Creswell share their charts on some keyword searches conducted via the the ‘Genre’ filter in ESTC across 1660-1799. The first chart breaks down the 2,880 hits from the genre term ‘Fiction’ into various title keywords:

Fiction Fiction

This second pie-chart breaks down the 1,434 hits from the search term ‘Novels’:

Novels Novels

We wondered about the ways in which the ESTC catalogue had tagged these genres and the exent to which they overlapped (meta-metadata questions?). But these results were given additional context and meaning by setting them against the same keyword searches on Google’s N-Gram viewer and some more granulated searches of the metadata of the 1,000 novels in the Early Novels Database.

Ben and Alice’s favourite titles? The Devil Turn’d Hermit (check that full title!) and Adventures of a Bank-Note.

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Eighteenth-century literature and the digital undergraduate

Bw1i4-yIcAAuCSj[This is a slightly amended version of a post that originally appeared on the blog of the North American Conference of British Studies]

Over the past couple of years I’ve been guiding some final year undergraduate students to create online digital editions of literary texts from the eighteenth century (see here, here, and here). To me, getting students to work with digital technology alongside eighteenth-century British Literature is now an exciting, but also essential, facet of my teaching. So I thought I would share how I got here with a brief overview of some developments, exercises and courses I’ve picked up in my own browsing over the past few years that teach eighteenth-century literature and are inspired by digital humanities.[1]


The huge acceleration of the digitisation of historical texts in the past decade and a half has been the catalyst for a trickle-down effect from research to teaching practices. Released in 2003, and as one of the biggest databases of eighteenth-century material, Eighteenth-century Collections Online (ECCO) arguably generated some the first reflections on using digital resources to teach eighteenth-century literature at undergraduate level: see my own 2007 paper and the many posts on teaching with ECCO on Anna Batigelli’s Early Modern Online Bibliography blog. The issue of cost and accessibility aside, the exponential rise of such resources – such as the Burney Newpapers database, English Broadside Ballads, and Old Bailey Online – has enabled students to enrich their knowledge of eighteenth-century literary culture: they were able to see unusual and non-canonical texts, to examine literary works in the light of historical or cultural ideas specific to the period or even decade, and to pose invigorating questions about literary value.

Blogging and wikis

This initial phase crossed over with tutors and professors experimenting with writing assignments and the different engagement with literary texts that might be enabled by digital platforms such as the wiki or the blog post. See for example, the work of Tonya Howe (Marymount University); the course run by Emily M. N. Kugler (Colby College) Histories and Theories of the 18thC British Novel; and Prison Voices 1700-1900, which has for example, this piece on Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (this via Helen Rogers, Liverpool John Moores University). Adrianne Wadewitz (now sadly deceased) was also a leading experimenter using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. In this vein, Ula Klein has also recently written about her summer course on eighteenth-century women poets that involves the creation of wikis (here).

Beyond the blog

Sharon Alker (Whitman College) and Benjamin Pauley (Eastern Connecticut SU) reflected on using a variety of tools to teach Defoe including Second Life and Google maps. Laura Linker (High Point University) asks her Gothic novel students to use Google Earth to map narrative journeys, and even Second Life as a way of entering into characterization. In a course entitled ‘Remediating Samuel Johnson’, John O’Brien (University of Virginia) set up a collaborative digital anthology of Samuel Johnsons’ works using texts accessed via 18thConnect (significantly, a platform that begins to deal with the problem of access). John’s aim was explicitly student-centred: ‘[m]y hunch is that students will have a good idea of what students like themselves need to know to make sense of challenging eighteenth-century texts.’ Students of Rachel Sagner Buurma (Swarthmore College) experience hands-on work with a wonderful digital resource the Early Novels Database – see the students’ own blogs here. In a different course Rachel asks students create experimental and imaginative bibliographical descriptions of unusual and non-canonical eighteenth-century novels, see here.

Media shifts

Also fascinating are those courses and projects that use the very medium of digital technology to enable student to grasp the eighteenth-century’s own preoccupation with changing forms and media. As Rachael Scarborough King (New York University) suggests: ‘[d]rawing such connections between the experimentation and advances of eighteenth-century print culture and our own period of media transformation can offer a crucial foothold for students encountering eighteenth-century texts for the first time.’ Rachel asks students to write blog posts incorporating different adaptations of English literature as a way of getting a sense of these texts’ original meaning, form and transmission. In a course devised by Mark Vareschi (Wisconsin-Madison) he sets an ‘experimental assignment in digital composition and adaptation’ tasking students to tweet, 140 characters at a time Samuel Richardson’s Pamela as they were reading the novel. The course designed by Evan C. Davis (Hampden-Sydney College), Gutenberg to Google: Authorship and the Literature of Technology, also pays close attention to the form of literature in this period. In ‘Friday assignments’ there are intriguing tasks such as comparing how we read via print and via e-readers, and using online resources about typography and the Letter M Press app to enable students to re-create and reflect upon the physicality of print in the hand-press era.

I’m about to run my own digital literary studies course focusing on the eighteenth century this coming academic year, and I’ve found the work of others in this field fascinating and tremendously inspiring.[2] My thanks to everyone for letting me link to their courses and students’ projects.

[1] See Rachel Schneider’s blog post Eighteenth-Century Literature meets Twenty-First Century Tech, which reviewed the SHARP roundtable at ASECS 2014, organised by Katherine M. Quinsey, ‘Wormius in the Land of Tweets: Archival Studies, Textual Editing, and the Wiki-trained Undergraduate.’ Quotations in this post are from the authors’ proposals for the Digital Humanities Caucus panel ‘Digital Pedagogies’, organised by Benjamin Pauley and Stephen H. Gregg. The phrase ‘inspired by digital humanities’ is my deliberately broad definition that covers the wide variety of uses of digital technology and digital resources across the courses I’ve found. Since my particular interest is in eighteenth-century literature, if you are interested in syllabi that are focused on digital humanities beyond literature, or beyond the eighteenth century, then there are superb bibliographies here. Because I’m most interested in how these tools have been brought into the undergraduate classroom, I’ve not discussed here the (impressive and exemplary) graduate work in courses run by Lisa Maruca (see Mechanick Exercises), or Allison Muri’s Grub Street Project. For an excellent set of tips and examples see Adeline Koh’s essay ‘Introducing Digital Humanities Work to Undergraduates.’

[2] In this context I should acknowledge my debt to George Williams (University of South Carolina Upstate). George’s own course – despite being an eighteenth-centuryist – is focused on an earlier media shift, and is organized around Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Digital editing: students, building, sharing


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 –

New summer digital institute: Folger’s ‘Early Modern Digital Agendas’

This sounds very interesting indeed: the Folger library will be running a new summer institute in July 2013 on Early Modern digital humanities. I quote the announcement (on the Early Modern Digital Agendas website):

In July 2013, the Folger Institute will offer “Early Modern Digital Agendas”under the direction of Jonathan Hope, Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde. It is an NEH-funded, three-week institute that will explore the robust set of digital tools with period-specific challenges and limitations that early modern literary scholars now have at hand. “Early Modern Digital Agendas” will create a forum in which twenty faculty participants can historicize, theorize, and critically evaluate current and future digital approaches to early modern literary studies—from Early English Books Online-Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) to advanced corpus linguistics, semantic searching, and visualization theory—with discussion growing out of, and feeding back into, their own projects (current and envisaged). With the guidance of expert visiting faculty, attention will be paid to the ways new technologies are shaping the very nature of early modern research and the means by which scholars interpret texts, teach their students, and present their findings to other scholars.

This institute is supported by an Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities.

With thanks to EMOB.