Category Archives: digital literacy

Students and the digital edition. A polemic

GhostscriptThis is the text of a talk I gave at the panel session for ‘Opening the book: reading and the evolving technology(ies) of the book’ for Academic Book Week, at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, London. 10th November, 2016. This post first appeared on the IHR blog.

I want to talk about the undergraduate perspective on a particular kind of academic book – the edition. In fact my starting point is that, from the student perspective (and according to some scholars), there is no longer a clear idea of what that is.

The place and perceived value of the printed critical edition seems to be still firmly established. I once asked my students to identify and compare value markers of their printed text in front of them and of an online version of the same text, and they made a pretty good case for the printed text, citing everything from the name of the publisher, to modes of reading, navigation, and interaction, and even pointing to the durability of its medium. And this in a digital humanities module. However, asking them to tell me how and why either of these versions look the way they do was a far more tricky question. So my polemic will be a plea for teaching in a way that puts students themselves in the position of editors and curators of literary texts: and that the best way of doing this is an engagement with digital editing and curating.

But first, I’m going to begin by outlining how a dramatic rise in the online availability of our literary heritage drives certain changes in reading and studying practices. When a lot of academics are running to catch up with the accelerating process in disseminating the world’s literary heritage online – even in their own field, and I include myself – is it any wonder that our students, stepping off the path of the printed set text, also find themselves slightly taken aback and click on the top hit in Google? Because there is indeed a chaotic mass of types of texts they can find. In addition to catalogue entries and Amazon hits, there are texts from web sites and web ventures that essentially depend upon some form of commercial revenue or profit (e.g. Google, Luminarium, editions via Kindle, and even apps), non-profit web organisations (e.g. Project Gutenberg, Poemhunter, Internet Archive, Hathi Trust), nationally-supported or privately-endowed institutions (e.g. Folger digital texts, British Library Shakespeare Folios), University libraries (e.g. SCETI, Virginia, Adelaide, Bodleian), a whole host of academic projects (e.g. Rosetti Archive, EEBO-TCP, the Correspondence of William Godwin, the Walt Whitman Archive) and, of course, via institutionally-accessed and pay-walled commercial publishers (like Cengage or ProQuest). My essential point is that there is a blurring of the definition of the ‘edition’. What we see – for sometimes good reasons – are projects that describe themselves as digital archives, databases, digital library collections, social editions (like Transcribe Bentham), and apps (e.g. Touchpress’s The Wasteland). And texts that come via these platforms look, feel and function very differently.

Between the printed and digital text, there’s a two-way process happening. The easy and quick availability of texts online drives a certain kind of reading of printed editions which makes invisible ‘the history of their own making’ (D. F. McKenzie).[1] At the same time, undergraduates don’t often spot the distinction between the kinds of texts they find online and the one in their printed critical editions. This partly because they see only the text in their editions, and not the ‘edition’ (introduction, textual note, annotations, etc.): the actual edition becomes invisible. I don’t want to denigrate undergraduates’ skills and this isn’t entirely the students’ fault: it’s partly how English literary studies – at least in many seminar rooms – is still running with the idea of the literary text as an immaterial abstraction (despite the influence of various kinds of historicization). It’s this that renders invisible the processes that shape the form of the book in their hands. So I guess my rant is partly a plea for a serious consideration for the materiality of the book and a bigger role for the history of the book in English Studies.

But I’m also thinking about the lack of attention (at undergraduate level) paid to how editions and texts end up on the web in the ways they do. Formats vary hugely, from poorly catalogued page facsimiles, to unattributed HTML editing of dodgy nineteenth-century editions, to scholarly high-standard editing with XML/TEI encoding. But there are still plenty of these digital versions and collections that make it very difficult to see who these resources are for and how they got to look and function the way they do. And, as I’ve hinted at earlier, issues of format and accessibility are linked to how the various sites and projects are funded. In significant ways a lot of texts available digitally do much worse than the print edition at signalling ‘The history of their own making.’

So, the second half of my polemic is about how we should be making our students more aware of how the edition is remediated based on an understanding of the limits and affordances of digital technology and of how the internet works.[2] Because this is where digital technology can open their books in a vital way. I’ve found it intensely interesting that the digital humanities community has been using a variety of material and haptic metaphors to describe what it is they are doing – ‘making’ or ‘building.’[3] For me, this is wonderfully suggestive. In asking my students to understand the processes involved in transforming a material book into an printed edition and then a digital edition is a necessarily haptic experience. This experience – a process that involves decisions about audience, purpose, authority, and technological affordances and restraints – enables a student to understand their literary object of study in a vital and transformative way. It might seem odd that I’m emphasising materiality in a debate thinking through the effects of what is, ostensibly, an immaterial medium, but technology is material and digital editing should involve the material aspects of the book and material work. My undergraduate dissertation student is producing a digital edition of a work by Henry Fielding: she will be going to the British Library to see the source text as an essential part of her learning. In a few weeks time, my students will be building a digital scanner partly out of cardboard; after that even our training in digital markup will start with pencil and a printed sheet of paper.

So I’m arguing that we give students the opportunity to be academic editors of books, and not just in theory but in practice; to enable them to be creators and not merely consumers of texts, because the electronic editions of the future should be powered by an early and vital experience of digital making.

[1] D. F. McKenzie, quoted in Jerome McGann, ‘Coda. Why digital textual scholarship matters; or, philology in a new key,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship, eds, Neil Fraistat and Julia Flanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 274-88 (p.274).

[2] I’m always reminded of internet hacktivist Aaron Swartz’s maxim: ‘It’s not OK not to understand the internet anymore.’

[3] Most notably Stephen Ramsay, On Building.


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.


21stC web activist and 18thC feminist in one speech …


Dame Martha Lane Fox, who is championing the setting up of an Institute  – Dot Everyone – to drive digital knowledge in the UK, quoted the late internet activist Aaron Swartz in her talk for the BBC Dimbleby Lecture: “It’s not OK not to understand the internet anymore.” In a talk ‘Dot Everyone: Power, the Internet, and You’ she outlined three areas in which the UK needs to develop its digital skills:

  • to educate and understand the history of the internet;
  • to put women at the centre of digital skills and address the current gender imbalance;
  • to take a lead in exmining the moral and ethical challanges posed by the internet.

Throughout, she also name-checked pioneers in computer technology such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. In calling for a revolution in the government’s thinking towards digital skills, she finished her talk by quoting someone we students of eighteenth-century English writing are very aware of: the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft: “the beginning is always  today”. I was impressed …