Category Archives: Pedagogy

Spiralling: teaching undergraduate digital literary studies

Corporal Trim's spiral, from Tristram Shandy. Courtesy http://www.oneletterwords.com/tristram-shandy-squiggles/
Corporal Trim’s spiral, from Tristram Shandy. Courtesy http://www.oneletterwords.com/tristram-shandy-squiggles/

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.

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.

 

Encoding with English Literature undergrads

xmlgrabThis is an overview and reflection on a two-hour workshop I ran for English Literature undergraduates introducing XML/TEI. ‘Encoding worksheet’ (word doc) is here.

Previously I had taught XML/TEI in one-to-one tutorials, so this was the first time I had tried a group workshop, comprising two students who I was supervising (their final year dissertation projects were digital editions) and two students whose projects concerned print editing (from a module on Early Modern book history run by Prof. Ian Gadd). The knowledge base of these students was very varied: some had no experience of coding or markup; at the other end of the spectrum one was already competent with HTML. What, then, was the best way into encoding given this varied cohort?

TEI adviceMy answer was to start with the skills they already had (as @TEIConsortium emphasised), and emphasise the continuum between digital encoding and the traditional literary-critical analysis students use when preparing any text. After all, we’re so frequently concerned about the relationship between form and meaning. And it is the particular capability of XML/TEI to render this relationship between form and meaning that distinguishes it from other kinds of electronic coding.

So the first part of the workshop started with pencil-and-paper tasks. We first annotated a photocopy of a poem. Then I gave them a print out of the transcribed poem stripped of some of its features – title, line spaces, peculiar line breaks, italicisation. I then asked them to annotate, or markup, this version with a set of instructions to make it look like the ‘original’. The result was that the students not only marked up formal features, but clearly had a sense that these features also carried meaning. For example, I asked, “why was it important to render a line space?” I also pointed out that none of them had inserted the missing title in the plain text version, which raised some eyebrows: “Is it part of the text?” “Well, how do you define the text?”, I replied. These question were important for several reasons. I wanted to make the point that markup was a set of editorial and interpretative decisions about what the ‘text’ was and how it might be rendered and for what purpose. I also wanted to emphasis that both practices – whether pencil notes in the margin or encoding on a screen – involved very similar processes.

I next wanted to translate these points into an electronic context, by illustrating the differences between HTML as, essentially, a markup for how a text looks, to XML as a markup for describing that text. I did this by using my WordPress editor: by inserting a few HTML tags in the text editor mode then switching to the ‘visual’ mode they could see these features reproduced.[1]

At this point we moved to the computers and got down to some encoding in an XML editor (Oxygen). My main aim here was to enable them to markup the same poem in an XML editor to see how easily their literary-critical procedure could be transferred to this medium. In this, I was very gratified: all the students were able to create an XML file and mark up the poem remarkably easily.[2] I spent the last section of the workshop answering the implicit question: “you can’t read XML, so what is this for?” Given the restrictions on time, I had to briefly engage with some very broad issues of digitization and preservation and of analysing big data. Putting it simply, I remarked “computers are stupid,” (my mantra), “but if we markup up our texts cleverly, we can get computers to look at large bodies of knowledge with precision.” Demonstrating this was tricky given the time restrictions, but I had a go by exemplifying the more complex encoding of meaning possible in XML/TEI. I used a former student’s markup of Defoe’s Hymn to the Pillory and an XML file of A Journal of a Plague Year. The former demonstrated the encoding of names; for example I asked “how would a computer know that ‘S—ll’ is Dr Henry Sacheverell unless you have a way of encoding that?” The Journal was useful for demonstrating the highly structured nature of TEI and the ability of us to markup structural features of texts in precise ways: features that a computer can then process.

Journal-XMLgrab

I also demonstrated the flexibility of TEI: by inserting a new < after a </> XML automatically shows a dropdown list of possible markup elements and attributes. But my key point was that deciding which features to encode – out of all the possible features of a text – was an interpretative and editorial decision.

My aim for the workshop was modest: to enable students to make the leap from so-called ‘traditional’ literary-critical skills to the basics of encoding in XML, and in this I think the session was successful. On reflection, I think there two points which I hadn’t judged quite right. I hadn’t anticipated how quickly they could mark up a poem in XML; I think that was because the transition from pencil annotations to coding on screen worked very well. The last section – on the bigger point of getting computers to read literary texts – turned out to be more important than I had presumed and I would do this differently if I were to run this again. This might involve a follow-up session that, given the success of the first part of the session which involved hand-on tasks, would ask students to markup some more complex textual issues with TEI. This could be combined with a demo that not only showed some well-encoded texts but also the results of some data-mining of a medium-sized XML/TEI corpus.

I’ll keep you posted …

[1] There are probably better ways to demonstrate this, given the limitations of the WP text editor, but it was very much to hand.

[2] I acknowledge here my use of teaching materials from the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School (the very same ones from which I had learnt TEI).

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]

Digitisation

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.

How a database works: some thoughts on a student task

BeggarsmetadataHere’s some out-loud thinking about a session for my new module Digital Literary Studies. Since the module will require students to work with a wide range of online resources, I really wanted to make sure they could begin to understand how they work. Moreover, the module – via eighteenth-century literature – will be thinking about categorisation and representation, so I wanted to build a set of tasks that would introduce these issues. Below is a draft of what I might give to my students. (Acknowledgement: this is an adaptation of a student task devised by George Williams, who kindly shared it with me in a pub near the British Library). I’ll aim to write a post on how it goes.

Throughout this module we’re going to be working with a variety of online databases and resources, so the aim of this session is to get an idea of what happens behind the scenes (a.k.a the ‘interface’): it’s really about how data is ordered and managed so it can be searched. You might find it helpful before this session to look at other online databases and catalogues you’re used to using to see how you can search them (e.g. JSTOR or the BSU library catalogue).

  1. I’ve given you a number of music CDs: select two each. For each individual CD assign a sheet of paper and write down a list of information about it, beginning with the obvious categories of artist/group name and title of CD. Then move to other categories of information: at this point I’ll leave these up to you (and no conferring at this point – you’ll see why later).
  1. Congratulations, you’ve built a database! Let’s try some searches and see what happens.
  1. Now get together and compare your categories. For each category assign a sheet of paper and list all the relevant data for that category (i.e. one sheet will have all the artists/group names; another sheet will have all the titles; and so on for each category). Well done, you’ve now built what’s called a ‘relational database’.
  1. To what extent did you each order data differently? Was some information difficult to represent or categorise? How did you solve these differences and difficulties?
  1. At this point, we’ll try some more searches using your data and see what comes up and, perhaps, what is missing.

To conclude we’ll compare our database with something like the English Short-Title Catalogue and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. You’ll note that we’ve built a database that describes objects, but does not actually give us the object itself: in many cases this is called ‘meta-data’. (In different context, the electronic surveillance programmes run by NSA and GCHQ have been described as the analysis of meta-data: for a revealing view on such ‘data-mining’ see this fascinating piece of research by MIT researcher Ethan Zuckerman).

Digital editing: students, building, sharing

Lego_Brick

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

Fun with Google’s N-Gram Viewer for my C18th students

Just the other day I was preparing to teach Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768). Usually, I ask students to try to historicise the meanings of the word ‘sentimental’, in effect placing it within the broader culture of sensibility. This year, wondering how I might emphasise how new and even fashionable the word sentimental became in the latter half of the century, I thought of Google’s N-Gram Viewer. I’d seen this in action in relation to the eighteenth-century on the Persistent Enlightenment blog. So  I thought I’d give it a go:

ngramsentimental

There’s a gratfyingly significant rise from around the 1750s (and a small dip around the 1790s when sentimentalism was perceived in Britain to be associated with the radical levelling tendencies of the French Revolution). Of course this does not give us insight into the meanings of the word, but Google also offers links to the word’s place in the source material so that I hope my students can look at the word in context. It’s also useful when used in context with title searches on ESTC.

On another note, and since my students also engage with eighteenth-century contextual material from ECCO, I’ve often warned that the practice of capitalising certain words did not necessarily indicate particular significance, and that this was more often a printer’s convention for certain nouns that gradually died away towards the end of the century. The N-Gram Viewer is case-sensitive, so to search for different cases I clicked ‘case-insensitive’ and searched for ‘virtue’ between 1700 and 1799:

ngramvirtue

It’s great to see that cross-over so clearly. Clearly, the idea of virtue wasn’t going out of fashion, but the fashion for capitalising it was.

Using ECCO in the Undergraduate Classroom: Reviewing Gale Cengage’s Trial Access

More excellent remarks by Anna Battigelli on using ECCO at undergraduate level!

Early Modern Online Bibliography

Gale Cengage gave SUNY schools a great opportunity this semester by offering free trial access to ECCO, Burney, and NCCO.  I, for one, learned a lot from working with undergraduates in my Gothic Novels course as they searched ECCO for relevant material for their final research papers.  Those papers were mixed, with some outstanding essays and some less successful attempts.  I  summarize my experience below:

  • ECCO must be part of a strong digital collection in order to be fully usefuL.  Spotty digital holdings make using ECCO difficult.  For instance, without a subscription to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, new users find it difficult both to identify the author of a lesser known work and to assess that work’s historical or literary significance.
  • Using ECCO requires both competency with secondary sources and access to those sources.  Though some students used many secondary sources, even ordering books on interlibrary loan…

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