Texas A&M Digital Text Symposium

Thursday (10/19) through Saturday (10/21), I attended the “Digital Textual Studies: Past, Present, and Future” symposium at Texas A&M. Gig ’em. Speakers included lots of people whose work I already knew, but that’s what’s useful about symposia. You get to hear the formal version of the talk. Speakers included Jerome McGann (of Byron edition, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, Rossetti Archive, and NINES–and one of my dissertation advisors), Ken Price (Whitman Archive, lead faculty here at UNL on the Lincoln-Whitman-DC project), Morris Eaves (editor of William Blake Archive), Peter Shillingsburg (Thackeray editor and now a long-time friend), Peter Robinson (Chaucer Editor, now at Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at Birmingham), Martha Nell Smith (Emily Dickinson editor), Julia Flanders (Women Writers Project and many other things, at Brown), and Matt Kirschenbaum (director of Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities and pioneering thinker about editing of digitital objects). Between-talk, after-talk, and poster-presentation discussions were often as illuminating talk-talks, and folks I met briefly, or shared a car ride or had food with, included Amy Earhart at A&M, Lisa Spiro from Rice, Ann R. Hawkins at Texas Tech, Aimee Kendall Roundree of U of Houston-Downtown, Katherine Harris of San Jose St., and Eugene Lyman of Boston U.

In such a large group compressed over such an intense time, it’s hard to pick things. But I thought I’d gig a few. I think “gig” means impale on sharp object, as in (top Google result for, probably unpleasant for some) frog gigging. Jerry McGann’s keynote set the tone with two observations. First, the scholar-publishes-book-gets-tenure model is dead. U of VA Press once published 1500 copies of scholarly monographs. Now, it publishes less than 200. In such a publishing climate, what needs to change? the tenure model or the publication model. He suggests that the MLA and hidebound senior scholars are out of touch. Departments need to change. He also noted that they don’t change. UVA English Department, his example, now has 5 scholars who are involved in digital scholarship. Twenty years ago, it had “4.” Yes, Dr. McGann is promoting NINES for peer-reviewed electronic scholarship as an alternative, but it was nice to have a senior scholar who in addition to discussing seems to be trying to change the status quo. We junior scholars lack the clout to advocate for such ideas.

Ken Price talked about the names of projects (edition, archive) and suggested “thematic research collection” as a form of digital scholarly enterprise. The hard part is figuring out what separates a scholarly from a non-scholarly site. I too now could have appreciated it if Whitman had had a good housefire. Thanks to Peter Shillingsburg for again reminding us that editors can try to fix things, if in doing so editors make their interventions explicit. Morris Eaves discussed the the problem of editing images and the ways that we can use words to describe pictures. His examples included the Blake Archive and ICONCLASS. It reminded me of a discussion that I had with a group of scholars. When they learned that I worked at the Blake Archive, they asked my opinions about the controversy that the WBA’s effort to name the pictures had aroused. Being unaware of the controversy (because I worked in a different wing of the Archive and was an Americanist), I passed. But the question that occurs to me now is that “sure, object if you like.” If you don’t like the names or the categories, you can rename every one of them according to your own system. Editors don’t have final answers. Every decision is interpretive. In Blake, to identify a punctuation mark as a comma or dot or period is an act of interpretation. Take the Blake quote about creating a system or being “enslaved by another man’s”–see if you can find it on the Blake Archive. It is in the Archive, multiple times, and the text is indexed in the search. But it’s not easy to find, because editors who try to identify punctuation marks must interpret to do so. Editors do things because editing is the act of doing. A choice not to do is just as much an interpretive choice as a choice to do.

Peter Robinson offered the electronic editing model of the Scholar + Tame Expert. That is, a scholar who wants to do X but does not have the technical skills to do so digitally seeks out a tame expert to do the implementation. This model flies in the face of digital humanities rhetoric, which prefers collaboration. The collaboration model functions in the sciences, but we’ll know that humanities has recognized “humanities computing” or “digital humanities” as a core discipline (and not some step child to be patted on the head when natural child gets hug) when a digital dissertation has two author names on the title page. A collaborative humanities dissertation. Is it even thinkable? From the perspective of a digital humanist, Julia Flanders, the digital/humanities collaboration is at the core of the work, even if, as she suspects, both the humanities scholar and the digital scholar will reside in the same head for collaboration between the two disciplines to occur.

A digital humanities scholar with a lot going on in his head is Matt Kirschenbaum, who amused and horrified editors among symposium participants with the challenges of digital objects as material objects and the prospect of digital object editing as a thought experiment. First, from digital forensics, he showed that it’s almost impossible to erase your hard drive. Trash/recycle bin dumped, still readable. Digitally erase to US Dept. of defense standards, still readable. Burned in fire, still readable. Cut in pieces, still readable. Smashed with hammer, still readable. Every moment of every aspect of your virtual communication, recoverable if medium on which it occurred can be identified. It can be. Maybe melting your old hard drive would be a start.

Thanks to everyone at A&M for putting on the symposium. Thanks to Eugene Lyman and Peter Robinson for their models of electronic editions to aspire to. Thanks for Aimee Kendall Roundtree for going toe-to-toe with physicists on their interpretive digital models, Carlos Monroy for exhibiting the Donne project, Amy Earhart and Lisa Spiro for more to think about on mapping. Thanks to the Houston blogger, whose name I’ve misplaced, who had the interest and gumption to just attend, patience to listen to textual scholars, and the temerity to remind us that our concerns seemed narrow and provincial in a wider world.

And there’s of course another reading list. Scholars are never done, never caught up, barely sane.

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One Response to Texas A&M Digital Text Symposium

  1. Amy Earhart says:

    Hi! Just found this lovely summary of our workshop. Thanks again for attending.

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