Digital Scholarship and the Single Scholar

Dot Porter of Kentucky issued a call for the Digital Humanities 2007 conference. Her emphasis was the experience of single scholars with digital projects. I sent this proposal, but I will be unable to attend Digital Humanities. Perhaps it might be interesting to graduate students considering the preparation of a digital dissertation. While I’m not a pioneer, digital dissertations are still comparatively rare in the humanities.

Portrait of a Digital Dissertation: My Four-Year Tear through Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village

A common institutional distinction for the sciences and the humanities is that the former promotes collaboration and the latter encourages and celebrates the achievement of the individual scholar. The evidence for the validity of the distinction is prominent on the byline of scholarly articles. Science journals typically include a list of names, but humanities journals have one name to represent the author function. At the University of Nebraska Pauley Symposium on Digital History, the word digital was frequently invoked as capable of breaking down disciplinary barriers against collaboration in the humanities. No doubt it has. But I suspect that no educational institution has awarded multiple Ph.D.s for a single digital project, and a digital project submitted in fulfillment of a humanities Ph.D. will almost certainly be authored by one person. As a “single scholar” who fulfilled the requirements of an English Ph.D. with a digital edition at the University of Virginia, I would like to summarize the funding challenges and scholarly rewards that such a framework offers, if only to report like Stephen Crane the experience of a single soldier on the front lines rather than the coordinated movement of armies.

I completed a digital edition of the National Era version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and wrote a comparatively short dissertation (250 pages) in a compressed time-frame, approximately two and one-half years, and the intense scholarly devotion necessary to complete the project would have been impossible without the University of Virginia’s rich collection and infrastructure for digital scholarship. I would even recommend that new graduate students, if they are interested in digital humanities scholarship, choose an institution with a history of supporting such work. I chose the University of Virginia because the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) was present at Virginia, the English department featured noted scholars in bibliography and digital humanities, and the library held the manuscript of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which I intended to edit digitally. As I edited Uncle Tom’s Cabin, my experience is also a cautionary tale that things change in graduate school. Incoming graduate students who would choose between a conventional dissertation and a digital project ought to be aware that a change from a conventional dissertation to a digital project (without institutional support) would have been nearly impossible.

Dissertation-level editorial projects–of which I am familiar with two others at the University of Virginia (Tim Stinson’s Siege of Jerusalem and Justin Scott Van Kleek’s The Four Zoa’s)–evolved in response to institutional resources. The formal structure of IATH (which is limited in its support of graduate student projects) meant that I mostly drew on it for consultation and training (thanks Daniel Pitti). At various stages of the project, I drew on materials and training in the Library’s Rare Materials and Digital Services (RMDS), technical expertise in the Library’s Electronic Text Center, and the phenomenal institutional support provided by a recent addition to the Library, Digital Research and Instructional Services (DRIS). The purpose of this last group, as best I could tell, was to help me to complete the digital dissertation. My fellow 2006 Ph.D. Tim Stinson took four years, one of which aided by a university fellowship, to complete his dissertation, and he drew on the expertise of the Piers Plowman project, which is led by English faculty member Hoyt J. Duggan. Justin Scott Van Kleek’s project drew on the William Blake Archive, but his initial plan to create an edition-style dissertation changed. Dr. Stinson published a CD-based edition as part of his dissertation, but Dr. Van Kleek wrote a monograph-style dissertation and postponed the digital edition for later publication.

The University of Virginia offered my digital project a patchwork of financial and technical support. All support was negotiated through informal or semi-formal channels: twice I was informed that my project was a prototype of sorts. My project’s funding needs were met in three ways. At RMDS and DRIS, I gained the time of technical staff and the use of equipment. To acquire digital images from an outside institution would probably have cost tens of thousands of dollars (for grant proposals–add a year or two to the dissertation schedule), but my project did not bear that cost. The Library absorbed the cost of photographing newspaper pages (an RMDS prototype) and never troubled me about it. An alternative method of supporting digital scholarship, dissertation fellowships, did not materialize in my case. One year after I began, my project was not far enough along to compete with scholars later in their career (such as Tim). During the middle of my second full year of dissertation writing, I was already on the job market and discouraged from competing, as the time-line for completing the dissertation in my fellowship application would conflict with statements on my vita and job letters. As RMDS had, DRIS provided a programmer to perform data transformations and web site implementations, a service that also would have cost tens of thousands of dollars (prototype). The third tier of my financial support was initially borne by outside jobs and moderate student loans, but the last year I began a spiral of student loan and credit card debt. I gained time to complete the dissertation primarily because I lost my outside job.

If the disadvantages were primarily to personal financial health, the advantages of my way of proceeding were primarily in intellectual contributions to my research. I had completed a small digital scholarly edition under the tutelage of David Vander Meulen and John Unsworth before I began my dissertation. That same semester I had an “Ah ha!” moment when I saw the newspaper version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I joined the William Blake Archive shortly afterward, and within another year I had acquired training in XML and XSLT, both independently of my dissertation project. During the prospectus stage of my dissertation I discussed with Jerome McGann why a highest-level division of a newspaper serial should be installments, not chapters. Within months I had transcribed the text and was writing a specification for transforming typographic markup (for a collation tool called CASE, provided courtesy of Peter L. Shillingsburg) into TEI-conformant XML. I handed the specification off to a library specialist. By the time an Electronic Text Center (then still E-Text) specialist and then a DRIS specialist completed the PERL script for CASE-to-XML conversion, I had been trained on archival photography, had digitized 184 newspaper pages, and had completed a chapter draft. A year later, the remaining four chapters were complete and the project was implemented online (thanks to Bess Sadler of DRIS). From the start to the end of the dissertation project, I was proofreading (two electronic comparison, one oral, and one silent). I’m still proofreading, but the project is online at my dissertation site, has a version of the text available at the Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture site, and is intended in a few years to join NINES (when I complete the Jewett edition).

I’d recommend that the single digital scholar do as I did, but as a married man with children soon to be in middle school, my major remaining concern is to pay off the loans for my education before my dependents begin their own higher education. The current assumptions about graduate students, that they are ascetic and single or that they have the financial support of their parents, does not serve scholarship. It took the support of family and Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village to complete my dissertation project, but I owe intellectual debts to such a wide range of scholars and gratitude to such a wide range of support staff that it feels somewhat presumptuous to claim editorship of the digital edition. Library support staff made it possible, and my recognition of the contribution of library and IATH staff contributed to my decision to take a look at the CLIR program, which places post-doctoral fellows from humanities in libraries, frequently in digital projects. In my dissertation acknowledgments page, I wrote the following of Bess Sadler, the DRIS staff member who did most to shepherd my project into its digital iteration: “She made the electronic edition a truly collaborative project. I have not done it on my own, and I could not have done so.”

Thus I at least question the format of the dissertation title page, and I encourage any institution that supports would-be digital scholars to recognize that even a single-person project like a digital dissertation needs institutional frameworks to provide support. My support was substantial even if informal in make-up, but a better system would be to build into university institutions (such as libraries) formally organized support departments to serve scholars who contemplate digital projects. From my current standpoint, at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities in Nebraska, I see the germs of formal support for scholars interested in digital dissertation projects. But I also witness the tensions of funding, in which the needs of graduate students for support in digital scholarship does not necessarily square with institution’s commitment to undergraduate education and to faculty research. Even single soldiers during the Civil War needed supply lines for clothing, shoes, and ammunition, and my current digital project at Nebraska on “Lincoln, Whitman and Washington D.C. during the Civil War” in part attempts to chart the relationship between soldiers and institutions. I challenge educational institutions to have the courage to build these systems without the manufactured necessity of war.

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3 Responses to Digital Scholarship and the Single Scholar

  1. stinson says:


    A great blog entry here. First, I’d like to mention a few more digital dissertation projects – John Carlson recently completed an edition of the alliterative Morte Arthure, and Pat Bart is nearing completion of an edition of a particularly interesting manuscript of Piers Plowman – Huntington MS 114. And before us there were other pioneers, including folks such as Matt Kirschenbaum, now at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

    I, too, benefited substantially from the help of others and the infrastructure at UVA when working on my dissertation. Professor Duggan was endlessly generous in sharing his expertise, and Pat and John both passed on their hard-won knowledge from their own work. And I, like you, also learned a great deal from some of the amazing folks strolling the Grounds at UVA, including Vander Meulen, McGann, and Pitti. I feel that I struggled for a long time before forming a community around my work precisely because of the model of the solitary humanities scholar that you discuss so eloquently – I should have realized that the media in which I was working mandate a group approach and cultivated this. Instead I would often seek out the help of others once I felt stuck – once I had tried in vain to solve some technical problem or other. On the other hand, it strikes me that much of what we do as digital humanists is quite solitary – the hours and hours (and HOURS) or coding, transcription, proofreading are all very solitary.

    My own work digitizing medieval literature and texts causes me to see this scholarly isolation, as well as this assumption of the primacy of texts produced by solitary agents, as in part a product of the technology of print. In a manuscript culture, multiple authors, scribes occupying authorial roles, and recombinant textuality were all norms. Texts were replicated and shared as joint ventures. Yes, of course there were geniuses like Chaucer who firmly stamped their texts with their own auctoritas. But he and authors like him are more exception than rule, and even he participated in recombinant textuality, swiping this narrative or that passage and building his own text from it. It seems to me that many features of medieval textuality are coming full circle, with multiple authorship, recombinant media, and the simultaneous presence of competing authority being features of medieval texts as well as of Web 2.0. And other similarities, e.g. the integration of image and text, are making a strong comeback as well. I find it fascinating that these digital media are pushing us towards corporate authorship and away from the romantic solitary genius model bequeathed to us by the print era.

  2. wraabe says:

    I appreciate your emphasis on the community that makes a project possible. As I focussed on institutional frameworks for support, I did not mention the many people who volunteered (or were co-opted) into helping with my dissertation.

    Other projects had transcribed Era version of UTC, so I was able to electronically compare their text to my own transcription. Justin kindly inserted errors into my electronic files so that I could assess the efficacy of oral proofreading. My spouse and three English department graduate students volunteered to aid in oral proofreading. Virginia’s 19th C. reading group (all in English dept., all British lit., except me) read chapters.

    I’d quibble with your identification of the print era with the solitary genius model. But sustained attention to a physical object from the past SHOULD remind one of the multiple participants. After I went to the Virginia Book Arts Center and tried to hand-set one damn line of 9-point type in two hours, I gained a new appreciation for the compositors. And I decided that the fancy electronic tools bequeathed to me brought with them an obligation to do the work more conscientiously than would have been possible without them.



  3. stinson says:

    You’re absolutely correct that any sustained attention to a physical object from the past SHOULD remind one of the multiple participants. But of course such sustained attention has been in short supply, and many critics have been rather innocent, to put it mildly, of where texts come from. And indeed when their awareness is raised, many have held in sleight regard the vast amount that there is to learn about literature and literary transmission and production from an examination of physical objects. Their criticism, in turn, treated these texts as the products of solitary geniuses (or perhaps other mysterious forces) – as seas of “correct”, unencumbered text with nice white margins. If you have the Riverside Chaucer, by God, you have the word of Chaucer!

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