The Unfinished Text: Lifelong Learning in Digital Literary Studies

I have exciting news, my Digital Humanities class is putting together a CommentPress book. We’ve been collaborating on the topic for the book for the past few weeks and finally narrowed it down to three subtopics: Digital Humanities and New Texts, Digital Humanities and Pop Culture, and Digital Humanities and Pedagogy. We split up the class into three groups, based on the subtopics. I joined the group writing about DH and “new texts.” In our initial group meeting we brainstormed the topics for our papers, discussed important research questions, and promised to collaborate and help each other in the research and writing process. Of course, we have a lot more brainstorming, researching, and writing to go, but I decided to share some of my initial brainstorming with you.

I’ve been thinking about the title of my own piece, hoping that it will help generate new questions and ideas. I’ve come up with: “The Unfinished Text: Lifelong Learning in Digital Literary Studies.” Note that this is a working title, by no means do I expect it to be the final title of my paper. I expect that as I do more research and begin to write, other ideas will surface. For now and for my initial purpose, however, the title works.

I’ve noticed a trend in many of the digital humanities works that I have been studying this semester. Many of the works discuss the idea of the “unfinished text.” In other words, digital English studies have created the “unfinished text,” or a text–whether it is a digital book, essay, or blog–that can continually be revised. Digital texts allow the author or authors to revisit the text again and again, and make changes at their own convenience. This is different from published printed works, because although the text is able to be edited, it is only done so with approval and with the addition of a new published “edition.” Also in the digital text is the audience’s ability to participate in the text. Whereas in a print text the reader is able to make marginal notes, in a digital text the reader can make his “notes” available to the author. In other words, the reader can ask the author questions, make suggestions or observations in a comment thread. The author then has the opportunity to connect with the reader, to answer her questions or to “comment” on her “comment.” With digital texts not only are the author and the reader connected, but they are connected in such a way that their conversation continually adds to the work. Their conversation adds another layer, another way of reading the text that the another reader can participate in. The ability of the reader and author to converse and the author’s ability to continually edit (or “update”) his work results in the unfinished text. The text’s finality is constantly deferred; it is never finished. It is never a “closed book,” but a “text” that can be continually updated. I believe that the unfinished text results in “lifelong learning.” In other words, because the text can never be “finished” in the sense that it cannot be added to, the text continually teaches the reader new things.

I did some preliminary research on this topic in hopes that other sources can help me think more clearly through my topic. Here is some of the research I came across, all which–in some sense–deal with the idea of a continually revised text.

In The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age John Bryant’s “Where is the Text of America? Witnessing Revision and the Online Critical Archive”¬†

Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel 

In A Companion to Digital Literary Studies Carolyn Guertin’s “Handholding, Remixing, and the Instant Replay: New Narratives in a Post Narrative World” and Aimeee Morrison’s “Blogs and Blogging: Text and Practice” ¬†

Stay tuned for more updates!

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Earhart on Voyant

This week’s “weekly create” is to play around with a tool of our choice. Since I wasn’t too thrilled about Docuburst (see Docuburst is Bursting with Information?) I decided to play around with a tool that is much more comprehensible and helpful.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to Voyant!

Voyant is a tool that allows you to copy and paste text or upload a document. Voyant takes the text you give it and creates a word cloud from it. The word cloud contains the words that are repeated most throughout the text. The larger the word, the more often the word appears in the text.

I have to be honest though. This wasn’t my first time using Voyant. I’ve looked at Voyant before and created one or two word clouds to test it out and see how it worked. However, it was my first time using Voyant for academic purposes and that is what I want to talk to you about.

Allow me to explain…

For class this week I am leading a discussion of Amy E. Earhart’s “Challenging Gaps: Redesigning Collaboration in the Digital Humanities” (see Collaborating in the Humanities to Create the Digital Humanities). I used Voyant to help me understand Earhart’s main points and to help me plan my discussion. Here is the word cloud Voyant gave me:

Earhart on Voyant

The first thing I noticed was that to, and, that, of, & in are used the most in her work. While knowing this information has the potential to be helpful, it wasn’t the kind of information I was interested in. If I had time (and the patience) I could have gone through her work and deleted every to, and, that of & in. Doing that would have narrowed my search results to the important words, the words that express her main ideas. Instead, I worked with what I had and looked for the words that were slightly smaller in the word cloud. Those words included humanities, digital, project, work, and collaboration. Since Voyant not only gives the user a word cloud, but a list of how many times a word is used in the work, I was able to see that although collaboration is the main idea of the work, it is only used 38 times whereas the word “humanities” is used 84 times. Interestingly, the word “we” is used 58 times, which suggests the author’s openness to collaboration and teamwork within her own work.

The information Voyant gave me was helpful because it highlighted what I should pay attention to in Earhart’s work. It also provoked questions about Earhart’s work and ideas that helped shape my discussion. In essence, it practiced “distant reading” so I could close read better.

Collaborating in the Humanities to Create the Digital Humanities

For class this week I am in charge of leading a discussion on Amy E. Earhart’s essay “Challenging Gaps: Redesigning Collaboration in the Digital Humanities.” Because I found the piece to be enlightening in terms of digital humanities work, especially collaboration, I decided to share a brief summary of her work with you.

Earhart begins her discussion on collaboration in the digital humanities by explaining why collaboration is important for the digital humanities. She states that at many universities in the United States, specifically Texas A&M, are creating a “master plan[s]” (27) for “research, teaching, and service … that makes explicit that our scholarly production addresses the ‘grand challenges of society'” (27). In other words, universities like Texas A&M are beginning to set goals for themselves that will determine the ways in which their research, teaching and service connect to the “bigger picture,” or society. Collaboration, Earhart claims, is a part of these master plans. In fact, not only is it one part, it is the “key criterion” (27) which suggests that it is necessary for these universities. In order to understand collaboration and how universities may use it, Earhart expresses an important difference between “interdisciplinarity” and collaboration; interdisciplinarity is not the same as collaboration. To say that a project has multiple disciplines and multiple authors is not always the same. Importantly, Earhart notes that interdisciplinary studies are currently “alive” or exist within the humanities whereas collaboration is not as widespread. Also importantly, Earhart refers to collaboration as a “looming issue” (29). It is not an “open and shut” case because it can occur in so many ways, yet contain so many challenges.

There are specific parts of collaboration that Earhart addresses in her essay. Specifically, she addresses a main concern of humanists when it comes to collaboration: ownership. She refers to the question of ownership as an unresolved tension in collaboration. How does ownership in collaboration work? In the current academic system it is often the case that more than one author to a work doesn’t seem “scholarly.” She implies that if the current system was replaced with one that rewards joint work then it may ease (or erase?) the tension. Notably, Earhart claims that the traditional humanists who reject digital humanities,also reject collaboration because of the question of ownership. The question of ownership may also be eased if collaboration were seen as analogous to a laboratory model. The laboratory model is helpful in terms of collaboration because it emphasizes new discoveries at the same time that it emphasizes research that is shared throughout multiple generations. However, Earhart warns us to not rely too heavily on this model because sciences often don’t include women and minorities in their research. She cites the Walt Whitman Archive as an example of a collaborative/lab model in the digital humanities.

She then touches on the issue of funding in collaborative digital humanities projects. There are two ways that digital humanities projects can be funded. Institutional centers that give support such as funds, skills, and equipment (33) is one way. For those who do not have access to institutional centers, there are project partnerships. However, these project partnerships can pose problems for the humanist. For example, humanists and technologists approach research and scholarship in different ways. The humanist may focus on the goal of the project or the project’s outcome, while technologists may be interested in the technological application in which the project takes place. Earhart notes that the project partnerships will be successful if both parties focus on the process of the project. After all, the process is what makes a difference when it comes to the digital humanities. Humanists that are working within the digital humanities should focus on experimentation.

Importantly, Earhart wants to “restructure” the collaborative group to include those inside and outside academia. In other words, one does not always have to collaborate with those inside the academic system. There are two external partnerships that can take place. One incorporates the academic project with business and museum/library interests. Her example is the 19th Century Concord Digital Archive. Another is the open source community. The open source community can be helpful because it invites participation from the open source community (which in other words, refers to those knowledgeable within the community but are not considered academic professionals). Earhart suggests that help from open source communities can and should be taken. She compares this to Richard Miller’s idea of “boundary objects” (37). An example of an open sourced collaborative project is BBC’s Backstage movement.

What is most important to Earhart’s discussion is her belief that a professional working on a collaborative project should be knowledgeable about the fields of the other professionals with whom she is working. Earhart says that the professionals collaborating should be “equal players” (38). If the professionals are equal players then they will be able to understand how the disciplines affect the project and therefore understand the project better. Also, the professionals must not only be able to share knowledge, but share project space.

Finally, Earhart concludes her essay by thinking about collaborative projects and the graduate student. She states that collaborative projects may be helpful to college students. A lab collaborative project can allow the student to decide how she wants to participate in the digital humanities project at hand. As Earhart states, it can “give students power to develop their own piece of a project” (40). Therefore, students will not only help with the project, but they can contribute to the project as well. Importantly, if the graduate student is involved in a lab collaboration, then a new relationship occurs between the student and the faculty member. Their relationship becomes a interdependent one; they learn from each other.