Exceptions [Im]proving the Rules

Or, how exceptional students and their projects improve the rules by which we do digital scholarship.

As a followup to my last post, which was essentially a reposting of an email about why one might use the TEI Guidelines for any given text-based digital project, I’ll post a few observations that stem from Tess Henthorne’s brief presenation of her Independent Study (IS) to faculty and students from the English department. First, though, I’ll say that she did Tess Henthorne's Presentationa wonderful job articulating just why she wants to encode a text as part of her IS rather than just transcribe it. In short (and I hope I’m doing justice to her thoughts here), it enriches her text – Glady Fornel’s Montel – and opens its potential for future scholarship, her own and others’. I’ll also note as an aside how it’s clear that some – maybe most – of the people who are thinking about Tess’s IS as a “digital IS” are thinking in terms of visible, human-readable results. That is to say that folks are thinking about Milton’s Reading Room (e.g.) or a searchable database, neither of which is necessarily Tess’s goal. It will be a challenge for this small team to navigate the distances between different conceptualizations of a “digital project.” From scholars doing the heavy (and often inglorious) lifting of text-encoding, I’d be grateful to hear how you make these distinctions to various constituencies. How have you bridged this language barrier?

But I digress.

Tess’s presentation gave me an opportunity to reflect on the importance of projects like hers that do not fall under the direct jurisdiction of our Digital Scholarship grant. If one of the goals of the OH5DS grant and others like it is to use projects as the springboards for building the larger systems that will create and foster sustainable digital scholarship, then Tess’s project – probably because it doesn’t conform to our scripted workflows – gives us an opportunity to test our systems in the wild. It is a chance to make sure that we are building up an environment that is robust enough to foster the digital scholarship of faculty and students (and staff, ideally). So, how has Tess’s project kept us honest in this way?

  • It builds out from the technical and scholarly concerns of the more directly grant-related projects. The Ohio Five libraries’ 2015 Summer Institute helped frame a conversation about the utility of TEI to the consortium’s digital projects. Whether it is for relatively stable preservation in the face of changing technologies or for enhanced scholarship in text-based research, we have been thinking through how the TEI fits into the ways we talk about projects. Wooster has been the testing ground for encoding projects and the teams here have been pushing the boundaries ever outward; advising on Tess’s project continues this trend and, like the other projects, will inform the work we do elewhere in the consortium long after the term of the grant.
  • It amplifies the conversation about digital scholarship. I have said to anyone who will listen that we need to continue to have our conversations about digital scholarship out loud and in public so that it becomes sewn into the fabric of our scholarly culture. Opening this conversation to student constituencies, in addition to helpfully complicating our frames of reference, brings more and different voices into the conversation.
  • It broadens the audience for that conversation. Perhaps especially in the liberal arts setting, the campus community pays attention differently when students are speaking. Advisors and faculty who might not be invested in, say, “the Digital Humanities” as such, are intrinsically invested in their students’ interests and research. Alongside one another we learn how to think and talk about digitally-inflected work in places where we haven’t necessarily seen it (like Engish departments).
  • Finally, it tellingly resonates with issues of evaluation of digital scholarship. As we wade together through the technical “hows” and the theoretical “whys,” we also come up against the question of what it means to do digital scholarship on our campuses and in our consortium. In the larger world of digital schoalrship, the most visible manifestation of this consideration has centered on evaluation for the purposes of tenure and promotion of faculty in the humanities and social sciences. We see this focus, for example, in the important documents published by the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and in a special issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities (Fall 2012). I wonder, though, if students’ work forces us to think about evaluation more acutely, more urgently than when we are wrestling with tenure and promotion guildelines. I cannot imagine telling a student that they could not pursue a given research question because we do not know what to make of it; instead, we figure out what to make of it. Projects like Tess’s allow us force us to explore the question locally so that it might inform the broad context.

To conclude I’ll simply say that I am grateful to be a part of Tess’s team, and that I hope we can see other such projects pop up around the Ohio Five. Most importantly, I hope that we can have the resulting conversations out loud and in public so that we can learn, as a community, how it is that we do digital scholarship around here.

Why We TEI

I originally wrote this in November 2015 in an email to a team at Wooster working on a digital Independent Study, or “IS” as it’s called at Wooster. I have been lucky to be involved with a Wooster senior, Tess Henthorne, who wants to encode and study a heretofore unpublished work by a little-known early twentieth-century woman writer. In our project meetings we were wrestling with a couple of issues: (a) what is our desired scholarly output and (b) do we need the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines to achieve that? I wrote this email as a reminder – mostly as a touchstone for myself – of how we might frame the utility of textual encoding in and of itself, and how we might frame later phases of the project that allow our student researcher to further (or further complicate) her arguments about the text.

Tess is giving a presentation to the English department later this week, so I post this (slightly revised version) here, in part, as a primer not on the process of encoding but on the rationale for deciding to do it, and in TEI. My hope is that it can provide some context for the kinds of questions with which students (and the rest of us) wrestle when thinking through digital projects. I also hope (gentle reader) that you’ll correct or complicate my ideas herein, either by comment below or on our Facebook page as a comment on the post.

website_blog_scholar_screen2We should remember that one encodes in TEI for (maybe) two distinct, if related, reasons. Primarily TEI allows a scholar to plug into and share with a larger community of textual and literary scholars. I think that, for the purposes of the IS, we’re talking about a tiered argument for the utility of TEI encoding for which this is our baseline purpose. In this scenario, to my mind, the IS looks similar to a traditional IS with the addition of a digital edition that is basic TEI, enriched with header data and a potential contribution to the larger TEI/literary studies community. The argument here isn’t necessarily the making-public (i.e. publication) of a digital version of Montel, but a digital edition that can comprise the basis for future or additional digital analysis. What Tess has been calling the “Critical Introduction” (I think?) is the thing that looks like a typical argument in literary studies. But the IS will also include a section that explains “why a digital edition,” which is basically the argument above: in an increasingly digital scholarly landscape this edition will (a) contribute to the community, (b) increase the potential for future work on Montel/Fornell [the author] because of discoverability and standard markup (i.e. TEI), and (c) create a digital surrogate that has a greater chance of survival as technologies and digital infrastructure evolve.

This is all related to the primary reason that we TEI. (Yes, I’m using it as a verb :-). )

I actually think there’s a sub-reason in here that represents another possible tier as we consider the IS, and that’s the critical encoding. (Maybe it’s not a “sub-reason” but a more specific example of why we TEI.) So, whether or not it’s displayed to the world in (say) boilerplate, markup is an argument. This is a very important point when we’re talking about TEI to literary scholars. One makes a critical decision to tag something (e.g. the word “Jersey”), and one then makes a critical decision about how to tag it (i.e. is that a place? or a cow? or an article of clothing? a person’s nickname? Is it actually two or more of these at once: a metaphor?). So the argument for this tier would look something like this: Tess has an interpretation of Montel and Fornell, she decides how to represent the interpretation via markup of Montel, and then produces a TEI-encoded digital edition that is a representation of that interpretation.[note] Because it uses standard guidelines, all of the points above about its contribution to the “digital scholarly landscape” still hold. The IS then has to fold in an argument, similar to the first, that justifies the existence of this digital component. And this is an important point: this is all true whether or not a text is displayed on the web or otherwise visible. It’s the existence of this digital object that’s important, not necessarily that it’s human-readable. Not yet, anyway.

This brings me to the last (only secondary?) point: what one encodes in TEI is the potential for further digital research that this digital edition affords. Once we’re talking about doing something with that marked up, structured digital object — creating a display of critically encoded text using (say) Boilerplate — we’re talking about a different kind of digital humanities project. This represents the advanced tier of this enterprise because it involves programming and a different (new, additional, necessarily subsequent) set of research questions. Then it becomes less about the literary argument as such and more about how we can leverage technology to (a) make that argument more visible or (b) read the argument through a different lens altogether. It’s about reading something other than the text itself, something that’s one remove from the text itself. It’s a valuable enterprise — it’s a digital humanities enterprise — but it’s different in its methods and logic than the encoding itself. And, importantly, it relies on that thoughtful encoding — it relies on the digital, structured representation of an interpretation — for it to tell us anything.

It might be useful to think of these tiers as different kinds of reading. The first two are still, at their core, about reading the text, which is something that looks familiar to all of us, especially we literature/humanities types. The latter tier, though, is about reading an interpretation of an interpretation. In its best form it utilizes the encoded text as data: it reads your reading, interprets your interpretation. And then the researcher is interpreting the interpretation of your original interpretation. I know, right? Inception.

None of this is to say that we can’t do this latter tier: get something up on the internet using Boilerplate, hack the CSS to render your encoding in a special way, or even think about network graphs. In fact, I’d love to ask Jon Breitenbucher if he has a student who might be interested in hacking Boilerplate as a side project, or in trying to do something interesting with visualizing Tess’s interpretation; in either case the results would benefit Tess’s IS, but the IS doesn’t depend upon it. I just want to say that I think there’s an argument to be made for this enterprise exclusive of a representation that is translated/rendered for the world.



Note: I’ll complicate this point a little below, but I know that, in addition to “representing” text or interpretation thereof, encoding also facilitates further analysis.