Tag Archives: Archives

Margaret Soltan’s Online Poetry Course.

8 Apr

Margaret Soltan’s online poetry course for Udemy is yet another project that fuels my conviction that the principle achievement of the Digital Humanities pertains primarily to the recognition that digital and information technology can be used to enable what are still largely traditional approaches to the teaching of the humanities.  The main draw of an online course like Professor Soltan’s is that it makes information and the experience of learning about literature from an informed source available to a wider range of people than would have previously been possible.  The main drawback of such a course is that it lacks a sufficiently communal atmosphere.  Though communication with the professor via email or online chat is possible, the one-on-one, face-to-face interaction enabled by a traditional classroom setting is simply not possible, to say nothing of the student camaraderie commonly found in especially vigorous class discussions.  As is always the case, the experience is made more distant, even alienating, once it is expanded to a certain point.  The internet in essence allows the whole world to be a classroom, and while, as near as I can tell, no information as such is lost in the transition from real space to cyberspace, the experience of receiving the information is more distant, and the process of communication is both more distant and delayed.  

Soltan’s course involves the reading, discussion, and interpretation of poetry, and is organized along 16 sections totaling to 19 lectures.  The focus is on modern poetry, mostly written in English, though some non-English poems are discussed in translation.  The poets featured include Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, TS Eliot, Paul Valery, WH Auden, among others.  The recorded lectures mostly consist of Professor Soltan reading a lecture revolving around a specific topic, such as the analysis of a particular poem, general concerns governing the analysis and evaluation of poetry, and critical principles.  The course’s governing inquiry is the definition of poetry, and how it can be understood.  One of the more refreshing attributes of Professor Soltan’s course is the fact that it fosters in students a critical faculty- Professor Soltan actually wants her students to distinguish good poems from bad ones.  This is something which the casual reader does as a matter of course (of course) and it traditionally has been a feature of the academy as well, but the arrival of post-structuralist theory and the ultimate privileging of the pursuit of cultural patterns and the mysteries of textuality has meant that simply ascertaining a literary work’s quality and speculating how the author achieved (or did not achieve) that quality has fallen by the wayside in recent decades.  Incidentally, the Digital Humanities in its most ambitious forms have not promised to fundamentally alter this state of affairs, though it does offer the possibility of driving the pursuit of patterns to its logical conclusion; as N. Katherine Hayles wrote, “The unsettling implications of ‘machine reading’ can be construed as pointing towards a post-human mode of scholarship in which human interpretation takes a back seat to algorithmic processes.”  In short, it has the potential to eliminate the pleasures of ambiguity that are commonly thought of as intrinsic to the discipline.  On the other hand, this is only a potentiality.  The Digital Humanities may very well prove to be more expansive than that, as indicated by Stephen Ramsay when he wrote, “Why in the world would we want the computer to settle questions?”  They should be opening new critical possibilities, developing new theoretical models, and otherwise expanding the range of humanities scholarship.  The reason some of the more difficult questions surrounding the Digital Humanities refuse to go away, I believe, has to do with the nature of the computer itself.  It is principally, nay, entirely, a symbol-manipulating, pattern-analyzing instrument.  The study of literature and culture should not be reduced to the instrumentality of its tools.  One of the promising aspects of Soltan’s project is that the tool of the computer expands the tradition in an inspiring, democratic manner.  This is the digital humanities as lecture platform, a medium of communication as opposed to a method of analysis.  One thing the computer does for literature whether it is being used as a tool of communication or a tool of analysis is significantly expand the scale of any project being done.  Whether it be a larger lecture audience or a larger pool of data, one thing that I think we can confidently pronounce about the Digital Humanities is that it has permanently changed the scale of our inquiries. 




More thoughts on the Melville Electronic Library

1 Apr

As of right now, the Melville Electronic Library remains a great idea in theory rather than practice, as it still consists of little more than a set of ‘coming soon!’ notices.  Still, once it gets up an running the MEL promises to be one of the most intriguing and helpful scholarly sources on the net.  The key to its utility, and the source of its uniqueness, as I have indicated before, is its use of the TextLab software and its application to the works of an established, canonical author.  TextLab enables readers, scholars, and students to access a writer’s revisions, in the order s/he made them, thus enabling a kind of ‘fluid text’ analysis that allows a reader to gain a sense of a text’s development through time.  In many respects, Melville is the perfect author for this approach, since many of his most celebrated works appeared in different editions, or were left incomplete at his death. 

The reader’s engagement with a text is a notoriously complex and mysterious process, and a number of theoretical models are available to critics for understanding it.  When considering revisions, the reader is forced to confront the instability of texts, and possibly linguistic acts generally, right at their source.  The process of revision is the struggle of an imagination attempting to find the right words for an abstract set of ideas and an imprecise series of events.  The effort to find the desired language for a literary project constitutes a fascinating sub-textual narrative in itself on many occasions, and Melville’s studious engagement with his projects was probably marked by more struggle than most.

Another feature of MEL I find quite engaging (again, more in the potential than in the current reality) is the Gallery section.  It is a corner of the website that will consist of an image gallery of Melville-related images, with the principle focus being on works of art mentioned in Melville’s texts.  Moby-Dick especially drew heavily on the traditional visual arts for inspiration and imagery, and Melville’s rich symbolism was notably enhanced through his engagement with painting.  This gallery allows viewers to consider a picture alongside a sampling of a Melville text that explicitly references it with some accompanying scholarly commentary that sheds light on its significance in either Melville’s work or his life.  This multimedia approach to scholarship is exactly the sort of benefit brought about by information technology that I value.  While there is nothing in the image gallery that is, strictly speaking, dependent on modern technology for its existence (all of the information featured could probably be printed in a book with nothing lost) but the combination of instantaneous access with the ability to rapidly update and augment the information in the gallery streamlines a scholarly process in an immensely useful way, and enables an approach at once fluid and democratic.

As of right now, I can’t say I have a theoretical program to elucidate what precisely digital projects like the MEL “do” to canonical writings.  Software may reveal their fluidity and instability, but conventional research methods can do much the same.  For now, my appreciation for online digital archives lies almost exclusively with their utility.  They are nearly perfect tools. 




A DH Double Whammy- The Writing Process and the Textuality of Maps- Part 1

29 Jan

To make up for the late arrival of this, my first substantial post for High Pressure Days, I will consider two topics instead of the promised one, though one will have to come a little after the other (let’s say we shoot for Friday?  Yes, that should work…  I hope.).  Both will naturally pertain to the ongoing drama that is my first immersion into the world of the Digital Humanities.  For somebody as tech-phobic as I am, this is a somewhat vexing process, but one that is already proving to be rewarding in unexpected ways.

To begin, there is the subject of the recent two-day symposium here at the George Washington University that was dedicated to the Digital Humanities in all their multifaceted glory.  Running from January 24 through the 26th, with the bulk of the presentations occurring on the latter two days, the symposium illuminated a number of different ways digital and information technology was changing the field, recalibrating how literature is both taught and studied.  As someone with an interest in 19th century American literature in general, and the works of Herman Melville in particular, the presentation that most interested me was the one given by Professor John Bryant of Hofstra University.  Professor Bryant described a recent, and as of this post, ongoing digital project called the Herman Melville Electronic Library, an online resource dedicated to compiling the works of Herman Melville in addition to criticism and scholarly and biographical resources.  This in itself would seem like a prudent, though not particularly original, idea, but the website establishes a unique function through its use of a software program called TextLab.  TextLab allows readers to view different versions of a text simultaneously in order to gain a sense of the author’s writing process and approach to revision.  The goal is to establish the essential “fluidity” of Melville’s works, which often were published in multiple versions (Typee appeared in both an ‘original’ version and a bowdlerized version that was published after the original version drew protests from religious leaders, and Moby-Dick had both an American and British publication that resulted in two noticeably distinct texts with different endings) or left in a fragmented and incomplete state (Billy Budd, Sailor was never properly finished or published in Melville’s lifetime, and the manuscript consists of over 400 hand-written leaves with multiple textual self-corrections and revisions).  I find the idea of this resource helpful both practically and conceptually.  Practically, the Melville Electronic Library will enable scholars and students to gain a better sense of Melville’s writing process and the publication history of his works.  Conceptually, the Library dispels the essentially illusory sense of permanence and definitiveness that one may have when encountering the texts on the printed page.  Even detailed scholarly editions of Melville’s works that feature information about multiple editions of the same story or that include alternative passages in the appendices present a ‘definitive’ or ‘standard’ version of the story that gives the reader no sense of the text’s instability, or its contingency.  By being able to view multiple versions of a story, essay, poem or review side-by-side the reader can gain a better understanding of a text’s development and the many possible ways to interpret it.  It reveals that Melville’s artistic engagements unfolded in time, and had no precise destination or ‘complete’ form.  The essentially unsettled nature of the Melville canon can be presented with unprecedented clarity thanks to the shrewd application of digital technology.  

That is the crux of my understanding of tools like the Melville Electronic Library- They ideally reveal the nature of pre-digital texts as opposed to altering them.  The medium of presentation broadens and clarifies what the texts were all along.  

The site is very much a work in progress, but have a look: http://mel.hofstra.edu/index.html

Part Two: Janelle Jenstad and the Map of Early Modern London.  Coming soon!Image




Coming Soon!

20 Jan

Coming soon, my thoughts on someone else’s thoughts.

Specifically, before too long you, the fortunate reader, will have the opportunity to read what I think about Janelle Jenstad’s work on Archives and Early Modern Studies. Probable date- 1/27. In the meantime:

Digital Humanities Questions and Answers!

And the little number that inspired the title of this blog-