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British Women Writers Conference, 2010: "Teaching and Researching British Women Writers in the Digital Age"

I recently attended the 2010 Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers Conference, an annual conference hosted by the British Women Writers Association, held this year April 8-10 at Texas A&M.  On the final morning of the conference, a roundtable discussion addressed Teaching and Researching British Women Writers in the Digital Age.  The panel included Maura Ives, Texas A&M University; Betty Joseph, Rice University; Lisa L. Moore, University of Texas-Austin; and Laura M. Stevens, University of Tulsa & Editor, Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature.  The conversation addressed the particular challenges and opportunities within scholarly research on historical topics--especially eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British women writers--with digital resources.

 

Maura Ives addressed four key concerns: digital triage, the digital divide, relations between digital and print resources, and digital research in graduate education. 

First, the construction of knowledge in digital spaces, Ives suggests, is never innocent.  This danger is especially relevant with digital archives.  We need to examine what is and isn't included, who makes those decision, and how those decisions are made.  What are the limits of the collection?  What are the gaps?  Does the archive work collaboratively with other digital products?  Asking these questions is essential for responsible scholarship.  Specialized databases are often prohibitively selective, so many of the most interesting work in digital archives take place in open-access Internet resources.  Googlebooks, for example, is just a pile of stuff.  With Googlebooks, no one is bothering to "weed out" the women and the obscure figures.  You can find resources here previously unavailable to academic scholarship, and you are not limited to a list of items or people that someone else has predetermined as worthy of scholarly interest.

Ives emphasizes a distinction between digital scholarship and digital archives.  The most compelling scholarly research, she says, is the kind that offers visualization and data mining.  A strong archival model should facilitate innovations in how existing scholarship does its work.  Digital work should be different from pre-digital work; good archives and good scholarship both do something new with their resources.

Secondly, Ives reminds us that not all faculty and students have equal access.  For-profit digital archives turn digital projects into something only high-budget schools can afford.  Sometimes digitization turns archival material that had been publicly available into a scan that is no longer publicly available.  We start to ask, who owns these cultural documents?  Ives warns that digitization of archival material can pose a threat to the democratization of knowledge that the Internet promised to offer.

Thirdly, Ives points out that the quality of digital resources that weren't born digital is inherently problematic.  For scholars who work on historical material, you get what someone else slapped on a scanner.  Poor technological choices can lead to dirty OCR, problematic indexing, and unclear scans.  The process of moving archival material into digital scans is not always done in ways that are useful, efficient, or enduring.

In addition to the material challenges of moving print resources to digital archives, Ives points out an implied either/or in this digitization.  If you have one, people sometimes assume you don't need the other.  Digital resources do not just replace print resources; sometimes we need both.  Library policies may require scholars to use digital resources, delaying purchases or denying Inter-Library Loan requests for items that are digitized or may be digitized soon. 

Fourthly, Ives says that we need to have more conversations about using graduate students in the production of digital resources.  Digital humanities certificates are available for graduate student at Texas A&M, and the university is also launching a digital institute.  However, digital research needs to be integrated into coursework.  Digitization is the future of the academic landscape, and Ives says that our students need to be prepared.

 

Betty Joseph addressed two forms of electronic knowledge within historical research: searchable databases (like Early English Books Online and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online) and bundled information.  In terms of bundling, Joseph asks, Who bundled these things for us?  And how do the way texts are marketed shape our research?  Searchable databases may offer a solution to this dilemma: with half a dozen editions of a text available, for example, students have affordable access to ways of researching and thinking that were previously unavailable. 

Like Ives, Joseph agrees that digital resources don't stand in for print.  Searchable databases allow us to gather resources more efficiently, but what really matters is what we do with this material.  If your notion of the subject has not changed, she says, it's business as usual.  Gender assumptions can be reinforced with digital research, she explains.  When databases on women writers include topical categories that reinforce the public/private divide--categories like fashion and manners, for instance--they reiterate sexist ideologies that feminists have spent decades working to counteract. 

Joseph sees digitization as an opportunity to think about gender in new ways, and she is optimistic about the potential for feminist scholarship in the digital age.  Gender studies isn't just about reading work by women; we need to consider what Joseph calls the "impossible absent women."  She asks us to consider how scholars do gendered work in a structural way in the digital age.  Fetishization of the database--making private documents public--should give us an opportunity to reflect on the choices make in digital presentations, which are neither objective nor innocent. 

Joseph reminds us that digitization does not equate with permanence; not all forms of digitization are equal, as we can see by the retirement of the floppy disk.  However, if we are smart about the tools we use, and if we are smart about the way we choose and organize digital materials, digitization can bring new opportunity.  For Joseph, the greatest opportunity is the chance to affirm the fragmentary status of woman, who is, like the archive, no longer a private body.

 

Lisa L. Moore introduced an innovative and interdisciplinary archival approach to gender studies in a digital age, creating 3D illustrated tours of the first picturesque garden in Ireland in the "Great Age of English Garden Design."  Like most eighteenth-century gardens that were designed by women, the plans for Mary Delany's gardens at Delville have been lost--until now.  Moore used Maya software (the same program used for the Lord of the Rings movies) and archival research to recreate Delany's garden, and you can take one of several video fly-through style tours on her website. 

Using surviving drawings for opening and closing shots, to encourage comparison of the original and digital versions, Moore replicates what we know and imagines what we don't know about the gardens landscape within a digital medium.  Moore will be the first to point out risks within her work, including ahistoricity, limited access, and technology-induced error.  She explained how each tree must be placed in the landscape individually, and how Irish yew and lime trees were not available with the software.  As a result of these limitations, the Maya landscape is thinner, and lacks the "furry" look of the original illustrations.  Certain aspects of the garden become emphasized over others, and the design process can become tedious.  However, Moore's garden tours demonstrate ways in which digital work can reinvent the landscape of both English country gardens and historical-based scholarship.   

 

Laura M. Stevens approaches digitization from the position of a journal editor.  Tulsa Studies in Womens Literature is moving slowly to adapt to the digital age, she says, but it is her goal to make better use of digital resources.  Most readers now encounter the TSWL online, and this shift has radically changed both the content and form of the journal.  Stevens explains that TSWL now edits online, accepts electronic submissions, includes author and abstract information on their website, and has a new cover design and page layout for easy translation to online databases.  Because most readers encounter individual articles rather than entire issues, special topics issues are being phased out. 

In many ways, digitization has increased access: Stevens points out that they receive more international submissions as a result of their online submission system.  However, this change can create two castes of readers; Stevens is committed to retaining paper publications for people and institutions who can't afford digital access.  Despite these efforts, however, the double anonymity of readers and writers means that reviewers may give suggestions for further readings that may not be available to the author.  The result is that access to digital resources may correspond to a writer's chance at publication, a possibility that makes Stevens uncomfortable.

On the technical side, Stevens points out that writers and reviewers must pay closer attention to citations: digitization leads to more citation errors, and one mistake can lead to a domino effect for future publications.  In addition, Stevens faces new permissions issues, as writers may be unaware that the journal cannot legally print digital images from sources like Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.  Stevens worries that a digital mining mentality may eclipse the humanist enterprise within literary scholarship.

Stevens is optimistic about the future of digital work, however, and she is especially eager about more efficient and thorough bibliographic scholarship.  TSWL is interested in publishing short bibliographic projects, digital approaches to women writers, and small archival projects, including the sort modeled by Alison Booth.  Stevens is committed to a digital future that will continue to improve access and facilitate the democratization of knowledge.

 

The Q&A session included a lively discussion of public knowledge, private corporations, and the democratization of knowledge.  Ives discussed anxieties surrounding access and transparency, and Joseph promoted collaborations between humanities departments and library schools, where most bibliographic work is now taking place.  Maura reminds us that every library makes its own deal with providers; because database access can start at five figures, she emphasizes the need to get information about where this money goes and what the future of digital access will be. 

Donelle Ruwe pointed out several reasons to include print-based primary research in addition to digital versions, since an online database may not include the size of the page, the quality of the paper, the color of the ink, and/or illustrated plates that are important to understanding a texts intended audience.  Moore points out that these are problems with any modern edition, and just as digital editions are of varied quality, print editions (Dover versus Oxford versus Broadview, for instance) are of varied quality, too.  We do know how to handle this, she says. 

Kate Flint considered ways to include graduate and undergraduate students in these conversations.  We need to consider how students use digital humanities as a tool through which to think--and we need to accommodate new forms of composition to accompany these new ways of thinking.  Flint teaches a course on the materiality of the text, and in addition to taking a thing-theory approach to the objects within the narration, her students also edit, create and produce an online interactive edition of a text.  Flint asks us to consider, What pedagogical experiences suggest new ways of interacting with the texts?

Responding to Flints remarks, Moore agrees that scholarly research and writing are different now.  She sees a wider academic landscape with new texts, and new resources to analyze them.  The value of these changes, Moore says, is that students will have new delight and pleasure in discovery.  Joseph agrees that the immediacy and excitement of the visual gives us ways of recovering, accessing, and even constructing the past in new ways.  Ives suggests that digital resources allow us to pull students into these conversations.  In her courses, students look at digital, manuscript, early print and modern print editions of a text.  Ives says, "they noticed things I never would have noticed.Ives also includes a text encoding workshop, in which students practice transcribing handwritten texts.  Though frustrating, the process opens their eyes to the possibility for error in a texts movement between media. 

Miranda Yaggi brought up the issue of digital literacy, and the false assumption that our students are digitally literate.  Moore encouraged conversational practice in the classroom, taking students through a sample research project the way that we would conduct our own researchfailing, hitting dead ends, and continuing forward.  Ives commiserated with this trend, and she agreed that undergraduates lack digital fluency and tend to give up too easily in doing digital research.  "When you drive somewhere and you take a wrong turn, do you just stop?!" she said with exasperation.  No; you back up, and you ask someone for help.  "Who teaches them this stuff?" she asked. "If not us, then who?"

Responding to a question about commercial digital databases, Ives explained that many digital sources are just microfilm writ large--literally, in some instances.  Stevens countered pragmatically with concern for financial restraint; digital resources cost money, she says, and whether it's us or them, tuition money or public money, the money has to come from somewhere.  Open access makes collaborative scholarship possible, but these projects are never free.

One audience member asked if Google is making us all more stupid.  Our students not only struggle with close reading; they struggle with finishing a book at all.  By interacting with a text online, they lose the impetus to create their own marginalia and to interact physically with a text.  This complaint was met with many nods of agreement.  But Moore concluded the conversation with an astute reminder that these are recondite concerns, and that modern editions create many of these same issues.  "I have more faith in service learning than the digital humanities to democratize knowledge," she said.  Scholarship, reading and writing have always changed with new technology.  These aren't new problems, and they are addressed by politics and values, not technology. 

 

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