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Interviews with Digital Humanists: Civil War Washington’s Janel Cayer

Those of us graduate students who proudly proclaim that we are or want to get our doctorate in the humanities are often met with looks of confusion or horror followed by the words, “What will you do with that?” We are use to it. We expect it. We have even shaped validating answers justifying our choice. So, why was I amazed when I received the same look when I proclaimed that not only was I intending to get my doctorate in the humanities, but that I intended on specializing in the digital humanities? Naturally, I was met with an extreme look of dismay andthose expectedaforementioned words of derision. I was ready. I explained that the quintessence of the field is the open sharing and free flowing of ideas to produce inveterate information in new ways. Feeling pretty darn confident with my answer - though extremely simplified - I asked if I was understood. The response I was met with was the equally disdainfully articulated words, “But…what are you going to be with that?”Ego slightly bruised, I responded dismissively, “a digital humanist.” Later, I realized that I did not know exactly what that entailed.

So, what is a digital humanist? Is it simply someone who fuses digital media and the humanities? Does this person need to know coding, texting, etc.? In their 2001 article “Digital Humanism,” Charles H. Traub and Jonathan Lipkin imply that the digital humanist is “a new creative individual…an integrator in his ability to negotiate the disparate fields of human knowledge and bring them together in previously unimagined ways.”  As such, with this blog and the subsequent series of blogs entitled “Interviews with Digital Humanists?”, I intend to present “creative interlocutors” and their projects in an attempt to solidify a definitive answer concerning what it means to be a digital humanist.

Without further ado, the following is my interview with Janel Cayer, Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and contributor to the digital projects, Civil War Washington and the Walt Whitman Archive.

Consuella: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your specialization, areas of interest, etc?

Janel Cayer: I started pursuing a PhD. at UNL in 200,7 and my area of interest is in 19th-Century American Literature. My Master’s thesis at the University of Florida, examined contemporary women’s poetry, focusing on domesticity and the kitchen.  Since I returnedto UNL to pursue a doctoral degree, I have rekindled my interest in the 19th Century, specifically 19th-Century American Literature.

Consuella: What got you interested in digital humanities?

Janel: When I was an undergraduate at UNL I had this great opportunity to work with the Undergraduate Creativity Activities and Research Experiencesprogram (UCARE). This programoffersundergraduates funding to work on projects in all fields. During my first year as a UCARE student, I worked with Susan Belasco on the serialization of Uncle Tom’s CabinintheNational Era. We created a calendar of the novel’s serialized installments for an online collection about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I enjoyed that work so much that I entered my second year as a UCARE student, working on The Walt Whitman Archive.

Consuella: Do you think that the field of literature is at the forefront of digital humanities?

Janel: I do think so. However, I really feel like Civil War Washington is a project that – at least up to this point –has benefitted primarily from a historical perspective.Most of the items we’re currently treating do have literary implications, but they are primarily historical documents. For example, we are working with DC-related medical cases from the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion as well as petitions filed pursuant to the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.  Although we’re currently working to make these petitions available online, visitors to the site will notice that most of the content we have generated up to this point is medical in nature. Currently, the text and images section of Civil War Washington features,  texts related primarily to the medical field. However, since DC became an important medical center for the nation, it makes sense that we started here.

What do you think is the issue people have with the digital humanities?

Janel: I think that there is a notion that digital humanists in some sense don’t create, that they merely reproduce – that they take something that already exists and represent it in a different medium. It is important to acknowledge that the behind the scenes technical stuff—the stuff that makes digital projects like the Walt Whitman Archive or Civil War Washington look effortless—is an integral part of the scholarship, not just a way of packaging and presenting things.

Consuella: What is the general overview of the project? What is the intent?

Janel: Civil War Washington is a collaborative digital humanities research project that presents new ways to visualize the capital’s complex changes and continuities through an interconnected set of texts, databases, interactive maps, and analytical essays. Our project is focused on interpreting the nation’s capital at a specific moment in history—during the Civil War.As such, everything we plan to treat is geographically and temporally tied to Civil War DC. Civil War Washington attempts to place texts in conversation with tools and approaches in order to create a sense of place and space and to facilitate interpretations of thisparticular city at that this particular time.

Consuella: What are some of the current and future goals of Civil War Washington?

Janel: One major goal for the site is to have a more interactive mapping component. Ideally we’d like our project GIS to possess the capability to toggle between different layers of the map and run queries.  Another goal of ours is to make the project more integrated and cohesive.  We have been thinking about how we can get all the components to work together and speak to each other more effectively than they currently do.

Consuella: What is the most challenging aspect of the project for you?

Janel: I’m currently working with the Compensated Emancipation petitions, transcribing, encoding, and checking them. So, what is often the most challenging for me is keeping on task. The petitions are so fascinating that I get distracted and engrossed by the content, caught up in the documents themselves.

Janel: Who are some of the digital humanists you look up to?

I look up to Ken Price, co-director ofThe Walt Whitman Archive andCivil War Washington, because I like the way he approacheshiswork. Priceisacareful, meticulous scholar, who has an eye for being precise. His attention to detail is somethingwhich I think is an important quality, not just of digital humanists. I also admire Elizabeth Lorang, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of English,for her similarly conscientious work. Lorang is constantly mindful of not only thinking about the end product, but also considering how we get there. For a digital humanist, the path to a successful project is as important as the final product and I thank Lorang for emphasizing this point.

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