While technically it will not be summer until June 21st, most colleges and universities have ended their quarters and semesters by now (or are in the process of ending their quarters). Which means that we are all on summer break! As popular media would have it, that means that we are all going to lock up our offices, classrooms, and homes and then head off to the nearest cool body of water to sip beverages in the sun while reading. That would be nice, but of course is not our reality. Continue reading Summertime and Academic Livin’
We are all aware of the hand-wringing that accompanies humanities scholarship in the early 21st century. Soon enough there will be another article announcing the death or worthlessness of the humanities degree. Subsequently there will be a rebuttal which points out how crucial the humanities are. And the cycle will continue. I am not trying to disparage that particular discussion, but I want to point it out as a symptom of the larger problem of how the humanities interface with the public. According to the public, there does not seem to be anything concrete that the humanities produce; of course that is not true, but it is hard to overcome that perception. One of the ways of overcoming that perception might be to offer alternative perspectives on our data. To that end, I want to further consider the graph, as a way of helping further humanities research. I will say that the goal here is to continue the discussion about whether or not the graph as a research tool can be useful for Romanticism; I am not sure the graph will be useful, but to understand the advantages and pitfalls of a new methodology we will need to have the discussion first.
One last item, before we go too much further: I would be remiss not to note Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History by Franco Morretti. That book and its various responses really started this particular conversation. I hope to focus the conversation on particular tool though, which is the Google Ngram Viewer. As you all are aware, the Ngram Viewer uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to search through Google’s database of digitized books. The Ngram Viewer is not perfect, to say the least. For example, it frequently confused the long ‘s’ as an ‘f’ up until recently. That being said, the Ngram Viewer does have some powerful tools available, not only allowing you to search for various words, but also parts of speech, most popular following words, and so on.
Here is a graph that charts the ‘Big Six’ from 1789 until 1912:
If you would like to see the original graph it his here: Blake,Wordsworth,Coleridge,Byron,Shelley,Keats Original. Among other items, this graph can tell us a few items: That Blake started off as the most popular, but that Lord Byron was the most popular of all of the six throughout the long nineteenth century, although there were a few moments where Shelley, Wordsworth, and even Coleridge over took him. And that Keats … was not quite as popular.
Or, at least it would be nice if the graph told us that. Due to the way that the OCR works, though, any mention of the words are gathered. So that a search for ‘Shelley’ will collect not only Percy, but also Mary, and their children, and extended family, or just anyone else named Shelley. Names that are a bit more unique, like Wordsworth and Byron, probably are closer to representing the writers I was looking for. But those searches will still gather information from other Lord Byrons and other Wordsworths, like Dorothy. For the purpose of searching for proper-nouns, the more unique the better. For example, here is a graph of more unique book titles:
The original graph is here: Pride and Prejudice,The Bride of Lammermoor,Mansfield Park,Frankenstein,Sense and Sensibility,The Last Man,Guy Mannering Graph. This data is a bit more valuable, because the likelihood of someone writing ‘Frankenstein’ or the words ‘Pride and Prejudice’ together, to refer to something else than the books is smaller (although not impossible). Noticeably, Sir Walter Scott’s novel is quite popular, although so too is Shelley’s. And, admittedly, if I extended the graph into the 20th century, Jane Austen’s novels would be more prominent.
The Ngram Viewer can also do a wildcard search, which I did with the word ‘French’ below:
Again, here is the original: French * Graph. At least for the time limit, the most frequent word to follow the word ‘French’ is ‘and’. That result is not particularly surprising, though, as and is a fairly common word. What did surprise me was that between 1812 and 1818 ‘army’ followed ‘French’ more frequently than ‘and’. Of course, Napoleon was attempting to conquer the rest of Europe during that phase of time (minus Elba). But I think that the concern or interest in the French army was so great that it surpassed an everyday usage is interesting. If someone were writing how, in a particular text, one can see the anxiety over the French army, this graph might help them reinforce their point.
I would also like to point out the “Search in Google Books” section. If you were to click on any of those date ranges, Google would take you to the books where it found the word in question. Also, that search section can show what kind of results the search is generating, whether Blake refers to William, or other Blakes.
Although this is a brief meditation, I think that there are a few items that I would like focus on. First off, I think it it plain that these graphs are no substitute for the closer readings that people in the humanities often perform. And there are problems with the graphs, they cast a net that is a bit too wide. There is though a few interesting advantages, like these graphs can help show very large historical shifts. The viewer can also help with a very formalist study, because of its ability to parse words (which I did not touch on here). But for the moment, I think that the very broad perspective of the Ngram Viewer might be useful to humanities research, in that it would help us illuminate historical trends just a little bit better. Graphs, and the Ngram Viewer tool, are certainly not perfect nor can they replace our normal methodologies, but they do have some potential for humanities research.
We’ve all seen them.
Animated gif images, image macros, and memes on academic writing. You know the ones, like this:
Even something as simple as finalizing a topic for this blog post, trying to decide on something that would benefit this community, was an enormous task. While I knew I wanted to discuss writing, that’s still a very broad topic. Should I write on the differences between writing to be read silently, such as for a journal article, or aloud, like a conference paper? What about whether we should include digital writing (ex. tweets, blog posts) on our curricula vitae? Tips on learning to write new genres like proposal abstracts and statements of philosophy? Is it okay to tweet about conference presentations? What about my own lessons in writing from that initial graduate course on “Writing for Publication,” to the various workshops I’ve attended and organized on writing for publication? How about the costs of writing perfectionism? Soon I realized that all of these topics share a common theme: struggling with the writing process itself.
Writing about the writing process also meant I could throw a mini gif party with all these writing related image macros and animated gifs I’ve been accumulating on Pinterest. Because let’s face it, these little animated gifs convey a strong, multimodal rhetorical message. Scholars who study the linguistics of internet language have argued that emotigifs, hashtags, “Tumblr speak,” doge speak, etc. are all powerful language tools that help us communicate in more complex and nuanced ways than simple text or emoticons can. In the case of the academic writing genre of emotigifs, they express – in a highly creative and immediate way – that academic writing requires wrangling thought and idea into words on a screen (or page, if you prefer) that, with a great deal of work, combine into a persuasive and engaging argument. As Kerry Ann Rockquemore wrote in her article “Writing and Procrastination,” “The truth is that the road from the spark of a new idea to the submission of an article, grant proposal, or book manuscript is a long and winding path.
We get distracted
Then there are the times “when we think we’ve finally trouble-shooted the essay”
but then need to go back to the drawing board.
But despite all the frustration depicted above, it’s not all bad. In fact, there are some days when we just want to cry out
And remember “that thing you’re writing is awesome.” Tom Hiddleston said so.
19th Century Colloquium
Arizona State University
Reading and preparing for the comprehensive exams feels like the most daunting task we undertake as doctoral students, but what happens after we take the exams? What happens after we spend months, sometimes a year, on edge, full stress, constantly questioning if we are doing enough, reading enough, are we ready enough to pass our exams? And then—we do. We pass; we hear the congratulatory statements from our committee members and our peers. But what happens next?
All I wanted to do when I finished the comprehensive exams was breathe. Breathe air that wasn’t tainted by the constant nervousness or questions of whether or not I was prepared enough. I wanted to sit down, change my email signature to PhD Candidate in English and move on to the dissertation. But at Arizona State University, our exam process is three-part and the oral comprehensives is only part two. The exams start with a written exam, once you pass the written with committee approval, you move on to the traditional oral comprehensive exams. The last and final portion of the three-part exam process is the prospectus defense. Before we receive the final stamp of candidacy and ABD, we have to defend our dissertation prospectus in a two-hour colloquy.
Writing the prospectus after the high of passing the comprehensive exams was incredibly difficult for me. I wanted to celebrate and enjoy the success of having completed the most difficult and daunting task that I had faced as a PhD student. And I tried, but the nagging feeling that I wasn’t quite done yet kept me from being able to fully let go of the stress and anxiety. I still had one more step.
The dissertation prospectus by definition is a daunting document to write. This one paper is supposed to set up the next two years of research and writing. In one document, I am supposed to outline my dissertation argument and chapters, provide a literature review of my specific area of study, and prove that my dissertation will contribute to my field, all while proving that I am capable of completing the task in a specified amount of time. The other difficulty that I encountered with the prospectus is that the specific expectations for content, style and format were ambiguous. Everyone that I talked to that had completed the full exam process had different expectations for what the prospectus should do. Is it 10-15 pages? 15-20 pages? 25-30 pages? Should it be an informal discussion of my project ideas or a formal paper that easily can transition into an introduction? What portion of the project should be a review of the literature and scholarship? How long should each of the chapter descriptions be? Should the chapter descriptions be abstract length or should they be more detailed? These questions and hundreds more plagued my prospectus writing process. I let the questions and the uncertainties halt my ability to move forward and complete the document. I met with my committee members multiple times, but it never fully helped to clear up what exactly it was that I was supposed to do.
One day, about two months after my comprehensive exam when I was so overwhelmed and ready to give up on my idea for my dissertation, I went in to talk to my good friend in the program, Kent, and it turned into me venting about my inability to just write this document. I frustratingly opened up about my struggle to overcome the block and anxiety associated with the document itself. I ended up sitting in Kent’s office for about an hour and we mapped out my project together. I bounced my ideas off of him (something we regularly all do together in our 19th Century Colloquium) and it finally hit me. I just needed to talk about my project out loud; I needed to share my ideas and get them out of my head. I needed to make my project something real rather than an idea or figment of my imagination. And once I did this, once I talked with my friends and shared my ideas and had an intelligent conversation about my project—I wrote my prospectus. Literally, over the next three days I wrote my prospectus. I frantically emailed my committee, miraculously found a date that everyone could meet, and two and a half weeks later, I walked out of a two-hour colloquy ABD.
Okay, I know that this story and process is unique to me, but here is the best advice that I received and learned throughout the prospectus process. Maybe some of it can help you…
- Breathe after your comprehensives. Take a specified amount of time to celebrate and relax and enjoy life without worrying about what comes next. I didn’t do this and immediately after the comps, all I could think about was what I still had to do and that really took away from my ability to celebrate the incredible accomplishment that passing comprehensive exams is.
- Don’t be afraid to tell your committee that you are struggling. As soon as I opened up about my writer’s block, my committee was incredibly helpful and understanding and supported me.
- Instead of worrying about what specific format the prospectus should follow, just write your ideas for your project down. As soon as you get your ideas down, the rest will come. And don’t worry, your chair (who will go over your document first before you send it out to the rest of your committee) will let you know exactly what he or she is looking for once you send the first draft. The most important aspect of this document is your project, your ideas, and your argument, so focus on that.
- Don’t worry that you don’t have all of the details figured out yet. Your committee expects your project to change as you begin to write, so it doesn’t have to be perfect now.
- And the absolute best advice I can give: SHARE. Share your ideas with your peers, with friends and family. Share with anyone who will listen. Share with the old man sitting next to you at the bar while you attempt to drink away the writer’s block. The more you talk about your project and ideas for chapters, the easier it becomes to write them down, even if you are sharing with someone who knows nothing about your area of study. When you share your ideas, you get excited about them. Harness that excitement and writing becomes easy.
The last thing to say is as cliché as it sounds, remember that you love this. You are putting yourself through a PhD program because you are passionate about what you study. I don’t think we could make it through programs like ours without a crazy amount of passion for what we study. But sometimes we lose that and forget how excited we are about these texts when we get stuck in the rut of jumping through the necessary hoops—especially when the hoops appear to be rings of fire. When I remembered that I loved what I was studying and was excited about what I had to say, I discovered that I was completely capable of writing the prospectus and finishing that last step of my exams. And I did. And if I can do it, you can do it too. And then you can hurry up and change your email signature from PhD Student to PhD Candidate.
Kaitlin Gowan Southerly
PhD CANDIDATE in Literature
19th Century Colloquium
Arizona State University
As a second year graduate student this past fall, I found myself headed to the International Conference of Romanticism at Oakland University with few goals other than to make it through my panel without throwing up, and to not look like an idiot in front of my peers. The fact that I was even in the conference was a surprise, after all I had only submitted my paper proposal just inside the deadline that summer at the encouragement of my fellow Romanticists at Arizona State. “I don’t know if I’m even ready to submit to a conference like this,” I wrote in an email responding to their reminder of the upcoming deadline. I might not have been, but with the encouragement of Kent and Kaitlin I submitted anyway, and not soon after the first surprise came—I had been accepted. Thankfully the two of them had been as well, so I figured I would have at least two people at my panel in September. As the date of the conference approached, we made the group decision to not attend the official banquet largely due to financial concerns, and believing that none of us had a chance at winning the competitive Lore Metzger Prize, which went to the best essay read by a graduate student at the conference.
Well reader, I won that prize. Instead of learning this news at the banquet where I could have stood up and been recognized for my paper “The Undead Presence: Exploring Boundaries of Life, Death and Sex in ‘Christabel,’ ‘The Skeleton Priest,’ and ‘The Aerial Chorus’” by my fellow Romantic scholars, I found out via text message from Jacob while I was at an Irish pub down the street. I was lucky enough to have Kaitlin and Kent by my side at that moment to congratulate me, but the initial shock of that moment has yet to wear off. I am so honored to have won such a prestigious award not only because I was a second-year graduate student and that it was my first Romantic conference and first out of state conference, but because I wrote about something I am truly passionate about. Talking about the importance of walking, talking corpses in Romantic literature seems risky, but it paid off.
The lessons I learned from this experience are significant, and I believe, important to share. First, if you are lucky enough to find a community in your university that encourages and supports you, listen to them. They might know of potential you do not see in yourself. I would not have even tried to be at ICR if it wasn’t for the kind (but firm!) push from Kent and Kaitlin to submit a proposal, and I would not have won the award for best graduate paper without the edits and suggestions given to me by the ASU 19th Century Colloquium. Peer review is good, honest peer review with your best intentions in mind is fantastic—and absolutely integral to succeeding in the academic field. Secondly, always submit a proposal. Even if you think there is no chance in hell that you will be accepted to present at that conference, or be asked to write a chapter for that book, do it anyway. Not only is it excellent practice, but it will also force you to be more confident in your ideas and get your name out there. When you get accepted (because you undoubtedly will with all those submissions), have your work critiqued by people you trust and respect. They will tell you the truth, strengthen your argument, and you will be better for it. And finally, write about what you love. Zombies and vampires and all the variations inside and outside of those categories might be a laughable topic at first, but I truly believe that if I had gone to ICR with anything else than that, anything other than something I am passionate about to the point of insanity, I would not have won the Lore Metzger Prize. So take those risks, submit those proposals—the outcome could surprise you.
Oh, and always fork over the money and go to the banquet.
Greetings from the Valley of the Sun and happy 2014! The Colloquium extends its warmish wishes to everyone, especially those who were (and are again) in the path of the Polar Vortex. We hope you are all doing okay in what sounds like very challenging weather. Our weather here is mild, in fact it is too mild, uncannily mild. So, while the West Coast might not be suffering the chill I’d be willing to bet this summer will be destructively hot and dry for us, especially the southwestern states, unfortunately.
Off the (depressing) topic of weather, I hope to bring some of the discussion the colloquium had this past week to you all. At our meeting we examined a few book chapters. Specifically, Chapter 13, “The Age of the Novel,” from The History of British Publishing by John Feather. And also the Interlude Chapter, “Necromanticism and Romantic Authorship,” from Necromanticism: Traveling to Meet the Dead by Paul Westover. And also we had a brief digression on Sherlock Holmes (as you do) which is where we will start.
Perhaps unsurprisingly most of the colloquium is fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character, and the various current iterations such as Elementary and Sherlock. And some of us have seen the PBS documentary “How Sherlock Changed the World” [http://www.pbs.org/program/sherlock-changed-world/]. This documentary, which is trying to channel some of the popular enthusiasm into historical knowledge, roughly claims that Doyle’s character impacted forensic science more than any actual forensic scientist. The argument demonstrates innovations from the stories and then discusses the way Sherlock Holmes inspired people to become forensic scientists in the latter half of the 20th century (and these people use knowledge they derived from or that was inspired by Holmes).
You all will have to watch the documentary yourself, but we were not especially impressed. Perhaps the error that was the gravest was that the documentary never talks to literary historians or any cultural historians. Mainly they use current forensic scientists with a smattering of evidence from the stories. The one speaker that was related in some way to the literature was a writer of popular fiction who had also written a few novels using the Sherlock Holmes character. None of us thought that these people were ‘bad’ speakers per se, but were somewhat miffed that a documentary that focused on the influences of literary character on history did not talk with researchers who dedicate their time and energy to understanding that relationship. More than anything this method seemed to be merely a data point in the larger question of the role of the humanities in the public sphere. PBS, one would guess, is no doubt a largely sympathetic audience when it comes to the humanities. But, at least in this case, the humanities researchers were largely left out of a discussion on humanities; a troubling situation to say the least.
One of the other problems was the surprisingly graphic nature of the documentary, where they used actual crime scene photographs. The one that we found the most disturbing was of Marilyn Reese Sheppard. She was bludgeoned to death on July 4th of 1954. The documentary used a photo of her, uncensored with all the physical manifestations of violence, the gore, visible in stark black and white. But, the show did go to the effort of censoring her exposed nipple. (As an aside, someone else might have edited the photo before, then the show used it, but it still seems an odd choice). Whatever the case maybe, the use of these photos definitely raised questions of violence and bodies: what bodies can and cannot be displayed doing or being and how violence is received by the larger audience.
As you can see this innocuous documentary raised some perplexing conundrums for us: how we portray violence to bodies and whether the humanities needs to try and be more aggressive with its public face.
Eventually, though, we turned to the articles which dominated the majority of our meeting. We started with John Feather’s work, which provoked a question about research: how we (scholars) read and whether that should or should not be like the way the text was read (or at least as close as possible). According to Feather novels in the romantic period, especially post Waverly by Scott, were published in the popular ‘Triple-Decker’ format (Feather 144), for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it meant that the publisher got to sell the novel three times (Feather 147); arguably it also made it better for the lending libraries because three people could be reading the ‘same’ book at one time. But, especially as graduate students, we do not typically read works like Waverly in three volumes over a period of months; we have maybe a week (or two) to devour the book while also reading one or two other books (plus a variety of other work and research). This is not to say that the system needs to change, but we were wondering what it means for us as researchers and the arguments that we make that we do not read the novels in the same way that they were historically. This discrepancy increases in the Victorian period with serialization: many readers read chapters from magazines while presumably fewer read the novels as one unified whole (due to the cost of the unified novels). We were unsure whether this mattered at all: does reading one way or another dramatically influence one’s reception of a novel? Especially considering the periods people had time to discuss the developing plot with each other, after a household had finished the first volume of a work and how that might change their perception. Should we strive to read as the people did, so that our claims are more ‘accurate’ or is accuracy merely a facade because meaning does not change that much between varieties of reading?
There was one statement that generated a great deal of discussion. At the very end of the chapter, Feather claims that “there was a brief period in the middle of the nineteenth century when literary merit and popular success coincided” (Feather 152). Most of us agreed that this statement did not seem to fit well with the rest of the chapter and that the statement was worrisome. For example, the conversation drifted over to the idea of the Romantic Canon, i.e. the big six of Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. For a long time those six (and sometimes only really five) have been the writers of ‘literary merit’ at the exclusion of other sexes, races, classes, forms, genres, and so on. Thus, we thought that the particular statement was obscuring a few other important discussions. But the idea of ‘literary merit’ also drew out another question: what are English Scholars? Are we art critics? Are we cultural historians? Are we theoreticians and philosophers? Are we all things or none? There were good arguments for all positions, well except ‘none’ no one argued for that, nevertheless we debated for a bit. I apologize for all the questions, and especially our lack of concrete answers, but we pondered that particular idea for a while with no particular conclusion.
At that point it seemed wise to switch over to Paul Westover’s chapter before we lost our entire weekend to the previous question(s). Westover argues that even if an author is living, especially the Romantic authors, because of their literary success they become ‘dead’ (Westover 93). Somehow the author becomes both dead and alive, which is obvious in the various descriptions that Westover cites. For example, people would visit William Wordsworth but ultimately be surprised because the being they encountered did not match up with their vision thus they would exclude the material body from their vision and description, and so as Westover states “Wordsworth had become an artifact and a ghost in his own house” (Westover 95). In part this un-dead-ness appears to result from the disconnect between the image of the author in the reader’s head and the material reality of the author. Perhaps most interesting to us was the focus on the author. Everyone is aware, of course, that the Author died a couple of decades ago and that we do not talk about them. But, Westover’s book is in part about authors and their existence. Humor aside it certainly does not seem like a poor trend for literary scholars to also incorporate the author into their analysis but obviously the author cannot be overriding because texts live apart (as Westover and others show) from their creators.
That did lead to one concern: are we as scholars also victims idolizers of authors? And if so, might that impact our ability to be clear-eyed when making arguments? Or, phrased another way with a greater focus on undeath: if you could resurrect an author and speak with them would you / should you? While a few names were thrown out for ‘yes’ to resurrection (like Mary Shelley) and ‘no’ (like Edgar Allan Poe), we decided that the literary scholar’s enthusiasm for certain authors was probably a good feature because it allows us to keep going even when we encounter research dead-ends and conundrums. Although, being on guard against over idolization of course is never a bad idea.
Anyway, these are a few of the items that we discussed. If there is anything you would like to add in the comments, please do! Otherwise, good luck with your work in 2014 and we look forward to many exciting discussions as inspired by this graduate caucus!
Obviously this is not actually what I look like or who I am. My name is Deanna Stover. I have never held a halberd, let alone been any sort of warrior (although my hair is beginning to turn silver. Thank you graduate school applications). No, I play Dungeons and Dragons. What I’ve just described are the basic stats of the first character I ever developed and played. It was 2000, I was 10 years old, and I stumbled into the game because a friend’s mom ran a game for the neighborhood kids.
First of all, let me make this clear: I am no expert about D&D. I can, however, give everyone a brief background of what the game is: D&D is a table-top role playing game (RPG). It is also a game that inspired a lot of controversy and negative reactions in the 1980s. People claimed that it promoted witchcraft (how 15th- and 16th-century!) and devil-worship. Role playing games still have a negative connotation associated with them; you should see the reactions people have when they find out I play Dungeons and Dragons. There’s also very little understanding about what D&D actually is. Typically people believe it is a video game (and there are those around), but a table-top RPG is different.
A Dungeon Master (DM) develops a basic story line and the “party” (typically around four to six players in my experience) influences the way that story will work out through their own decisions, interactions with other characters, and the luck of the dice. The dice involved are not just your average 6-sided dice; the die we use most is 20-sided. D&D is very hard to understand without playing. However, as I will explain, these games may spark a particular interest in those of us who love literature.
Flash forward to 2012. I didn’t remember playing my first campaign, let alone the dusty binder where I kept my character sheet (this helps you keep track of your stats, your skills, your weapons, and any other information you may need during the game) and my accumulation of die. I didn’t remember any of this until a few friends once again introduced me to D&D. However, I fell in love all over again. In the past year, I’ve participated in three campaigns, and I am a walk-in character in a fourth. I have literally laughed and cried my way through these adventures.
So, what does this have to do with literature? Well, not only is Dungeons and Dragons inspired by literature and mythology, it involves the creation of new narratives every session. In that dusty binder from my first foray into D&D, I have these instructions: “The players are like characters in a book that you, the players, are writing with the [DM].” Playing as an adult, I am ever more aware of the truth behind this statement.
Admittedly, the literature that inspired D&D is typically associated with the 1960s and 1970s, something that may be foreign to those of us who are interested in the 19th-century, but the connection between D&D and all literature students is still a vibrant one. I am not a creative writer, I am definitely not an actress, and I never even played video games as a child, but the attraction to this game is still strong. The communal storytelling is what makes it so appealing and, honestly, there are some elements of each campaign that reference Romantic and Victorian literature; the campaign I’m currently in has some Swiss Family Robinson-esque elements tied in. But for me the most entertaining part of D&D is feeling like I am a part of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel every time I step into the room.
Perhaps you can see this post as a recruitment for D&D or even RPGs in general, and on some level I suppose it is, but what I am really trying to point out is that, even while I spend most of my life now nose-deep in 19th-century literature and papers I have to grade, D&D is what keeps reminding me what is so magical about words. I have watched the DM create a world all his own (albeit influenced by D&D lore, Roman and Greek mythology, and even modern video games), and I have participated in its creation. In the end, D&D is just five people sitting in a room for six hours every week speaking to each other, spinning a story and interacting through words alone, but only there can I become a warrior woman or even a half-dragon. Through our simple words and a few rolls of a die, a whole new world is born—it is literature through participation.
My name is Sydney Lines, and as a member of the 19th Century Colloquium at Arizona State University, I’ve been given the honor of offering up this month’s blog post. I am a bit of a non-traditional member at the moment. I joined the Colloquium while I was completing my MA (English Literature) at ASU. Since graduating in spring 2013 and deciding to take a year off before applying to doctoral programs, the Colloquium has graciously allowed my continued participation and still offers support and mentorship in preparation for my looming doctoral applications and requisites. (Many thanks!)
My research interests include science and Romanticism, women writers, travel writing, the supernatural, and the gothic sublime. It is only very recently that I would also include the digital humanities in that list. In an effort to consider just one of the many varied possibilities the digital humanities offer, and to demonstrate its use as a potential tool for scholars, this post will detail my own experience using digital texts and social media as an organizational database for my research.
I am often met with combined levels of reservation and intrigue when I mention that I have turned social media into a digital humanities project that acts as a scholarly database. Admittedly, my foray into this sphere was largely experimental, and I had no real expectation about results or functionality. What I found is that it creates an alternative organization system that is represented visually and offers another mode of piecing my research together. It is also, in my case, publicized in a social media network where some non-scholars are interacting with my research and finding interest in areas they may not have considered prior to engaging with my Tumblr blog. In detailing my methodology, I hope to provide a glimpse of how a digital humanities project can operate and hopefully provide another resource for scholars who wish to organize their research in similar formats.
Originally, I was interested in supernatural women in Romantic texts from a folkloric perspective. Somewhere along the way, I came across some obscure references to Old Norse mythology in British texts and was delighted to find supernatural female figures. Out of mere curiosity, I decided to look further. I wanted to see if women writers were using the same mythological figures, if they were portrayed in similar ways, and if there was a potential area of research within this space. Searches through the university library revealed that there has not been much scholarship at all in this field, and the majority of what I now refer to as “Norse Romantic” texts, have had little critical attention. This newly discovered movement in Romanticism offered the benefit of being a niche space I could bring to light while conversely offering the challenge of trying to synthesize the scattered scholarship, the forgotten texts, and the historical references. But how was I going to pull all of this into one coherently organized system?
Thanks to digitization projects like Google Books, HathiTrust, and the increase in digital scholarly databases, I could do preliminary research without having to incur travel expenses and devote time and energy to a potential project I was not yet sure existed. I started with Adriana Cracun’s Women Romantic Era Writers (UC-Riverside) and the collection of British Women Romantic Poets (UC-Davis). I located the first woman writer in the databases and literally began by using the “Ctrl+F” command throughout her listed works, typing in some of the same words I found in other identified Norse Romantic texts that designated a Nordic association. I am still surprised at how much I was able to find with this simple technique. I noticed a few identifiable trends and started keeping a folder of all the works I located. I amassed quite a bit of information and was struggling to find a good organizational system that allowed me to access it from multiple locations.
The answer came in the form of social media.
And thus came the creation of http://norseromanticism.tumblr.com/. It acts as my own interdisciplinary database of artwork, literature, scholarship, and historical documents I encounter in my research and gives me the opportunity to post a multitude of media and text types—whether curated from other places on the web or self-created. Every submission template also comes with a “source” box, so my bibliographic information stays attached to each post.
Every post on the Tumblr page is added by me, and it is completely tailored to my research interests, following a set of guidelines I designed for my own specific use. My Tumblr is public, so everyone on the web can access it, and anyone with a Tumblr account can share or interact with any of the posts. If you prefer a private database that is seen strictly by you or a few others with whom you choose to share it, Tumblr allows a password-protected account.
One of the most useful features I’ve found is the tagging system. I have developed my own series of tags that help me categorize the posts in ways that will help me continue to access them for future use. For instance, if I want to look solely at artwork or artists, I will go to my “Tags” page, click the “art” tag, and Tumblr will populate all of my posts with that tag. I can use this similar function with any other tag. If I want to see only works by William Blake, I can click the “William Blake” tag or if I want to see only travel writing, I can click the “travel” tag and so on.
By using these tags, I can more quickly navigate the categories and begin answering questions like: How are the Norse figures and/or the Scandinavian North depicted in art? In literature? In travel writing? In women’s writing? What are the similarities and differences I see between each group? Is there an underlying theme that connects them all? Etc.
Though my MA thesis is completed, I continue to update the account with new information I find as I hope to create a larger project out of the research. The Tumblr account has assisted me largely in terms of identifying patterns more easily, allowing space for imagery, and offering quickly populated, categorized information without having to go through the process of paying for or creating my own personal database with the added benefit of simultaneously creating an interactive digital humanities project in its own right.
So, returning to 2011, when I arrived at Arizona State I was pretty excited, minus the heat.
As a digression, I had experienced culture shock before, but not temperature shock. That first summer in the Valley of the Sun was quite intense. This being said, subsequent summers have been fine and even enjoyable, one just has to acclimate. If it gets to 50 degrees Fahrenheit though, now I have to get out the jacket, hat, scarf, etc…I know my more cold weather colleagues will snicker lightly, but come talk to me when you can walk around in pants when it is 105 degrees and think to yourself ‘this is nice’.
Nevertheless, that first summer the new graduate students had a month long Teaching Assistant training, which was quite comprehensive. Eventually, the semester began and the first few classes I had were exciting, covering research and theories of teaching. And even my first batch of freshmen were intriguing as I tried to guide them through the writing process. But something was missing, and I realized it in my Old English class. Every other Thursday, in Old English, the medievalists would always be talking about their colloquium which occurred on Friday. They would talk about whose paper they were going to read and where they were going to get dinner afterwards. I was envious, because I did not get to meet with my colleagues except for our classes.
I talked with my peers about forming a colloquium, that we might meet and talk about each others’ work. It took a bit of organizing, but by the next year we had our first few dates set. Starting out, we met once monthly on Fridays, where we would meet to discuss one peer’s writing: either a seminar paper, conference presentation, section of a thesis. I would ask for volunteers who wanted to have their work reviewed, and then would send it out to our e-mail list the week before the meeting. Then on the third Friday we met for an hour to talk about the paper.
The very first peer review involved my paper on Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and ‘slow violence’ and Kaitlin’s paper on Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau. The review was a success, helping make the ideas contained in the papers that much more clear and persuasive. So when Kaitlin and I presented these papers at conferences they were well received. And the colloquium continued smoothly: I would e-mail everyone once a month, reminding them of the meeting, Kaitlin secured a room for us, and we would meet. At a very basic level that was all the logistical work that was required, but of course there is more than just that.
If there was and is one item that I want to stress as essential to our success it is enthusiasm: our colloquium lives through our own energy. Were I able, I would tell everyone how to grow enthusiasm, but unfortunately I cannot, which is frustrating. For us, it seems that our willingness to commit to peer-reviewing and to meeting is key to our success. So, we have made it an aspect of community for 19th scholars at ASU.
- Peer-review: this is the core of our work together and remains so today. Half of our meetings are dedicated to discussing each other’s work. Roughly we read and comment on a colloquium member’s work and then talk about it in the meeting. We are very flexible about what we read: for-class essays, conference papers, portfolio papers, articles to be published, or dissertation chapters, always with a focus on professionalization.
- Article discussions: Also a core element to our work, we discuss either cutting edge or foundational work in the field of 19th century literature, like M.H. Abrams or recent articles on New/Neo Formalism. What we do is ask one person to lead our discussion and then we spend the meeting discussing the text and placing it in context with our work and the field.
- Mock Examinations: This is a new addition for us this semester. To help prepare each other for our comprehensive examinations (or Oral examination or Field examination) we hold a mock version of it before hand. The student sends us their reading list(s) and the colloquium generates questions. Although individually we might not have all read the works (because of varied specializations of interest within the field) collectively we cover the lists fairly well. Then we sit down with the student who will be examined and we ask them questions, and then afterwards give them feedback. Our November post will go into more detail about this process!
- Pedagogy Workshops: Lastly, we ask one of the faculty members to visit us and cover an aspect of teaching in the literature classroom, like syllabus design or classroom management, etc. We try to plan this for the end of the semester to make it a bit easier on everyone.
So, in a blog-shell, that is the system and mechanics of our colloquium. More interestingly, in the coming months we will have various voices from the colloquium writing entries to talk about themselves, their work, or other items. I hope that this insight has been valuable. We are looking forward to an excellent set of discussions on the blog and are excited to be a part of the conversation!