Category Archives: Digital Humanities

Guest Post: A “Radiant” Digital Edition of Wordsworth’s Prelude?

By Peter N. Miller

Dedicated readers of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude must at some point grapple with the disconcerting question of which version of the poem they’re looking at.

In 1799 Wordsworth produced a fair-copy manuscript of what would later be called The Two-Part Prelude. Between 1801 and 1805 the poet drastically revised this material to create a longer autobiographical poem, which consisted at various points of five books, eight books, and thirteen books. Wordsworth continued to revise the work over the coming decades, breaking Book 10 in two in 1829 to create a fourteen-book Prelude. His most substantial final revisions came in 1839, yet the poem was still not published, in any form, until shortly after the poet’s death, in 1850. To confuse matters further, Wordsworth never actually called The Prelude by that name. For him it was always “the poem to Coleridge.” The poet’s widow, Mary Hutchinson, suggested the title The Prelude. There is not a poem called The Prelude, it would seem, but multiple poems, each with a certain claim to legitimacy. Continue reading Guest Post: A “Radiant” Digital Edition of Wordsworth’s Prelude?

Romantic Web Communities

One of the great advantages we have as scholars is the opportunity to form communities beyond our institutions — not just at annual conferences in remote locales, but also in ongoing conversations on the web. These online communities are fora for scholarly dialogue and informal queries, requests for crowdfunding special projects and historical sites, and repositories of archival material. Here’s a brief roundup of selected sites, listservs, and communities available to Romanticists (and if you know of more, please get in touch!).

Academic listservs:

(1) NASSR List — the list of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (subscription required). The list is frequented by many major scholars in the field, but also graduate students and junior faculty; this is a particularly excellent resource for answers to obscure and arcane historical questions, and for links to major awards and opportunities in the field. Continue reading Romantic Web Communities

Graphs in Romanticism Research

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.

-Kent Linthicum

Quarterly Editor’s Note: To Spring

“Turn thine angel eyes upon our western isle
which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring”

-William Blake, “To Spring”

How true Blake’s words ring for this Chicagoan continuing to warm following the coldest winter on record. And so I write to wish all involved in the romantic studies blog(e)sphere a very collegial start to spring! Unsurprisingly, over the last few months, NGSC authors have continued to produce innovative work at a highly energetic pace. In what follows–and in my final such post of the year–I look back at some of what I found to be among the more incisive thoughts and ideas disseminated on the NGSC blog from January through April. NGSC authors wrote on topics of critical importance to a range of our constituents across the humanities (and beyond), covering such subjects as collaborative modes of engagement, the process building a trajectory of thought and insight between one’s undergraduate training and studies at the graduate level, to the place of economics and literature. We also published advice from established scholars in the field on preparing for comprehensive exams. The winter writing season was an important one for the NGSC.

The start to the year saw the publication of the blog’s first collaborative post, composed by Arden Hegele, artist in (e-)residence Nicole Geary, and myself on Romanticism and Geology. The piece took the form of a free flowing conversation, and ended up centering on how the material forms and discourses surrounding geology become factors of both romantic literary and contemporary art production. This allowed connections between nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and literature to become visible for us, particularly as creative investments in geology inform shared concerns with respect to art and politics. At an especially illuminating juncture in the dialogue, Arden acted as interlocutor for Nicole with the question of how she sees “geologically-inspired works of art,” including Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, as “engaging with the materiality of literary texts.” Nicole, in her response, connected geological form with the materials of textual production, observing that its “remarkable when you come upon stacked strata in the field and see rocks lined up like books on a shelf.” Importantly–and this accounts for one reason I find Nicole’s work as a sculptor and printmaker so fascinating–Nicole draws our attention so effectively to the way in which the earth itself comprises a geological field of signification to be made legible. Yet, like any text, it resists complete interpretation, offering breaches, lacunas, and other absences of meaning. “Volumes go missing,” Nicole reminds us. Excitingly, the series will be continued in May with a piece on the close reading of anatomical texts by Arden, NGSC Co-Chair, long time blog contributor, and Gothic studies specialist Laura Kremmel, as well as the ASU19C Colloquium member and specialist on romantic ideas of the undead Emily Zarka. So, look out for that.

Likewise, on the collaborative side of things, newly minted Ph.D. Candidate Kaitlin Gowan (also of the extraordinarily enterprising ASU19C contingent) wrote a fabulous and timely post on life after exams. There Kaitlin shares how she overcame the challenges of composing her dissertation prospectus. In doing so she made the vital point that, when faced with a daunting writing exercise, we so often do best to proceed by working ideas out out loud, with our colleagues. If, as Kaitlin reminds, our work depends on the passion we bring to it, and our colleagues prove crucial to reminding us of the enthusiastic group of scholars we’re part of as romanticists, the simple act of talking becomes a matter of tantamount importance for success in arriving at the point of being ABD.

In yet another innovative and inspiring post on the methods of literary analysis, Deven Parker’s January piece looked at Media Archaeology. There Deven nicely highlights processes of intellectual expansion in precisely the sort of seminar (in her case, “Media Archaeology” led by Lori Emerson) one might think at first unrelated to one’s earlier period-based work. Deven takes a point of departure from media archaeology’s imperative that we “expose structures of power embedded within the hardware of modern technology, revealing the ways in which media exert control over communication and provide the limits of what can be said and thought.” The result Deven extrapolates is an impetus to consider “texts from the inside out.” In turn, we are to question what books “tell us about the cultural conditions and constraints imposed by the media in which they were (and are) written, manufactured, and consumed.” It seems to me that the move to consider contemporary modes of production, and the theoretical modes of discourse they generate, so frequently proves critical for thinking about one’s own scholarship, even if it is primarily concerned with earlier periods. In addition, I would very much like to hear more from those of you reading the blog on what modes of contemporary media you enjoy thinking about, and the theoretical frameworks you utilize to do so.

Equal in brilliance for its bringing of the interdisciplinary to the fore of the blog, Renee Harris in a March post on “Use Value and Literary Work” zeroed in on how interests in romanticism and economics prove mutually illuminating. In a show of how the milestones in a graduate program lead one to the ideas that sustain important long-term work, Renee shared her justifications for her chosen comprehensive exam lists. At a key point, Renee contends that “The writers we study desire a lasting cultural influence. They seek to shape and correct, to play a significant role in cultural formation and the national story. I argue that this desire to influence and make a mark is a symptom of economic insecurity.” Indeed, it would seem that we need to understand to a much larger extent than we do the way in which such a bourgeois condition of pragmaticism informs the conditions of production with which we are concerned in the nineteenth century. I can’t wait to see how Renee will light the way to precisely this important frame of reference.

Last, on a similar front, blogger and interviewer extraordinaire Jennifer Leeds compiled words of wisdom from five scholars in our field on preparing for comprehensive exams. Perhaps the best of which comes from the medical humanities scholar Brandy Schillace, currently at Case Western University. Dr. Schillace made the salient point, which she was led to by her studies in theology, that “disciples ‘not worry’ about what they would say in advance. When the time came to speak, they would.” While I can only admit to my own experience in this regard, too often I feel as though I attempt to plan everything I say in advance, particularly with regard to my qualifying exams. This usually leads to unnecessary anxiety and less than fulfilling results. Hence, I find Dr. Schillace’s rejoinder a great one. We spend a good deal of time with ideas. Why wouldn’t we be heartened to know, and be confident that when we need them, the ideas will be there.

And with that I can sincerely say I look forward to another quarter of writing on the blog!


An Analog Humanities? The Case for Material Technologies

As a scholarly product of my time, I am the first to admit the advantages of the digitization of the humanities: after all, that’s what gives me EEBO and ECCO, transhistorical word searches, our web-based community of fellow Romanticists, and even the ability to edit my dissertation chapter with my old friends, Copy and Paste…

These advantages are not to be scorned lightly, so it is with some trepidation that I pose the following question: what role can an “analog humanities” play in our digital landscape? When, how, and why does the materiality of the literary text give the contemporary scholar a new lens for interpretation? And how can we expand our definition of “technology” to include the technologies that have (silently) accompanied literary studies all along?

I have recently been investigating these questions by going back to the physical foundation of the book—the pre-verbal stage in a text’s life—as a member of the Pine Tree Scholars, a collective sponsored by the Pine Tree Foundation and hosted through Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This brand-new organization brings together students with an interest in the material culture of books, and introduces us to an exciting range of book-making practices in the New York City area.

The Works of Lord Byron (1816)
The Works of Lord Byron (1816)

Our first excursion, to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in April 2013, gave me an incredible glimpse into the world of rare books. The Fair’s many sellers hailed from around the world, and they displayed an almost overwhelming range of manuscripts, printed posters, antique maps, handwritten letters, and, of course, books. In some ways, what impressed me most were not just the first editions—there were some very beautiful Jane Austens—but also the more esoteric, non-paginated artefacts, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s walking cane and a large and chilling collection of glass eyes. Following the Fair, we had lunch at the Grolier Club, New York’s club for book collectors, which also features a library of rare materials, fascinating exhibits based on members’ personal collections, and a very becoming portrait of the young Walter Scott. For me, this excursion was an unquestioned success: I scored an 1816 five-volume set of The Works of Lord Byron which I then read in preparation for my qualifying exam (probably to the poet’s ghostly dismay).

More recently, the Pine Tree Scholars have delved into more specific practices of book-making, especially where material production crosses into artistry. Last fall, we visited a letterpress studio—Woodside Press, in Brooklyn—which operates letterpresses, wood-block printing, and also a variety of antique print machines, including Linotype and Monotype systems from the late nineteenth century. To my great pleasure, just as we visited, the printers were working on a special commission to print Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” I was also excited to see that the arrangement of letters on the “keyboard” of the 1890s Linotype printing press followed Sherlock Holmes’s account of the most frequently-occurring letters in English, documented famously in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” (etaoin shrdlu). At Woodside Press, I also learned the crucial difference between a “type” and a “font”: a “type” refers to a “typeface,” or a specific design of the letters of the alphabet, while a “font” is a mass noun that describes the necessary quantity of pieces of type required for printing a book manuscript. Woodside’s metal fonts included many familiar names—Garamond and Palatino, among others—but also a number of unusual typefaces, of which some were of the Press’s own design. And I was astonished to learn that one letterpress expert can distinguish between typefaces just by looking at their punctuation marks!

Handmade paper (Dieu Donné Papermill)
Handmade paper (Dieu Donné Papermill)

We next visited Dieu Donné Papermill in midtown Manhattan, where I produced several (very experimental) sheets of handmade paper. Dieu Donné is a workspace for artists, art therapists, and their clients, as well as members of the public interested in learning paper-making techniques. Here, paper-makers create their artworks by processing linen, cotton (including old blue jeans and medical gowns), hemp, wood pulp, abaca (used to make tea bags), or other natural fibers, in a watery solution; the cellulose within the fibrous mixture allows the sheet of paper to fuse together when the pulp is laid on a screen and the water drained or pressed away. I was very interested to learn that the artistic technique we were using—creating sheets of paper individually on screens—was still the dominant commercial way of making paper from cotton and rag fibers during the early Romantic period; the first continuous paper-making machine was invented in France in 1799 and introduced to England in 1803 and the United States in 1817, replacing the earlier practice of making sheets by hand. Now to determine whether my Works of Lord Byron is printed on handmade sheets…

My latest foray into the material practices of book-making was a bookbinding session: the artist and bookbinder Susan Mills visited the Columbia Library and instructed us in the practices of sewing together the bindings of books. To me, this was an especially remarkable experience, since I was quickly and easily able to produce my own 96-page chapbook using extremely simple tools—in addition to sheets of paper, I needed only a paper-knife, an awl, a needle and thread, and a scrap of linen. During the Romantic period, book-binding would have been done by hand, by (usually) anonymous craftspeople, whose contributions are often only recorded in tiny holes in the pages near the book’s spine (where tiny drops of blood, from pricked fingers, decayed the paper more quickly). And readers would normally have cut the pages by hand; I note, with admiration for an anonymous previous reader, that my Byron‘s pages are cut perfectly cleanly. (Later addendum: they were probably “guillotined” by the printer.)

Hand-bound Chapbook
Hand-bound Chapbook

As I return to the question about the value of the “analog” humanities—that is, a deliberate return to the material technologies used in the production of literary texts—I think that experiencing the physical processes of making books, as I have been so lucky to do, can offer a unique and valuable pedagogy for the contemporary Romanticist. Having seen printing presses, paper-making, and book-binding in action, I have such an affective appreciation for the meticulous craftsmanship of my little 1816 Works of Lord Byron. The volumes’ ink is still vivid, the pages don’t crumble, and the tightly sewn bindings remain unbroken. The many type settings, ranging from the bold Gothic lettering of the title of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to the tiny typefaces, italicized passages, and Greek fonts in the glosses, testify to a material investment in the text that extends beyond the poet. From my “analog” adventures, I’ve learned that such small details as printing errors—like the notorious misprint in Austen’s Persuasion that “Lady Russell loved the mall”—are not just criteria for editorial footnotes; they are also reminders of the book-making process and the unseen but tremendous effort of Romantic-era craftspeople to support, in material fashion, what they saw as literary inspiration worth recording.

(All photos—and the textual materials depicted therein—belong to Arden Hegele)

NGSC E-Roundtable: Romanticism & Geology

Introduction: This piece comprises the first of a series of interdisciplinary dialogues that will appear quarterly on the NGSC Blog. The initial iteration finds NGSC contributing writers Arden Hegele, Jacob Leveton, and artist in residence Nicole Geary engaging with geology as a factor in the production both of Romantic poetry and contemporary sculpture. Towards this end, they collectively looked at a range of geologically oriented literary texts (Felicia Hemans’s “The Rock of Cader Idris,” Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” and Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”), works by the visual artists Robert Smithson and Blane de St. Croix, and literary, art-historical, and ecological criticism. Arden, Jacob, and Nicole then posed a series of questions for, and responded to, one another in a discussion that pivots upon a set of shared aesthetic problems and conceptual issues linking current critical and contemporary creative practices.


Arden: On the subject of the nonhuman voice in Nature, in “Mont Blanc,” Shelley writes that the mountain’s “voice” is “not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). How do you see Shelley’s mountain’s form in relation to poetic form, or, how might you relate the challenge of geological interpretation to the interpretation of Romantic literature?

Jacob: This is a great question with which to lead off, and I think provides an effective frame to derive some important points regarding the relation between Shelley’s poetry and politics. Of course, the lines to which you’ve directed my attention drive toward some of the liberatory aspects of Shelley’s poetic project at the time. The poet addresses Mont Blanc and posits that,“Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good / interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). The lines advance the point that Mont Blanc as a nonhuman geological form retains a voice to speak. That voice is comprehended by the “wise, and great, and good” who experience the mountain’s affective force at a high level of intensity (to “deeply feel”). Such a knowing-subject, indeed the Shelleyan poet, interprets the mountain’s geological form and communicates it in a way that effectively manifests itself as a field of social-critical potentiality. What I mean by this is that the poetic engagement with Mont Blanc, that itself generates the poem’s form, is geared to be mobilized in challenging and overturning social inequities. The poetic form that Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” makes available is one that takes geological interpretation as a point of departure for the purpose of social critique, and so relates to broader issues regarding interpretations of Romantic literature informed by historical-materialist theoretical investments, and the field of poetry and politics, more generally.

Nicole: Jacob, “Mont Blanc” seems to be written with a lonely and inhuman aura, one that puts nature out of the grasp of humankind. Do you agree that, as Heringman writes, it helped “mobilize the analogy between geological and political revolution” (13-14)?

Jacob: Your question is a wonderful one, as well–and, actually, while I’d agree that “Mont Blanc” is written with a profoundly inhuman aura I’m convinced it’s one that encodes a form of revelry in the nonhuman other. Ever since my first time working with that particular text, I’ve found it to offer a particularly energetic intellectual jouissance in its impellation that the reader recognize a significant interconnectivity with the natural environment. In this regard, the natural environment can be seen as deeply other and simultaneously co-constitutive of a self that is connected with all other sentient and non-sentient beings. This is why I found Heringman’s remarks so persuasive, with respect to how the “Romantic recognition of the earth’s unpredictability and difference from human interests” ultimately “permits progressive analogies to human agency” (13). One valuable concept the movement to posthumanism gives us (though one which the field of late eighteenth-century cultural production makes possible, by way of writers like Rousseau, Joseph Ritson, Erasmus Darwin, and others) is that the world in which we find ourselves is comprised of a rich myriad of human and nonhuman life and that to understand what it is to be human it is at once necessary to understand what it is to be human in relation to nonhuman life, the natural environment, and non-sentient matter. Geologically, it is the non-sentience of the mountainscape that Shelley’s poem engages with the utmost force, and its that difference between the human poet and nonhuman natural/geological phenomena that drives the poem. This is what I believe that poet is getting at when crafting the image of “The everlasting universe of things” which “Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves” (1-2). The poetic metaphor is taken from the Arve as the river that cuts through the ravine where the poet is positioned, with geological processes here comprising the primary factor of Shelley’s poetic production. Nonhuman geological and human subjectivities are differentiated, yet come together within the poem’s form as a zone of human/nonhuman environmental contact. They’re connected as Shelley’s poem draws out a vector of signification that links the Arve as an example of a formative geological agent that continually carves the mountainscape, the poet’s consciousness in writing, and the reader’s subjectivity in reading. These notions advance Heringman’s argument quite well. If geological formations like Mont Blanc make visible the way in which the earth is in a continual state of transformation–and it’s a given that species do best when they are adaptable to change and humans constitute one species position within a broader web of nonhuman life–then it follows that a commitment to progressive thought and engagement proves integral to the absorption of geology in Shelley’s poem.

Nicole: What I really fell for in “Beachy Head” was the long stretch of meandering we did through what felt like a mix of memory and storytelling. It’s as though we are briefly on the ground at this place, then suddenly no longer conforming to space and time. I find that it’s deceptive at first. Can you talk about how you find the form of this poem lends itself to the underlying story?

Arden: “Beachy Head” is such a rich poem, generically as well as geologically. Although it’s clearly working in the Romantic tradition in its description of sublime natural landscapes, it also looks back to an older genre — the loco-descriptive poem — which characterized eighteenth-century works like James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-1730). In the loco-descriptive poem, the speaker’s point of view moves fluidly between spaces through the act of looking, and the poem describes the different landscapes in view; importantly (and in contrast with most Romantic poetry), the energy carrying the poem isn’t so much the developing emotional charge, but rather the speaker’s changing observational position within a landscape. This active eye prompting topographical transitions is much of what we get in Smith’s 1807 poem, especially in lines like these: “let us turn / To where a more attractive study courts / The wanderer of the hills” (447-49). Here, Smith signals how her speaker’s eye carries “us” between geographical sites and their relation to her memories.

But, as you suggest, Nicole, Smith’s work is compelling because the landscapes in question prompt temporary flights away from the locations that she describes — including Beachy Head itself — as the speaker contemplates their relation to her emotional state. These jumps away from the landscape into recollected emotion is what feels most Romantic about the poem. For example, Smith’s denunciation of happiness is one of the work’s most poignant moments: “Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word / That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born” (258-59). To me, this is an intriguing moment for the poem’s physical environment, since the simile associates happiness with a paranormal feature (a will-o’-the-wisp), in contrast to the many concrete landscapes of the poem — Beachy Head itself, the stone quarry, the cottages, the cave in the rock, and so on. But the ignis fatuus also helps to reveal the poem’s ongoing mechanism for the speaker’s nostalgic leaps: here and elsewhere, the ground gives direct rise to the emotions that the speaker experiences. (As a side note, “false fire, from marsh effluvia born” also invokes the miasmatic theory of disease popular during the period, which maintained that toxic gases would arise from the ground and spread contagion – a rather chilling way of describing “happiness”).

The historical and biographical contexts of “Beachy Head” are also quite interesting with respect to the poem’s treatment of time and space, especially in a scientific context. While writing was a source of necessary income for Smith (she was the only earner for her ten children), she took pleasure and relief in scientific practices like botany, and it seems to me that her somewhat loco-descriptive survey of the landscape of Beachy Head alludes to her personal practices of dispassionate scientific observation. An early reviewer of the posthumous poem remarked that

“It appears also as if the wounded feelings of Charlotte Smith had found relief and consolation […] in the accurate observation not only of the beautiful effect produced by the endless diversity of natural objects[,] but also in a careful study of their scientific arrangement, and their more minute variations.” (Monthly Review, 1807)

In keeping with what this reviewer notices, one of the poem’s main projects seems to be to classify different types of rock — the “chalk […] sepulchre” of the cliffs (723), the “stupendous summit” of Beachy Head itself (1), the “castellated mansion” (514), the “stone quarries” (471), and even the sedimented sea-shells, fossils, and “enormous bones” beneath the sea (422). But the poem also moves beyond classification by relating natural forms to poetic lyricism: for example, Smith describes “one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots / Form’d a rude couch,” where “love-songs and scatter’d rhymes” were “sometimes found” (581-84). At the poem’s conclusion, the rock of Beachy Head itself inspires verse, as “these mournful lines, memorials of his sufferings” are “Chisel’d within” (738-39); indeed, Smith’s own lines appear to have emerged from the physical rock. Moreover, supporting its thematic transitions between spaces and even outside of time, “Beachy Head” isn’t confined to a single verse form — the two sets of inset songs (in variable quintains and sestets) break up the sedimented quality we get with the long passages of blank verse. So the meandering quality that you notice between the poem’s specific geographies and abstract memories also applies to the fluctuating relationship between the verse forms, between the various locations and historical moments the poem describes, and, perhaps most importantly, between the relationship of scientific and poetic practices, which Smith ultimately tries to reconcile.

Jacob: Arden, I was particularly struck by the wonderful resonance between your suggestion that we read Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” and Nicole’s decision that we look at Blane de St. Croix’s Broken Landscape III (Fig. 1), since both works utilize geology as a means to think through the concept of national boundaries. In what ways might the ideas you find in Broken Landscape III  intersect Smith’s poem? Just as well, how might de St. Croix’s strategies as a visual artist diverge from those of Smith as a poet?

Blane de St. Croix, Broken Landscape III, 2012. Wood, plywood, foam, plastic, paint, branches, dirt, and other natural materials, 80.00 x 2.50 x 7.00 ft. (24.38 x 0.76 x 2.13 m.), as viewed at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Photograph by Nicole Geary
Fig. 1. Blane de St. Croix, Broken Landscape III, 2013. Wood, plywood, foam, plastic, paint, branches, dirt, and other natural materials, 80.00 x 2.50 x 7.00 ft. (24.38 x 0.76 x 2.13 m.), as viewed at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Photograph by Nicole Geary

Arden: I’m so glad that you drew my attention to the political similarities between Charlotte Smith and Blane de St. Croix’s works. Both artworks are connected in their different ways to the question of politically-charged national borders. Smith’s perspective can certainly cast new light on de St. Croix’s contemporary art, and I see at least two ways in which the pieces can work together in productive dialogue. First, their portrayals of their respective borders share certain formal similarities, in spite of the very different natures of the artworks. Second, the works diverge in the mechanisms by which they represent the borders as liminal spaces: while de St. Croix is invested in showing how the deep strata of the Mexico-US border’s geological formation acts as a barrier between the nations, Smith finds that the France-England border’s geology reveals similarity underlying the nations’ apparently radical differences.

Both artists engage with the idea of sedimentation as a formal tool for political commentary. In “Beachy Head,” Smith regularly draws the reader’s attention to Beachy Head’s distinctive white cliffs, the tallest in Britain, whose layers of chalk point to a long-standing geological history of increasing division from the opposite coast by means of marine erosion over millennia. For Smith, the continual geological breakdown between the two nations, through this process of erosion, is a provocative metaphor for their political relationship. In its allusions to the Norman Conquest, the battle of Beachy Head of 1690 (which the English lost), and the tensions between the nations during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the “scroll voluminous” of “Beachy Head” offers a versified representation of this erosion (122). Presented in chronological order, each incident of conflict with France gives way to the next until the reader reaches sea-level and England’s triumph: “But let not modern Gallia form from hence / Presumptuous hopes” against England, the “Imperial mistress of the obedient sea” (146-47, 154). In the political ramifications of its eroding structure, “Beachy Head” has much in common with Broken Landscape III, which is also interested in the sedimentation of a politically-charged international border. For de St. Croix, however, the formalism of sediment is not figured through erosion, but rather through accretion. Discourses about the border have, over time, accumulated in layers, just as layers of rock have accreted in the border’s geological history. De St. Croix’s representation of the border as a human-scale sedimented wall explores how its underlying discourses have built up to create an insurmountable barrier in the present (unlike the real border, de St. Croix’s installation actually prevents the viewer’s ability to walk across it).

At the same time, though, the two works differ considerably in the function of their sedimentation. As Lily Gurton-Wachter argues, Smith resists the idea that France and England were “natural enemies” (a term used pejoratively to describe their strained relationship at the turn of the nineteenth century), and instead finds a common ground for them in their shared geological past. The poet contemplates whether the bottom of the sea, cast up in cliff form at Beachy Head, serves as the area of continuity between the nations: “Does Nature then / Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes / Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling / To the dark sea-rock of the wat’ry world?” (383-86). While at one point Smith calls Romantic geology “but conjecture” (398), the general implication of the poem is that geology can help to locate a literal, deep-seated common ground between the opposed nations. De St. Croix, on the other hand, finds only political difference in the geology underlying the border. The human imposition of international boundaries on the surface of the earth is so metaphysically weighty that it actually carries downwards physically into its subterranean strata, in spite of the fact that each nation’s side is effectively the same in material and appearance.

Arden: Nicole, I’m interested in your thoughts on the materiality of landscape as a source for art. In Robert Smithson’s film about “Spiral Jetty,” the artist says that “the earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.” How do you see geologically-inspired works of art — especially an “entropic” project like Smithson’s, or Blane de St Croix’s meticulous topography — engaging with the materiality of literary texts? And, how does your study of Romanticism help you to understand this material relationship?

Nicole: It’s especially remarkable when you come upon stacked strata in the field and see rocks lined up like books on a shelf. This metaphor instantaneously becomes ingrained within you as you run your finger down the stack, looking for the book (rock) you want to pull out. In the history of the earth, pages, sometimes whole volumes go missing. We suffer those convulsions and catastrophes, and the earth rebuilds itself from the pieces. Spiral Jetty is made from rocks, water, mud, evaporites, and time (Fig. 2).

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water, 1,500.00 x 15.00 ft. (457.20 x 4.57 m.), Great Salt Lake, UT
Fig. 2. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water, 1,500.00 x 15.00 ft. (457.20 x 4.57 m.), Great Salt Lake, UT

But not just that, it is a place. Spiral Jetty is difficult to reach, sometimes not able to be seen due to changes in the level of the Great Salt Lake. In reading romantic-period texts, I’m reminded of the overwhelming sense of the sublime that artists felt for certain places. Certain topographies, either remote or only able to be accessed by memory (as so wonderfully illustrated in “Beachy Head”) hold a history that engages and sometimes mystifies. So, too, does the Broken Landscape series by de St. Croix as it not only shows the surface, or present tense, but it digs into the depths of what came before our tense border anxieties. Broken Landscape III looks directly at ontological constructs upon the landscape that never existed before human-made activity, but doesn’t negate the rock record.

What I find fascinating is that this rock record is always around us, ever complex yet at our disposal to read. There is some comfort in the idea that we can make sense of the word, quite literally, by translating it like an ancient tome. I think that through Romanticism, I’m actually able to understand more about the emotional weight I give to rocks themselves. By reading through the Scottish Enlightenment and the geological revolution, I understood that what I was going through artistically was my own new science: a way of naming and identifying my emotions without feeling them – calling them the Other.

Jacob: This year, I’ve become increasingly influenced by Rebecca Beddell’s The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1865 in terms of the way in which, as Beddell explains, the division of labor between artists and scientists is essentially a discursive construction. Namely, here, I’m interested in how reading Bedell’s art-historical analysis might relate to, or gave you a space to imagine, your own work, perhaps in a different way than you had prior. In this regard, I’m drawn especially to the preface to her book, where Bedell suggests that in the nineteenth-century: “American landscape painters and geologists then stood on common ground. We now tend to consign art and science to different epistemologies, regarding them as distinctive pursuits, with completely different methodologies, directed towards completely different ends” while in the nineteenth-century art and science proved an interconnected spectrum of pursuits “in both popular perception and practice” (xi). What I’m wondering is how you consider about your own work within this trajectory. I’m thinking mainly of your 2011 Secondary Sediment series of prints that I think so powerfully evokes the relation between personal memory and geological space, and especially the play of text and image in “IX” (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Nicole Geary, "IX" from the Secondary Sediments series, 2011. Drypoint, type, and chine collé, 8.00 x 10.00 in. (20.32 x 25.40 cm.), Courtesy of the Artist
Fig. 3. Nicole Geary, “IX” from the Secondary Sediments series, 2011. Drypoint, type, and chine collé, 8.00 x 10.00 in. (20.32 x 25.40 cm.), Courtesy of the Artist

Nicole: Jacob, this is such a great question, because I specifically thought about this, too, when I was reading Beddell’s introduction. It seems a social construct based on educational or vocational pursuits has rendered art and science separate pursuits in our recent history, but the idea of a more common acquisition of knowledge and shared respect for these fields was in vogue during the age of Manifest Destiny. A different resurgence in this kind of thinking is afoot, with places like Science Gallery (, the resurrection of LACMA Art + Technology Lab (, and the CERN Artist’s Residency (, to name only a few art and science collaborations.

To answer your question, my work does straddle both realms. It’s a mix of personal memoir related to the land it was experienced in. I find that the economic aspects of landscape cannot be separated from their role as passive backdrop to this “American dream” sedative. To deal with one part of the land or the space I live in requires me to seriously investigate all parts – it’s an element of knowing the land that I think a poem like “Beachy Head” deals with in a wonderful way.

The idea that we should mine the earth for its riches, or fight wars for those resources, the same principles that as a youth I could feel patriotic about, are now the ideas that I question in my work. What is worth exploiting (property, resources, and lives) and at what cost for the betterment of humankind? Who can really own land? In “A Place on the Glacial Till,” Thomas Fairchild Sherman writes a personal, historical, and geological history. A story of the animals and plants of his native Oberlin, Ohio, he writes of a place that is clearly familiar and dear to him when he says that: “Our homes are but tents on the landscape of time, and we but visitors to a world whose age exceeds our own 100 million times. We own only what the spirit creates.”

At what cost does the land stop becoming land?  I think Solnit shares a fine example of this in her essay (see “Elements of a New Landscape,” 57). The work “El Cerrito Solo” by Lewis deSoto was initiated by a friend’s remark that it was “too bad the mountain wasn’t there anymore.” Essentially, a small hill had been sourced for it’s material until it was no longer there – a story that’s full of what I think of as the ripping out of a page from one of the volumes in the rock record of the earth. Almost painfully, the artist says, “you could be in the landscape while driving on the freeway.” This reminds me of living in South Dakota and driving on pink-hued roads, colored this way because of the quarrying of local Sioux quartzite, the words of this story echoing in my thoughts. How many “little mountains” disappeared from the landscape to make these roads? At the intersection of art and geology, I read of a similar story that took place in Belize of the unfortunate destruction of a 2,000+ year-old Mayan temple, locally named Noh Mul, or Big Hill. A local contractor was quarrying the site for its limestone to create roadfill, but now embedded archaeological artifacts are totally lost and broken cultural relics have become part of the landscape.  Ultimately, the “otherness” of Nature is no longer a separate entity conceptually at bay but is a real, interactive part of our lives. I believe art can help us transform the way we think about landscape and its effect on us.



I think the time is right to invest in people. One of the biggest problems that I see with contemporary Western culture (as this is what I can speak to), is a lack of focus on local histories and real science, and an art world that seems fixated on the cult of celebrity, or too quickly moves on from one fad to another. I think the reason I became a printmaker was that somewhere at the core of my being, I enjoy the slow work and old-fashioned ethos of making something from an antiquated technology. It’s possible that I set myself up to be interested in history specifically because of that, but a lot of the work I drift toward or care about is art about the sciences and questioning the role of the author, or the authoritative voice. By this I mean searching for authentic stories of people so that they not be forgotten by history due to their gender, race, or sexuality. I look for things to have meaning and depth beyond their surface. Rocks and big outcrops, with their stony gazes, seem to have a lifetime of stories to tell, even if their faces are unyielding. I have to agree with Shelley on this point, where he ascribes a voice to Mont Blanc–in the lines to which Arden first drew our attention. What I read in this passage is the work of the artist and the geologist. To make the voice of the mountain known, through study and familiarity, through knowledge and wisdom, and to transmit that feeling through the power of metaphor, and of unity with the landscape. Who can say which job belongs to whom?


Works Consulted:


Felicia Hemans, “The Rock of Cader Idris” (1822)

Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1817)

Charlotte Smith, “Beachy Head” (1807)


Blane de St Croix, “Broken Landscape III” (2013)

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)


Bedell, Rebecca. The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Gurton-Wachter, Lily. “’An Enemy, I suppose, that Nature has made’: Charlotte Smith and the natural enemy.” European Romantic Review 20, 2 (2009): 197-205.

Heringman, Noah. Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Elements of a New Landscape.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.


Books Are Good. Ebooks Are Good. Both are Better: Avoiding the Word “Versus” in the Future of Libraries

We bookish types are worried about our books. Articles, conferences, discussions, podcasts and references in all the social media about the future of libraries and of reading have become common and seemingly endless. Physical books versus internet sources, libraries versus digital texts, bookstores versus ebook orders, even letters versus emails. It seems that, when we talk about the increasing popularity of the digital humanities, the word “versus” inevitably comes into use, despite our best intentions. But, should it, and why? That’s one of the many questions that came up throughout a one-day conference at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia on December 6th in celebration the astounding 225th anniversary of its library. The conference was titled, “Emerging Roles for Historical Medical Libraries: Value in the Digital Age,” and was comprised of five speakers from different perspectives, all dealing with historical medical libraries in some capacity and highlighting what they considered to be the values and stakes of this “versus” debate. Below, I’ve gathered some of the points made during each scholar’s talk, points that I found relevant for anyone invested in libraries and research. For more detail about the conference program, visit the library website.

Jacalyn Duffin on the archive as treasure hunt:

Dr. Duffin presented her experiences with texts that had been reprinted through several editions across many libraries as she stumbled across other texts and historical figures through library exploration: she spoke to archivists and librarians, poked around shelves, and paid close attention to marginalia and illustrations. Sounds like the typical book-loving-researcher’s story: reassuring to hear and gratifying with which to agree. She also discussed the cost of knowledge, however: how does digitization affect cost, and is this effect positive or negative? Editions of the books she was researching went from expensive, to print on demand, to digitized on ECCO (though only for a university audience). Despite these changes, she reiterated that space and place are still incredibly important in understanding the book and its contexts. Duffin ended by posing a familiar question, with a haunting response: “Why libraries? Maybe we won’t know why we need them until they’re gone.”

Jeffrey Reznick on methods of assessing libraries from a national perspective:

Dr. Reznick brought the perspective of the National Library of Medicine and discussed methods of assessing libraries as well as his own experiences as a reader. Much of his talk referenced other books and sources on the topic, showing a myriad of different perspectives. Some of the many I found myself furiously copying into my notes include: IndexCat, Library 2020, and Circulating Now.

Nancy Cervetti on the library as place of creative power:

Dr. Cervetti brought perhaps the strongest literary perspective to the conversation, providing a list of exciting texts about literary depictions of archives and written materials, peppering her talk with quotes from Foucault and Derrida. She herself had begun as a scholar of literature who, through archival digging, started leaning towards history of medicine, particularly related to Weir Mitchell (who famously invented the “rest cure”). As Duffin did, Cervetti stressed the importance of being present in the archive in order to interact with librarians and to make discoveries through exploration, creating a multidimensional understanding of a subject rather than simply gathering information.

Mary Fissell on books as records of readers and readership:

Dr. Fissell shared her experiences using the College of Physicians Library collections in order to trace the readership of books through marginalia, looking at the book as an artifact that has its own subtext hidden in individual detail. Her work with recipe books showed readers interacting with the text and using it to keep track of experiences. She reiterated previously-made points about respecting and valuing the physical book for its differences among editions and the information its size, texture, and material can bring to our understanding of it. At the same time, she could not have pursued her project without the aid of digital archives and resources. The digital can help us use the archive and vice versa. They should be seen as tools to aid each other.

Simon Chaplin on rebuilding the library:

Dr. Chaplin is the head of the Wellcome Library in London, a “free library for the incurably curious,” its strength in the medical humanities. The Wellcome is in the process of remodeling its library and museum space, and Chaplin discussed the techniques of the library to boost its readership to match its museum patronage. The library will intertwine the library with the museum, making it easier for visitors to stumble upon (a key phrase throughout the conference) and make discovers by whim, according to a thematic organization. This new design speaks to a re-prioritization of the library to include more things. Accessibility and applicability will make it a place visitors want to explore. “Libraries don’t have to die!” he claims. They simply need to be willing to change and help people recognize what they already do so well: to “create questions where none existed previously.”

While all five speakers lauded the advantages and the joys of archival research, celebrating the place, space, contacts, and objects of books, some of the questions posed by the audience spoke to the dangers of denying the practicalities and the benefits of digitization in favor of over-romanticizing the rare book archive. I have heard sessions at conferences and by visiting speakers, either in vague praise of ever-changing technological advances in the humanities or full of anxious or romanticized defense of libraries: however, it seems both more useful and more difficult to discuss how these two archival methods complement each other. When questions arose pleading the necessity of digitization and online research, the speakers were very eager to admit that, of course, they never could have done their research without preliminary or follow-up investigation.

Yet, why does this feel like a concession? We’re worried about our books and their disappearance. Yes, libraries are in danger, for many reasons that I will not go into here, but perhaps it’s time to ease back from the admirable and protective tributes to libraries and focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the two types of research as they work together. This topic would be extremely complicated and (perhaps) contentious but would perhaps also help us to cement an inseparable relationship between the two and to achieve a vocabulary for talking about that bond that can support libraries better than a spirited defense. We don’t need libraries or online archives. What we need is both.

Dr. Brandy Schillace has also covered this event on her excellent blog, The Daily Dose!

Digitization and Humanities: Navigating e-Text and Using Social Media as a Scholarly Database

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!)

Follow my research at

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.

One of Blake’s illustrations of Gray’s “Descent of Odin.”

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[1]. 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[2]. 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.

A screenshot of my "Norse Romanticism" research Tumblr blog.
A screenshot of my “Norse Romanticism” research Tumblr blog.

And thus came the creation of 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.

A screenshot of posts returned by clicking the "art" tag.
A screenshot of posts returned by clicking the “art” tag.

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.



[1] See Thomas Gray’s “Fatal Sisters. An Ode” or “The Descent of Odin,” both illustrated by William Blake.

[2] Robert Rix and Margaret Clunies-Ross are two current scholars; Rix proposed the “Nordic Exchanges” panel at NASSR 2013.

Online Academics: Questions for Grad Students

This is a post about an issue near and dear to our hearts as bloggers and blog-readers: digital authorship, authority, and recognition. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, spent two days at Lehigh University. September 12th, she gave a presentation called “The Future of Authorship: Scholarly Writing in the Digital Age” and September 13th, she spoke informally with grad students and faculty. Here’s some food for thought based on her visit.

Fitzpatrick started out with the basics: what kinds of authorship do we as academics value, and why? We value work that is done on an individual basis, thus making it simpler to claim ownership and award credit for the work produced in a final, polished product: I wrote this journal article, did all the research and drafts myself, gave credit through proper citations, and went through the process of revision and peer review and, finally, publication. Lots of people are involved in this process, from the other authors cited in the article, to the editorial board and anonymous peer-reviewers. But we don’t see those names on the by-line.

And this is Fitzpatrick’s point. With so many people involved, we recognize that an article is not published by the author alone, even if we pretend this is the case in our C.V.s and tenure reviews and job applications. Fitzpatrick argues that reading and writing are social activities and are continuing to become even more social through digital media forums like online journals, blogs, social media, twitter, etc. She claims that we need to rethink the ways that we share information through technology, how we reach and interact with an audience, how we control (if, indeed, we should) quality and authority, and how we give credit for all the labor that goes into commitment to an online community. We need to consider the process as much as the final product, if not more so, in order to benefit from the development of an idea through over time, which is what makes online work so exciting. One of the last points with which she ended her talk was the emphasis on the spread of knowledge for its own sake, in order to let it grow and expand into different forms and fields. Make it as accessible as you can. Certainly, none of us are in it for the money, after all.

I don’t consider myself to be hugely involved with all the newest technologies associated with digital information, and things like “open access” are still mysterious to me (and, I’ll admit, I’m still trying to figure out how to best use Twitter, both personally and professionally). Yet, I am involved with blogging (obviously), as we all are and, like many grad students, have been published more online than in print. I love the idea of sharing my thoughts and knowledge with others without worrying so much about polishing them into full-blown articles. Fitzpatrick’s idea of watching a project develop over time is an appealing notion because it gives you a more three-dimensional sense of a scholar and allows you to see the different angles of his or her interests. I also think the immediacy of the internet can be an incredible benefit if used with caution. Sometimes the process of conventional publication takes so long that the information can be all but obsolete by the time it reaches the people who need it. I also like that I don’t feel like I have to make any ground-breaking claims when I share this information. Many of my fellow bloggers have written on very similar topics in the last year, and many other forums of all different kinds have discussed the idea of digital authorship. But we don’t all read every blog out there (couldn’t, in fact), so ideas of absolute originality are a little more fluid. I will not claim to be saying anything completely new here. And that’s okay! I love reading blogs as well as contributing to them for all of these reasons.

Two important questions pertaining to grad students came up during Fitzpatrick’s informal seminar. The first engages with the amount of prestige required to take risks like digital publishing in academics and to convince a conventional academy that such online contributions count towards anything. As we all know, grad students have no prestige. Should we be taking these risks in such a tenuous job market? Should we be putting energy and time into online projects and collaborations if it could be spent on more conventional types of publication? All the “self-help” books on grad school, academics, and writing for publication that I’ve read have either ignored the possibilities of the online world altogether or advised young academics to stay away from them because they don’t “count.” Certainly, there are many problems with being able to publish anything instantly, the least of all being plagiarism, quality control, and authority. It’s refreshing and comforting to hear an established academic say that, yes, blogs and online publications can count and count for quite a lot at that. As Fitzpatrick says, reading, commenting, and keeping up with blogs and other online forums is also time-consuming and a lot of work, but these communities couldn’t exist without the interactive, conscientious, “peer” participant. We all, even by the act of sharing and commenting on online work, claim some part in its continued existence. Such activities create a new kind of credit for work by helping to get a writer’s name out there and recognizable, which can open up so many other opportunities. These kinds of activities should be taken seriously because they are serious! That being said, they are still not taken seriously on a job application, which, as I understand it, still credits conventional print publication (in addition to many other things, of course) and will do for quite some time. Fitzpatrick’s advice is to work towards a balance of traditional and more innovative publications and academic activities: online exposure can lead to name recognition, but it all comes down to that C.V.

One of the online authorship issues that grad students in my department have been worried about is the potential complications caused by publishing dissertations online, and this was our second question. Our university automatically publishes all dissertations (and theses) in an online, open access depository, with the option of a one-year embargo. We’ve been concerned about the possibility of being denied publication because our work would already be available through this open access forum, and we have heard horror stories of this happening. One year is certainly not long enough to get something published. However, Fitzpatrick posits this as another positive opportunity to get your name out in order to lead to other publications. I, myself, have cautious, mixed feelings about this related again to prestige qualifiers. I’d be interested to hear what others think about the idea of mandatory open access and what discussions have occurred in your departments about it.

The relationship between academics and digital possibilities is a huge and ongoing conversation, and I’ve really only summarized the ideas Fitzpatrick shared with us and added a (very) few of my own anxieties about online academic networks and forums. I’d like to end by inviting you to participate in this conversation with me. What have you heard about the pros and cons of online publications, blogs, and forums? How much do you value your own participation in such forums as either readers or participants? And the big question: how do we get such activities to “count,” IF we think they should count, in our current positions as grad students? What other issues complicate this question for you?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Blog

Call for NGSC Bloggers 2013-2014

NASSR Graduate Students and Advisors of Romantic Studies Graduate Students:

The NASSR Graduate Student Caucus (NGSC) invites applications for new bloggers for the 2013-2014 academic year. We ask that NGSC bloggers commit to contributing about 1 post per month (or approx. 8-10 total per year) and to serving through September 2014.

To apply, please submit a short statement of interest, along with a current academic CV to: Applications are due on 23 September 2013. Applicants will be notified by 1 October 2013.

As always, we welcome posts on a wide range of topics and issues of importance to our authors that represent their range of expertise, scholarly experiences, institutions, research interests, and issues relating to student life.

Importantly: Posts need not be works of honed researched scholarship and sustained argument (though, admittedly, this can be a tough habit to break!). Posts can be as brief as a paragraph or as long as a few pages. Posts can also be a collage of images as well as thought experiments, original poetry, or a recently read poem or literary excerpt, or artistic piece or performance that you would like to share. Collections of links, reports on travel, or summaries of scholarly talks attended related broadly to the field of Romanticism are likewise warmly invited.

We hope this space is one where we can enjoy writing fun, lighthearted reflections or humorous quips as well as serious contemplations about our field. Fostering a supportive and meaningful community of graduate students is at the heart of this successful enterprise; we hope you will choose to take part!

If you have any questions about blogging for the NGSC, please send us an email and we’ll get right back to you.

Sincerely yours,

Kirstyn Leuner (Dept. of English, CU-Boulder), Chair, NASSR Graduate Student Caucus, and Co-Editor of NGSC blog

Jacob Leveton (Dept. of Art History, Northwestern U), Managing Editor, NASSR Graduate Student Caucus Blog