Tag Archives: digital humanities

“[I]n language strange”: Using Omeka to Bring (Digital) Archives to the Classroom

Students in survey poetry courses often encounter poems in anthologies. Poetry anthologies are comparatively inexpensive and well edited, and they offer an eclectic mix of brilliant work from a diverse set of authors. Much like the poems they contain, though, anthologies themselves can become sites of deep critical inquiry and fantastic resources for instructors wishing to train students on matters of book history and editorial practices. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy’s The Norton Anthology of Poetry (2005) offers a case in point: the decisions that the editors made when presenting John Keats’s famous ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” reveal some of the difficult choices that editors must make when compiling an anthology, and become an occasion for exploring the competing versions of Keats’s poem and the ways in which historical and contemporary editors have shaped its meaning.

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What does a Romantic Classroom Look Like?

Reflections, questions, & forum for response.

The dawn of another academic year always comes with a slew of first year Teaching Assistants. Graduate students must now stand up in front of the classroom and, if any of them are like me, spend more time reflecting on their own learning processes than ever before in their academic life. Like so many gradate TAs I don’t have the option to choose which courses or syllabus to teach, but rather am assigned courses that vary between English Composition 100 and Intro to Literature. I’m not complaining as each opportunity provides the space to learn a new topic that otherwise might have slipped my academic history.

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Romantic Objects

I’ve long been fascinated by two Romantic objects that figure prominently in poetry and prose: the Aeolian harp and the Claude glass. The Aeolian harp is a stringed instrument that is placed in an open window so that the strings vibrate with the wind, sort of like a sideways guitar.

Aeolian-HarpInWindow

Image source: http://chestofbooks.com/reference/American-Cyclopaedia-V1/Aeolian-Harp.html

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The Resonance of the Veil: Some Thoughts about Methodology

For most of my academic career, I didn’t think much about methodology. I read, I think, I write (and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite). This changed when I took an introductory Digital Humanities course, a survey of digital tools and methods. My biggest takeaway from this course (other than that computers are frustrating) was that methodology affects not only the results of research, but also the way we think about our data and the types of questions we ask. This not a new idea for many scholars, I know, but for those of us used to the read-think-write strategy, it bears thinking about.

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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?

Interview: Dr. James McKusick

One of Romanticism’s favorite ecocritics, Dr. James McKusick, explains how getting lost in the woods at the age of five helped inspire his brilliant book, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. He shares, “I was playing with some friends and they went home. I went the other way and I was lost on my own for a couple hours. I finally found my way to a house in the woods, where there was this little, old lady, who decided not to make me into soup. She actually called up my friends’ parents, who rescued me. It’s one of those formative childhood memories. The takeaway is that I’ve always wanted to wander in wild places. It’s part of my makeup.”

Scholars of Romanticism should be thankful for a couple of things: first, that the old woman in the woods did not make McKusick into soup and, second, that the curiosity and bravery that five-year-old McKusick demonstrated in his exploration of the woods has grown and can be seen within his scholarly work in our field.

INTERVIEWER

How did you become interested in ecological approaches to Romanticism?

 MCKUSICK

I’ve probably spent five years of my life out under the open sky. However, it never occurred to me that I could translate any of this into the practice of literary study or literary criticism until long after I was out of graduate school. My dissertation had nothing to do with wilderness—it had to do with the philosophy of language. It was only after I got tenure, on the basis of that work, that I put my head up and I said, “What do I want to study next?”

At that time, there was no such thing as ecocriticism. This was the late 80s, early 90s, and Jonathan Bate had just published his first book on Wordsworth and green Romanticism, but with that exception, there wasn’t that much out there in specifically the field of British Romantic or Transatlantic ecocriticism. Obviously, there’s a long and distinguished history of people who study environmental writing, especially in the American context. That’s really, I think, the center of gravity for the field of environmental writing. If you look at most anthologies of nature writing, they have to deal with mostly 19th-century essay writers, Thoreau, Emerson, and that whole tradition down to Rachel Carson and modern times. But what’s missing in that tradition is the deeper history that goes back to at least the Middle Ages, perhaps the Classical period. The deeper intellectual and spiritual history of nature writing is what I’m after.

There was just a morning when I woke up, and I had this Gestalt experience, where I said, “You know, I love wild, natural, places, I love literature, I want to bring those things together.” It made sense in terms of my own life journey, but it was also an edgier, more dangerous field to go into because there wasn’t such a field yet. I got to be in there at the creation, so to speak. Organizations such as ASLE were just starting to be formed […] There was an aha! moment as well, where I found the poetry of John Clare, a lesser studied British Romantic poet, who, especially at that time in the 80s and 90s, was virtually unknown to Americans. British scholars have always known about Clare, but they, perhaps, have not taken him as seriously as he should have been taken. They used to speak of poor Clare, the poor mad poet. They knew a few of his poems that he wrote in the madhouse, but they didn’t know the reams and reams of wonderful poetry that he wrote during the primary phase of his poetic career, when he was not in the madhouse, when he was just a peasant farmer living his life out under the open sky.

John Clare was an amazing discovery for me. I became well acquainted with the world’s leading scholar of Clare studies, Eric Robinson, who is also the main editor of Clare’s work. Eric became one of my great mentors […] Through the study of John Clare, I’ve come to a more comprehensive understanding of what environmental writing is or can be. What I love about John Clare is simply his authentic connection, his groundedness in a particular wild place. John Clare was there at a transitional moment in the history of British agriculture, when they were moving from the ancient common field system to the enclosed or private field system. He deeply mourned that transformation of the landscape. The enclosed fields were being intensively cultivated. It was kind of a green revolution in agriculture, which made the lands more productive, and, in a sense, industrialized the land. It also destroyed many of the wild creatures that lived there, their nesting places, their habitat. Clare was really the only person who seemed to care. It was a tragedy that affected the landscape, and this is all captured beautifully through Clare’s poetry, through the poetics of nostalgia. He writes about land the way it was, but he also uses the poetics of advocacy. He advocates for preserving the landscape and for the rights of the creatures that inhabit there. Clare’s poetry is either naïve or deeply, mystically, connected with the landscape. I prefer the second idea.

Discovering Clare was a huge milestone. My first article in ecocriticism was my article on John Clare and I had a terrible trouble finding anyone who would publish it because it was perhaps ahead of its time. There was something about it that didn’t sit well with the literary establishment. I finally published it with a literary journal out of Toronto […] That turned into a chapter in my Green Writing book, which probably took me ten years to write. I took my time with that book because I was discovering my methodology as I went along. There was no one I could sit at the feet of and learn how to do ecocriticism.

 INTERVIEWER

What does an ecological reading open up about texts that other readings do not?

MCKUSICK

One of the real landmark pieces of work in ecological criticism has been done by Lawrence Buell. He addresses the question, “What is an environmental text?” The answer to that question is all texts, because every text has an environmental context. That environmental situation can be overtly expressed in the text or not […] If you just think of ecological criticism as “the study of nature writing,” it tends to marginalize it before you even get out of the starting gate. You’re only going to look at texts that are often in a fairly boring way describing “pretty things in the natural world.” There’s not really a lot to say about that, other than “how pretty!” That’s not what an ecological reading is or should be. What Buell teaches us is that every text has an environmental dimension. If it’s by a sophisticated writer, this dimension will be overtly manifested in the text in some respect.

We also need a broader understanding of ecology to realize that it is the study of everything that happens in the world. It isn’t just simply the study of wilderness, which is the other category mistake that people make in looking at ecological writing, the study of wilderness theory or wilderness areas. That’s a big piece of ecological criticism, but it is not the only piece. To be a good ecological critic, you need to look at urban as well as rural landscapes, land as well as ocean, and the sky is important. There’s nothing that gets left out of an ecological reading of a text. An ecological reading of a text can also poke at what is not there, what is not manifested in the text, but should be, or is repressed […] One of the best things about ecological criticism, I think, is that it is linked to a larger environmental movement that is gaining more and more headway in our larger society as we speak. To me, it seems a lot more authentic for literary scholars to be engaged in the struggle to protect the environment than it does for us deeply bourgeois professors to be involved in something we call the class struggle and the liberation of the common man. Somehow, that doesn’t ring authentic.

The other beautiful thing about ecocriticism is that it’s a methodology that has legs and can travel into any literary course, no matter the period or the genre or the subject matter under consideration. It can be used as a skeleton key to open up texts and see dimensions that our students truly care about. Our students care about sustainability, they care about environmental preservation. So I try to embed ecocriticism into any course that I teach. It also allows an interdisciplinary conversation to take place. If you have students from the sciences, or engineering, or music and theater, they can call relate to this content in a way that makes literary studies more relevant to their own individual circumstances […] Certainly, ecocriticism is not intended to drive out every other method of literary analysis. It is meant to complement what we already have. It’s another set of tools to put in the toolbox.

INTERVIEWER

Your book engages the idea of the pastoral, citing the 18th-century context of the construction of “English gardens’ that imitated the idyllic disorder of natural landscapes, rather than formal geometric patterns” and, from my understanding, trace how “a true ecological writer must be ‘rooted’ in the landscape, instinctively attuned to the changes of the Earth and its inhabitants” (20, 24). I’m struck by several things here. If true ecological writers must be attuned to the landscape, might we view them as a collector? And, if we can view them as a collector, how might we negotiate issues of authenticity?

MCKUSICK

The idea of the pastoral, of course, goes back to the ancient times. The ancient Greek writers invented the concept of the pastoral landscape, and it’s very related to their form of agriculture, which was pastoral—in other words, they kept sheep, or goats, or cattle on the landscape. The pastoral ideal was invented by urban poets who were nostalgic for this older lifestyle that still existed in remote places. In historically recent times for these poets, this lifestyle had been replaced with more intensive forms of agriculture, the cultivation of crops. Urban life, of course, is not possible unless you’re cultivating a crop like wheat. The pastoral is always inherently nostalgic. It is always looking back to an earlier time where things were better and more peaceful.

Let’s bring it up to the 18th century. William Gilpin invented the concept of the picturesque. He was also a landscape designer, so he, along with a fellow called Capability Brown, invented the idea of the English garden. The English garden was an exercise in nostalgia. It captured a lost pre-history of wild landscape that the lands didn’t currently possess—in other words, all of English land has been cultivated since the Middle Ages, and the only wild lands that now exist are those that have been created by fencing. […] That’s where you get forests in English landscapes.

In the 18th century, the English garden is a reaction against French landscape. The garden at Versailles is a good example of a French landscape, which is geometric in pattern, and intentionally uses very artificial plantings to create a mosaic of color patterns. The English garden is a reaction to that—it uses simple and natural ingredients to fashion a pseudo wild landscape onto the pre-existing agricultural land. A feature you know from Jane Austen is the ha-ha, which is a sunken fence. The sunken fence is meant to be invisible from the perspective of the great house, so you look out upon an unbroken greensward. It prevents sheep from coming all the way up to the door of your house. It creates lawns. I blame the American lawn on the picturesque movement in British landscape architecture. People like William Gilpin and Capability Brown felt that instead of these patterned flower gardens, you should have greensward up to your very door. That, for some reason, has been the most enduring legacy of the picturesque movement in landscape. Even to this day, every American homeowner believes they should have a patch of greensward, even if they’re living in the Arizona desert. They have to have their green patch of grass next to their house, otherwise it’s not a proper home, and they need a white picket fence.

To come to this idea of collecting, collecting is at the very heart of the picturesque ideal. The central concept of picturesque landscape is that it resembles a painting, and it only resembles a painting at certain points of perspective. As you walk through a picturesque landscape, it is intentionally designed to give you prospects—specific places where you can gather a picturesque view. As you progress through the landscape, it’s designed so you go from one picture to the next. It’s like a slideshow. The very act of looking is an act of collecting. You’re creating a picturesque memory for yourself.

There’s a technology called the Claude glass. Claude is a French landscape painter who used a convex mirror to create an image of the landscape, which he would then either directly project upon a piece of paper and trace, almost like a camera obscura, creating a photographically “real” image of the landscape onto a piece of paper; I use the word “real” in quotation marks because it’s not inherently real, it’s just one form of perspective that has been naturalized to us Westerners. Since the Renaissance, we’ve used perspective drawing to create an image of the natural world, so when we do that photographically, it looks real and natural to us, but to folks from non-Western cultures, who don’t have a tradition of landscape painting, a photograph looks weird […] When Native Americans saw profile pictures for the first time, they didn’t accept them. They said, “That’s only half a man.” They only accepted full-face pictures […] The Claude glass was a technology imported from France and used by landscape designers to test the validity of a certain landscape solution. They would stand in front of the landscape, back to it, look at the Claude glass, and because it is a convex mirror, it also emphasizes foreground elements and minimizes background elements. It’s also a darkening mirror; it shades out certain things in the landscape. It is an intentionally intensifying artificial production of landscape, which can then be put on paper and be made into a painting. Even people who were not painters, people whom we would call tourists, would bring their Claude glasses into picturesque places in the late 18th, early 19th century and collect landscapes. They would literally stand with their back to the landscape, looking into their Claude glasses, and say, “Ah! That is picturesque.” In a way, the created landscape, in the mirror or on paper if they could sketch it, was even more real than the thing itself. It mattered more. That was the act of collecting a landscape. We do that today, only we do it with cameras.

INTERVIEWER

It’s like when people go to a concert and watch the entire performance through the screen of their iPhone as they try to record it.

MCKUSICK

Exactly. The whole phenomenon still exists today of snapping landscapes. Usually, there needs to be a figure in the landscape. Tourists are notorious for posing their wives in front of famous monuments and taking a picture. Somehow, that validates the experience. The act of collecting landscapes has certainly existed since the 18th century and already began to be parodied by the early 19th century. There was a whole wonderful set of satirical sketches, or cartoons really, of a character called Dr. Syntax, who would go out into the world and was a bumbling idiot, but still was attempting to collect picturesque landscapes.

The picturesque movement also had a very deep impact on the poetic tradition. There was a whole genre of 18th-century poems called prospect poems—a late example of that is “Tintern Abbey,” which is probably the single most famous prospect poem in literary history. Wordsworth is taking in a prospect a few miles up-river from Tintern Abbey and that’s what the poem is about. The prospect poem, then, lies at the heart of Lyrical Ballads, which is the book that kicked off Romantic poetry for England. The whole notion of the picturesque landscape and the prospect poem really inaugurates the Romantic movement, although the Romantics don’t simply take it over in a naïve way from the 18th century tradition. They sophisticate it, which is good. In its raw form, it’s pretty inauthentic. Wordsworth is already doing something very sophisticated in the prospect form, and Shelley will further internalize it. The “Ode to the West Wind” is a kind of prospect poem that, however, has become deeply psychological to the point where there’s hardly any landscape left to the poem; it’s all an internal landscape. “Mont Blanc” is another example of a prospect poem that presents an entirely internal landscape. Good for Shelley—he took something that was something inauthentic and boring and made it fascinating and complicated and inscrutable.

INTERVIEWER

So, an ecological writer is less authentic if they collect the land.

MCKUSICK

Yes. I think, still, there’s huge amounts of Romantic poetry that derive generically from the prospect poem, but the Romantics have taken that to much deeper psychological depths, demonstrating a much more sophisticated understanding of landscape. My favorite poet in this line is John Clare, who doesn’t do prospect poetry because it is also marked as a bourgeois writing form. John Clare is inhabiting landscapes, so his perspective is not that of a prospect poem, but it is experiential poetry of a dweller in the land. John Clare is a wonderful litmus test to put up against any other poet because John Clare is the most authentic poet in the whole British tradition.

A prospect poem is often stationary, where it goes in a series of slides, whereas in John Clare, it’s a dynamic landscape. You’re walking through it, you’re experiencing it, it’s washing over you, and its inhabitants are talking to you or you’re seeing it through their eyes. You can put a John Clare poem up against any other Romantic poem as a test of authenticity, and some will test out fine and some will not. I’m sorry to say another favorite poet of mine, William Wordsworth, often comes across as seeming inauthentic when you put him up against John Clare because he certainly does have a bourgeois point of view. It’s not that of a dweller, it’s that of a tourist, strolling through the landscape, pausing to take in a prospect, and having a deep mental reaction to that. Wordsworth is profound, but still perhaps less authentic in terms of his relationship to the land, than someone like Clare who was working with the land. […] Wordsworth was reading Gilpin, who writes about the English Lake District. There’s a very direct pipeline of ideas from the picturesque into the Lake District poets; Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were direct inheritors of the picturesque ideal, but they do new things with it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any advice for graduate students in the field of Romanticism? What are some things that you wish you knew/were glad that you knew when you were in graduate school or approaching the job market?

MCKUSICK

I have tons of advice, but I want to address this, in part, from the view of ecological criticism. I guess my most fundamental advice to graduate students is to expose yourselves to all different types of literary criticism. No single method is correct or viable or valid on its own, and that certainly applies to ecological literary studies as well as any other “ism”. The last thing you want to do as a graduate student is to say, “Oh, I’m open to all ideas, and I have none of my own.” A grad student does need to stake out their turf and know what “ism” they’re going to be loyal to and really pursue that. But one still has to be capable of intellectual growth. The thing not to do is to be locked into a narrow or ideological reading of literature that blinds you to other dimensions of a text. Ideally, as a literary critic, we want to understand everything that’s there, including the things that are unspoken in a text. As one of my professors liked to put it, “the white space between stanzas are just as important as the stanzas themselves.” The subliminal thinking that is not overt still needs to be understood.

How do you become broadly learned? Hopefully, in a strong English department, there are going to be lots of ideological factions at work. Get to be friends with everyone and learn what everyone is up to and doing. Find which approach works best for you. Hitch your wagon to a star. No one really told me this when I was in grad school, but it really matters who your faculty mentors are because they’re networked into the profession. You want the most prestigious, the most connected, the most famous person, who is also going to be the most busy and the least likely to give you lots of personal time. Hopefully, you can find a golden mean of someone who is A. famous, but B. also a genuinely good person who will give you tons of time and attention and care and feeding and good criticism. It’s great to have arguments with your mentor! You’ll learn more by arguing with them than just agreeing with everything they say and saying, “Oh thank you, great famous professor.” Argue with them. Disagree with them. Test your mettle by going out on a limb and saying something a little dangerous or difficult. Graduate school is a wonderful time to try on new suits of clothes, especially as you’re doing your coursework or coming up toward a dissertation topic. Try to avoid something that is boring or conventional. Try something that is edgy, that puts you into terrain that you’ve never explored before. Often, through the beauty of interdisciplinary study, you can find terrain that no one has explored through that point of view before. Be a little offbeat. Be a little inventive. The world does not need another reading of “Tintern Abbey” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The world needs to find texts that are less travelled by.

One thing that has changed in literary study in the last twenty years is the world has become flat. It used to be that only students at the most prestigious universities would have access to the best rare book libraries, the unpublished manuscripts. Now, everything is available through the wonders of Google Books or interlibrary loan. You can get virtually anything that has ever been published. Yes, you still need to go to rare book archives to get at the original, unpublished stuff, but you can do amazing things through the miracles of electronic publication and the whole field of Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities allow you to do all kinds of digital textual analysis and discover things that have never been seen before. I’ve done some of that work myself through things like corpus linguistics, where you can do statistical analyses of style. Things that were never possible have suddenly become achievable […] Don’t assume that your professors know these tools. Grad students might have an edge on the new technologies of textual analysis that are only possible through “big data” approaches such as corpus linguistics and stylometrics. The beauty of it is that you can predict things and find out that, yep, that’s real. It’s a brave new world out there, so make a daring prediction and go and do your textual analysis and find out if it’s true. No previous generation of grad students could do that, so you guys are going to own the world!

Touring The (Launched) 18th-Century Common

As a Romanticist, I am always tickled when I read or listen to a news story that mentions the era that I study. I had an NPR “driveway” moment this fall during which I sat in my parked car and listened to the story about 18th-century scholar Natalie Phillips’ (MSU) research on Jane Austen, reading, and distraction. Phillips’ research uses modern neuroscientific tools to study the brain’s response to different ways of reading–close reading and casual reading–and also studies 18th-century conceptions of neuroscience and theories of cognitive attention. The blogged version of the story received a flurry of comments and other popular news outlets, including Salon.com and dailymail.co.uk, covered Phillips’ study as well.

The 18th-Century Common, “a public humanities website for enthusiasts of 18th-century studies,” is on to popular culture’s budding interests in 18th-century culture and, in particular, where science and the Humanities rub elbows. In fact, one of its first calls for contributions seeks responses to Phillips’ research or related pieces on cognitive science and the Humanities. This relatively new website will offer similar kinds of stories written by scholars about 18th-century topics that are geared toward a curious public, non-academic audience–much like NPR’s listeners. My first blog post about The 18th-century Common introduces the project; I wrote it after I presented on a NASSR panel with one of the website’s co-editors, Andrew Burkett (Union College). My second post provides a sneak peek at the blog’s features while it was still under construction this fall. This post will take you on a tour of the launched site and explain updates and improvements that you’ll find there that were not covered in my previous posts.

Three Feeds of Content in the Common
Historically, a “common” is private property that is open for various kinds of public use; it brings people together and is based on the idea of open access to a shared space. In this spirit, The 18th-Century Common aims to deliver scholarly research on 18th-century culture to a wide array of interested readers beyond the Academy, from students to pleasure readers. It accomplishes this by publishing three kinds of feeds on a single website. The first two (Collections and Blog) provide non-peer-reviewed essays, or digests of peer-reviewed published essays, for a broad public readership. In these, scholars write about their research while gleefully setting aside discipline specific jargon, dense theory, and allusions that would be abstruse to someone who has not done graduate coursework in the field. (If you find a “body without organs,” it will refer to a skeleton.) The third feed, called the Gazette, runs “shorts” that link to 18th-century content on the web and also calls for scholars to supply new content. New content can be cross-posted under multiple feeds if applicable. The Common also has a Forum page where users can leave feedback and a hearty Resources page that lists links to 18th-century DH projects, historical sources, online texts, bibliographies, blogs, and online periodicals. Here’s a little more about each of the three main feeds.

— Collections —
Collections are like issues or topics under which essays on a similar subject are grouped. For example, The Age of Wonder is The 18th-Century Common’s first collection of 7 essays (though it can grow to include more) written by scholars and students that respond in various ways to Richard Holmes’ popular book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009). This collection contains Jessica Richard’s round-up of online resources referring to Sir William Herschel, in celebration of his November 15th birthday; Morna O’Neill’s essay on the visual and images of genius in Holmes’ book, Margaret Ewalt’s essay on pre-Romantic-era ideas of “wonder”; Grant McAllister’s essay on the figure of the German mad scientist; Richard’s essay on Mungo Park’s 1794 voyage to explore the Niger River as participating in the need to define Africa as a subject of wonder in scientific terms and within the context of the slave trade; Rebecca Kurzweil’s essay on Romantic-era poets’ esteem for scientific studies and the fusion of aesthetics and science in the poetic form of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc; and Trista Johnson’s essay on Caroline Herschel’s contributions to astronomy.

A call for contributions to the website’s second collection, “Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies,” can be found in the Gazette section.

— Blog —
The Blog is a feed for short, non-peer-reviewed essays written by scholars on various 18th-century topics that do not necessarily form a cohesive collection. To me, this looks like a feed to which one could contribute a short essay based on research on the 18th century inspired by travel, teaching, politics, or a morsel or digest of a larger project. The blog feed is already populated with diverse entries, including “The University of Woodford Square and the Age of Obama” by Roncevert Almond; “‘African’ in Early Haiti, or How to Fight Stereotypes” by Lesley Curtis; “Taxes Are Evil” by Heather Welland; and “Fear and Love in a Revolutionary War” by Jake Ruddiman.

— The Gazette —
While the blog contains original short essays, the Gazette is a playful series of long updates, a bit like an embellished Twitter feed, that features content gathered from around the Web related to 18th-century studies as well as explanations and commentary on the content. It also features news and editors’ announcements, such as a call for contributions for a new collection. For example, Jessica Richard posted a Gazette short called “Daniel Defoe around the Web” in which she compiles websites with brief annotations for the Defoe-curious, such as Steven H. Gregg’s Defoe blog. The Gazette also announces an exhibition in New York City called “Radiohole:  Inflatable Frankenstein!” and relates it to other recent Shelley exhibits in Manhattan, including the NYPL’s “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet.” In addition, this newsfeed calls for contributions to new collections, such as Cognitive Science and 18th-century Studies. The Gazette feed can be found on the right-side menu on the homepage.

New under the Hood: Technical Updates
Since my last blog post early this fall, there have been many significant technical updates to the website made by Damian Blankenship (Wake Forest) and his team. First, the homepage received a great makeover: a new nature-inspired background image (to invoke the idea of a “common”) and an improved layout that I think makes the different components of this website easier to locate.

Compared to the previous GUI, the remodel looks less like a website still in development and more like a new but up-and-running multi-faceted e-pub, which is its actual status. Also, the front page is no longer static — recent posts from collections and blogs are displayed at the bottom of the front page, and posts from the “Gazette” are listed on the right side.

Also of note, the site transitioned from .com to .org to more clearly communicate the non-commercial nature of the project. Conscious of the popular audience that the site hopes to reach, Blankenship is also modifying the site for improved use on tablets and smart phones as well as social media integration with a WordPress plug-in called Jetpack. Mobile users will be able to access all of the content on the website from a simplified menu and new posts will be automatically published on Facebook, and, in the near future, on the @18Common Twitter feed, as well.

Who Oversees The 18th-Century Common?
The 18th-Century Common has two advisory boards: an internal and an external board. The internal board is comprised of co-editors Burkett and Richard, as well as members who participated in the 2010-11 NEH-funded faculty seminar at Wake Forest, “Science and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century,” that led to the building of the website and who worked closely with the site’s co-editors. All WFU professors, the internal board includes Margaret Ewalt (Assoc. Professor, Spanish), Grant McAllister (Assoc. Professor and Chair, German and Russian), Morna O’Neill (Assist. Professor, Art History), John Ruddiman (Assist. Professor, History), Heather Welland (Assist. Professor, History), and Byron Wells (Professor of French, Chair of Romance Languages).

External board members include a star-studded line-up of distinguished professors from a variety of institutions who work in eighteenth-century studies and Romanticism studies and who are also heavily invested in Digital Humanities work. They include Devoney Looser (Missouri), Jack Lynch (Rutgers), Laura Mandell (Texas A&M), Benjamin Pauley (Eastern Connecticut State), and Linda Troost (Washington & Jefferson).

Contact, Follow, Contribute, Discuss
You can follow or tweet The 18th-Century Common on Twitter (@18Common) as well as follow on Facebook. Calls for contributions can be found here. Each entry in 18Common has a comment thread for readers to respond to posts and to each other.

Final Thoughts
I like this new project a lot and I admire the scholars that are behind it for their work, energy, and desire to make this a public scholarly endeavor — because of its expanded audience, there is a lot of room for it to grow in terms of technology, contributions, and conversations. I think that this website has the potential to create a vibrant interactive community of scholars and public intellectuals who are giddy about the same topics and who contribute meaningfully to the content and discussions about it. Since it’s the holidays, I offer a father/daughter, or non-scholar/scholar example. I’m studying 18th-century mirrors and optics for part of my dissertation on late-Romantic-era literature and media. My father, on the other hand, is not keen on old books or even fiction, but has a degree in engineering, has fun solving physics equations, and geeks out on technology and electronics. We may seem like intellectual opposites, but we meet at Herschel. I gifted him an e-copy of The Age of Wonder (Holmes) for Christmas for his Nook, with a link to The 18th-Century Common in my note.

[Author’s note: this blog was originally posted on HASTAC as part of a three-blog series. I repost it here because I think it will be of interest to our Romanticist graduate student community.]

Coming Soon: The 18th-Century Common

In mid-August, I had the great fortune of attending NASSR 2012 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and presenting on a Romanticism and New Media panel with Andrew Burkett, Assistant Professor at Union College. Following our panel, I wrote a fairly brief blog post that introduced a DH project for which Burkett is co-creator and co-editor, with Jessica Richard (Associate Professor of English, Wake Forest University): The 18th Century Common: A Public Humanities Website for Enthusiasts of 18th-Century Studies.

For blog two of this three-post series on The 18th-Century Common (a series that I am writing for HASTAC), I am happy to provide some details about this project that its co-editors have shared with me before the website launch on October 1. This is the trailer, if you will. (The third blog will be a tour of the website after its launch.) Here we go!

The Mission of The 18th-Century Common:

According to co-editors Burkett and Richard, the mission of The 18th-Century Common website is to “provide a medium for eighteenth-century scholars to communicate with an eager public non-academic readership,” and Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009) provides the perfect vehicle for a project like this. More specifically, the success of Holmes’ award-winning popular science book inspired the co-editors, along with student and faculty collaborators at Union and Wake Forest, to create a website that would continue to captivate and cultivate a broad audience of readers interested in 18th-century studies—like those that are so drawn to Holmes’ bestseller—and explore new possibilities for digital public humanities scholarship that reaches beyond the Academy.

In The Age of Wonder, Holmes tells the stories of several 18th-century scientists and explorers and their landmark discoveries, including Sir William and Caroline Herschel’s discoveries of comets and the planet Uranus as well as the creation of the forty-foot telescope, James Cook and Joseph Banks’ epic nautical expeditions, and Humphry Davy’s contributions to chemistry and the invention of a “safety lamp” for miners. Holmes’ compelling and accessible prose, coupled with glossy color image spreads, were so popular with non-academic readers that the book could be purchased at Costco for $11.

A Short History of the Project:

Since Fall 2009, Richard has convened an interdisciplinary faculty seminar at Wake Forest on the subject of “Science and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century.” In 2010-11, the faculty seminar used Holmes’ book as a case study for investigating possible platforms on which popular and scholarly discourses on science studies can meet and, furthermore, what could be gained from such a discussion. The faculty seminar received a Ventures seed grant from the Humanities Institute at WFU—a grant funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities—in order to explore these questions. The study resulted in The 18th-Century Common website, which is set to launch this fall.

What’s in the Common?

While the website is still “incunabulum” and being polished and augmented before its launch, the demo site reveals the skeleton of a robust and exciting project. The homepage and “about” page deliver requisite introductions to the project and a place to subscribe to a list for updates as well as share and follow the website on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook—crucial social networking platforms that reach through and beyond the Academy to a wider audience. There is also a “Forums” page that will serve as a suggestion box and collect website feedback and content ideas once the site is officially up and running.

At this very early stage, it appears that the primary content pages will be the “Explore” page and the blog. The “Explore” section contains a collection of short essays from authors ranging from undergraduates to associate professors in a series entitled “The Age of Wonder: Science and the Arts in the Long-18th Century.” For example, Trista Johnson, an undergraduate at Union College, authored an essay in this collection that calls for a reconsideration of Holmes’ treatment of Caroline Herschel as merely an aide to her brother’s astronomical endeavors. She reveals a fascinating gap in Holmes’ research on the correspondence between Caroline and physicist Mary Somerville, even linking to Mary’s letter in Google Books, and suggests that more needs to be published on Caroline’s work not as a collaborator with her brother but as an astronomer working on her own. The blog section features pieces written only by professors, at present, who share intriguing short essays, such as Jake Ruddiman’s piece on soldiers’ amicable and amorous relationships with civilians during the Revolutionary War.

Call for Contributions:

While the project aims to increase the amount of popular science writing for a public readership that is hungry for this material, it also offers publishing opportunities to the scholarly community that will provide the material. With the launch of this website, scholars of eighteenth-century literature and culture that usually publish their research in books and journals addressed to other researchers within their discipline and in neighboring fields will have a new free, public digital venue for sharing their work with an enthusiastic public audience that is potentially larger than their academic audience. Furthermore, sections like the “Explore” page will offer opportunities for students to learn how to research and publish short essays on interdisciplinary topics that are in vogue with both scholars and the general public.

Specifically, in order to create a site of “public humanities scholarship” that communicates the results of research to an audience not limited to the Academy, The 18th-Century Common will seek a variety of contributions that include:

  • responses by scholars and students that contextualize and enrich Holmes’ work;
  • short articles, media, and other content aimed at a wide audience of readers; and
  • content solicited from academic contributors written specifically for a lay audience, including descriptions of recently published scholarly work in 18th-century studies, interesting holdings in library archives and museum collections, and critical controversies or research problems in the field.

For more information on the call-for-papers or if you have questions or comments about this project, please contact the editors. To subscribe to the website and receive updates on its launch, enter your information here. I’m looking forward to the launch and to the scholarly and pedagogical opportunities that this website will offer for outreach beyond the Academy.

Questions:

Are you participating in a DH project that is under construction or published and underway with similar aims? I think it will be important to consider the relationship between The 18th-Century Common and other literary DH literary and related projects that share the goal of public humanities scholarship. How can these projects learn from one another to achieve the best possible results? Furthermore, what does “success” for a project like this mean or look like?

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Author’s note: This blog post was originally written for and published on the HASTAC website on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012. Find the identical original post here.

Reflections on NASSR 2012

I’m on the train, heading in the direction of Germany, with Lake Neuchâtel slipping by in gray-blue early morning light. The experience of “Romantic Prospects” has been saturated by landscape. From the window of our student housing accommodation each morning the Swiss Alps marched sharply around the lake, appearing to advance and retreat with the shimmering heat. Last night at the closing dinner, held at the picturesque house in which once Rousseau lived, rows of verdant grapevines crawl up steep slopes and crumbling stone-walls demarcate historical pathways. I watched swallows like scraps of silver wheel in flight.

I won’t pretend that this is a comprehensive overview of the conference because in actual fact it’s quite personal and particular. I attended many sessions, and I even chaired one for the first time. Of the sessions I attended, the conversations, debates and experiences I had, and the people I met, the very best part was prospective: thinking about a future filled with more conversation, debate, learning, language and poetry. A romantic prospect, to be sure.

Best represented at NASSR 2012 were the fields Digital Humanities, Book History, and German Romanticism, though it seemed the most popular sessions were DH and Book History. Beginning with the DH Workshop on the first day, the idea of books containing “data” (words) to be text-mined and topic-modeled took hold of many of our imaginations. The general mood about DH seemed both skeptical and intrigued, with many scholars having already implemented these fairly new (to the study of the humanities, anyway) technologies in their research.

DH also has major pedagogical implications. Using DH as a teaching tool, according to Neil Fraistat, “won’t be optional in the next 10-15 years.” Probably sooner, I’d say, as class blogs become more commonplace and Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees (required reading) has launched a generation of graduate students interested in “distant reading.”

The words “Book History” appeared in the title of three different sessions and the topic was a major theme in many more. From a special session organized by Alex Dick and Nicholas Halmi about “Textual Prospects: Poetry, Bibliography, and Book History,” to the “Prospects for Book History” panels 1 and 2, and evident in panels on Media Studies, “Varieties of the Novel,” and Genre Theory, the study of books as historical objects has truly permeated Romantic scholarship. Taken over, perhaps. I was interested to see how the broadening of the definition of “books” has lead to the inclusion of scrapbooks, collections of letters, keepsakes and “Books in Pieces” as Michael Macovski puts it, under the auspices of Book History. Thus the physical manipulation of books (with scissors, as Deirdre Lynch illustrated) played an important role in this conference, by providing insight into the Romantic-era readers, writers, and literary participants.

Books as nooks took center stage after Robert Darnton’s plenary lecture, “Blogging: Now and Then,” in which he illustrated the ways in which scraps of information embed themselves in the cracks and crannies opened up by communications technologies. Darnton described how printed information in the early modern and Romantic periods created places to organize their fragmentary materials—such as in the tell-all books about public figures’ private lives, in early newspapers, and in the scandalous dailies. You can read my live-blogging during the reactions and responses seminar to Darnton’s lecture HERE.

German Romanticism was also represented in multiple specific sessions. My own special research interest, the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, got more attention than is usual in North American conferences and in fact, the special session on Hölderlins Ströme (Hölderlin’s Rivers), organized by the Bernhard Böschenstein was completely German-language. I don’t know if non-English panels have been done before at NASSR, but it was a fitting addition to the conference’s Swiss iteration. In addition, on the panel I chaired, I very much enjoyed Elena Pnevmonidou’s paper on Hölderlin’s Hyperion and questions of language, landscape and the body.

Overall, the two academic experiences that stood out for me at NASSR 2012 were the “Romantic Media Studies” session and Thomas Pfau’s seminar “After Sentimentalism: Liberalism and the Discontents of Modern Autonomy.”

For “Romantic Media Studies,” Lauren Neefe from SUNY Stony Brook read her paper “General Indistressible: Towards a Theory of Romantic Epistolarity,” with charm, panache and sharp insight. Her paper was fascinating and her dissertation sounds even more so. Yohei Igarashi from Colgate University discussed DH pedagogies alongside ideas of Romantic perception in his timely presentation, and Celeste Langan brought an inspired reading of the efficacy of news reports in her paper “The Future of Propaganda.” This session stood out for me because it both recognized the materiality of books (in the broad sense described above) and treated texts as particular sites for close reading and critique. I found Lauren’s characterization of Coleridge’s letter to himself in the Biographica Literaria to be unique as well as creative of openings in which more questions, more avenues for investigation, and more texts to read and re-read arose. I have so many excitedly scribbled notes from that session.

Thomas Pfau’s special session was so necessary and deserves the highest praise. It was totally en point, the kind of session that is a call for change, a meta-analysis of the state not only of Romantic scholarship but of our most pressing current philosophical and political issues, and that makes a strong argument for more wide-ranging, philosophically-sophisticated and responsible. To complain of Romantic scholarship’s irrelevance to practical contemporary concerns is not to have read Pfau.

The sun is now past noon. We’ve already sped through the Black Forest and the landscape is flattening out, dotted with farms and polka-dot Austrian flower boxes. I’m left with a feeling of satisfaction and fatigue, as well as a deep gratitude for the conference organizers, Angela Esterhammer of the University of Zürich (soon to be of the University of Toronto) and Patrick Vincent of the University of Neuchâtel. Merci beaucoup, Vielen Dank, and thanks.

Digital Humanities Summer Institute: Nerds Welcome!

Full disclosure: I am a Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) convert, and I want to share the good news. I’ve recently returned from my second year attending DHSI at the University of Victoria, and I have only great things to say.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has called DHSI a “Summer Camp for Digital Humanists,” and my own experiences verify this description. DHSI is five days of glorious nerdy exploration and collaboration, and I thought it might be worthwhile to introduce the DHSI to those unfamiliar with it.

 

What is it?

Unlike a traditional conference, DHSI does not offer panels of 20-minute papers.

Instead, it is what its name implies—a digital training institute.

DHSI offers a wide range of courses from basic introductions to text encoding and digitization to advanced programming and mobile application design. (For a list of the courses that happened this year, click here.) Each day, participants attend roughly five hours of class. Beyond the individual courses, DHSI provides numerous opportunities to see work-in-progress presentations, attend breakout skills training sessions and discussions, and hear plenary talks. This year, it was possible to attend events from 8AM to 6PM—not to mention post-conference frivolity at one of the bars near the University. In short, DHSI is intense, invigorating, and exhausting.

 

Even though the programs at DHSI have been growing at an impressive rate—this year seventeen different courses were offered and more than 400 people attended—it still manages to maintain a collaborative and surprisingly intimate atmosphere.  The hierarchies that are sometimes present at other conferences are entirely absent at DHSI. The Institute prides itself on an friendly “opt-in” policy. You are encouraged to invite yourself along to other people’s dinner plans and discussion groups. It’s a great opportunity to meet both Romanticists and people from other fields.

 

Funding

According to the DHSI Director Ray Siemens’s closing remarks, the course offerings for next year’s DHSI will be released shortly. The dates are already set: June 10-14, 2013. As you begin to look ahead to planning the coming year’s conference and research schedule (and funding options for both), it may be worth putting DHSI in your calendar. There are many scholarships available for DHSI. For those working in the nineteenth-century, the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES) offers tuition scholarships. The Institute itself also offers tuition scholarships (early registration is key for these). The Association for Computers and the Humanities also offers travel bursaries to ACH members. More information will be available on the DHSI website soon.  Moreover, because DHSI offers training that is not easily available elsewhere, it may be possible to get funding from your own institution.

I already have DHSI marked on my calendar for next year, and I hope to see many more Romanticists there.