Project Update: Headnotes for the Digital Mitford

We’re hard at work on the Digital Mitford…an update:

Digital Mitford

We’ve not had a blog update from the Digital Mitford in a while, but our project team has been busy! We’ve been working on grant writing and conference talks, not to mention semester and job activities, our energies diverted in many directions. We need a Coding Refresher Hangout, so project-team members, please check your e-mail and write back to let me know what upcoming Saturdays might work for this.

I’m taking a moment now to think aloud about Headnotes for the literary editions we aim to prepare this year for the Digital Mitford. We’re working on coding a test-bed of files, a cross-section of Mitford’s letters, prose fiction, and drama composed in the early 1820s. This moment is especially significant for us in representing Mitford and, effectively, for gluing together the fragments of her reputation. (Victorianists know her for her prose fiction, Our Village, while Romanticists–if they’re aware of…

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Confessing an Excess of Code. . .

Shall I confess it? I have too many projects to code! One project prompts another, and gets me involved in two more–and then I have a class to plan that involves teaching students to code–eek! Time moves too quickly and I’m engrossed in systems, sometimes most fretfully.

But the reward is a sudden glimpse of something I couldn’t see so clearly before–and the adventure of an experiment. Changing research methods is a giddy thing when you’re a researcher! For my next conference presentations I am working intently on coding places and cultures in Robert Southey’s ornate long poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), to demonstrate the complex interweaving of cultures here in a more quantitative way than I could before.

But I can’t seem to focus on Southey without being distracted by the Digital Mitford project–and happily so, as we’re fleshing out our Coding Guidelines, and as we’ve been compiling a working bibliography of Mitford’s published writings. Behind the scenes is Much Coding Work and much more to come: I’m writing some XSLT to extract and reshuffle our XML code, and I’m thinking more and more about Prosopography–our methods for compiling and collecting information on persons, places, events, and texts referenced in Mitford’s writings. Most interesting is how we’ll be indicating relationships between people and people, people and books, people and events, even people and fictional characters, or fictional characters to other fictional characters! The combinations are interesting to contemplate–and we could potentially generate many different networks to visualize!

The usual advice is to anticipate as much as possible in the early planning phases of a big coding project–but we simply cannot predict every kind of  relationship we’re going to find, and we need for a while to discover what these are going to be. Some are predictable: parent-child, marriage, friendship, but what about other kinds of relationships–when a character is modelled on an historic figure? We can identify who’s active and who’s passive, and when a relationship is mutual–not a problem here. It’s the characterization of relationships that I’m hoping will generate some interesting diversity as we code–and I don’t want to constrain that just yet.

Ideally I’d be able to write a simple RelaxNG schema to control all the coding of each *kind* of text we’re editing for the Mitford project, but we really can’t do that without running into problems very quickly: A schema needs to be something we can make distinct to the specific conditions of a particular text, and I’m thinking I’d like to make a general schema for a play (for example), and then show my editors how to fine-tune it for their purposes. For now we’re running with the general TEI P5 ALL schema built into <oXygen/>, and a set of coding rules. There is much fine-tuning to do, and much of this, I think, we really do have to figure out AS we code.

Speaking of which, it’s past time for me to be working on Thalaba! I’m not ready to post a visualization of this coding just yet–but watch this space. Thalaba is glorious to view in code structurally due to its elaborate interplay of lines and paratext notes, and paratexts-to-paratexts–and my goal here is to show something of its interweaving of physical and metaphysical places from distinct cultures. I’m eager to see what this looks like…so back to the tagging!

A radish on a turnip: MRM to RA Davenport

Here’s a little gem from the archives: Mitford corresponded frequently in the 1810s with R. A. (Richard Alfred) Davenport, who published an annual Poetical Register (anthology of poetry), and appears to have been a strong and lasting fan of her writing. As I’m reviewing my pencil transcriptions from past research trips, I discovered among them a vivid self-caricature in a letter of Oct. 1814. Evidently Davenport wanted to meet Mitford in person, and she felt it necessary to caution him:

“. . .as I trust two people so well disposed to like each other (there’s vanity for you!) will not always be kept apart by those two formidable words Town & Country, you will see how much I resemble my Productions. In the meantime guard yourself from expecting anything fair or tall or slender or blue-eyed or flaxenhaired or poetical, but set a red turnip raddish or a full spread damask rose or an overblown peony or the full moon when it looks very bloody & portentous or any thing else that is red and round by way of a head on a good sized Norfolk turnip by way of body & you will have as correct a picture of your poor little friend as heart can desire.”

The letter goes on to comment on her elegy for her pet dog Marmion, which she hopes Davenport won’t publish if he thinks it’s likely to be ridiculed…We’ll have to see if it shows up in the Poetical Register and Repository of Fugitive Poetry for 1814-1815.

Madcap Adventures Part I: Mitford Coding Workshop

A short post but an effusive one to record an eventful and momentous day:  I absolutely loved what happened in our kickstart of the Mitford workshop today. We triumphed over inevitable odds: Of course, the demons that possess HDMI and VGA cables and ports prevented projection from my computer, but we needed it not! We sat about a round table, and everyone could see each other’s screen so we made a sort of connected chain–so people could readily follow my links through our workshop, and  we all helped each other when we got lost. One especially helpful project participant (our Rebecca Nesvet) wrote up detailed notes to send to our Google Hangouts members to fill in when they had connection troubles–so she helped to ensure that our coding circle reached out to our people with hiccup-y connections in LA, Boston, and England. We worked together and made technology work for us! And my team bravely asked questions and helped each other onward.

Our workshop materials are here, and I’m very much indebted to the WWP (Women Writers’ Project), Their excellent slides introduced me to TEI for manuscripts, and that’s where I’ve started my team. Tomorrow they all start coding their own letters–I’m so proud of our group!

Digital Mitford Site Launch!

. . .and there is much rejoicing! We now have a project site, and a seed start on our digital garden:

http://www.pitt.edu/~ebb8/DigitalMitford/

The site address will be changing in about a month as we move to a new server. For now, it’s a beginning, and you can see something of what we hope to do with the Digital Mitford project! I am very pleased with learning a new JavaScript trick–I’d never cycled images before.  You can see one editing project nearly finished on the site, for a sampling of the TEI and versioning I’ve been working on. As much as I like the ease of use of JuxtaCommons and the Versioning Machine, I would like to devise my own parallel text view, which will take some coding fun with XSLT.

Feedback on site design and project parameters is most welcome.

Metaphoric Confession: A “DH” Tent and A Digital Garden

I confess to being an outspoken newbie to the “digital humanities,” but I’m keenly surveying the field, and I’m glad to read critiques of it. There are things that I confess both excite and concern me deeply about DH, to do with authority, quality, and inclusiveness. David Golumbia’s blog post on “definitions that matter (of ‘digital humanities’)” shocks and sobers this eager digital romanticist…and it strikes me as yes, quite apt in its critique of the “big tent” metaphor for DH. The big tent disguises its own digital divide, warns Golumbia, and when we consider the awarding of grant funding for “DH” projects, we begin to see a more narrow definition–and we can readily intuit who need not apply.

I am glad of this warning note from the self-pronounced “digital skeptic.” And I confess to the weakness of exceptionalist bias! I want my own projects to be different, to be inclusive and instructive, to educate and uplift and help to transform what we understand of literature and culture of past centuries. I want my practice of coding to reach out and include students and colleagues, to help disclose new topics of discourse, to help build new communities.  Can there be a culture of coding, and a cultivation of the intellect and imagination through the digital humanities? If so, it’s not going to appeal to everyone, and the time and money to do it seems to be limited, as Golumbia warns.

Maybe humanities research needs to be esoteric, and whether digital or not, should not be puffed (to use an old-fashioned 19th-century term) with hot air to outsized tents that blow away and disappear as funding streams are cut.  I can say, though, based on my humble experience, that much experimentation with humanities computing for teaching and research need not require a start-up grant or millions of dollars. Good experimentation of any kind does take time, and that time certainly can be defined in dollar amounts. Is my time well spent? Six months ago I was not sure, but in connecting with people who care about sharing knowledge, and in devoting much time (and losing sleep many a long night of coding!) in the past spring, I am confident in saying, yes, this is worth my energies, where I am placed now. I think it worthwhile, since I can, to try to grow a digital garden, with deep roots and rhizomatic linkages and, I hope, perennial blooms that outlast the current (funding) season.

For very practical reasons, in working with noncanonical texts, I believe that learning to code is the best direction for the kind of feminist archival and rediscovery work we’re doing…but I confess a great concern about the direction of grant funding in our times: Is there money and support for research into *noncanonical texts and topics*? Must the “digital humanities” be defined by dollars? I’d rather it were defined by collaborative connections, like my Digital Mitford project team coming together out of mutual interest on the fly (and on the cheap!) this year and the social discourse we can engage in through organizations like HASTAC.

Down to earth with me! Try googling “digital garden” and…I see one project which is really much more earthy but seems to share my digital idealism about building community and improving discourse! This is as good a moment as any to consider that imaginative constructions in texts script and shape and drive our interactions, that “what is now proved was once, only imagin’d”. . . and written, and coded, and read.

Digital Mitford

I’ve started a new blog for our Digital Mitford project team, appropriately titled Digital Mitford! That will be a blog that all of us involved with transcribing, editing, and coding can work on together to post updates and raise questions and issues as we develop the project. We’re beginning with some collective reading of Electronic Textual Editing, ed. Lou Burnard, Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, and John Unsworth.