Madcap Adventures Part II: The Work Ahead

“What is now prov’d was once, only imagined.” A project team has formed, has met in person over three days (really four for those who arrived on Sunday and left Thursday), and has actually grown with new consulting editors–two excellent colleagues in the Pittsburgh area who discovered an interest in the Digital Mitford. I wanted to pinch my arm to see if I was dreaming many times last week: Collaboration is a new wonder and a new workflow. We hatched a plan together for a “Phase I” of the Digital Mitford to set expectations for ourselves. Everyone has begun learning new skills, including me!

Leading this workshop was a marathon, combining teaching with intense on-the-spot thinking and long-range planning in a compressed and charged moment. I found myself badly in need of sleep on the other side of it, and today I am taking stock of what must happen now: I review the first coded documents of my team: 11 digital surrogates of some very interesting ms letters and some partly formed autotagged texts of plays and poems that we’ve begun work on. I’ve been scrawling to-do lists and will be posting more about this on the Digital Mitford blog…but in this space I want to seize a moment to reflect on something more fundamental. Everything is changing, shifting in emphasis–in the past few weeks of planning and experiencing this workshop, I’m reorienting my way of thinking about research and teaching–my professional life’s work and work-as-life.

Since I was a student and chose to set off on an academic path, I’ve known myself to be pursuing a calling, that “my life” would be absorbed in it rather than compartmentalized from it. What I thought of my work as a young grad student has altered over time, with the compartmentalized experiences of university life: One’s teaching cannot always be an expression of one’s research, one must write committee reports, one is responsible to others who do not share one’s passions, and one retreats to one’s very real earthy garden or to one’s ball of yarn to take one’s mind away from fret and anxiety. One *is* compartmentalized–that’s life, but…I begin to think *now*–surely as a result of this collaborative adventure–that integration and concentration of one’s driving interests is a source of renewal and direction, perhaps in multiple facets that might not otherwise intersect. What am I contemplating?

My teaching will change this fall. If it doesn’t, I won’t be satisfied with it–I’ll have settled on an old, cold form disconnected from my transformative adventures of the past year. My coding projects lead me to wonder about the methods that matter for my students.  As I think about the stages involved in my project, I think about the stages students might take in researching and writing on a smaller scale. I want to engage students in processes that don’t necessarily expect them to reveal a *totality* of understanding or imply a *comprehensiveness.* It’s a familiar thing for me to scale down and “focus” assignment topics, but perhaps what I’m after now is an *expansion* from the scale of words and phrases.

A key question now: Can I bring my students closer to poetic language by asking them to annotate rather than explicate? Annotation is something I did in a freshman English course with great satisfaction, and without computer tools beyond the word processors of the early 1990s. Now there are more possibilities available for such work. Annotation assignments should *precede* explication at the very least.

A problem: 19th-c. Brit Lit: do I want to sacrifice reading and discussion time to teach XML coding? No–because I’m doing that in the DH class. What’s called for here is a digital tool in place, easy to access–ideally local, though we don’t have such a thing (yet!) Instead:

A feasible practice for my non-DH literature classes: I think I will try a collaborative annotation platform that I learned about from an extensive teaching praxis discussion in the HASTAC community. This is a remarkable project called “Rap Genius” which has been expanding far beyond the annotation and explication of rap lyrics to include texts of poems from past centuries in its “Poetry Genius” extension, and educators can upload texts and assignments here for students to work on. I was amazed to discover  several of Mitford’s short poems in this site, and I’m not really sure how they got here–though likely it’s the result of an automated incorporation of documents from Project Gutenberg or other text-based sources. What’s significant here: The ability to load clean base texts (not bad OCR or image files), and the ability for students to interact with them at the level of the language. The idea that this began as a site to archive and analyze rap lyrics interests me because of its attention to orality of poetic language, metrical patterns, rhymes, dissonance, assonance, consonance. This is worth exploring really as a kind of *lab space* to work closely with the oral/aural intricacies of poetic language.

Here’s another potentially useful site for teaching prosody, though the interface is not quite so open or expansive, but really focused on learning to mark meter and recognize poetic forms: “For Better or Verse.”   This large tutorial site is organized in stages and offers some fascinating selections–though my problem with it is the singularity of interpretation: The design of this extensive tutorial gives little room for variations in reading and emphasis–the human quirks that can’t easily be formulated in code. Yet it may offer students unfamiliar with poetic form a way to recognize structures–a game environment for learning. It’s worth a try.

I hope that digital annotation methods can help students to appreciate poetry rather than avoid close analysis, but my reorientation of literature assignments need not stop with poems–or especially the short lyric poems. Longer forms in prose or poems would be interesting to have students analyze in a digital lab environment, collaborating to investigate contexts and raise questions that might, I hope, lead to individual writing that’s more inspired by active learning rather than receptive, reflexive iteration. One of my colleagues on the Digital Mitford project teaches literature by having students write in collaborative contexts, and much of my writing here is inspired by recent conversations during our workshop.

As I engage in collaboration, I am caught up in learning and hope to share something of the sublime wonder of that experience with students. The realities of implementation and proof follow. I’m caught up in a confluence of ideas and possibilities, but my  implementation must be localized, dependent on the best interface with text and network that works for my group and our conversation. We live and work and dream in communities.

UX Thoughts: A Confession

I confess to feeling overcome with visions of design at the start of a project–especially a digital project. Launching these blogs has been a comforting detour. I’ve been enjoying the instant gratification of “trying on” site designs that WordPress offers. Our Mitford Project will not have the comforting support of a content management system (CMS), at least not at the start, because I don’t want to be struggling with rigid structures and predetermined choices in site design that might crimp our style with coding. My hope is that we’ll never actually need a CMS—-even though we do anticipate a massive website. I’d like our site to be purely under the control of our project team, and not at the mercy of a product designer’s corporate style.  Designing for an appealing UX (or user experience) can be very difficult: a good CMS can of course streamline the process, but really they are not to be trusted—-and I am determined to make a go of a site design myself. To do this well we will need to be very clear about what we’re representing from our coding projects, and how we expect our viewers to interact with our site.  The more help I have on this matter the better—-provided I can think this through for myself and not surrender to a prefab system.  My readers, do you have thoughts on this vexing subject?

But I did enjoy designing these blogs once I found my way to images that would personalize and distinguish them. The background for this site is adapted from a wonderful colorized illustration of Drury Lane Theatre of August 1808, which I found on wikimedia commons. The commons site reports that it was “published as plate 32 of Microcosm of London (1808)”. I ran it through Photoshop to enlarge it for the site, and then experimented with some of Photoshop’s filters to stylize it. I decided today to try out a different but related background of Regency era Covent Garden Theatre for the Digital Mitford blog, the same I used for our Facebook MRM group.

Why the early 19th-century theatre interiors? Need you ask? They are glorious spaces in which to be writing and reading, are they not? More to the point, these blog images connect with the Digital Mitford project: Mary Russell Mitford achieved remarkable success with staging historical tragedies in London’s Royal Theatres (Drury Lane and Covent Garden) in the 1820s, and studying her plays in the past year has opened a fascinating area of interest: How did playwrights negotiate with theatre managers in the 19th-century to produce plays? How did women playwrights negotiate and network with powerful men who were both celebrity performers and actor-managers in the 1820s Royal Theatres?  Writing for the London theatres, I’ve learned, necessitated some measure of compromise and serious tension, as a famous actor-manager (like William Charles Macready) could agree to perform a  play (like Mitford’s Julian), and then proceed to recommend (demand?) significant alterations of parts. The Royal Theatres were for Mitford a setting for some of her most remarkable accomplishments, boosting her fame (if not her fortune) in the 1820s, and they are also a site of great interest in the negotiation of control over texts—-a hot point of textual alchemy generated in nerve-wracking frictions between actors and authors.

As I think about site design and editing tasks ahead, the sight of the Royal Theatres suggests to me a fascinating challenge: Particularly when editing Mitford’s plays we will need to code multiple versions and begin documenting the differences between manuscript and published play post-production. How we present these differences matters and will demonstrate our editorial approach to vexed and dynamic texts. We shall surely have more to say on this subject on the Digital Mitford blog!