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!

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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.

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.

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.