Undergrads and Markup: How & Why I Got Involved

I became involved with this project in the sort of roundabout way that seems increasingly common as scholars head online. I happened to see Alex announce over twitter a Google Doc, designed for using TEI in the undergrad classroom. Later that week, when I saw Alex at a Scholars’ Lab get-together, I happened to mention how much I liked the idea. And, with that, Alex invited me to join a project that was already well underway.

I was primed to take note of this announcement. For the past few months I had been trying to imagine how one could bring something like TEI markup into the undergraduate literature classroom and to what effect. I had been prompted to begin thinking about bringing this sort of “research” into the undergrad classroom after seeing Gregory Crane speak at the Shape of Things to Come Conference last semester. (Prof. Crane’s remarks as well as the rest of the conference proceedings are available online.) Could undergraduates really do something other than be lectured at, or (in those moments where academics like to think of themselves as especially forward thinking) participate in some sort of student-centered Socratic discussion? Is there a humanities equivalent of the physics lab?

I was not immediately won over by the idea. While Crane spoke with conviction about undergraduates doing translation from classical languages, I wondered whether someone working in early-twentieth century literature (like myself) could really benefit from this approach. An undergraduate taking Latin could profitably translate some untranslated texts. But what “value” can undergraduates add to English language texts?

One answer, I think, is markup. Even a great site like the The Modernist Journals Project could benefit from some markup. Perhaps, I mused, students could compare the appearance of a poem by Ezra Pound in Blast (to take an immediately interesting example, look at “Fratres Minors”; what I wonder do those thick black lines cover?) and compare it to another version. In effect students would be creating mini-critical editions of individual poems. Or, perhaps, students could research and provide valuable annotations for the pages full of obscure references in Blast.

These, though, were merely the idle thoughts of an idle graduate student until I bumped into Alex, offering the opportunity to see how a project like this might work in practice.

I remain curious about how successful this sort of project will be in practice. When ENAM4500 had its first class meeting I tried to offer the students a brief pitch for why this experiment was worth participating in: it would provide English majors with some basic digital skills that might valuable to them (I had this article in the back of my mind); it would also expose students to basic textual scholarship, allowing them to see how the “sausage is made”—how a poem goes from the manuscript to obscure journal and, finally, to the pages of Norton.

I’m eager to see in the coming weeks how well I can deliver on that promise.

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