Wrapping Up

Some keep the Sabbath…

Like Alex’s team, my group of intrepid students spent the latter part of the semester looking at various versions of a single Emily Dickinson poem; ours was “Some keep the sabbath.” I sent students into the stacks (and onto Google Books) to find various appearances of the poem. In addition to versions appearing in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, the 1890 Poems of Emily Dickinson, the manuscript version in the R. W. Franklin’s Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, and versions in both Franklin and Thomas H. Johnson’s editions of Dickinson’s complete poems, we dug up some odd appearances of the poem as well as its first appearance in 1864 in the Round Table (this latter as a digital image). (Dickinsonians have likely already guessed that we chose “Some keep the sabbath” in part because it was one of the few poems which appeared in print in Dickinson’s lifetime.)

We were less assiduous in our stemmatics than what Alex describes. After encoding and comparing 12 versions (of which we ended up inadvertedly encoding the same exact edition & state from two different copies), our version of the textual history went something like this: the 1890 established a base text which was largely hewn to (with some variations in indentation and punctuation) until Johnson’s edition of the Complete Poems, which restored a version truer to the manuscript. The titles under which “Some keep the sabbath” appeared, however, were certainly interesting: “My Sabbath” (in Round Table) and “A Service of Song” (in the 1890 Poems of Emily Dickinson) (and “The Service of Song” and “Sabbath” elsewhere, presumably adapting the Round Table and 1890 texts respectively).

This proved to be an interesting exercise which seemed to induce less “soul crushing” than our previous project. Descriptive markup proved interesting enough to students; even when the markup was wrong (an invented “” tag, for example), the basic thinking was right. The TEI headers proved the most complicated and unpleasant aspect of the process (despite Alex’s heavy annotation of a template file). This was perhaps unsurprising and itself a valuable lesson in in the challenges of uniquely identifying any single “text” or “document” (or encoding thereof).

<hi rend= “tepid”>Success!</hi>

Alex notes the way in which our digital workshops were super-added to an existing, more traditional, literature course, resulting in some surprise (dismay?) among the students enrolled. The “lab” style addition Alex proposes, along the lines of the “lab” requirement for science classes, might offer one such solution (though I recall my physics lab as a not spectacularly useful addition to my knowledge of nature’s properties). My inclination would be to simply weave a digital project into the warp and woof of the course material, or even focus an entire class on such a project (or set of projects).

For example, to stick with the Dickinson example, I began to think that rather than examining the print history of a single poem, the class could have encoded all the poems in the 1890 Poems of Emily Dickinson to the manuscript versions, in order to examine how Dickinson’s initial reception was affected by Higginson and Todd’s crafting of her work. While tracing the variations in the print history of a single poem is a nice task, the results in the case of Dickinson were rather predictable and didn’t offer many footholds for really interesting interpretations to come out of the work. If students encoded two versions (1890 and manuscript) of a handful of individual poems and then shared the results as a class, one could begin to try to understand what informed the passage of Dickinson’s work from manuscript to print. (Alex’s section and mine operated largely independently; I now wonder if more cross-pollination could have achieved some more synthetic thinking.)

I would describe the digital workshops overall as a “tepid success.” We wanted students to use markup and Juxta to think about print history, and they did. I wanted students to understand the complexities of copyright. They did. A certain sense of dissatisfaction nevertheless remains. For silly reasons that I can’t really articulate, I thought that along with a certain set of skills (mark up, collation) and scholarly questions (print history, textual evolution and representation), a digital workshop would spark a process which would not be limited to these (rather traditional) course goals. Somehow, I imagined the self-starter ethos which is so much a part of the attide of the “digital humanities” (to say nothing of the ideology of Silicon Valley[1]) would inspire a degree of independence and exploration in the members of the group such that we would not merely meet the course goals, but do something more.

Whether a differently organized project within the structure of anoter class could better spark this sort of involvement, however, is a question which remains to be answered.

[1] Here, in the comfort of a footnote, I’ll raise a question that has been nagging me for some time: is the “culture of the digital humanities” (a weasly phrase I know) allied to a certain “free market” values? Might these sort of values put it at odds with a discipline like English, where the term “neoliberal” requires either spitting or the actual smiting of one’s own chest in order to be spoken aloud? (This same tension, it seems to me, is present in the “open source”/”free” software community itself—so often invoked as a model for DH—where Eric Raymond’s vision of the “the bazaar” is fundamentally a vision of a free market, rather than the “freedom” advocated by Richard Stallman.)

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