MLA 08 Panel Report II – Methodologies for Literary Studies in the Digital Age

transliteracies rosetti whitman

Sunday, 28 December
224. Methodologies for Literary Studies in the Digital Age
10:15–11:30 a.m., Union Square 14, Hilton
Program arranged by the MLA Committee on Information Technology
Presiding: Stephen Olsen, MLA
Speakers: Tanya Clement, Univ. of Maryland, College Park; David L. Hoover, New York Univ.; Alan Liu, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Kenneth M. Price, Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln; Susan Schreibman, Royal Irish Acad.

Due to some last changes in the line-up, Ken Price introduced this session which was structured around Literary Studies in a Digital Age: A Methodological Primer, upcoming from the MLA Press and edited by Ken and Ray Siemens. Ken framed the panel by arguing that, while others may be forging ahead with Web 2.0, digital humanities are really in 1.5 or beta.

David Hoover began his talk by outlining 3 models for new textual analysis: the portal, specialist desktop tools, and standard software repurposed, e.g. Excel.

A portal has platform independence and is always using the latest version – but if different versions use alternative methodologies it can become problematic when trying to compare results. Portals can also be hard to customise and often don’t give the user direct access to the text and data itself.

David went on to note that specialised software should give access to intermediate results, providing the user with both the answer and the data.

Alan Liu discussed the Transliteracies project which, over the past 4 years, has been examining electronic and online reading.

Alan noted how the prevalence of silent reading, the processing of documents on your own, has begun to be transformed with digital forms such as forums – which in fact represent a return to the collective reading of times past in the church and schoolroom.

He posited a changed perspective on reading. Just as Franco Moretti draws graphs from above, God-like, the highest digital rank used to be the administrator, the expert, offering the neutral idea of documents. But now there are hybrid forms and a new perspective, displayed for example  in the battles on the talk pages of Wikipedia. Even authors are descending into the fray of networked public discourse. Alan summarised this succinctly as ‘all peer review all the time by everybody’.

Alan noted that this however in turn creates the biggest problem of how to negotiate expert knowledge and networked public knowledge. What role will expert reading play? And what impact will the social network have on experts?

Alan then sketched out some key needs that have to be fulfilled in order to develop digital humanities further:

a) Standard mark-up software

b) Scalable solutions for the datamining of social corpora

c) Top-down metadata and bottom-up tags

d) Ways to view information generated from macro and close reading

e) Ways to filter and visualise information according to authority

f) Institutional support for scholars

Susan Schreibman discussed electronic scholarly editions and began by noting that many were single author projects, such as Rossetti, Whitman, although there were multi-author examples such as Romantic Circles.

She noted that print is seen as the definitive text, with the scholarly decisions on e.g. punctuation remaining invisible in the background. In contrast, the digital view enables a variorum showing all stages from mss to edited text.

Electronic editions can present a view of the text, not the view. The reader can manipulate spatial and temporal readings.

Susan also noted the need to engage the public and the library communities in order to secure a legacy for such projects.

Q & A

The chair of the TEI noted that he doesn’t feel imprisoned by the single text view which can be used as a base for research. The crowdsourcing model has merit but there is still the need for the conclusive expert text.

One person raised the question of whether all grad students could or should write for Wikipedia. Does the format provide a positive interface between the expert and amateur? Does it make the humanities interesting? Or does it has just anger experts?

Another suggested we are seeing the demise of 100 years of the definitive text with a return to variant, collective texts.

Another noted the need often to focus on single, canonical authors in order to justify the expense and time of scholarly editing projects.

One person asked how scholars could actually use the public, harnessing the power of crowdsourcing. Could they perform close reading? Tag content up?

A representative from the NEH noted that there is now an Office for Digital Humanities and there is progress towards the funding of more interdisciplinary work. However this involves multi-agency coordination which can take time.

Kivmars Bowling
Senior Managing Editor, Literature Compass.

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