Joyous Announcements

We are happy to announce that we have accepted an offer by Ondřej Tichý and the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague to host our project online! Those of you in Anglo-Saxon studies may be familiar with Ondřej’s work on the digital edition of the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, a great resource that brings a monument of our field into the digital age. It’s a pleasure to be linked to Ondřej’s project as well as Charles University, and we’re looking forward to this collaborative partnership. We’ll release more details as they develop.

This also seems like a good time to outline some of our recent progress, as well as our schedule for the near future. Over the last several weeks, in addition to exploring possible platform and server hosting possibilities, we have been busily building our Elementary I sequence. We already have alpha versions–drafted as offline documents to be migrated into an online platform–for Lessons 1 and 2 complete, with Lesson 3 well underway. Our tentative schedule over the next several weeks is to release beta versions of our first few lessons by the end of December, with more to follow throughout 2014. We will be sure to post a link as soon as they’re up and ready for beta testing.

In the meantime, we are also soliciting anyone who is interested in beta testing, peer reviewing, and otherwise providing input when we do start releasing lessons. Please feel free to contact us.

Digital Grammar

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In the posts below, Megg and Patrick have done an excellent job discussing one of the biggest roadblocks we’ve encountered while seeking to get our DOEP up and running—platforms. I don’t want to dwell further on this topic (because they have the bases so well covered), but there is one thing I’d like to briefly mention on this topic. We began with an idea to maybe use Scalar, but soon moved on to bounce around from platform to platform (Xerte and Drupal were perhaps the platforms that we best liked, or at least most recently liked best), only to realize that each platform we looked into was ultimately unusable. This was not because the platforms themselves were flawed in their designs, but because we as a group were unable to access the technology necessary to use and install the platforms. Perhaps it’s somehow emblematic of the state of the field. There are so many good building tools out there for a small group of new DHers (such as ourselves) to use, and there is such fantastic encouragement and support from people already in the field, but there are few practical options to help a group like ours get a project up and running. That is, we have the tools, we have the ideas and the internal support, but we’re lacking access to the means necessary for actually creating anything digital. Though the field is within itself is highly collaborative, it is difficult to get those who are outside the field involved in our efforts at this time.

In any case, I wanted to discuss some issues I’ve encountered working on the OEP part of the DOEP. We’re designing this project to be used by a variety of people who come from variety of backgrounds and who possess a variety of interests. So naturally, we anticipate that our learners will have different kinds of experiences with and expectations of language.  In order to facilitate the variety of learners we’re hoping to have, we’re attempting to create a layered learning experience that can give as little or as much grammatical and technical information as might be needed for a given learner. For example, when working through a lesson or set of lessons a learner can choose to access etymological information for certain words, lists of faux amis, pronunciation guides, and grammatical hints. I’ve been developing (alongside Joseph and others) this portion of the primer for the past few weeks, and have driven over a few metaphorical potholes in the process.

At the end of each lesson, learners will have access to grammatical information intended to help learners process what they’ve been reading. In order to ensure that a variety of learners are able to successfully interact with this information, I’ve been trying to write out descriptions of grammatical concepts that altogether avoid the specialized vocabulary typically used in discussions of grammar. This endeavor is more difficult than I expected, and I have spent perhaps too much time trying to figure out how to explain a prepositional phrase without using the words “preposition” or “phrase.”Maybe this is because my own grammatical background is so rooted in the old philological method that I can’t express grammatical concepts separated from their familiar contexts. Whatever the reason for my trouble, writing these little excerpts has shed some light on how I see language itself. Though I am a lover of dialect and language features that might be considered “variant” or otherwise outside the norm, I am awfully attached to my prescriptive grammatical rules. I find this especially odd since we are creating a primer for a historical language, a language that our learners will never need to speak or write, and a language that itself comprises variant forms of spelling and grammar across different manuscripts. So, I wonder if a prescriptive grammatical approach in this setting is really all that appropriate or useful. Maybe a more descriptive grammar, or a grammatical overview that focuses more on the descriptive than the prescriptive, might be more useful.

I appreciate that the way we’re designing this project will eliminate some of these concerns. A learner can have access to whatever information s/he likes and ignore the rest. Still, the pedagogical implications of the situation are of great interest to me.

Flexibility & Interactivity

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As we have moved forward with this project over the last few months, and look ahead to the future trajectory of the Digital Old English Primer (DOEP), I am left thinking about the amount of flexibility that comes with a collaborative Digital Humanities project. As Patrick has noted below, our team has considered and shelved numerous platforms to produce the DOEP – and remain in a state of flux, waiting to see what works best for the needs of the project dynamic and longevity, as well as what is available or feasible at this time. As my first foray into the DH world, this process has shown how flexibility and adaptability are critical to playing in the digital arena. While we have two lessons fundamentally completed for our primer, the prospect of launching something to the public seems further away. Yet it is this precise moment, the “getting there” of DH that I think is most rewarding. Folks in the sciences are known for this skill set, the “trial-and-error” functionality – but humanities folks are on equal footing here. Think of how many times as medievalists we go back to the same text and find a new angle or way of translating a line/word, or adopting new methodologies or theories to understand a historical event/moment. As humanities scholars we are not strangers to this type of process, and I think we can embrace this skill set and, for us, implement it in our DH project.

Once we get a pilot up and running, I think it would be critical to get the user/learner (I go back and forth with the moniker of our audience) involved in the process of “building.” I have no idea how this could work, but in the spirit of DH, collaboration, and open-access – it seems like a valuable moment to try building both the platform and the pedagogy with user/learner/audience input. What is working for them? What would they like to see more or less of? Of course the collaboration begins with the team, but I am interested in how we could extend this aspect of collaboration to the user/learner/audience. I imagine that this could have a forum quality, or just general “write a response” type of deal. But that interaction could be fruitful for the long-term path of this project. I am reminded of the many new advertisements out now that have seller/consumer interactivity to the max. In many ways, launching a pilot to the public with the first few lessons and using user/learner/audience feedback as a “tool” (I do not mean this to distance or disparage the user in any way – quite the opposite actually – but more for lack of terminology here…) in our methods could add another perspective on digital pedagogy, and digital humanities communities at large. I am curious to hear if others think this could work, or does inviting the user/learner/audience into the picture potentially messy?

All the Pieces Matter

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“We’re building something here, Detective.  We’re building it from scratch.  All the pieces matter.” -Detective Lester Freamon, The Wire

The process of building a digital primer for Old English essential breaks down into two major processes, at least in my mind.  First, as a development team, we seek out a platform that meets out needs and begin the process of exploring its potential for our project.  Second, we begin the process of building and revising how our project can be made accessible and intelligible to the target audience.  While this is a fairly reductive way about looking at the process of developing a digital project, such a description links into the crossroads of a team engaging with a set of tools in order to build a tool of a different kind.  It was reading the article by Fred Gibbs and Trevor Owens, “Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Towards Broader Audiences and User-Centered Designs,” DHQ 6.2, 2012, that the two way accessibility of our project started to coalesce (or coagulate, depending on your perspective).  Gibbs and Owens tracked the responses and perspectives of scholars in History when asked about their use of digital tools and their exposure to new tools that they hadn’t previously encountered.  Ultimately the conclusions were centered on the nature of accessibility, “The participants in our survey and our panel discussion showed a great deal of enthusiasm for digital research tools and eagerness to engage with them.  Although their interest is demonstrable unfortunately so is the insufficient usability of many digital humanities tools.”[1]  Fundamentally, our goal for a digital OE primer is to create a research tool, so I was thinking how our lessons as builders might impact the presentation of our project once it starts taking definite shape.

Over the course of the semester, as a team, we have experimented with various platforms for trying to produce an online digital primer.  SCALAR and Xerte were the first two major forays into attempting to settle on platforms.  SCALAR had the advantage of strong visual flexibility and appeal, whereas Xerte had more tools to offer for examination and exercise integration for our lessons.  We ran into problems with sever space and permissions for implementing Xerte, but the lesson taken away from this, at least to me, was one of accessibility.  Our problems about implementing and developing a project on Xerte didn’t become apparent until we started the process of experimenting with server space.  While a potential student, or interested party, using our final product would not have to worry about this issue, it did bring up the notion of unexpected user problems.  Issues of unintuitive presentation and unexpected user pitfalls, these are a few of the many issues that Gibbs and Owens brought forth in their study.  Our team encountered, and continues to encounter, issues of unclear presentations of digital tools sets, unintuitive interfaces and frustrations in design and construction.  All of these are of course to be expected when producing any collaborative project for the first time (or any other time for that matter) but my hope would be to retain the frustrations of construction as an important reminder for the accessibility of our own project, no matter what shape it ends up taking.

My major take-away from the Gibbs and Owen piece was that the problems of presentation and intuitive design impact the chain of digital projects for the builders as well as those who engage with the product.  Perhaps there is a spirit of ‘trial by fire’ that occurs in the design of these project, tandem to the ‘if you can get it to work’ sentiment that preempts the usefulness of any digital tool.  I hope that an awareness of our team’s struggles to get our platform off the ground does impact our project.


[1] Fred Gibbs and Trevor Owens, “Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Towards Broader Audiences and User-Centered Designs,” DHQ 6.2, 2012: 31.

On creating language-learning exercises

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Simultaneously working on language-learning exercise creation for living languages and one that is no longer spoken brings both challenges and a useful perspective on the limits and adaptability of such exercises. On the one hand, learning about the “communicative approach” to language teaching for modern languages such as French, German, Spanish, and Italian, and the types of exercises this approach entails seems completely unrelated to the work we are doing with Old English in our primer project; on the other hand, aspects of exercise creation for both of these domains do overlap, and to a further extent than I originally anticipated.

One of the key differences between a modern language class and the language learning approach used in our primer is that the goals we have for our learners are not the same. In the former case, the goal is “communication” and improvement in skills in the four areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. In the latter case, the goal is for a student to be able to understand and translate what s/he reads. Of course, creating exercises for use in a classroom versus doing the same in a virtual “independent study” setting is another difference between these two cases that is not negligible. So, at first blush, this difference in goals seems to suggest a similar difference in the intent of the exercises we use to enforce what is being taught. However, I am beginning to wonder to what extent this is or should be true.

As we work to develop our first lesson, I have drafted a certain number of exercises (or “drills”) to allow learners to practice and further understand differences between the genders associated with nouns and the differences between the singular and plural forms of nouns and the associated verb conjugation. In a modern language class, while I might have some “mechanical drill”-type exercises, I would tend to have a majority of what James Lee and Bill VanPatten call “meaningful drills” or “communicative drills” [1]. The initial exercises drafted for our primer have ended up being “mechanical drill”-type exercises:

–       matching nouns with the proper (gendered) article [goal: understanding gender associated with nouns]

–       categorizing nouns as singular or plural [goal: understanding the rules for pluralizing nouns]

–       choosing the proper verb conjugation for singular and plural forms in the third person [goal: understanding variations in verb conjugation, depending on the nouns associated with them]

After reviewing these different exercises, I was concerned about whether the learner would be illustrating his/her understanding of the grammatical concepts or whether the exercises could be completed without actually understanding the meaning of the sentences.

When I created a fourth exercise in a gap-fill format that required learners to insert the proper articles (signifying gender), nouns (singular/plural) and verbs (singular/plural conjugation) in the gaps in the text, this drill finally seemed to be a meaningful one. As Lee and VanPatten point out, drills often progress from mechanical to meaningful to communicative (120). Thus, while learners are not required to create a new meaning when performing this exercise, there is a greater requirement of understanding than in the previous mechanical drills.

Still, this last step seems like it might not be sufficient to help a learner truly internalize what is being taught in this lesson. As a further step – and given that “communicative” language production exercises that we might use in a classroom, such as oral dialogues or writing short texts are not practicable in this environment – I wonder whether it be useful to include a reading comprehension and/or translation exercise in this lesson. A reading comprehension drill in modern English could verify a learner’s overall comprehension of the sentences and brief texts presented in the lesson, while a translation exercise could help learners ascertain how well they understand these same sentences and brief texts on a more granular level. Perhaps this type of exercise should be considered to be as close to “communicative” as is possible in this type of course?

[1] “Mechanical drills are those during which the student need not attend to meaning and for which there is only one correct response” (121).

“The difference between mechanical and meaningful drills is that the learner must attend to the meaning of both the stimulus and her own answer in order to complete the meaningful drill successfully. Yet there is still only one right answer, and the answer is already known to the participants” (121).

“Unlike the previous two drill types, communicative drills require attention to meaning, and the information contained in the learner’s answer is new and unknown to the person asking the question. Thus, the answer cannot be deemed right or wrong in terms of meaning conveyed” (122).

[For further information on the different drill types see 120-123.]

Lee, James F. and Bill VanPatten. (2003). Making communicative language teaching happen. 2nd edition. McGraw-Hill.

Encountering Old English–The Language and the Manuscripts

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Ða ic ða ðis eall gemunde, ða gemunde ic ac hu ic geseah—ær ðam ðe hit eall forhergod wære ond forbærned—hu ða circean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma ond boca gefyldæ, ond eac micel mengeo Godes ðiowa. Ond ða swiðe lytle fiorme ðara boca wistan, for ðæm ðe hie hiora nanwuht ongiotan ne meahton, for ðæm ðe hie næron on hiora agen geðiode awritne. Swelce hie cwæden: “Ure iedlran, ða ðe ðas stowa ær hioldon, hie lufodon wisdom, ond ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan ond us læfdon. Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð, ac we him ne cunnon æfter spyrigean. Ond for ðæm we habbað nu ægðer forlæten ge ðone welan ge ðone wisdom, for ðæm ðe we noldon to ðæm spore mid wure mode onluton.” Ða ic ðis eall gemunde, ða wundræde ic swiðe swiðe ðara godena wiotena ðe giu wære giond Angelcynn, ond ða bec ealeæ be fullan  geliornod hæfdon, ðæt hie hiora ða nænne dæl noldon on hiora agen geðiode wendan. Ac ic ða sona eft me selfum andwyrde ond cwæð: “Hie ne wendon ðætte æfre menn sceolden swæ reccelease weorðan ond sio lar swæ oðfeallan; for ðære wilnunga hie hit forleton, ond woldon ðæt her ðy mara wisdom on londe wære ðy we ma geðeoda cuðon.”

When I remembered all this, then I also recalled how I saw—before hit all was ravaged and burnt—how the churches throughout all of England stood filled with treasures and books, and also a great many of God’s servants. And they knew very little wisdom from these books, because they could understand nothing from them, since they were not written in their own language. It is as if they said: “Our forefathers, who formerly held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they acquired wealth and left it to us. One can see their footprints here still, but we cannot follow after them. And therefore we now have lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not send forth our minds on that path. When I remembered this, then I wondered greatly at how those good and wise men who were formerly throughout England, and had previously studied those books, that they would not wish to translate any part of them into their own language. But afterward I soon answered myself and said, “They did not imagine that men should ever become so careless and teaching so decayed; therefore, they intentionally neglected it and hoped there would be more wisdom here, the more languages that we knew.”

-From the Alfred’s preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care, c. 890.

I apologize for the sheer length of the above quotation, but I do believe that every project worth doing correctly is worth beginning with the Old English preface to Pastoral Care. I promise to use a much more skillful editing eye in my next post. Besides, this selection resonates too nicely with what I want to discuss in this post—that is, how we encounter and engage with medieval texts—for me to leave it out.

As someone with an interest in historic languages and historic texts, I can appreciate what Alfred is getting at in this excerpt. Translations of texts, whatever their origin and subject, are fantastic in that they convey to foreign audiences information that would otherwise be inaccessible. In this sense, translations of texts can get us to the same “place” we’d have arrived at had we read and translated the texts for ourselves. Yet there’s something about reading a text in its original language, encountering it in its native environment, that passes along to us a different kind of knowledge—knowledge that offers a more complete understanding of the text itself. For example, when reading a poem in its original language, we can engage with/react to/comprehend word play, rhyme, and meter in a way that would be impossible were we working from a translation of that poem. By reading poetry in its native tongue, we are able to encounter the artistry of the poem, and, therefore, the poem itself.

This is, perhaps, stating the obvious. And I don’t mean to rehash old news in this blog post. But I think this line of thought has some interesting implications, both for our current Old English language project and for medievalists in general. How we encounter texts and the environment in which texts appear is crucial. As I’ve said, the language in which we encounter a text is important. To access language is to access knowledge. Thus, as readers, our interaction with texts (especially texts from which we are so drastically chronologically removed) begins with language. However, our interaction with texts should not also end with language. In addition to language, we need the ability to visualize and interact with the original manuscript in which a given text appears.

I don’t know that this is especially true of texts that are represented in more than one manuscript, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about digital editions of texts, that is what I’m going to muse on for a moment.

As Farkas Gábor Kiss et al. discuss in “Old Light on New Media: Medieval Practices in the Digital Age” (Digital Philology 2.1, 2013) the purpose of traditional critical editions is to create the “best” possible version of a text. That is, the version of a text that most closely aligns with an editor’s understanding of authorial intention. Whatever textual variants exist from manuscript to manuscript are placed in the edition’s critical apparatus, separated from the edited text. Textual variants, after all, are not always minor or unimportant things. Illustrations, the alteration of a word, the contents of a manuscript that accompany a text etc. all could potentially alter how we read text. Consequently, this process creates a manageable, though overly simplified, picture of a text.

However, digital tools are allowing us to have all our texts and read them too. Kiss et al. (see pages 19-21) suggest a number of ways in which digital methods can make textual tradition more accessible and manageable. Likewise, the DM Project co-directed by Shannon Bradshaw is developing a set of tools that allows scholars to track themes, language, etc. across various manuscripts, enabling scholars to interact with and manage sets of texts that would have been previously unmanageable in print editions. For more on the DM project see the video below:

For learners and readers of Old English, textual variants are not really much of problem because most Old English texts survive only in a single manuscript. However, I would love the opportunity to track words and themes across various Old English texts (wouldn’t you?).

And I maintain that some level of interaction with Old English texts is a vital component in the process of learning the language. The ability to visualize and contextualize a given text in its native language and environment imparts to the learner a certain kind of knowledge that is would otherwise be unavailable to us. I’m honestly still struggling to express what exactly that knowledge is, so for now I will conclude by sharing some of my personal experience on this subject. Earlier this semester I taught the Old English poem Judith to a group of undergraduates. I began our discussion of the poem by showing them images of the manuscript and discussing the contents of the manuscript. After I had shown them an image of the manuscript’s binding, one student said, “Wait? Old English poems are in books?” I said that they were, and asked this student what they had previously imagined the poem looked like. The student responded, “I don’t know. But now I see the poem completely differently.”

Interplay Between Old and Modern English Lexical Items

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Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge

Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho

That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge

Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so…

(Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde Book II, ll. 22-25)

 Pedagogically, the beginning lessons of our primer emphasize short sentences with straightforward meaning and vocabulary, and uncomplicated grammar: for example, simple predicate nominatives, intransitive verbs, and direct actions. This is comparable to the beginning lessons found in curricula such as the Cambridge Latin Course. However, something which the study of Old English uniquely offers for Modern English speakers, in a way that is not quite true of Latin (or at least, not quite true in the same way), is direct cognates of the most common, everyday lexical items in the language. Latin does, of course, provide the English-speaking student with a vast number of etymological cognates. However, these are often words which are less “basic,” words of a relatively higher or rarer linguistic register (which of course is its own virtue) – Modern English “regal” from rex, regis as opposed to Modern English “king” from cyning illustrates this point nicely.

Our early lessons therefore take advantage of this relative transparency between Old and Modern English words. By starting out with vocabulary such as cyning, cwen, nama, or god which are (once the student has learned the meaning, if not before) more-or-less opaque in their relationship to Modern English, we aim to encourage prospective students who may not have much (or any) formal grammar-based or language-learning educational backgrounds. We want, in short, to not “scare off” interested learners of Old English. In our ultimate conception of this digital primer, learners will, by the final lessons, be reading actual Old English poetry and prose, but the primer will take them there step-by-step; the heavy reliance on obvious cognates at an early stage offers us a unique “edge” in this regard.

Besides the utilitarian function outlined above, it should also be mentioned that one of the charms of learning Old English for an Anglophone lies in the interplay or juxtaposition of the old and the new, and the faintly recognizable link between the two. In fact I would say that it is often so compelling as to be one of the very impulses that leads curious students to Old English. From even casual conversations held with other individuals, and from discussions observed on various Internet forums, it seems apparent that there is quite considerable interest in (and questions about) the origins and history of English, and in old forms of common English words. And as the oldest recorded form of the language, Old English seems especially enticing to many.

Again, in my experience, what often intrigues and motivates people is this tension between the native and familiar on the one hand, and something similar yet strange on the other. There is something oddly exciting, perhaps even uncanny, about observing pairs of Old and Modern English words which are clearly “the same” on some level, but also utterly different. (Evidently Jakob Grimm recalled a similar sensation upon first witnessing medieval German, when he was a young student studying law – though not for much longer after that!) At some level, the study of Old English is intriguing because it involves a process of defamiliarization, taking a vernacular which is common and completely taken-for-granted in its usage, and suddenly putting it into a new light. The early emphasis in our primer on sentences with recognizable vocabulary elements – He is god cyning or Se cnif is scearp – speaks also, I believe, to this aspect of Old English study which so many find attractive and compelling.

Of course, when speaking of verbal developments of Old to Modern English, one neglects the matter of semantics at one’s peril, and there is the old, familiar problem of etymological “false friends” – those semantically misleading items such as dom, cræft, wann, and all the rest. In my next post I’ll discuss some of the ways our digital primer intends, structurally, to deal with these for the novice student, and ways in which the digital medium is especially advantageous and well-suited for this procedure. I’ll also discuss ideas about how the digital medium might allow us to build in further etymological information regarding words with not-so-obvious, or fossilized, cognates (e.g. OE wer, ModE “werewolf”), and how the medium allows ways which interact with the lessons but also remain distinct from them, facilitating greater learner autonomy.

Tortoises all the Way Down

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A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988

The above story has a lot to say about the start of a digital humanities project, besides being a wonderful anecdote about tortoises, presumption, and infinite regress in cosmology.  A premise invariably breaks down into things that support it and the cycle repeats.  The challenge is not getting stuck in the loop, or counting the tortoises (to torture the metaphor a little further).

Since our group started working on a digital primer for Old English I have been giving a lot of thought to the tortoises and the depth to which the tortoises of the primer go (common consensus seems to be all the way down).  Structuring a primer means starting with a wide range pedagogical goal for the text, a fair point, but to get there you need to think about the best tools to achieve that goal.

An example, our project seeks to create an interactive means of engaging high-school graduates or college students in the basics of Old English grammar, following a theoretical model of language acquisition by Kenneth Scott Morrell.[1]  We want to, ideally, allow for self-directed learning on some level, for interest in content group to drive the progress of the student using the resource.  So we need a platform capable of fusing together targeted ‘top-down’ elements of language acquisition (to use Morell’s terminology) such as: background information about Anglo-Saxon society, and linking concepts and content usage between modules; and the ‘bottom-up’ elements of language acquisition such as recognizing words’ syntactic functions and morphologies.  We also need a platform that is flexible enough to allow for a system of radial learning, rather than forced linear paths, and accommodating enough to allow for self directed interests later on.

So where to start?  Well this is where one of the first problems of infinite regress comes in, how much coding background to we have on our team?  Some, but not much.  Ok, so that limits the choices to what platform we can build on, namely we will have to work with some other platform that operates with a certain level of accessibility.  Do we need server space for the tools we wish to access? Yes, so how long with that take to acquire?  Can it be done in the time-line of a semester?  How about two?  Do we like what one platform can do, but not how it looks?  Are there issues of licensing?   And on and on it goes… tortoises all the way down.

Philosophically, I think this might be where some of the more collaborative parts of Digital Humanities projects may start to break down, and perhaps even fall into an “Eternal September”.[2]  If this project needs to be stretched over the course of multiple semesters, with different groups extending the project, then the build progress will be arrested.  While much of the spirit of DH seems to involve bringing new people under the big-tent and acclimating them to the tools and projects at their disposal, someone has to be there to make that happen, or perhaps even let go of the reigns (depending on the ambition of the project).  If these are the growing pains of getting the project off the ground then I don’t mind putting much of this time up front as a down payment, but there is always the looming threat of what will actually be produced by the end of the semester, or even the end of the year.  This is speculation at the moment but a practical possibility worth thinking about.

There are quite a few resources out there for finding something accessible to build with, sites such as Bamboo DiRT, but trying to get off the ground involves a lot of preliminary work on hashing out what can be moved forward with practically and what needs to be tabled until we have more practical solutions.

This particular path of musing, in it of itself, might very well be a misdirected approach.  The process of regressing over details carries to the ‘story-boarding’ aspect of producing a project just as well as the conceptualization of the building.  Divorced of a platform to worry about, discussions of how to best represent grammatical concepts are strengthened by a collaborative process, but ultimately stall until someone cuts the discussion short or directs the process along further, hardly an enviable position to be in with a highly collaborative sentiment permeating the project’s production.

Perhaps these musings, mixing and twining with anxieties, are natural to any part of any collaborative project; however this seems to be a place and forum for discussing some of them as they come up.  It may not be the place of theoretical articles to engage with specifics or to explore the recursive nature of collaboration.  At the end of the day someone has to keep track of the tortoises.


[1] Kenneth Scott Morrell, “Language Acquisition and Teaching Ancient Greek: Applying Recent Theories and Technology,” ed. John Gruber-Miller, When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 134-57.

[2] For more about the dangers of DH projects falling into the “Eternal September” see Bethany Nowiskie’s blog post, “Eternal September of Digital Humanities,” in Debates in Digital Humanities ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 243-6.

Digital Humanities, Audience, & “Usability”

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Charlie Edwards makes a useful critique in “The Digital Humanities and Its Users”[1] of the way in which Digital Humanities as a discipline  (or /system /community /network /moment /resource /pathway etc.?) identifies and/or engages with its users. By this Edwards is speaking about the users within DH, not necessarily those outside of the DH who benefit from various projects – is DH a user-friendly field, or is it exclusive? The condemnation of DH’s exclusiveness either falls on its tool-centered nature, or its reliance on theoretical approaches, an “applied humanities”. Edwards speculates that both of these factors in DH limit user participation in the field, yet the overarching question here seems to ask how DH has grown so rapidly with such small (maybe not small, but select) community to propel it forward. What I am most interested in here is the idea of re-identifying a DH community that promotes participation and “usability” among both individuals within the field, but also those outside of it. Naturally Edwards brings up, what he seems to suggest, are the most useful DH “hubs” available right now: Twitter, WordPress, & just the “Internet” in general. The non-institutional, public-sphere type of “camp” vs. “center” model widens the field to both academic and non-academic alike.

This discussion about access, usability, and participation led me to thinking about our project here, the Digital Old English Primer. Our general goal is to create an online tool/platform/book/experience (I like that I am unsure about the language here) to learn Old English geared toward high school/college students. Because our project aims to teach in an independently self-instructed manner, it is critical that what we provide to our prospective student has all the trappings of a traditional “textbook”. In connection with the Edwards essay, I am considering what our “user” looks like – what will they require from our project that will enable them to walk away with a better knowledge of Old English? The inherent problem, but also favor of DH is the fact that as a team we are creating the Old English lessons/modules/text etc. ourselves, but are heavily reliant on external systems/programs to “run” the thing when it is done. Our student, (our user) is not an active participant in this process, has no knowledge of the operation or procedure of getting the Digital Old English Primer from start to (semi-) completion. For this project, the student is a blind recipient of a process which (by the time of its completion – or completion enough that it is usable to the public) they are unaware of, yet those students as learners and recipients of knowledge through this medium remain the end-goal of this entire thing. I suppose I am left questioning how removed DH is from its users – not the users in the field (in this case), but those whom our work in the humanities affects. The funding for projects and longevity of DH as a field will come only, I think, from the users who are the non-participants, the recipients of a post-process knowledge.


[1] Edwards, Charlie. “The Digital Humanities and Its Users,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. ed. Matthew K. Gold. (Minnesota, 2012): 213-232.

Microanalysis vs. Macroanalysis: One reader’s response to Matthew L. Jockers’ Macroanalysis and other DH readings

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Our class reading of Matthew L. Jockers’ Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (http://www.matthewjockers.net/macroanalysisbook/ ; http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/88wba3wn9780252037528.html) lead to lively discussions of many of the topics raised by this book. In this blog post, I would like to focus on a few points that particularly interested me.

Close reading vs. macroanalysis (or Moretti’s “distant reading”)

While we certainly discussed this topic, there are two quotes that I would like to address further.

“These examples underscore how the micro scale (that is, close reading) must be contextualized by the macro scale…” (91)

One of the contentious aspects (perhaps especially for literary scholars) of a certain form of digital humanities revolves around the topic of close reading. Some digital humanists seem to argue that close reading is no longer necessary – we probably think immediately of Franco Moretti, for instance in his Distant Reading (2013) (http://www.versobooks.com/books/1421-distant-reading), although in Macroanalysis Jockers’ argues that this is a misunderstanding of Moretti’s point of view (48) – a perspective that concerns many who study literature. In Macroanalysis, however, Jockers offers a method that is clearly more balanced, when he argues that close reading and macroanalysis are two complementary approaches. More specifically, as per the previously cited explanation, close readings are considered microanalyses that occur within the larger context of the macroanalysis. To me, using digital humanities tools for the purpose of elucidating the more wide-reaching context of several literary texts appears advantageous as an addition or complement to the close reading of those specific texts.

A second quote helps calm certain other concerns I have had concerning the idea of trends discovered via such a macroanalysis:

“When considering these findings, it is important to remain mindful of the exceptions. These are macro trends we have been exploring, and they provide a generalized view of the whole. These are not necessarily the tendencies of individual authors or even of individual books” (153).

Once again, the balanced nature of this argument – that macroanalyses can provide information on general tendencies but that this does not contradict the variations of specific texts or authors in relation to these trends – reassures me that the introduction of digital tools does not necessarily require an “overthrowing” of the literary analysis tools and perspectives many of us have only used up until recently. In the context of my own research, for instance, I do see how a macroanalysis through digital means of a large body of texts could provide an overarching context for the more specific close readings of the particular texts that are a part of my thesis corpus.

Further, in writings on digital humanities, discussions of the relation between microanalysis and context is quite common, and that in a variety of circumstances. Tara McPherson, in her “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/29), argues for the need to embrace a certain idea of macroanalysis when she writes, “our very scholarly practices tend to undervalue broad contexts…” (154). Similarly, although concerning a quite different topic, Elizabeth Losh (see “Hacktivism and the Humanities: Programming Protest in the Era of the Digital University,” also in Debates in the Digital Humanities (http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/32)) describes the work of literary scholars analyzing an instance of hacktivism as follows: they “have focused on close reading the text of the actual computer code generated by the [hacktivist groups…], while also acknowledging the importance of ‘reframing’ code and thus preserving the ‘context of its circulation and creation’ (Marino)” (172).

Such comments and my previous reflections lead to more questions: What are the roles of micro- and macroanalyses in Digital Humanities? And, more broadly, what are the roles of micro- and macroanalyses in the Humanities as a whole?