- Making the Leap: Incorporating Digital Humanities into the English Classroom
The essays in this special issue offer you practical tips for classroom practice as well as meditations on the limits of what digital humanities (DH)—and textual criticism—can achieve. In writing this foreword, I position myself in the space left by Luke Iantorno’s thoughtful introduction to the various contributors, Leigh Bonds’s comprehensive overview of existing pedagogical approaches, Maura Ives’s trenchant commentary in her afterword, and the fascinating courses described by the contributors themselves.
I would have welcomed such a volume as this one when I began my own explorations into the pedagogy of DH. I had no idea how even to begin. I did what all teachers do when faced with a new preparation: I asked more experienced teachers for help. I had met Maura Ives in 2004, when she’d been part of a book history panel I’d organized for CEA’s national conference, and I knew she’d taught a course called “Digital Textual Studies.” Surely, I hoped, her syllabus would give me some direction in shaping my own course titled “Scholarly Editing in Digital Environments.” It was. My syllabus, when I taught the course at the graduate level in spring of 2007, drew on Susan Schriebman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth’s then fairly new A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell 2004) and on project discussions by editors of digital archives and editions: Jerome McGann (Rossetti Archive), Kenneth Price (Whitman Archive), Peter Robinson (Canterbury Tales Project), and Martha Nell Smith (Dickinson Electronic Archive). In that class, I learned—as we so often must do—alongside my students.
In the absence of any nearby community of textual critics or DH practioners (a term still tied then to the field of humanities computing), I began to experiment, taking what I’d learned in teaching graduate students into my undergraduate courses. I began small, teaching the skills of textual criticism (transcription, collation, annotation, etc.)1 and using DH projects to illuminate the texts we were reading and editing. Over the years, we critiqued, we analyzed, we coded (using oXygen). Eventually—as out-ofthe-box databases made creating electronic editions possible for those of us without the resources to hire a “pet programmer,” as Peter Robinson called them—we built things. We edited. We annotated.
Along the way, I have watched as students began to engage differently with literary (and nonliterary) texts. With transcription, they learned how [End Page 137] difficult letter forms or illegible ones in manuscripts complicate the work of editors as well as challenge the interpretations of unwary critics. With collation, they learned to be attentive to small details, discovering that changes in small details—even when not authorized by the author—can alter dramatically interpretation. They learned to ask where the text came from and why did the editor choose this text and not that one as a copy text. They discovered that coding required them to make interpretive decisions and that researching to write their annotations, especially for twentieth-century letters, required ingenuity and resourcefulness. Last year, for example, students coded and annotated a series of 1945 letters written by a US serviceman to his girlfriend back home. Students learned about whole parts of their cultural history, researching popular radio shows (one found an actual transcript of an announcement of the cessation of hostilities—an announcement that proved wrong), to movies showing in theaters, to what car Louis wanted to purchase when he returned from active duty. Two groups of students working with different letters competed to discover in which row house Alma lived in Baltimore. Using GoogleEarth, they zoomed and zoomed, each group trying to beat the other in deciphering the house numbers. One student exclaimed, “It’s like CSI!”2 In short, they learned not to be bored.
Unfortunately, that is the textual condition I find most commonly in my students: a textual boredom. As teachers, we too often rely on a particular kind of intellectual task (albeit applied to different texts and periods). We ask students to take a text and show us what they can do with it. And most typically, we give...