- Teaching Attentive Reading and Motivated Writing through Digital Editing
Though English departments, including my own at the University of Nebraska, have been teaching digital humanities (DH) courses for over a decade, hyperbolic claims about the perils and promises of using computers in the study of literature continue to appear in the press. A piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books likens the algorithms used by some digital humanities methods to fascism (Marche). Another, in The Huffington Post, compares the rise of digital humanities to “our uncritical acceptance of drone attacks” (Mohamed). On the other hand, digital humanists such as Franco Moretti, who famously promote “distant reading” as opposed to close reading, project a future for the humanities that radically departs from long-cherished methods. The controversial Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, put out by a group of scholars at UCLA, includes a lot of talk about DH’s “utopian core” and optimistic “democratization of culture and scholarship” (Presner). In my experience teaching dozens of courses and workshops on digital textual representation, the pedagogical value of digital tools—specifically TEI (Text Encoding Initiative)—is more complex and ultimately more rewarding than these caricatures imply.
Text encoding, at least the in-depth, student-conceived markup that I teach in my classes, is not free of complications. It is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and sometimes extremely frustrating to beginners. It requires reliable computers, preferably ones the students can take home, and a classroom license for software (I use Oxygen XML Editor) that costs several hundred dollars. In order to create projects that can be publicly displayed, students require access to a server with certain technological specifications. Also, TEI is far from an uncontroversial way of approaching texts even in the digital editing community—it is predicated on a theory of textuality that is open to an array of criticisms, and anyone who has worked with it for a long time will have a lengthy list of quibbles regarding various features. (Frankly, I’d like to see TEI become one of several widely accepted and well-documented ways we can approach digital editing.)
Notwithstanding its practical and theoretical hurdles, TEI is an invaluable tool for teaching literature. It makes a few pedagogical goals central to the work of the class: students must pay careful, consistent attention to the text; they learn to understand the cultural record as malleable; they feel a clear sense of purpose, audience, and expertise when writing; they leave with transferable technical skills. I’d like to offer instructors curious about [End Page 191] digital humanities some considerations for how digital text editing can augment important teaching goals.
“Digital humanities” has become such a broad term, a buzzword encompassing everything from stylometry to the future of scholarly publications and conversations about academic labor, that it is not a very clear indicator of what any class in digital humanities might entail. I find it more useful to think of my classes as courses on digital textual editing—that is, the continuation into the digital age of the disciplines concerned with the materiality and representation of texts, such as textual studies and editorial theory. Instructors of different kinds of digital humanities classes may have quite different goals and methods than I do and use different technologies to accomplish them.
TEI provides the technological touchstone for my classes, and a brief overview of it for the uninitiated may be helpful here. TEI is a vocabulary used in XML (Extensible Markup Language) encoding. Like its more familiar relative HTML (HyperText Markup Language), XML uses tags—descriptors in angle brackets—to label portions of text or points in texts. For example, a paragraph might be tagged in this way:
<p> Here he again fell faintly back. Again his mind wandered: but he rallied, and less obscurely proceeded.</p>
The first tag, <p>, marks the beginning of the paragraph, and the second tag, </p>, marks the end of the paragraph. The <p> means “paragraph” in HTML, and browsers know to interpret that tag to mean that the text inside of it should be displayed in a certain way—with a blank space separating it from preceding or following text, for example.