The Early Modernist's DH

  • Posted on: 8 October 2012
  • By: admin

And now - introducing our guest blogger, Dr. Jacob Heil, post-doctoral researcher for the IDHMC and our eMOP book history guru. Welcome to the IDHMC blog, Dr. Heil!

In my capacity as a co-convener of the Early Modern Studies Working Group here at Texas A&M, I recently had the opportunity to introduce Laura Mandell and her talk about the Early Modern OCR Project (eMOP) and its importance to the preservation of our shared cultural heritage. Dr. Mandell is also my new boss, as I've been hired as the Postdoctoral Research Associate to work with Todd Samuelson of Cushing Library to build a font database for use in the project. I am an early modernist and a textual materialist--a subject specialist--working in the digital humanities, and I've worked closely with Laura and others in the IDHMC over the course of the last year in the lead-up to beginning work on eMOP this week. As a result, I have been thinking a great deal about my relationship to the digital humanities (an exercise only exacerbated by my attention to the academic job market)1.

Taking advantage of my role as the opening act, I decided to talk a little about how I have come to frame the digital humanities and how I think that subject specialists--early modernists in particular--might create a digital footprint with their work or incorporate digital scholarship into their pedagogy. I created a very brief Prezi to go along with my very brief talk, the basic of structure of which (1) begins by touching on the big, definitional ideas of DH before (2) illustrating a distillation of these ideas down to a set of questions that allow me to frame the potential role of DH in my own work.  The examples of how early modernists might think about digital projects segues to (3) a not-close-to-adequate set of resources that we can use in our work and, importantly, easily incorporate into our assignments. In the final frames I move toward (4) Dr. Mandell's introduction proper. Because the Prezi lacks a voiceover, I'd like to use this space to, in some cases, elaborate on the points I made during the introduction and--much more practically--fill in the blanks of the mute Prezi frames.

(1) Reflexive Introspection

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At this moment there is ample conversation about what a definition of Digital Humanities might look like, ranging from the data-driven to the individualized.2  What is the precise relationship to what used to be known as "humanities computing?" Does a DHer need to know how to code? What kinds of projects are DH enough? Is it a method? A discipline? These kinds of questions make a certain kind of sense as digital humanities grows.

The thing that I find most appealing about DH is that there is equal conversation about the inadequate assumptions endemic to these kinds of questions. Confronting these the growing pains raises new questions: Who gets left out? Just how big is the tent? Indeed, I find in the conversations about DH a tendency toward a kind of reflexive introspection: a self-analysis and critical engagement with the relationship to (big-H) Humanities that is in itself a raison d'etre. It's often said that digital humanities is about process rather than product, a fact that's reflected in this reflexive introspection: it's not so much the answer as it is the incessant questioning of institutionalizing forces.

It is this kind of questioning that creates a space for folks like me: the subject specialist who works with the digital tools and the digital presentation of scholarship. To my mind, I'm not "in" or "out" of DH; I'm just doing my work.

(2) Seeing Differently

There are, however, some things that are characteristic of digital humanities. I have mentioned the privileging of process over product;  to this we should add an ethos of  collaboration and a dedication to open-access.  These might fall under a rubric of ideals, but they work together to give me a way of seeing the work that I do differently; perhaps more precisely, DH has provided me with an other, alternative way of looking. This is epitomized for me in Franco Moretti's notion of distant reading or Martin Mueller's "scalable reading."3 I have started to see my reading and research as data collection, and I want to find ways to process and present that data so that it can help me re-read texts and books--I am, in part, a book historian--with a different kind of closeness.

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The different means of exploration afforded by DH also require us to open our pedagogical approaches. In figure two, I've borrowed the "humanities lab report" from Paul Fyfe's assignment, "How to Not Read a Victorian Novel."4 I rather love the idea not least because it asks students to interrogate and reflect on their processes. By the time students arrive in my classroom (most recently, in upper-level courses here at A&M) they have internalized a version of the expectations for the English literature paper, and I am happy to disrupt these expectations and to challenge them to engage their writing. Paul's assignment does this by foregrounding experimentation.

Along with experimentation comes the possibility that we might sometimes be wrong. There's something to be said for valuing the art of failure. This has been a topic of discussion recently in part, I think, because of the shift toward process-oriented projects. In addition to thinking about what our students might learn from failure--or what we might learn from failing in our own hypotheses--it's not hard to see the value in sharing examinations of our own pedagogical failures.

(3) Research becoming Resource

One might argue that sharing our experiences as teachers is something of a second nature; the hard part is thinking anew about how we share our research. There are the traditional ways--the article, the monograph, the conference presentation--that will be around for the foreseeable future. Digital representations of scholarship, however, provide us with different ways of (quite literally) seeing information; the flip-side of which is that they expand the options available for the presentation of the work we do. Someone has to build the databases. I have included a few visualizations cut from various sources to demonstrate the former point: Brown's Women Writers Project offers the viz comparison of the Cavendish and Behn plays (figure three, but please see the full post) gives the viewer a sense of disproportionality and should invite one to delve back into the text (scalable reading) to interrogate what the visualization suggests. Additionally, the mapping projects allow a viewer to see the representation of data, in the cases of my examples, move through space over time.5

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The expanded opportunities to present research allows the subject specialist to share the work that she has already been doing as a matter of course--the toiling in the reading rooms, the laboring in the stacks, the attentive viewing and listening, the meticulous note-taking--and transform those processes of data collection into resources that can themselves be mined and shared by other folks with similar interests. The Database for Early English Playbooks (DEEP) arises (I would imagine) from the meticulous, data-driven work that Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser have done with early modern drama; the Map of Early Modern London allows scholars to contribute encyclopedia-like entries for hundreds of locations around early modern London. This is often the work that is traditionally required to produce The Work, and by opening the processes to others we better the odds that the research will tell us more of what it has to say.

Aside from the front end, development side of digital projects, there's obviously the user's side with which we are often much more familiar. I have included a handful of links to that seem like good places to have students build their own projects. We might ask them questions like: What does the Textbase of Early Tudor English offer that EEBO does not? How might Lexicons of Early Modern English be different than the OED? Who decides the "Women Writers" canon? This is all to say that these aren't only great tools for research, but also present opportunities to invite students to be critical readers of the digital platforms with which they engage.

(4) eMOP and the Future of our Printed Past

Now might be a good time to reiterate that the foregoing--or a less prolix version of it, to be sure--was given in the interest of leading up to Dr. Mandell's talk. I wanted to give my colleagues--fellow subject specialists, mostly--a sense of how I have navigated my relationship to a discipline that has shifted from "the next big thing" to just The Thing.6 I hope that, along the way, there might also be a few helpful resources and, if one so chooses, ways into some of the larger DH conversations.

As I move toward a conclusion to my bygone introduction, I also want to reiterate that, in the conversation about who or what constitutes DH, there's plenty of room for subject specialists like myself. In fact, in the structure of eMOP--an enormous digital project with many moving parts--we book historians will play a major role in teaching OCR engines how to read more efficiently. I may not be a digital humanist in the way that Laura Mandell is a digital humanist, but I am most certainly involved in--and invested in--the digital humanities.


1. I use the descriptor "academic" job market to differentiate it from #alt-ac jobs--“alternate academic careers,” as defined by Bethany Nowviskie--the visibility of which has grown in recent years. As a subject specialist I gravitate toward the traditional academic job descriptions even as I weigh my potential candidacy (and parse the language in ads for) jobs that include DH elements. Rather serendipitously, the art of discerning what departments want from their candidates--and how this is reflective of institutionalized definitions in the humanities--was the subject of a brief Twitter exchange between Matthew Kirschenbaum and Adeline Koh as I was writing this post: see my short Storify here.

2. I can't figure out how to gracefully link to the 2012 Day of DH "Defining DH" questions, so I'll just link to it here. And I like making footnotes.

3. Mueller's blog, Scalable Reading, offers examples of praxis; the term is also defined in a guest post for Northwestern University's CSCDC:

"[Matthew Wilkens] presents a scenario in which the members of the profession either practice close reading on the same few dozen novels over and over again or develop new practices in which you use methods developed in Natural Language Processing to perform rough mapping operations that are then followed by a targeted examination of selected examples. I have called this technique 'scalable reading.'"

4. Fyfe, Paul, "How to Not Read a Victorian Novel," Journal of Victorian Culture, 16.1 (April 2011): 84-88. If you have access through your library, you can link here, otherwise you will find the article the old-fashioned way.

5. The viz of patronage patterns in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was done by Liz Grumbach (research assistant for the IDHMC and project manager for ARC and 18thConnect, see latter slides in Prezi) using ArcGIS. I want to note here, too, that I was able to see her present this project, speaking openly about the trouble that she found ArcGIS to have with historical data. This displays an openness with one's research that invites collaborative exploration of solutions.

6. For a thoughtful response to the "big thing" idea, try Daniel Paul O’Donnell's "There's no next about it."