Digital Texts and the Humanities: Innovative Collaboration and Publishing

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The Commons Open Repository Exchange (CORE) by MLA Commons offers open access to various articles and resources across the humanities. CORE allows scholars to publish and archive their work, while receiving feedback from MLA members.

This is just one example of online publishing platforms that are becoming more and more common in the humanities. Tools such as Scalar allow authors to construct digital texts, and then MLA Commons is an example of a platform for these texts to be published. There are other options, too, for online publications. Books such as Debates in the Digital Humanities, are housed entirely on their own webpage, much to the same effect: users can click through and comment as they go. These digital books are just some examples of the progression of publishing as we know it. As more and more people turn on their computers, tablets, and phones to digest information, digital information is becoming more valuable. And in this social media-obsessed society, people like the ability to comment on this information; everything is a collaboration, in a way. Digital texts are one answer to that demand.

Another example of an online publishing platform is Media Commons Press, which Kathleen Fitzpatrick used as she was working on a draft of her seminal text Planned Obsolescence. Fitzpatrick’s text, now published in print, remains on the site in draft-form for anyone to read, though the comments are now closed. Fitzpatrick, a leader in the field of digital humanities, writes a blog also called Planned Obsolescence, which she uses as both a personal and a professional platform. Her blog embodies the idea of collaboration; for example, on October 5, 2016, she writes: “The text below is a revised version of a talk I gave at the University of Richmond this spring. It’s the first bit of writing toward my very much in-process project, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good. I suspect that a modified version of it will wind up serving as an introduction to the larger project, but I’m early enough in this thing that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong about that entirely.” She then goes on to say that “[r]esponses are not simply welcome but strongly desired.” Before even becoming a draft-version of a book, Fitzpatrick offers up her text for comments and suggestions. This is a wholly new way of thinking.

Fitzpatrick’s book really spearheaded the digital humanities movement which gained footing at the 2009 MLA conference. Since then, there have been many books published digitally and collaboratively.

The book Literary Studies in the Digital Age was first published on MLA Commons in 2013 and is acknowledged as “MLA’s first born-digital, publically available anthology.” Edited by Kenneth M. Price from University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Ray Siemens from University of Victoria, the text began as an introduction to digital tools and techniques for humanists. The book advertises itself to be “a primer to core tools and techniques for computational approaches to literary studies,” and the editors go on to explain that “it became clear that any primer would have to be dynamic and capable of incorporating a rich and growing array of methodologies.” In this way, Literary Studies in the Digital Age is a meta-publication, because it incorporates the very methodologies from the digital humanities that the texts describe.

The book is subtitled “An Evolving Anthology,” which speaks to the nature of digital humanities where information is amended, retracted, and added. And not only are the articles evolving, but so is the book itself, as new articles have been added since its inception. In the content list, users can see the year of publication, with different years in different colors. The editors are continuously accepting new essays and ideas for the book.

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This seems like a necessary component of all digital scholarship. To stay current, digital publications should constantly update their information, taking advantage of a luxury that is lacking in printed texts. In print, we have different versions of texts, which are not only costly to produce, but still in circulation. The digital platform allows the original version to be immediately written over, while the new version is the only one available. And for a book about trends in the humanities, this seems to be a good idea.

There are so many digital tools available that the sheer breadth can often be overwhelming. Literary Studies in the Digital Age seeks to curate those tools and present them in a way that is helpful to literary scholars. The text offers suggestions and examples for using these tools, which may be exactly what some of us need. For example, Susan Schreibman writes “Digital Scholarly Editing,” which discusses the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Since TEI was created in 1994, it has been changing the ways that editors manipulate text and allows for new and progressive textual analysis. In another article, “Information Visualization for Humanities Scholars, Stéfan Sinclair, Stan Ruecker, and Milena Radzikowska write about the need in the humanities to view texts in ways that are not simply linear and 2-dimensional. They give examples of textual visualization websites such as Wordle and Voyant and explain that looking at text in new ways can lead to more dynamic analysis.

The articles are there for readers to peruse individually as needed or sequentially to take in the book as one cohesive whole. One that is most interesting to me is Alan Liu’s chapter “From Reading to Social Computing,” which I originally blogged about here. In it, Liu suggests that the rise of the web reflects the changes in the way we read. As literary theory was gaining popularity in the areas of reader-response and deconstructionism, both of which rely on the reader for interpretation, the Internet was increasingly allowing readers to respond to texts. Thus, digital humanities naturally grew from the fields of theory that were already being cultivated. One can say, then, that perhaps the Internet didn’t change the way we read, but we changed the way we use the Internet.

Liu goes on to explain, “[T]he stake for literary studies in the digital age is not first of all technological. It is to follow the living language of human thought, hope, love, desire—hate, too—wherever it goes and wherever it has the capacity to be literary, even if the form, style, or grammar of such literariness does not always conform to canonical standards” (para 26). Thus, if we spend an increasing amount of time on the Internet and our computers, then our careers, passions, and hobbies should be changed to take on that form. And whatever “reading” means for you — for your career, passion, or hobby — there is an Internet- or digital-based option to pursue it. It only makes sense that those things we hold most highly would take on whatever form of communication is popular.

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The neat thing about Literary Studies in the Digital Age is that it allows users to comment by page and by paragraph. For example, on the Welcome page, an MLA member asks a question about whether or not the editors would be interested in a specific type of article, and the editor Ray Siemens himself replied with instructions for uploading essay drafts for consideration.

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Another user on the same page notes one of the downsides of an interactive, digital text: someone needs to always be checking in and keeping up with it. Many of the comments are marked as “Comment awaiting moderation,” which may detract from the purpose of a digital platform that revels in immediacy.

In fact, this issue is addressed directly in the Introduction: “[H]ow long is an author responsible for responding to the responses?” The editors’ conclusion is that interest in an article or book will spike, during which authors should be prepared to respond to comments, but that interest will eventually taper off. “Still, this is a new model for people to absorb and adapt to.”

Comments also offer readers an opportunity to disagree with the author. In the Introduction to the book, one user writes, “Still seeing computational technology as the basis for DH . . . seems quite limiting with regard to the dynamic and flexible possibilities in research and publishing associated with the goals of the Humanities.” While this comment does not have a reply, it is out there for all readers to see, which is one example of how user-submitted comments can change a reader’s perception of a text.

The introduction to the book also addresses a concern that people traditionally have about the disappearance of an “expert”: Who do you take seriously? There is no vetting process for people to leave a comment; they only need to provide a name and email address. The responsibility for ascertaining the validity or value of these comments, then, falls to the reader, whereas in the past it was the responsibility of the editor and publisher to ensure that all statements in a given book are true and scholarly to the best of their knowledge. This is an important distinction to make across the entire digital world: we need to know how to discern the valuable and helpful information from the wrong, naive, or unsupported information. Thus, the reader becomes more responsible than ever for the information being disseminated.

This book is an interesting experiment in digital publishing, and it speaks to the future of digital publishing at large. As more books are published on a digital platform, the way that we interact with these texts will also progress.

Collaborating seems to be the theme here: throughout the book and the digital humanities as a whole. Literary studies, though, has historically been a field of independent scholars. Unlike scientists and medical doctors, literary scholars prefer to write independently and autonomously, which is yet another hurdle that the digital humanities presents to us. There is little room for independence and autonomy on the Internet. We are a society of collaborators now, and simply by publishing work online, the author is asking for comments, suggestions, and critiques.

And, again, we must be discerning. Collaborating with your officemate at your university is very different from collaborating with a stranger through the computer. It’s a new mindset: one that moves away from guardedness and towards a culture of collaborating among peers, as well as among those in different fields or at different points in their academic and scholarly careers. The digital humanities is the institutional term that gives us access to people who were previously and otherwise inaccessible.

The introduction to the text notes that it can be seen as a model of “‘social’ editions that in some part take their shape from and respond to the direct input of their reading audience.” It is my belief that these ‘social’ editions of texts will become increasingly popular, which encourages literary scholars to stay well-researched and allows readers more accessibility and responsibility than ever before.

About Author(s)

Cristen Fitzpatrick, M.A., is a PhD candidate in English at St. John's University, and her research interests are focused on Beat literature, digital humanities, and first-year composition. She is also an adjunct English instructor at St. Thomas Aquinas and Dominican colleges, where she teaches a variety of undergraduate literature and composition courses.

1 Comment

  1. Mark W. Shealy on

    Cristen, I enjoyed reading this overview. It’s too true that there are “so many digital tools available that the sheer breadth can often be overwhelming,” which is why it’s important to have articles like this to put things in perspective. BTW, I studied with Liu some years back, and he was the first professor to let me turn in my “papers” using multimedia. An eye-opener back then. Question: how do you think social media will allow for more collaboration that radically changes the nature of “authorship”? Are we reaching a saturation point in terms of fast collabs or is there more to come? Will “social editions” make it harder/different for young scholars job hunting to get the right sort of credit for their publications?

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