Category: Pre-Workshop Reflection (page 1 of 2)

Pre-Workshop Reflection – Burnard, Gailey, and the DCC

Burnard’s description of the three ‘broad classes’ (compositional features, contextual features, and interpretive features) of information that should be included in text markup is sound. It seems remarkably prescient when, writing over twenty years ago, Burnard suggested that all digital markup information could be included within a ‘single encoding scheme’; this vision seems to have been borne out in the attempts to standardize digital markups using a common syntax (XML) and syntax guidelines from TEI, as described by Gailey. However, Gailey’s criticism of the available tools (e.g. the difficulty in annotating meaningful omissions and visual humor, and the difficulty encoding commentary in overlapping passages of text) is important in reminding us that the system is still imperfect and may call for some ‘creative’ problem-solving.


In addition to the digital encoding projects mentioned by Gailey, the Dickinson College Commentaries provide an interesting example of the benefits and difficulties of digital markups. For example, information about certain contextual features are lacking – we don’t have images of the manuscripts from which the critical edition has been developed, so we miss a lot of visual information (areas where a second hand has corrected mistakes, potential damage to the manuscript rendering the text unreadable, etc.). It is, however, an incredibly convenient resource for those who need an free, accessible text with commentary and vocabulary aid. The ‘About DCC’ page ( engages with some of the issues brought up in Gailey – see especially the ‘Philosophy and Approach’ section for advantages and disadvantages to digital encoding.

Pre-Workshop Reflection

In “Visualizing the Archive,” Whitley notes that “While digital visualization tools are poised to deal with a similar set of issues as those faced by our colleagues in the sciences and social sciences, some of the assumptions about reading expressed in the scholarship on information visualization tend not to sit well with scholars and teachers of literature” (192). Whitley observes that such a disparity arises from the differing natures of the documents that are the traditional objects of study in their respective fields. The gap is of course very marked across the scientific-literary divide, but I wonder about the differing sets of assumptions and challenges that exist across different literary subfields. The projects presented in the excerpts from “The American Literary Scholar in the Digital Age” that we read chiefly (and naturally) focus on American documents from the 19th and 20th centuries. While Burnard does briefly discuss the challenges of treating a text such as Beowulf, I would love to learn more extensively about how the use of the same digital technology is translated across the study of, say, a medieval manuscript fragment and Herman Melville’s draft of Typee.  In “A Case for Heavy Editing,” Gailey mentions TEI’s “recommended vocabulary for the treatment of humanities texts” (131)–I wonder how this standardization (or the process thereof) accounts for the different sorts of document format, circulation, authorship, and readership that occur across the humanities.

The central tension in Gailey’s article between close reading as a traditional scholarly practice and ‘searching’ as a new, oddly detached one was an informative one. I was especially struck by how Joel Chandler Harris’ work required coding in both an original and regularized form to avoid the possibility that it would simply be erased if one was searching for regular spellings of words. I found it equally fascinating that, as far as I can see, no suggestion was made for how the assumption of the phrase “naked as a jaybird” in the illustration made by E.W. Kemble could be anything other than erased by an approach that only searches through textual information rather than paying attention to the text’s material context.

In the case of Burnard, I was fascinated by the fact that he emphasized the inescapability of canonicity. I did wonder whether the same pressures necessarily applied to the modern interest in the construction of canons as to its earlier iterations. After all, the importance of the canon in earlier cultures was as a standard against which one could model one’s own work or as the essential knowledge required for membership of the elite; in the modern sense it often seems to be born out of a sense that there is endless amounts of material that needs to be organized into the most representative of a certain genre or the highest aesthetic quality so people do not waste their time consuming products that are sub-standard or eccentric.

Pre-Workshop Reflection

I found Gailey’s discussion of the limitations of digital humanities really interesting.  She explains how, even as digitization opens up new avenues of research and enables a wider audience to access difficult or rare texts, the act of digitizing requires decisions on what data to present and how that inevitably obscure aspects of the original.  Gailey offers an example in the difficulty of rendering phonetic dialects.  Digitization in this case was an attempt to make a particular work universally available and comprehensible; but this could not be done without altering the work.  The solution to code “original” and “regularized” text was an innovative solution that drives home the point that digitization must be taken in a case by case basis.  I’m very excited to learn about the particular difficulties presented in digitizing medieval manuscripts and the creative solutions people have discovered!

Pre-Workshop Reflection

The Burnard and Gailey articles brought to my attention several aspects of digital editing and text encoding which I had not previously considered. I found Burnard’s focus on the hermeneutic aspects of text encoding extremely interesting, as well as his classification of texts as simultaneously being images, linguistic constructs, and information structures; all three of these dimensions have bearing on how we interact with texts as both producers and users of digital editions, and navigating their interplay poses a significant challenge. I also appreciated Gailey’s discussion of the rather contradictory meanings of “search” in use today (“to thoroughly explore everything, to scrutinize it, or to simply ask a computer whether something contains a piece of information, without ever looking at it at all,” 125-6), an Internet-related semantic shift that I had not previously considered. Her examples of significant observations made throughout the digitization process for the Whitman Archive (such as Andrew Jewell’s discovery that the glue stains on a UVA manuscript matched one at Dartmouth!) brought into focus the ways in which our close engagement with a given text throughout the encoding process––one that, by nature, involves “searching” in its older definition––can provide entirely unexpected insights.

Pre-Workshop Reflection

For me, Burnard’s and especially Gailey’s articles highlighted the adaptability and flexibility of digital text editing. Gailey departed from how the verb ‘search’ took on an altered meaning and became a contronym during the digital era of search engines. What I wonder about is how we can relate their statements to our field, and ponder about how digital editing will change our ways of editing and perceiving medieval manuscripts. Gailey’s thoughts highlighted the problems of the unavoidably selective process of interpretation during editing and the differences between the readers of different eras. These are especially relevant problems for medieval sources, and, as a medieval art historian, I wonder how we can confront them when imagery is also included.

Text in the Age of Mechanical Shareability: A comment

Burnard proposes that markup makes explicit “a theory about some aspect of the document” and “maps a (human) interpretation of the text into a set of codes” and so “enables us to record human interpretations in a mechanically shareable way.” Though I think he rightly points out that text encoding does (to some extent) render visible the editor’s interpretive framework, his stance elides the circumstantial constraints attendant upon the use of markup languages. The mechanical shareability that Burnard associates with markup requires that interpretive acts be in some ways limited by the formal language of the markup. The ambiguity (or, perhaps, polysemy) which often is at the heart both of interpretation and of ‘theories of the text’ can simply yield a ‘validation error’ when encoded digitally.  These issues and others related are central to Gailey’s analysis and her plea for “heavy editing.” Burnard suggests that this “single formalism” ultimately reduces complexity and facilitates a “polyvalent analysis,” yet he acknowledges that this depends on a single, unified encoding scheme. Burnard’s optimism regarding the power of digital encoding is, in my view, in many ways justified, though I think his comment about mechanically shareable “maps of (human) interpretation” should be qualified in this way.

Medieval Hypertexts and Division of Scholarly Labor

As I read Gailey’s reflections on the aspects of a text that markup-assisted “distant searching” may miss (like the identification of Whitman’s “my Captain” with Abraham Lincoln), I was reminded of an iconic moment of misreading from Piers Plowman: Mede, having triumphantly cited “as holiwryt telleth / Honorem adquiret qui dat munera &c” (B.3.342-3), is rebuked that if she had only turned the page, she would have found a “teneful tixte” that reverses her intended significance (B.3.344-53). This passage, like others in the poem, demonstrates the crucial role of that “&c” as a kind of manuscript hyperlink to another text; in order to interpret faithfully, medieval readers were often expected to supply entire verses or passages from memory, even when an incipit alone appears in the text at hand.

Just as Gailey and her colleagues choose whether or not to translate dialect, editors must choose more or less interventionist supports to the reader: identifying those snatches of Latin, tracing them to their sources through an intervening manuscript history, supplying the lines left implicit in the “&c”? If we go beyond the quoted words, how do we know when the intended passage ends? Does “eloi, eloi, lamach sabathani” call up the entirety of Psalm 22 (Vulgate 21), or is it an unintelligible performative utterance that evokes power through its historical connection to the cross of Christ—or both, in different contexts and for different readers? If we trace not only verbatim quotations but also allusion and resonance, the chains or networks of intertextuality are potentially infinite, and in determining where to cut them we very quickly enter the realm of interpretation.

Many scholars have noted the similarities between manuscript culture and hypertext, whether in the shifting mouvance of scribal variation or the hovering commentaries of the Glossa Ordinaria. The case of incomplete texts or incipits that summon their previous contexts highlights the most important difference between medieval techniques and modern technologies for linking texts. As Carruthers shows, the culture of memory that made manuscript “hyperlinks” possible was fundamentally moral in orientation; memnotechnique was a means of disciplining the mind, internalizing wisdom, and embodying the virtue of one’s readings. Although over the centuries, medieval readers were increasingly assisted by indexes, concordances, and other apparatus, this ideal of memory as an ethic practice endured into the early modern period. Mede’s failure to turn the page is thus not only a hermeneutic blunder but a sign of vice, as she self-interestedly cherrypicks prooftexts instead of reverently hearing and obeying the indivisible word of God. (This idea, of course, lives on in secularized guise: we teach close reading as a formative practice through which students develop salutary capacities of attention, care, and responsibility.) Technological, rather than mnemonic, “links” remove this ethical dimension of the reading practice, as certain responsibilities are externalized to digital tools rather than internalized as formative disciplines.

Or do they? What I found most interesting in these readings is the suggestion that digital editing does not so much reduce the attentive labor of close reading as redistribute it, so that the producers of an archive engage in meticulous, forensic examination of the text on behalf of its users, who can search or scan at a distance only on the strength of the producers’ previous interpretative work (e.g. Gailey 128). In this attentional economy, specialized division of labor allows novices to profit from the skills of experts, increasing the total efficiency of output. The possible objection that this deprives novices of certain morally or intellectually important practices is ultimately rooted in the Protestant conviction that each believer must search the Scriptures for himself or herself. Many medieval Christians, in contrast, accepted a division of labor between the estates, or differentiation of the members of Christ’s body, by which the clergy could study and interpret on behalf of lay people who benefitted from their labors, reading “distantly” (through sermons, stained glass, and heavily interpretive translations) rather than “closely” (the bare text). So digital technology may replicate manuscript culture, not only in its prolific hypertextuality, but also in underlying assumptions about the distribution of scholarly labor that encourage experts to mediate meaning for nonspecialist readers, who have no particular need to access the raw text. 

Pre-Workshop reflections

As a digital humanities neophyte, I found the articles by Burnard and Gailey to provide both a straightforward overview of terms and processes, and a broad analysis of the benefits and pitfalls of text encoding and tagging. Gailey’s example of her team’s editorial decisions regarding the distinct (controversial) dialect of Joel Chandler Harris’s works made me wonder about how the DEMMR team (and other medievalist digital humanists) treat common idiosyncratic features of medieval texts, such as spelling inconsistencies, abbreviations and corrections. How, in other words, is what we call the “critical apparatus” translated into the digital realm? I look forward to learning more about this in our workshop. Burnard’s call for a standard text markup procedure also made me consider the commentaries and “tags” that medieval readers to which medieval readers would have had access–both on the page in the form of commentaries (such as editions of Bibles in which the text is surrounded by a Glossa Ordinaria or other commentary),  illuminations or illustrations and corrections–and in their mind’s eye (references and connections to liturgy and scripture, for example). Not to be too trite, but I wonder how, in some ways, the creation of three-dimensional editions might sometimes draw us closer to, rather than further from, medieval reading experiences.

Pre-Workshop Reflection

Bernard emphasizes standardized markup techniques as the logical progression of the study of humanities, falling in line with the practices that have always been at its core.  Gailey examines both what is lost and gained through digitization, and the sorts of decisions we have to make during the process of digitizing in order to account for these new kinds of interactions.  On one hand, it is a more straightforward process to “search” texts.  On the other hand, because we are often no longer doing the act of searching, indirectly related items or aspects of an object that are difficult to classify can slip through the cracks.  I thought it was interesting to consider the purpose of certain digitized objects and what sort of details are included in order to accommodate its purpose.  In both pieces, there is an interest in the editing/interpretive practice embedded in the very practice of encoding texts.  In certain circumstances interpretive practices are more obvious (Gailey’s point about Abraham Lincoln and “O Captain!”), whereas others are so conventional or accepted that their interpretive elements seem less obvious (“what constitutes a poem, a stanza, or even a word?”) (Gailey 132).  These will also be important details to keep in mind as we make our own editorial choices, whether they seem big or small.

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