My final project began as a two-fold task: contribute a post to the “Gazette” page on The 18th-Century Common; and contact published scholars about writing a digest of their publications for the Common’s “Collections.” Unfortunately, though, due to time limitations and unforeseen setbacks, I was forced to abandon the second part of my plan. Instead, I ultimately ended up writing two “Gazette” posts, one of which is being reviewed and one of which has already been published on the site here, and suggesting a topic and links for a third post, though I fully intend to fulfill the second half of my project over the summer.
For those of you who have never heard of it, forgotten what it was, or are just too lazy to go look it up, The 18th-Century Common is a public space designed to provide scholars of 18th-century cultures with a place to share their research with an interested, nonacademic audience, like the average NPR listener. In order to appeal to this nonacademic audience, the site focuses on presenting short digests of research (usually no more than 1200 words) using language that is free of both confusing jargon and dense theory. It also focuses on visual and interactive appeal by requiring every post to include an image along with links to original texts, images, and other (re)sources. The 18th-Century Common uses three main types of feed to convey information to its audience: “Collections,” “Blog,” and “Gazette.” The “Collections” contains abridged versions of longer peer-reviewed essays as well as some original, non-peer-reviewed essays. The “Blog” presents short, original, non-peer-reviewed essays that cover a wide variety of topics and cannot be easily grouped into a single collection. The “Gazette” functions primarily as an aggregator, grouping together links to content that 18th-century enthusiasts would probably find interesting and providing a short synopsis of the information contained in those links. As previously mentioned, this is the feed for which I wrote my two posts.
I first became interested in working with The 18th-Century Common when I wrote a review of the project for an earlier class assignment. This particular project appealed to me for a number of reasons, including my connection to the subject matter as a grad student focusing on 18th-century Brit lit, the project’s mission to make scholarly research on the 18th-century available to and relevant for a general audience, the projects novelty, and the website’s need for contributors. Also important in my decision was the fact that coding did not appear to be a requirement for contributing to this project. I know that some people would argue that what I’ve done isn’t real DH because it didn’t involve coding or “creating.” I’m also willing to acknowledge that people who are going to make a career of DH or who want to do significant work with it probably should learn coding. However, I don’t know how to code, nor am I interested in learning how to code or doing an inordinate amount of DH work. Thus, a project that required little to no coding was perfect for me. Finally, the project is clearly associated with Wake Forest University, Union College, and the NEH, credentials that add a certain credibility to both the site and my contribution to it.
Having decided to contribute to this project, I quickly emailed the site’s co-editor, Dr. Jessica Richard of Wake Forest University, to find out how I could most benefit the site. After a slow start (it took a full week to hear back from her) and some introductory messages, Dr. Richard finally responded that “the easiest way for [me] to contribute to The 18th-Century Common might be to write a few “Gazette” posts.” She then briefly instructed me on how to write such a post by describing her usual process: “I try to find some relatively recent 18th-century content elsewhere on the web and develop some context for it.” She also sent me a link to a recent article on the Turk, the fraud chess-playing automaton, to give me a starting place for my first post and allowed me free range for my next post, for which I chose English pleasure gardens.
Both of my posts required a surprising amount of time and research to complete, much more than I had anticipated. This was due partly to the fact that I was unfamiliar with this type of writing, its style and its form, but mostly to the fact that it is difficult to find recent, relevant, and reputable work about the 18th-century that is also available to the general public. The 18th-Century Common, and DH in general, may be interested in making academic research and resources available to a nonacademic, but this is an interest that academic databases and journals apparently do not share. I also encountered some difficulties finding images to accompany my posts since there are only a few sites that the Common can legally use images from. When I first started working on these two posts, I predicted it would take a week or two to complete both. In actuality, it took close to a month. Hence, I was unable to contact published scholars as Dr. Richard had suggested in one of her emails and as I had originally planned to do.
Despite the difficulties I encountered, I actually really enjoyed working for this project. It required me to employ the research and close-reading skills that I have been harnessing throughout my college career but allowed me to apply them in a new and interesting way. In fact, I would like to continue working with The 18th-Century Common over the summer and any other chance I get.
In terms of value, I personally added value to this particular project by contributing new, original work to the site, the type of work that makes this project so engaging and that allows it to keep growing and evolving. My contribution to The 18th-Century Common as well as the website itself simultaneously represent both the present and the future of DH. Digital humanities, as it is now, is not that different from traditional humanities. Like my posts for the Common, it requires a lot of close-reading and laborious research. It is also greatly concerned with issues like peer-review and credibility. What digital humanities has the potential to do is change the way we think about publishing our work, about collaborating with other scholars, and about making ourselves more available and relevant to a more general audience. This is what The 18th-Century Common is attempting to do, whether it means to or not, and this is what I think the future of digital humanities will be. But if my difficulties with my project only taught me one thing, it is this: any tool, no matter how powerful it may be, is only as effective as the person wielding it. DH has the potential to accomplish some great things, but only if we wield it do so.