Author Archives: Dallas Merritt

About Dallas Merritt

2nd year MA Strode. Interested in the Protestant Reformation and the English revolution, and the texts contemporary to them. I am also particularly interested in the similarities between the relationship of social media and modern revolutionary movements, and the relationship of “cheap texts” and the aforementioned revolutions.

Response to Week 8 reading

In the article “What’s in a Name?,” Kenneth M. Price is primarily concerned with the labels we choose to describe our work. It seems to me that this tension is inextricably associated with apprehensions about the current state of the humanities and liberal arts in general. Essentially, I mean that there is a growing concern with legitimizing, justifying, or otherwise defining the importance of the humanities in general that seems to be informing this article. For example, Price states:

For many people, electronic work is even more dubious [than traditional editorial work]: what relatively short history it has is marked by distrust, denigration, and dismissal. We all know the charges, however distorted they may be: digital work is ephemeral, unvetted, chaotic, and unreliable. When suspicion of the value of editing combines with suspicion of the new medium, we have a hazardous mix brewing.

This clearly articulates a concern with how much authority or respect digital editing might be given; a concern that is largely based upon how “others” might perceive the value of the work, in this case based upon how we choose to title the genre. Price frets, “In the fraught circumstances of the academy, driven by a prestige economy, humanities scholars are well advised to be highly self-conscious about what we do and how we describe it.” This fear is driven by a sense of legitimacy, place, and belonging that I would argue should not be extant in digital humanities the way that it is in regular humanities. Perhaps this is still an issue of definition, semantics really, in the sense that if we define digital humanities (in this case digital editing) as something other, or capable of more, or at least not limited in the same ways as traditional editorial work, then why be afraid of how the genre will be defined? Let the product of the genre define it. If, on the other hand, we define digital humanities as simply an extension of what has been before, limited by the same constraints of glacial-speed progress, then we should be afraid of what others might impose upon the work, and we should be selfishly and actively gobbling up and claiming the right to digitize every text ever written, staking our claim and marking the territory as “ours!” My rhetoric makes it obvious where I fall on the spectrum, and while there may be some growing pains associated with a new field, I do not believe the hazards must necessarily be as many as Price is suggesting.

As Folsom and Price explained in their grant application to the NEH, “The amount of Whitman’s work is so huge that no two scholars could hope to edit it effectively in a lifetime — fourteen scholars spent the better parts of their careers editing the materials that now make up the Collected Writings. But we do believe that developments in electronic scholarship have made it possible to enhance and supplement the Collected Writings by editing the materials that have not yet been included.” This would be true for any large body of work, or for any canonical author. The answer does not lie in traditional editing. Why limit the technology we have available, and the speed with which these large projects might be successfully assembled, by using traditional methods, and traditional criteria to define who can assemble these collections? Crowdsourcing can solve the problem of being reliant upon a previous scholarly edition printed in traditional form. Starting from scratch is not as daunting when you have a thousand scholars (albeit scholars whose experience litters the spectrum of experience) working on the project instead of just 2.

In some ways, for me, it seems as though some of the concerns voiced here are similar to the idea of pac-man (the traditional humanists) trying desperately to gobble up all of the pellets (digitize traditional works) before the ghosts (librarians, system engineers, or other “less specialized” persons) do.

Project Review: Electronic Literature Organization

Project name: Electronic Literature Organization

Web address: eliterature.org

Status: functional, non-profit

Affiliation: MIT

Focus: “Born-digital” literature directory.

I first heard about the Electronic Literature Organization through my twitter feed. Having opted to follow a fair number of the digital humanities twitter feeds from Daniel Cohen’s compiled list, I’ve recently been introduced to a plethora of DH projects. I chose ELO because I think it is a fair representation of both the best and worst aspects of current digital humanities, which makes it a fairly interesting project to study.

The most interesting thing that ELO does is to catalog obscure “born-digital literature,” that absolutely would have been lost (and perhaps should have been) without their persistence in finding, salvaging, and storing the projects. For example, Anipoems, a set of black and white animated gifs that are loosely translated as “peoms,” is described and linked from their directory. The page itself is typical of something homemade you might have encountered on the web in 1997, the year it was created. The site offers little in the way of entertainment or enjoyment, but from a historical perspective it is fascinating. This is the crux of the beauty and beastliness of ELO. Predominantly they have simply created a list of literary “other” projects. Members can find and list the web locations of these projects, along with a synopsis of their function or history. Ultimately, that is a pretty boring idea, the realization of which is no less boring. However, there is some gold beneath the dross that is worth mining.

Though the catalog style presentation of the project is somewhat unappealing, it functions in two rather successful ways. First, it functions as a free-to-the-public database of information that is searchable in much the same way that our library databases are. While it is debatable how useful this particular database would be for standard scholarly research, it does have the same bells and whistles as scout or Ebscohost, but without the associated cost. Users can browse the collection by author name, for example, and be presented with a list of all works by the author. They can also search and sort by title, year of publication, subject, and even by meta tag. Beyond the useful features, the site offers a second function that is perhaps its most viable justification for existence. It has compiled a record of known digital born works, which historically is unprecedented. The very existence of such a record is a sort of archive of where digital humanities has come from, and in that way the project represents one of the better aspects of what DH might be. The curator role is not the only way in which this project is a functional contributor to digital humanities.

ELO has compiled two electronic literature ‘best of’ collections, and hosts those digital collections on their servers. They have also produced CD-ROMs of the same collection for offline consumption, a concept which seems near to their objectives, but rather tenuous and unsustainable. They also host fairly large conferences to promote academic awareness and acceptance of born-digital works. This production comes at a cost, however, which is why ELO not only requires paid membership for contribution to the directory, but also to attend their conferences. This cost is in addition to the steep cost of the ticket to attend the conference in the first place, which is $150 (or $100 for lowly grad students). In my opinion this type of pay to play membership is exclusive of a large component of people who might otherwise contribute, but may not be able to afford the associated fees. I recognize the logistical necessity of the costs, but I have to wonder how that affects the open-source vibe of typical digital humanists.

The final note about the ELO I’ll mention pertains to their interesting history. The project was initiated in 1999 as an NPO, and found its first home at UCLA in 2001 as an inter-departmental collaboration between faculty and students there. In 2006 the project moved across the country to the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, before moving to MIT’s main campus in 2011. This is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it shows the projects affiliation with big name academic institutions, and speaks to those organizations’ interest in digital humanities projects. Secondly, it demonstrates the necessarily transient nature of such projects. Must DH projects follow grants and funding? If not, how dependent are these projects upon “high-end” schools that can afford to fund them? I would be interested in discovering the exact reasoning behind the gypsy like migration of the project, and I wonder how much of the decision was based on requirements outside of economic.

Response: Practicing the Digital Humanities – Daniel Cohen

The idea of engaging with new media types as they emerge is daunting, to say the least, but with the technological capabilities of modern computing and the internet, it seems entirely possible to accomplish. Cohen’s approach to new media publishing, especially the idea of automated publishing, is something that DH should be striving to harness. I think the emphasis of his argument should actually be on the urgency with which DH scholars should be anticipating and capitalizing on what should be a “humanist” lead endeavor (categorization, preservation, and publication of new human communications). Specifically, the viability of an algorithm that determines which digital publications are provoking the most discussion among scholars within a particular field, and then publishes those articles to some central ‘trending’ web-accessible location is exceptional. Cohen, in his address to the ACLS sums up the crux of the issue: “if you don’t do something like this, someone else will.” I think that is the heart of the matter with humanities (digital or analog)–if we opt to stagnate the void left by the absence of what we should be doing WILL be filled by some other entity, be it CS or some other science. The blogs and tweets and status updates are the new, streaming source of information, as it is being generated straight from the source of a human mind. If DH can organize and develop some standard for channeling this creative energy, then there will be no MORE viable modern program of study. The whole prospect is intriguing, but impetus to act is urgent–if we don’t embrace the new version of humanities study, it could easily be absorbed by some more eager and active field.