Virginia Woolf in the Digital Humanities Seminar

Edited By: 

Written collectively by the students of ILS 695: Introducing Digital Humanities

Taught by Matthew Hannah, Spring 2019, Purdue University

 

E. P. Taylor, Amanda Leary, Alejandra Ortega, Bo Blew, Daniel Carrillo Jara, Margaret Sheble, Sunyoung Kim, and Shiyu Zhang

 

Our “Introduction to the Digital Humanities” class is the first of its kind at Purdue University. Over the course of the semester, we’ve been exploring the theoretical underpinnings of DH as a field, its applications across a variety of other scholarly disciplines, and (perhaps the most fun part) the digital tools and methods themselves: digital archiving in Omeka, network analysis with Gephi, topic modeling in MALLET, and many more. These methods have offered new answers to old questions, as well as generated new questions altogether. With digital tools and methodologies, scholars can process information on a much larger scale within and across textual corpora. DH is also an epistemological challenge for any humanities field, because “epistemic technologies can play a central role in challenging knowledge traditions and developing new knowledge, which requires us to be reflective of our own practices and assumptions and be willing to engage with other epistemic positions.”[1] Equally exciting, however, is the potential to make our work available to wider audiences through avenues such as open-access publishing, free databases, and digital critical archives, such as the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP).

All our theory and tinkering in the seminar provided a practical, real-world experience through our collaboration with MAPP. Our engagement with MAPP began with a videoconference with MAPP co-founder Dr. Alice Staveley and Project Manager Anna Mukamal. We had the privilege of learning about the development of a DH project from its inception to its current moment—a moment in which we are now participants. Hearing from digital humanists actively working on a large, internationally funded project such as MAPP provided the class with key insights about the lifecycle of DH, the challenges and joys of collaboration, and the technical aspects of building. This conversation proved useful not only when we were tasked with contributing to the project, but also in terms of our own development as scholars in DH.

As part of our meeting with the MAPP team, we contributed to the project by generating and collating metadata for new additions to be added to the critical digital archive. MAPP launched in June 2017 at the International Virginia Woolf conference at the University of Reading. It is a critical digital archive of early twentieth-century publishers, beginning with Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press. MAPP now has over 4,000 artifacts on its website, including “one-of-a-kind dust jackets, author and publisher correspondences, readers’ reports, printing and production papers, illustrations, and born digital biographies of people and presses,” with the goal to “display, curate, and describe the documents that go into the making of a book.”[2] In constructing, curating, and maintaining this archive, MAPP aims to create a unique digital space that bridges collections of material history to modernist book publication by providing access to digitized archival materials. In-line with the goals, methods, and philosophies of MAPP, we practiced digital collaboration in our project through a group-written blog post about our collective experience gathering metadata about the Hogarth Press collections. Each team member was responsible for collecting and inputting data for a subsection of materials, and we worked together to draft and write a blog post. In this way we emulate the very nature of MAPP as a team-based digital project.

In Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities, a collaboratively-written book outlining MAPP’s purpose and development, the authors—the six original co-founders of MAPP—discuss collaboration and practice in the humanities classroom. Claire Battershill, Helen Southworth, Alice Staveley, Michael Widner, Elizabeth Willson Gordon, and Nicola Wilson explain that their “teamwork at its best replicates a successful pedagogy as when, in a good seminar, process, curiosity, and imaginative commentary—the polyphony of the group—generates smarter, cumulative insights precisely because one person is not deputized the authoritative leader.”[3] In a similar fashion, our class worked together on generating metadata on documents in relation to Woolf’s works. We then brought the work together to compare our experiences.

Our seminar is made up of students at various stages in their careers, as well as from many different departments across the humanities and social sciences. Because of this diversity, the approaches, perspectives, and experiences differed significantly for each person. Some of us had previous archival experience while others encountered this type of work for the first time. However, for each student, the process was always the same: look at a document, decipher what it was, and encode the information in a spreadsheet to be uploaded to the site. Amanda Leary, a graduate student in English, compared the experience to being like Indiana Jones, since “each document fits into this larger puzzle that is the history of the Hogarth Press and pulling out the metadata in each document was like finding a new clue to the mystery.” Although reading one letter in isolation allowed us to learn something interesting about the day-to-day structure of the press, collecting metadata on multiple letters further crafted a narrative to follow. Seeing this narrative expand across documents allowed us to understand the broader goals of MAPP and gave us insights into Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s contributions to twentieth-century publishing.

Each student was assigned a batch of documents from which to collect metadata. Everyone had different levels of difficulty with their respective batch. Some letters were simple to interpret thanks to their clearly marked dates, origins, destinations, and topics, whereas other documents were more difficult to comprehend due to complicated content or illegible handwriting. For some members of our class, the experience was instantly accessible, while others took a bit more time to become acclimated to the process. Yet even the struggles allowed us to gain further insight into the Hogarth Press. One collaborator observed with interest that, at times, some of the handwritten notes in the margins could not be assigned to specific writers, due to the number of involved staff at the Hogarth Press, a collaborative workspace that is hard to schematize. The marginal notes offered deeper insight as to working conditions at the Press. The organization was collaborative, not unlike our class, with each member working to contribute and accomplish a common goal, but we also discussed the invisible labor of typists, secretaries, and collaborators, which MAPP foregrounds.

 Despite the array of academic backgrounds, everyone agreed that the experience was rewarding. It allowed those who specialize in the field of literary studies to access another methodological approach to the time period through archival and book historical studies, while simultaneously introducing Woolf and the Hogarth Press to those who may not have had any prior exposure. The opportunity to delve into the archives of the Hogarth Press not only offered an invaluable hands-on experience with working on a digital humanities project, but also allowed us to learn more about Virginia Woolf’s career. Working with the MAPP data led us to gain a deeper appreciation of the full complexity it takes to publish literature, ranging from printing to circulation. Authorship is simply the beginning of a long, complex journey involving a vast network of staff, printers, binders, and publishers.

             Our experience with MAPP was a significant learning experience of the life-cycle of a collaborative DH project. During our time with MAPP, we gained a broader understanding of the work that went into publishing a book. By asking how books were made, designed, published, marketed, and read, we came to view archives as a fundamental way to preserve and generate knowledge. Our experience with MAPP left us with a new appreciation for the work of archivists, such as Kate Theimer, who astutely observed that, “the critical difference [between a single letter and a collection] is that while such a letter can be placed within many different contexts in many different kinds of collections, it is only in a collection managed according to archival principles that the organizational context of the letter is preserved.”[4]One of our team members commented that the overall experience allows us to make the collection widely available to everyone who may be interested in the Hogarth Press, rather than just academics. MAPP’s decision to make the collection open to the public should inspire everyone in academia to strive for engaged, accessible scholarship.



[1] Patrik Svensson, “Sorting Out the Digital Humanities,” A New Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 477.

[2] Modernist Archives Publishing Project, www.modernistarchives.com.

[3]Battershill, Claire, Helen Southworth, Alice Staveley, Michael Widner, Elizabeth Willson Gordon, and Nicola Wilson. Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Making The Modernist Archives Publishing Project (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 56.

[4] Kate Theimer, “Archives in Context and as a Context.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (2012), accessed March 26, 2019, http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/.