Editing Modernism in Canada


August 23, 2010

TEI & the bigger picture: an interview with Julia Flanders

I thought those of us who had been to DHSI and who were fortunate enough to take the TEI course with Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman might be interested in a recent interview with Julia, in which she puts the TEI Guidelines and the digital humanities into the wider context of scholarship, pedagogy and the direction of the humanities more generally. (I also thought others might be reassured, as I was, to see someone who is now one of the foremost authorities on TEI describing herself as being baffled by the technology when she first began as a graduate student with the Women Writers Project …)

Here are a few excerpts to give you a sense of the piece:

[on how her interest in DH developed] I think that the fundamental question I had in my mind had to do with how we can understand the relationship between the surfaces of things – how they make meaning and how they operate culturally, how cultural artefacts speak to us. And the sort of deeper questions about materiality and this artefactual nature of things: the structure of the aesthetic, the politics of the aesthetic; all of that had interested me for a while, and I didn’t immediately see the connections. But once I started working with what was then what would still be called humanities computing and with text encoding, I could suddenly see these longer-standing interests being revitalized or reformulated or something like that in a way that showed me that I hadn’t really made a departure. I was just taking up a new set of questions, a new set of ways of asking the same kinds of questions I’d been interested in all along.

I sometimes encounter a sense of resistance or suspicion when explaining the digital elements of my research, and this is such a good response to it: to point out that DH methodologies don’t erase considerations of materiality but rather can foreground them by offering new and provocative optics, and thereby force us to think about them, and how to represent them, with a set of tools and a vocabulary that we haven’t had to use before. Bart’s thoughts on versioning and hierarchies are one example of this; Vanessa’s on Project[ive] Verse are another.

[discussing how one might define DH] the digital humanities represents a kind of critical method. It’s an application of critical analysis to a set of digital methods. In other words, it’s not simply the deployment of technology in the study of humanities, but it’s an expressed interest in how the relationship between the surface and the method or the surface and the various technological underpinnings and back stories — how that relationship can be probed and understood and critiqued. And I think that that is the hallmark of the best work in digital humanities, that it carries with it a kind of self-reflective interest in what is happening both at a technological level – and it’s what is the effect of these digital methods on our practice – and also at a discursive level. In other words, what is happening to the rhetoric of scholarship as a result of these changes in the way we think of media and the ways that we express ourselves and the ways that we share and consume and store and interpret digital artefacts.

Again, I’m struck by the lucidity of this, perhaps because I’ve found myself having to do a fair bit of explaining of DH in recent weeks to people who, while they seem open to the idea of using technology to help push forward the frontiers of knowledge in the humanities, have had little, if any, exposure to the kind of methodological bewilderment that its use can entail. So the fact that a TEI digital edition, rather than being some kind of whizzy way to make bits of text pop up on the screen, is itself an embodiment of a kind of editorial transparency, is a very nice illustration.

[on the role of TEI within DH] the TEI also serves a more critical purpose which is to state and demonstrate the importance of methodological transparency in the creation of digital objects. So, what the TEI, not uniquely, but by its nature brings to digital humanities is the commitment to thinking through one’s digital methods and demonstrating them as methods, making them accessible to other people, exposing them to critique and to inquiry and to emulation. So, not hiding them inside of a black box but rather saying: look this, this encoding that I have done is an integral part of my representation of the text. And I think that the — I said that the TEI isn’t the only place to do that, but it models it interestingly, and it provides for it at a number of levels that I think are too detailed to go into here but are really worth studying and emulating.

I’d like to think that this is a good description of what we’re doing with the EMiC editions: exposing the texts, and our editorial treatement of them, to critique and to inquiry. In the case of my own project involving correspondence, this involves using the texts to look at the construction of the ideas of modernism and modernity. I also think the discussions we’ve begun to have as a group about how our editions might, and should, talk to each other (eg. by trying to agree on the meaning of particular tags, or by standardising the information that goes into our personographies) is part of the process of taking our own personal critical approaches out of the black box, and holding them up to the scrutiny of others.

The entire interview – in plain text, podcast and, of course, TEI format – can be found on the TEI website here.

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