Editing Modernism in Canada


Archive for April, 2011

April 22, 2011

A Winter 2011 Experience: Uncovering, Recovering, and Discovering


Twenty-two years of living as a Canadian coupled with twelve years of public school education, including a mandatory Canadian History class, gave me little impression of the violence and turmoil that has played a part in shaping our country. It wasn’t until near the fourth year of my post-secondary degree that I began to read, write, or speak about it, and only recently that several specific events detailed in Right Hand Left Hand made their incidence clear to me. I’ve already been unpleasantly surprised several times by what I’ve come across in the past few months: accounts of anti-Semitism, artistic censorship, tear gassing, the murder of unemployed and evicted Canadians, to start. Though these events are certainly awful, it’s more so the realization that I’ve never heard of them before that disturbs me; Livesay’s documentary narrative has contributed to my continual understanding of Canadian history in a voice I can trust and connect with.


Reading, researching, free writing, revising, and citing—creating a unified whole out of little pieces—is something I have done time and time again. And now, reverse it; rather than weaving research, class notes and ideas into something consistent,  instead I begin with a cohesive entity and take it apart. Though books are presented as stable and authoritative by virtue of their materiality and publication, my task with Right Hand Left Hand is to document discrete elements and trace them, like taking a puzzle apart and trying to find the original tree each piece was carved from. For me, this both underscores the importance of citation and solidifies the importance of questioning every text; where it come from, how it was put together, presented, why, and by whom. As I go on to fill out MLA citations for each recorded element, I hope to work through these and gain a different appreciation for the construction of the novel.


My main objective during our new bi-weekly EMiC meetings was, at first, to memorize the phrases I heard most frequently and look them up when I got home. But once in the habit of attending, I actually found the meetings very useful. Being informed about individual initiatives or developments allows me a greater understanding of the project as a whole, and observing the day-to-day workings of the project makes for natural integration into the way I go about my own work (for example, planning to digitize Dalhousie’s undergraduate English and Creative Writing journals to make them available on the department website). I anticipate that DHSI this summer, specifically a course in TEI, will also bring further opportunity for discovery and the broadening of my digital humanist horizons.


April 21, 2011

What the Digital Humanities Needs to Learn from Turbotax

On June 9, 2010, Wired.com ran a story announcing the intention of DARPA, the experimental research arm of the United States Department of Defense, to create “mission planning software” based on the popular tax-filing software, Turbotax.

What fascinated the DoD was that Turbotax “encoded” a high level of knowledge expertise into its software allowing people with “limited knowledge of [the] tax code” to negotiate successfully the complex tax-filing process that “would otherwise require an expert-level” of training (Shachtman). DARPA wanted to bring the power of  complex “mission planning” to the average solider who might not have enough time/expertise to make the best decision possible for the mission.

I start with this example to show that arcane realms of expertise, such as the U.S. Tax Code, can be made accessible to the general public through sound interface design and careful planning. This is especially pertinent to Digital Humanities scholars who do not always have the computer-science training of other disciplines but still rely on databases, repositories, and other computer-mediated environments to do their work. This usually means that humanities scholars spend hours having awkward phone conversations with technical support or avoid computer-mediated environments altogether.

With the arrival of new fields like Periodical Studies, however, humanities scholars must rely on databases and repositories for taxonomy and study. As Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman note in Modernism in the Magazines, the field of periodical studies is so vast that editors of print editions have had to make difficult choices in the past as to what information to convey since it would be prohibitively expensive to document all information about a given periodical (especially since periodicals tended to change dramatically over the course of their runs). Online environments have no such limitations and thus provide an ideal way of collecting and presenting large amounts of information. Indeed, Scholes and Wulfman call for “a comprehensive set of data on magazines that can be searched in various ways and organized so as to allow grouping by common features, or sets of common features” (54).

What DARPA and Turbotax realize is that computer-mediated environments can force submission compliance with existing “best practices” in order to capitalize on the uneven expertise levels of the general population. Wulfman and Scholes call for the creation of a modernist periodical database where modernist scholars can work together and map the field of periodical studies according to agreed upon standards of scholarship. By designing a repository on a Turbotax model of submission compliance, the dream of community-generated periodical database that conforms to shared bibliographic standards is readily attainable.

Because of the vastness of its subject matter, Periodical Studies is inherently a collaborative discipline—no one scholar has the capacity to know everything about every periodical (or everything about one magazine for that matter). Thus, the creation of periodical database is necessary to map the field and gather hard data about modernist periodical production. The problem is that not every periodical scholar has the computer expertise to create or even navigate the complexities of database/repository systems. Nor does every scholar know how to follow the best metadata and preservation practices of archival libraries. We are now at a point where we can utilize the interests and expertise of humanities by creating a repository that forces proper “input” along the lines of Turbotax.


I use the example of periodical studies to challenge the greater field of Digital Humanities. Our discipline has now reached a mature age, and think we can all agree that the battle between “Humanities Computing” and “Digital Humanities” should be put to rest as we move into the next phase of the field: designing user-friendly interfaces based on a Turbotax model of user input. For example, even at this stage of Digital Humanities, there doesn’t appear to be a web-based TEI editor that can link with open repositories like Fedora Commons. In fact, the best (and most stable) markup tool I’ve used thus far is Martin Holmes’s Image Markup Tool at the University of Victoria. Even this useful bit of software is tied to the Windows OS, and it operates independently of repository systems. That means a certain level of expertise is needed to export the IMT files to a project’s repository system. That is, the process of marking up the text is not intuitive for a project that wishes to harness the power of the many in marking up texts (by far, the most time-consuming process of creating a digital edition). Why not create a Digital-Humanities environment that once installed on a server, walks a user through the editing process, much like Turbotax walks a user through his/her taxes? I used to work as an editor for the James Joyce Quarterly. I experienced many things there, but the most important thing I learned is that there is a large community of people (slightly insane), who are willing to dedicate hours of their time dissecting and analyzing Joyce. Imagine what a user-generated Ulysses would look like with all of that input! (we would, of course, have to ban Stephen Joyce from using it–or at least not tell him about it).

Digital Humanities Ecosystems

The story of Digital Humanities is one littered with failed or incomplete tools. I suspect, save for the few stalwarts working under labs like Martin Holmes, or our colleagues in Virginia and Georgia, and elsewhere, that tools are dependent on stubborn coders with enough time to do their work. I find this to be a very inefficient way of designing tools and a system too dependent on personalities. I know of a handful of projects right now attempting to design a web-based TEI editor, but I’m not holding my breath for any one of them to be finished soon (goals change, after all). Instead of thinking of Digital Humanities development in these piecemeal terms, I think we need to come together as a federation to design ECOSYTEMS of DH work–much like Turbotax walks one through the entire process of filing taxes.

I think the closest thing we have to this right now is OMEKA, which through its user-base grows daily. What if we took Omeka’s ease-of-use for publishing material online and made into a full ingestion and publication engine? We don’t need to reinvent the wheel after all: Librarians have already shown us how we should store our material according to Open Archival Standards. There is even an open repository system in Fedora Commons. We even know what type of markup we should be using: TEI and maybe RDF. And Omeka has shown us how beautiful publication can be on the web.

Now, Digital Humanists, it is our time to take this knowledge and create archives/databases based on the Turbotax model of doing DH work: We need to create living ecosystems where each step of digitizing a work is clearly provided by a front end to the repository. Discovery Garden is working on such an ecosystem right now with the Islandora framework (a Fedora Commons backend with a Drupal front end), and I hope it will truly provide the first “easy-to-use” system that once installed on a server will allow all members of a humanist community to partake in digital humanities work. If I’m training students to encode TEI, why can’t I do so online actually encoding TEI for NINES or other projects? I’ve been in this business for years now, and even I get twitchy running shell scripts—my colleagues and students are even more nervous. So let’s build something for them, so we they can participate in the digital humanities as well. Everyone has something to gain.

I am attempting to harness the power of the crowd with “the Database of Modernist Periodicals,” to be announced this summer. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I end with this caveat: We need to prepare for the day when the “digital” humanities will simply be “the humanities,” and that means democratizing the digital (especially in our tools). Even I was able to file my taxes this year.

April 14, 2011

Reading between the lines: The Crawley and Livesay archives

Over the past few days I’ve been ensconced in the Queen’s University archives, looking at the papers of Alan Crawley and Dorothy Livesay for my EMiC edition. This is a volume of correspondence between various figures involved in modernism – authors, critics, editors – with the working title Enduring Traces: Correspondence from Canadian Modernism’s Archives.

Working in the archive can

be a peculiarly seductive pleasure: no need to rehearse Derrida’s admonition about its “conservative production of memory” to a crowd who also no doubt feels the pull of the archive’s promise to clarify literary history, to pin down what really happened once and for all. Fortunately, reminders are constantly to hand about the contingency of the stories it tells. Livesay, for example, writes the script of a portrait of Crawley for broadcast on the CBC, which begins by calling attention to his blindness. Crawley writes to her, mentioning that he is uncomfortable with this emphasis, and asking for some other changes. From Livesay’s other drafts it’s clear that she revised the document based on his wishes. A print version of this portrait is then rejected by Maclean’s because it does not contain enough “lively anecdotes illustrating the character of Mr. Crawley”. This sequence of documents offers a tiny glimpse of some of the pressures Livesay was under as she put together a narrative about Crawley’s contribution to Canadian poetry (and this is to say nothing of the intriguing ways she narrativises various other aspects of the story of the founding of Contemporary Verse, such as eliding the gender of the poets who suggested him as editor).

Crawley’s letters also present some interesting editorial conundrums (conundra?) which have led me to reflect on the materiality of the technology he was using to write them. Some of the letters were typed by him, while others have been typed by his wife, Jean, and those typed by Crawley have the occasional line break in unexpected places. Wondering whether to reproduce these idiosyncratic line breaks, I found myself coming up with all sorts of hypotheses about what might have led him to make them, which I suddenly realised were all dependent on having actually used one of these clunky manual typewriters myself as a kid. (And no, I’m not that old – this thing was a dinosaur even back in the 80s, when other families were splurging on such sleek and speedy creatures as Apple IIes). While a sighted typist would have been able to see how much space remained until the end of the line, Crawley would only have had the aural reminder of the typewriter’s bell a few spaces from the end of the line, and his own memory of how long the line had gone on (something which it would be easy to lose track of if one paused to think in the middle of a line) to tell him when to hit the carriage return. Perhaps, I wondered, if he paused mid-line and forgot whether the bell had gone, it was simply easier to start a new line, which is something different to the intention to start a new paragraph.

My reasoning may well be wrong here, but one thing’s for sure: I’ve gained a fresh appreciation for that ugly old typewriter. It’s one thing to hear the ding of a typewriter’s bell and to see its carriage return being used to move the paper down in the background of a scene from Mad Men; it’s quite another to have actually had to wrangle one of these machines yourself, and to know how the carriage return could not be relied on to produce perfectly even gaps between all the lines. Will editors in fifty years’ time find themselves needing this kind of knowledge about the vagaries of auto-correct on iPhone keypads, and haptic feedback on tablet computers?

April 7, 2011

Editing P.K. Page’s “Other” Travel Writing

In the process of editing P.K. Page’s “other” travel writing, which is a way to refer to her unpublished travel writing or everything except Brazilian Journal (1987), I am currently concentrating on the Mexican journal, 378 typed and handwritten manuscript pages covering the time period from March 1960 to January 1964. EMiC funding allowed me to hire Elena Merrill, an M.A. student in the Public Text program at Trent, during the summer of 2010 to continue work she had already started on the journal. Elena is also writing her M.A. thesis on Page’s Mexican journal. Our work involves researching Page’s references to a wide range of topics as her interest over the first part of this period evolves from an exploration of Mexican sites and culture to a study of surrealist art and artists. The final third of the journal moves into a fascinating concentration on the Subud movement and Sufism, which first occupied Page during the latter part of her time in Mexico and remained central to her philosophy and art for the rest of her life. Working with the actual manuscript has its challenges, but Elena and I have benefited greatly from the previous work of Sandra Djwa and Jean Mallinson, who transcribed the manuscript into an electronic file of 416 pages. Working with copies of the manuscript and the electronic file at Trent, in consultation the manuscript at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), is a rewarding, although time-consuming process. I am finding my first editing project both invigorating and overwhelming. Throughout this work, I carry one very important moment with me, which demonstrates for me the privilege of working with a research assistant. This “moment” is from August 2010, when Elena and I sat together at LAC and I watched her put on the white gloves and open the manuscript for the first time. Having started work on the journal as a fourth year undergraduate and working with it on and off since 2007, Elena was very moved by this experience.  I watched her examine the notations Page had made on the covers of the binders, which do not get transferred to copies of the manuscript, and handle the pages with reverence bordering on disbelief. Perhaps because we are working with “lifewriting,” gaining a sense of the person who did the writing assumes an importance and relevance beyond what we expected. I look forward to sharing such experiences with two research assistants new to the project this spring and summer.

April 6, 2011

EMiC Beyond Modernism

EMiC’s core mandate is to facilitate the production of critically edited texts by modernist Canadian authors.  One would anticipate that such a project would revolutionize our understanding of Canada’s modern period and provide teachers with an unprecedented selection of modernist texts for the classroom.  So far, this seems to be the case.  I have already used Colin Hill’s 2007 edition of Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage in my own course on Canada’s urban literature and, assuming I’m fortunate enough to secure another teaching position, I will continue to introduce EMiC editions to my students.  While my students were certainly interested in modernism, they began interpreting the novel in unexpected ways by comparing it to contemporary texts such as Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For.  In short, the new edition was not only changing how people thought about modernism, but also contemporary literature.  Needless to say, I found this exciting.

I recently contacted another EMiC Graduate Fellow who specializes in contemporary Canadian literature and asked her if she has had any similar experiences.  Hannah McGregor met me at TEMiC 2009, where we attended Dean Irvine’s crash-course on textual editing theory.  I confessed: I wanted to write a blog post about EMiC and contemporary literature.  I envisioned a post that would be different and chatty.  Did she have any thoughts on the subject?  Would she donate some of her time to chat about EMiC and her own work?  She graciously agreed.

My timing seemed fortunate.  Hannah has been working on paper that she will deliver at the upcoming “Editing as Cultural Practice: Institutional Formations, Collaboration, and Literatures in Canada”—a workshop organized by the TransCanada Institute (TCI) and Editing Modernism in Canada.  TCI, directed by Smaro Kamboureli, has been questioning Canadian literature as an institution.  TCI, and I apologize for the generalization, has tended to primarily focus on contemporary literature, especially its relationship to diaspora, transnationalism, multiculturalism, and colonialism.  Hannah has also been contributing to The Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC)—a massive digital humanities project seeking, amongst other things, to produce a digital database of criticism, texts, and archival material; and to create a toolkit for online, scholarly collaboration. Hannah: “It’s been very exciting to start finding connections between TCI, EMiC, and CWRC, because at times I feel like I have academic multiple personality syndrome.” All of a sudden, the three projects were becoming increasingly related.

Inspired by my students, I was hoping our conversation would address how our EMiC contributions were influencing the sections of our dissertations on contemporary literature.  I, for example, have a chapter about how some 1990s writers were renewing literary debates from the 1920s and 1930s.  They questioned the Canadian literary institution’s (alleged) preference for historical romances set in exotic locations and championed realistic urban writing.  Without knowing it, they resurrected urban realism and its raison d’être.  My concerns here were clearly aesthetic and literary historical.  Had Hannah found any similar forms of overlap?  Not really, she said.  But, she has noticed that her training at TEMiC 2009 has altered her approach to texts.  Hannah: “I have to say, the most exciting things EMiC has done for me so far is create a passion for book history / social text theory that has begun to inform everything I do, and introduce me to the incredibly sexy and exciting world of the digital humanities.”  I agreed.  EMiC’s methodological and theoretical concerns were certainly relevant beyond the confines of modernist studies.

This new found passion for book history and social textual theory has, however, proven somewhat frustrating.  Contemporary authors, generally speaking, do not have archives.  Thus all those social and textual goodies ordinarily housed in special collections are simply inaccessible.  Hannah, for example, has been craving to see the original manuscript for Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973) because her publishers demanded heavy edits, especially in the later section where Campbell discusses her stint as a high-end Vancouver prostitute.  As Jim Douglas wrote in a letter to Jack McClelland, the manuscript was “highly libelous” because Campbell “names names”, some of which happened to be prominent Canadian businessman.  As Hannah explained it to me, “when she brought it to her publishers they insisted that she cut out the majority of the disturbing, graphic, or too-angry sections of the book and balance what remained with a more hopeful story of her often happy childhood.  Ironically, it is this earlier part of the book that has garnered the majority of Halfbreed‘s critical attention.”  In other words, the editors’ interventions significantly influenced the text’s critical reception.  “I want to see that draft, I want to see those differences, I want to map out how much of the text as we know it now was a matter of the publishers’ intervention… and I think that it’s vital that students of the text also have access to that information, because that is key to how we’re going to understand and read Halfbreed.”

I shared a slightly less glamorous anecdote about the mythic query letter Russell Smith sent John Metcalf to pitch How Insensitive.  According to Metcalf, said letter began with a long, elaborate rant about how the Porcupine’s Quill would have zero interest in the manuscript because it was not about small towns, it was not set in the past, and it was not narrated by a lonely, elderly lady.  Apparently, the letter offered a litany of complaints about the state of Canadian literature and how there is a desperate need for more books about young, urban Canadians (in other words, the major theses Smith has been outlining in his Globe and Mail column for about the last fifteen years).  Smith, however, denies that he ever wrote the letter and when he first began writing about the state of Canadian literature he routinely attributed such ideas to Metcalf.  And other Metcalf-edited-writers in the 1990s also tended to market their urban writing using similar rhetoric.  Was the letter ever written?  Did Metcalf encourage writers like Smith to attack Canlit’s alleged preference for small towns and historical settings?  How heavily did Metcalf edit Smith’s first two novels?  Did he insert the anti-establishment scenes?  Yes, these questions are somewhat gossipy, but they nevertheless are of fundamental importance for understanding the resurrection of urban realism.  I wanna see their correspondences.  I wanna see the edited manuscripts.  I wanna know who Smith was hanging out with when he wrote his novels (Noise was, the myth has it, written almost entirely in Bar Italia).  But, of course, there isn’t a Russell Smith archive (although he claims he has saved digital copies of every draft).

Our contributions to EMiC have fundamentally changed how we think and write about literature.  But it has also left us envious of the textual and archival material available for older texts.  Of course, EMiC hasn’t diminished our obsession with meta-narratives and suspicion of institutions.  Hannah: “And I worry about tending towards the opposite extreme, that is, of fetishizing the document to the point of obscuring the interest in how that document signifies regardless of its ‘real’ nature.”  I do believe she said something about EMiC creating a multiple personality disorder…