Editing Modernism in Canada


June 13, 2013

Every Batman Needs a Robin



As a result of numerous discussions I have had this year at DHSI with EMiC scholars at all levels of experience—MA students, PhD students, postdocs, and profs from assistant to full, I have put together a proposal for a DHSI course next year. It has not been officially approved, but Ray and Dean are very interested in it and I will be discussing it with them next week.

I thought it would make sense to outline what the aim of this course—actually its double aim—is, and why I think it would be useful for many EMiC-scholars. It would be useful for my discussions with Ray and Dean if I had some sense of whether there is real interest in such a course.

The course would deal with 2 problems simultaneously:

  • If you can’t do XSLT you can’t display your TEI documents—and you probably can’t do XSLT
  • It is impossible to achieve mastery of XSLT or any other tool without spending so much time on it that you may have a negative impact on your career, especially if you are at the beginning of it.

The answers to these problems are 1) to develop enough basic familiarity with the tool you are interested in (such as XSLT, for example) so that you can discuss what you need with a developer partner—a week-long course at DHSI should be enough to do this—and 2) to develop a long-term working relationship with such a partner.

Some background first. I took the XSLT course from Syd and Martin and got a very good grounding in the basics. However, I was able to move on to the point where I can actually use XSLT in my project only because I happen to have a close working and personal relationship with an expert in the field, who happens to be my son. I know enough to write very basic XSLT, but, much more importantly ,I am familiar enough with the concepts and terminology that I can speak to my son and he can speak to me—and together we have produced some pretty sophisticated XSLT which does everything I want it to do. Because of my unusual situation I believe I am the only editor associated with EMiC who actually can work in XSLT—that is, who can turn my TEI files into web pages that people can actually read.

I have been aware of this very troubling situation for some time now. However, I became aware of something else at DHSI this year: everyone I know who is making real progress on their projects has a relationship between a humanist and a developer which is similar to my own. In each case the humanist/developer pair have enough of an understanding of each other’s fields to talk to each other and work together productively. Some examples: Dean Irvine & Alan Stanley and the Modernist Commons, Paul Hjartarson & Harvey Quamen and the Wilfred Watson project, Michael DiSanto & Robin Isard and the George Whalley project. Scholars who do not have such a working relationship seem to me to be in a high state of anxiety, especially graduate students and junior faculty. They feel that they have to acquire mastery of a range of tools while at the same time pursuing their research—when in fact what they really need to do is to acquire a basic understanding of their tools—such as a week-long course at DHSI can provide—PLUS a relationship with someone they can talk to and work with on an ongoing and well-informed basis concerning their plans and needs.

The course I am proposing would have as its aims to model the dynamics of such a relationship—with specific reference to XSLT—and to provide advice on how to develop it. You might compare the NetSquared project which has similar aims in relationship to social-benefit projects. We would begin by outlining the basics of XSLT; we would then go through in detail some of the XSLT we developed for use in the Digital Page project, while at the same time modelling the collaborative process that led to this development; finally we would help the students in the course to create their own XSLT to transform TEI files which they bring to the class. The takeaway for each student would be (1) XSLT files that would generate real HTML files for use in their editions and (2) guidance on how to establish the kind of ongoing working relationship that would result in the development of a wide range of more sophisticated XSLT files. We would invite other successful working partners to speak to (2) with regard to their own projects, and, indeed, in later years a course with a similar focus on collaborative digital humanities work could focus on entirely different aspects of digital humanities, such as databases, or interface design, for example. Taking our cue from Michael DiSanto & Robin Isard I am thinking of calling the course Every Batman Needs a Robin: A Collaborative Approach to XSLT.

A course of this sort will by necessity have limited enrolment—maybe 15—to allow for intensive hands-on mentoring. Because of the heavy emphasis on mentoring, we need to ensure that everyone has the appropriate basic skill set and has given serious thought to what they want their XSLT to produce. Therefore, everyone will be required to submit, before the course begins,  1) a text which they have already marked up in TEI and 2) a clear idea of how they would like it presented, perhaps in the form of a mock-up in Word. The more preparation the instructors can make leading up to the course the better.

If you think you would be interested in such a course, or if you have any suggestions please contact me at zpollock@trentu.ca. If you have a Robin, feel free to bring him or her along.

One Response to “Every Batman Needs a Robin”

  1. Alana Fletcher says:

    Great post, Zailig. We’d be lost without Robin! I completely concur with the two problems you highlight – the need for XSLT to display TEI documents, and the simultaneous lack of ability to do XSLT and time to learn it. The solution is collaboration (isn’t that what DH is about?)!

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