I’ve been asked to briefly reflect on my work as the Principal Investigator for the EMiC PhD Stipend-funded Canadian Modernist Magazines Project (CMMP). Before outlining a few of my activities over the past year, though, I’d like to echo recent posts—by Kaarina Mikalson, Hannah McGregor, Carl Watts, and Alix Shield, among others—in thanking EMiC for facilitating so many exciting projects and productive, energizing, and fun conversations. EMiC has changed the way I think about academic communities, collaboration, and my own field(s) of research.
My goal with the CMMP has always been pretty straightforward: digitize full runs of Preview (1942-44) and First Statement (1942-45) so that they can be read and analyzed online. But there is more than one way to skin a cat (apparently), and, as I’ve learned, there is certainly more than one way to digitize a text (none of which involve violence against animals, unless we’re talking vellum). This is an obvious point to make, perhaps; I mention it only because this reality—that there is no single way to scan, transcribe, and display texts online—has been both incredibly overwhelming and incredibly liberating as I think about the crucial next steps for the project. I want to save time and money by adapting the best practices and workflows of similar digitization projects, but I also want to find ways to set the CMMP apart, making it as user-friendly and powerful a resource as possible. How does one follow in others’ (giant) footsteps and still leave a mark?
So far, much of my work has involved laying important groundwork that, in the end, will be invisible to end-users of the CMMP website. For example, I have spent many hours researching the best ways to record, host, and display metadata, and many more communicating with various scholars, librarians, and institutions. My biggest job, however, has been tracking down contributors’ surviving family members or literary executors, a process which has been surprisingly difficult. Even so, the challenge of securing permissions has also been a rewarding one: one of the great perks of this project has been learning more about all of the magazines’ contributors as human beings, not just as names attached to poems or essays. In the course of my slow, sometimes fruitless detective work, I have unearthed many fascinating stories about who these writers were and what kinds of amazing things they did with their lives. The 60 or so contributors to First Statement and Preview went on to become poets, professors, Members of the Order of the British Empire, Members of the Order of Canada, founders of some of Canada’s most prestigious literary journals, actors, lawyers, psychologists, and proud parents. Some are still familiar names in the Canadian literary community, but many are not.
Although it’s still unclear when I will be able to launch the CMMP, I feel good about the progress that’s been made, and I’ve already been thinking ahead to the future of the project for some time. As far as I’m concerned, the CMMP’s digitization of Preview and First Statement is only a starting point: in fact, I’ve already begun to eye up other magazines worthy of digitization and to consider how I can keep the project alive and well through new partnerships or funding opportunities. In any case, I’ve received enough encouragement—from fellow EMiC-ites, from colleagues, and from patient friends—to believe that my optimism about the potential value of the project has not been ill-founded. Indeed, one highlight from this past year was talking about the CMMP with other modernists at the Modernist Studies Association’s annual conference in Pittsburgh. While running a digital exhibit with Dean Irvine on the CMMP and the Modernist Commons, I was fortunate enough to meet Sean Latham, Jeff Drouin, Cliff Wulfman, and Kent Emerson of the Modernist Journals Project (MJP), and their positive feedback about my own still-nascent project was tremendously encouraging. Since then, I have received further advice and encouragement from the MJP’s Kent Emerson and Mark Gaipa, not to mention the invaluable advice of my lovely EMiC friends (and, on that note, I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who would like to be involved in the project in any way).
I’m not sure what the CMMP will look like in another year, but I remain excited about its possible futures—and grateful to EMiC and the EMiC community for making my project possible in the first place.
I have been asked to reflect on my experiences as an EMiC funded RA. This post looks at my ongoing involvement with the critical edition of Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand. In my previous post, I thought through my work with Canada and the Spanish Civil War (CSCW).
In a panel last April called “What the eFs!?!: Why Our Research Matters Now,” Hannah McGregor talked about how digital humanities work taught her how to fail. If I recall correctly, she described the necessity of failing in digital work: errors in code can crash a website, or you can spend an afternoon trying to perfect a PHP script that still refuses to function, but at the end of the day its alright. You will start again tomorrow, with more help and new ideas, and move a little closer to success. In contrast, failure in the humanities is terrifying. I don’t want to write about what failure looks like in the humanities–it is the stuff of anxious dreams, and that is where it should stay.
What is essential about failing in digital humanities is the trying: each time you try something, you learn a little more about what doesn’t work, and inch closer to what does. When I began working as a research assistant for the critical edition of Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand, I experienced this failure with a great deal of frustration. A new scanner meant I had to rescan Livesay’s work. Errors in file naming meant a great deal of manual renaming, or wrestling with unreliable file naming programs. OCR readers, in all their imperfect glory, required me to carefully reread and correct text. And through it all, programs crashed, mistakes were made, equipment and files were (quite literally) stolen, and I did it all over it again. Every time I failed, I became more vigilant, until I was checking and rechecking obsessively.
As frustrating as this was, it was productive failure. By the time I advanced from RA to co-editor, I knew the material from every angle. I had read Livesay’s words again and again–I knew them so well that as I wrote my own thesis on literature of the Great Depression, I felt compelled to cite Livesay constantly, as all my research echoed her memories, poetry, and journalism. As I moved onto new DH projects, I was constantly surprised at how much all those failures had taught me about working carefully and effectively, about data management, and about digital research tools. All that failed work that had felt wasteful paid off in the long-term–at least for me, and I hope for the projects as well.
Now that I work mostly on Canada and the Spanish Civil War, I am confronted with another kind of failure: the failure of the international movement against fascism. It seems to me that this failure reverberates in the lives and work of so many Canadian modernist authors. I don’t have much to say on this yet. I know that addressing this particular failure has been the most challenging part of my thesis work. I know that failure will continue to be a challenge in every aspect of my life. But it is heartening to know that, in its own small way, DH work makes failure more familiar and less devastating.
Three years after I began my RAship, the Right Hand Left Hand text is almost ready for submission. When I look at the single document that lives in my dropbox, I think of all the documents, folders, spreadsheets, bibliographies, and files that brought this edition to life, and of all the work that was undone and redone to bring this single text to life. And, of course, building on my last post, I think of the team of people that made it happen: Bart Vautour, Dean Irvine, Emily Ballantyne, Leslie Gallagher, Karen Smith at Dalhousie Special Collections, the staff at the University of Manitoba Archives, and many others. Ultimately, their knowledge and support made this project a successful one.
I have been asked to reflect on my experiences as an EMiC funded RA. In this post, I think through my work with Canada and the Spanish Civil War (CSCW). My next post will look at my ongoing involvement with the critical edition of Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand. A big thank you to Emily Ballantyne for providing feedback on this piece.
By the time I joined CSCW, I had already worked for EMiC for a couple of years. I came into EMiC when it was already well underway. In many ways, I felt I could never really catch up; there were so many acronyms to learn, so many scholars to meet, and such a range of digital and literary projects that I only ever glimpsed. I learned many technical skills, but never enough to keep pace with this rapidly evolving and expanding project. I was impressed, excited, and ultimately (necessarily) overwhelmed.
But for me, the real beauty of EMiC is that it facilitated so many smaller projects. I got involved in Canada and the Spanish Civil War fairly early, and I witnessed its development. Emily Robins Sharpe and Bart Vautour study social justice movements, and they ensure that social justice is the foundation of their project. I am grateful to see the inner workings of the project, to see how policies and communities take shape around certain collective values. There is a great deal of emphasis in the digital humanities on skill development, and for a while I focused on developing my technical skill set. Through CSCW, I saw how deliberately I needed to develop interpersonal skills. It takes a great deal of space and energy to practice effective communication, transparency, collaboration and respect. I am grateful to have all of these modelled for me through this project.
In my own research, I ask what productive collective action looks like in Canadian fiction from the Great Depression. One chapter of my thesis looks at the Canadian Spanish Civil War novel This Time a Better Earth, and the different forms of antifascist work that it portrays. This project has asked a lot of challenging questions about what labour looks like, how we value different forms of labour, how women and people of colour become sidelined or exploited in collective work, why this happens, and how to model more sustainable and equitable movements. It is fairly easy to apply these critiques to literature of the 1930s, but much harder to critique and remake the projects, movements and institutions that I am a part of. This is time-consuming work, and it can be daunting. I am a privileged individual completing my second, well-funded degree in an increasingly neoliberal university system; I am already complicit in and benefiting from a broken system. But when I scale down, to the small-but–growing projects and communities I get to be a part of, I start to feel more hopeful and more prepared.
One of the reasons I am writing about the interpersonal outcomes of my RA work and not the digital outcomes is because all of that digital and editorial work feels incomplete, though I recognize the necessity of sharing ongoing work. But ultimately, I feel like those tangible things – the Canada and the Spanish Civil War website, the growing bibliography of Canadian writing on Spain, the forthcoming (and already underway) book series, even my own thesis – are not mine to claim. They are inherently collaborative, and as such their success hinges on healthy community. In an earlier EMiC post, Andrea Hasenbank wrote: “The work I have detailed here is one throughline of the work always being done by many, many people. You do not work alone, you should not work alone, and if you are not acknowledging those who work with you, your scholarship is unsustainable and unethical.” This, to me, is the real unfinished work that is giving me pause. How do I ensure that my work is always in line with my values? How do I respect my collaborators, academic and otherwise, my research subjects, my supporters, and my audience? I am grateful to EMiC and Canada and the Spanish Civil War for giving me the opportunity to apply these questions. In her farewell to EMiC, Hannah McGregor wrote, “communities preserve and support us; they give us perspective on what really matters, back us in our struggles, keep us sane and human in the face of systems that threaten to break us down.” Looking forward, I am confident in the excellent communities EMiC has produced, and in the productive and supportive thinking that it has fostered in so many of us.