Editing Modernism in Canada


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June 4, 2014

Lessons Learned from Collaborative XSLT

I’m at my first DHSI ever, four years after retiring from university teaching and thirty-two after teaching a summer course at the University of Victoria, where DHSI is being held. In fact, my course, “A Collaborative Approach to XSLT”, is taking place in Clearihue A105, the same building in which I taught Introductory Shakespeare thirty-two years ago. Clearihue A105 is the computer lab, and in 1982, no one would have dreamt of installing a computer lab in a humanities building, because almost no one would have thought that computers could have any real significance in teaching the humanities, let alone doing humanities research. This coincidence of place just brings home to me how far the humanities have progressed, how much they have changed, over the course of my own working life, and how far I have to go to retool for the new research project I’ve chosen for myself.

I’m here to learn about XSLT in order to prepare a digital edition of the diaries of Robertson Davies. At the first meeting of our course, we’re all asked to talk a little bit about our projects, and what we hope to gain from the course. The first speaker chooses her words carefully. She hopes to become conversant in XSLT. All the rest of us pick up on this modest choice of vocabulary, recognizing that the topic is too big, too complicated, to hope for fluency, or ( even more ambitious) expertise, in the space of a five day course like this one.

Day One proves just how true this is. I can more or less keep up with Josh, who does most of the instructing this day, through the basics of XML, but by mid-afternoon, I’m lost. The exercise on creating an XHTML document with rudimentary formatting flummoxes me, and I have no time to consider the following exercise on CSS. I go home tired, and pretty discouraged. But over the course of the evening, I realize that this is all part of the game, that becoming conversant means only that you gain some understanding, not that you crack the code. And I realize too that I’ve begun to understand a few of the basic concepts, even though I can’t complete the exercise perfectly. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Is this what my students in Shakespeare felt like back in 1982? Were the ideas that seemed self-evident to me more like higher mathematics to them? Maybe I’m beginning to gain a better understanding of what it means to struggle for learning, along with a little XSLT. And I decide that’s not such a bad tradeoff.