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.
This post begins long before DHSI.
Last semester, I enrolled in a grad-level Project Design and Management course in another department. My classmates and instructor were super welcoming, and I got to work with the wonderful EMiC graduate fellow Andrea Johnston. But I was regularly asked some variation of this question: “Why are you here?” To be clear, this question was asked with respect and genuine interest. Nevertheless, it was a question that I found challenging. The experience was entirely new to me, and I struggled not only to complete the work and learn the concepts but also to justify this training to myself.
When I arrived at DHSI, the question was waiting for me. “Why are you here?” This time, I was fresh out of my first day of the CWRC-run course on Collaborative Online Scholarship, and I answered with an unexpected level of confidence and enthusiasm (read: a shameless brag). That first day of DHSI was enough to refuel me. I has already met a diversity of scholars with a broad range of projects. And though many introduced themselves with a sense of trepidation, it was immediately clear to me that regardless of discipline, experience, or skills, they all contributed to the fantastically generative and invigorating space that is DHSI. We may not all feel in our element, but this community is better and stronger with each of us in it.
DH has an openness about it that I aim to emulate. I do not want to be limited by my formal education, my professional experience or even by my own passions. I want to develop amid diverse communities, not in isolation. This world is terrifically unstable, and I do not just mean economically. I hope to meet the challenges it throws at me, and for now that means actively seeking out challenges
I could bring this down to a practical level in so many ways. I could talk about transferable skills, as Melissa Dalgleish and many others have usefully done. I could reflect on the incredible privilege of being here at DHSI, and I invite you to challenge me on this in whatever ways you can. I could talk about how much I have learned this week, how much EMiC, DH, and so many of you have taught me, and how exactly I will apply that knowledge and wisdom. But these are long and, hopefully, ongoing conversations.
For now, I want to dwell in the confidence that DHSI has so vitally instilled in me. I want to actively take responsibility for my scholarship, my labour, and my professional trajectory. So I return to the old question: Why am I here? Because I chose to be. And I chose well.
I spent last week in Winnipeg, working in the U of M Archives and the Archives of Manitoba. During my brief, frantic visit, I was able to scan material for three digital projects: the digital edition of Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand: A True Life of the Thirties, Bart Vautour and Emily Robins Sharpe’s project Canada and the Spanish Civil War: A Digital Research Environment, and Anouk Lang’s work on Alan Crawley and Contemporary Verse.
I spent my time scanning, the true grunt work of DH. I have spent most of the past four months scanning–an unbelievable amount of time. I want to remind everyone, especially those embarking on digital projects, just how time consuming they can be. No matter how many shortcuts you come up with, you (or your greatly appreciated RA) will still have to go through the processes of creating, organizing, editing, backing up, and ingesting files.
This trip was also a reminded of how vulnerable digital projects are to technical difficulties. This week, I negotiated with no less than four different scanners. Scanners are the very worst coworkers: they are slow, they lose things, they make mistakes, and sometimes they refuse to work altogether. Now that I am back home, I am discovering what irreversible mistakes my scanner and I made, and cursing the imperfect nature of this technology.
Scanning aside, the trip gave me a chance to thoroughly examine Dorothy Livesay’s papers, specifically her documentation of the Thirties. I found some great material and noticed some interesting rifts in memory from one document to the next. She wrote many times about her job in New Jersey, a job she was forced to leave due to illness. The nature of this illness varies: in one version it is an ulcer, in another it is chronic appendicitis (for the record, I had appendicitis, and I don’t think it can even be chronic–it’s really a one time thing). In another version she attributes her illness to high blood pressure, and in another she admits it may have been “a slight nervous breakdown.” She is clearly an unreliable narrator, even concerning her own experiences.
It is only because she left behind such an extensive physical archive that I can notice these discrepancies. Deep in archival work, I began to think about how much personal records have changed with the digital turn. Now, the majority of correspondence takes place in email, text messages, facebook, even twitter. We are documenting our own lives more than ever, but is this documentation durable? Will the kind of archival research I am performing be possible if the subject of study is the so-called digital native? To me, the digital file feels far more ephemeral than the physical photograph, letter, newspaper. Maybe this has more to do with my inherent digital clumsiness–I delete when I mean to save, name files incoherently, and so on. But I still worry that 80 years from now, when I am a fascinating famous person, archivist and researchers will know little about my relationships, experiences, or actions because so much of this information is stored in networks and servers, not boxes.
Of course, we at EMiC are (hopefully) creating sustainable digital projects. Personally, I am far more cautious when it comes to archival scans. Multiple versions of each file ensure that mistakes are minimal and reversible. After all, I know how much work goes into creating each file, and I don’t intend on repeating all those processes.
Undergraduate students at St Thomas University are in the process of creating the Atlantic Canadian Poets Archive “to answer a need for academic scholarship on writing of the Atlantic region.” They invite submissions to the archive from undergraduate students.
A Letter from the East
The Atlantic Canadian Poets’ Archive started as an idea among a group of seminar students and their professor. Through the fall of 2010 and the winter of 2011, the students of Dr. Kathleen McConnell’s Contemporary Atlantic Canadian Women Poets’ seminar slogged through databases in search of scholarship. We found physics papers, geological studies, a handful of reviews, but no scholarship.
So we wrote it ourselves.
Though constrained by our undergraduate status (we take our editorial process seriously, but the Archive is not peer-reviewed), the contributions on the ACPA are the first of their kind: succinct critical analyses of poets from the Atlantic region, available to the public with a few keystrokes. Each poet featured on the ACPA has a short critical analysis, a biography, a comprehensive source list, and the text of the poem which is being analyzed.
Among the challenges we faced as editors was obtaining contact information for some of the poets. In some instances, these poets had written the requested poems decades earlier, and then promptly disappeared from the public eye. Poetry from the Atlantic region is obscure already, so finding contact information for even less recognized poets proved challenging.
Fortunately, the tight-knit, supportive atmosphere of Atlantic Canadian poetry has worked in our favour. To illustrate: we had been trying to get ahold of Newfoundland poet Carmelita McGrath. We explored the usual avenues: checked out organizations she had been involved in, scoured university faculty pages, but no one knew where to contact her. We became obsessed. In the middle of our hunt, two of the ACPA editors had gone to Great Village, Nova Scotia for the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival. Among the poets reading at the festival was Michael Crummey, another Newfoundlander. When the editors met him, they described the McGrath Conundrum. After conceding that yes, of course, he’s an Atlantic Canadian poet too and we’d include him as soon as possible, he promised to put us in contact with Carmelita McGrath. The two, it turned out, were old friends.
Because St. Thomas University (the birthplace of the Archive) is an undergraduate institution, the editorial staff for the Archive is impermanent. The founding editor graduates next spring, while our second editor, Allyson Groves, has already graduated. Maintaining the project has become a key concern for us, as we strive to maintain the editorial continuity we have established while also ensuring our own academic growth.
It is this growth that we want to see in the Archive in the following years. It allows students to contextualize their analytic and editorial skills in a real-world situation, while also helping to fill a gap in academia. We welcome submissions from undergraduate students (though exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis). Our complete Submission Guidelines, along with some great analyses, are available at stu.ca/acpa.
Lisa Banks (Managing Editor, Summer 2011, Summer 2012)
Allyson Groves (Managing Editor, Winter 2011-Spring 2012)
Patrick O’Reilly (Managing Editor, Summer 2012)
What I enjoy most about working as a research assistant for EMiC is how varied my responsibilities are. Last semester, my tasks including researching and writing biographies for people mentioned within Le Nigog, and running our scanned images through OCR software. This semester, my main task has been obtaining permissions for the works we plan to publish in our digital archive, that is, tracking down the copyright information of French-Canadian artists and intellectuals who died almost–but not quite–fifty years ago.
When I was first assigned this task, I wasn’t even sure how to begin. Matt Huculak linked me to Copyright databases, as did the Dalhousie Copyright Officer (he was very helpful in providing resources and answering my questions, no matter how vague, and he still sends emails checking up on me and my project):
Copyright Renewal Database
Copyright Clearance Centre
Unfortunately, these databases did not contain much information on my obscure French-Canadian authors. At Huculak’s suggestion, I turned towards archives and libraries for more guidance.
I was a little wary about initiating this kind of contact, particularly as much of the correspondence would be conducted in French. So before I began I wrote up templates: clear, concise messages that could easily be modified depending on the individual. I wrote one in French and one in English and had them proofread by someone outside the project to ensure they made sense–I didn’t want my requests ignored or misunderstood. Note: Huculak insisted that I use email as much as possible and keep all the messages on file, so that we had evidence of our search and its results.
Thankfully, my predecessor had already tracked down fonds and collections of these authors and left me links to finding aids. I chose to contact the archivists to see if they had any contact information related to the fonds. Contacting the archivist themselves proved to be more difficult than I anticipated, lost as they were among the myriad of information on the archive and collection websites. I tried to locate the emails of specific archivists and librarians, but often the closest I could get was a vague info@ email or, worst case, submitting an information request into the abyss of the Collections Canada and Archives France websites. Once my requests were sent, I imagine they were referred from person to person until they reached the right one. Now that I have successfully corresponded with many of these archives, I have the coveted emails on file and I can post them for the use of others.
Finally, I waited. Some archivists replied at lightning speed, some took over a month. Some gave replies that had absolutely nothing to do with my request, and some gave me exactly what I needed (contact information of rightholders, heirs, or estates).
When the responses stopped coming in, I contacted Bibliothèque et Archives Nationals du Québec, explained my situation, and asked if they had any resources they could share with me. They linked me to Copibec, a Quebecois copyright database. Like the Copyright Clearance Centre, these folks charge a fee in exchange for obtaining permissions, but they also help users research rightholders. ( a full list of copyright societies like this one can be found here) I contacted them with the names of the missing authors. They were able to confirm that three of the others were nowhere to be found–Copibec had researched them and come up empty handed. This was very valuable information, as the Copyright Board of Canada gives permissions in the case of unlocatable copyright owners. This is where my carefully archived emails will come in handy, as we need to prove that we have made an adequate attempt to find the rightholders.
After two months I have whittled down my list significantly. I hope this post can help others have the same success.
I will admit I was pretty nervous before arriving at TEMiC. After all, what does a confused young undergraduate have to offer a group of experienced scholars? I had no idea how many people would be there, what kind of a pace we would learn at and where I could possibly fit in. Of course, I could have saved time and stress if I had taken a brief moment to reflect on how lovely and generous everyone involved in EMiC is and has been to me from the moment I joined the project. TEMiC was no different. Everyone in the small group of grad students and professors was excited to meet me, hear about my project and share their own experiences and plans. I absorbed as much as possible, taking mental notes on everything they told me and still saving energy to enjoy myself as much as possible.
I only attended the second week of TEMiC, a week focused on project planning. For five short and seemingly leisurely days, we learned a great deal, as you can plainly see from my fellow classmates daily reports. The flexibility of the workshop schedule was really our greatest gain, as it gave everyone a chance to bring his or her own concerns up for discussion. As a result, we were able to discuss (seemingly) all aspects of planning a digital editing project, including securing funding, choosing and using scanners, software and programs, negotiating permissions, copyrights and archives in order to enjoy the most freedom with your material, and the time consuming task of digitizing your material. Through presentations by Zailig Pollock and Melissa Dalgleish, we were able to look in depth at projects currently in progress and get a practical sense of the challenges we would all face. Through presentations by Dean Irvine and Matt Huculak, we learned about the theory and work that is currently going into creating of the EMiC Commons and gained an understanding of how our smaller projects fit into huge advancements in the field of modernist studies and digital humanities. On top of all this, we even found time to win Trivia night at the local bar, suggesting that maybe we have the knowledge and determination to achieve it all (or maybe we just know too much about Hulk Hogan and the Beach Boys).
There were a few key things I took away from the week:
-Modularity! Melissa reminded us all just what a huge amount of work a digital edition is. Starting small allows you to accomplish tasks without getting overwhelmed by a huge amount of material and work.
-Paranoia. I had no idea digital files degrade. This is a little terrifying. Back up your work.
-Collaboration. Academics have the resources and interest to help each other out a lot, especially in the relatively new and intimidating world of digital humanities. We discussed how some kind of EMiC mentorship program could really help people get through their projects, but also how collaboration should not be entered into without any kind of guidelines or ground rules.
Although I am still in the dark about some aspects of digital editions, particularly the ridiculous number of acronyms, I am incredibly grateful for the experience and for all I learned. I am really looking forward to putting my newfound knowledge to use and hearing more about the remarkable projects of my EMiC fellows. I am even excited to run some more files through OCR! Kind of.
Special thanks to those at Trent University who put together such a great workshop and drove us around the city.