And the Beat Goes On: STS 2011

I returned last Friday night 3/18, well technically 1am Saturday morning, from the Society for Textual Scholarship 2011 International Conference, hosted by Penn State University. The conference was a very positive learning experience for me in terms of my scholarly disciplines (Romanticism and digital humanities), writing process, professional community, and social media use. It was the first conference at which I tweeted (i.e., posted comments on twitter) about panels and at which I knew my own talk was tweeted out, the first time I participated in Day of Digital Humanities (DH) blogging (here’s my blog), and a welcome opportunity to meet and learn from other dh’ers and textual scholars that in some cases were also Romanticists. (See Paige C. Morgan’s wonderful blog post about the STS twitter feed, and about tweeting at conferences in general.) 
This was not a Romanticism conference, but a textual studies conference. From the STS “about” page:

The Society is dedicated to exploring how the various cultures of textual production shape the creation, reception, dissemination, and understanding of texts; how technologies alter and influence the experience of texts; and how changing conceptions of authorship and editorial practice operate in the making of textual meanings. The Society addresses questions–contemporary and historical, theoretical and practical–of how the material and social manifestations of textual cultures inform acts of interpretation.

Center stage at this conference were questions like these (among others):

  • What is a text? And what kinds of texts do we analyze? Literature is just one place to look for text, and it was not privileged at this conference over other material sites, like code, websites, video games, music, and artwork.
  • How are texts edited or understood? What theoretical, analog, or electronic tools do we have as editors?
  • How do different kinds of texts teach, and how are texts taught?

What was I doing at a textual studies conference?
Ever since being introduced to the theories and methods of TEI encoding, transforming, and publishing electronic texts, I have wanted to interact with, analyze, and make texts on both pages and screens. I’m pretty sure that makes me a digital humanist romanticist; or digital romanticist humanist; or r.d.h. (See Matthew Kirschenbaum’s recent essay “What Is Digital Humanities and What Is It Doing in English Departments”.) Furthermore, the conference was organized to include at least one DH panel during every concurrent session, and about half of the keynote addresses also involved digital matters (such as the Archimedes Palimpsest Project and David Stork‘s talk on computing used for pattern recognition in art, where apparently there are “right answers” to be found!). BTW: The other two keynotes were superb–Morris Eaves (editor of The Blake Archive) spoke about the problem of archiving the lost and the challenge of oblivion, and Lisa Gitelman adds to the historical “master narrative” of media studies a history of documents and the typescript.
The conference kicked off with a selection of seminars that we signed up for ahead of time, and I selected “Redefining the Scholarly Edition,” run by Katherine D. Harris, also a Romanticist. Her seminar began with a practical question: what to do with the data in her Forget Me Not hypertext archive of literary annuals, that is also part of a larger archive, Laura Mandell’s Poetess Archive. The crux is that to get funding to revamp and maintain the FMN hypertext archive as a stand-alone archive, one would have to advertise the Forget Me Not’s canonical authors and relationships to other authors that undermine it as a unique space for feminine discourse, as Harris argues. The question: how do you allow the Forget Me Not collection to live electronically as the Forget Me Not collection, with all the data, as well as historical and material context, that it requires. And to reduce the question a bit, how do we transform texts that were born in books so that they can live online, as data for scholars or a work for interested readers, and not lose their specific material history and format? This was the question that my essay asked–boiled down–in relation to the problem of digitizing Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian. (Harris’ blog about this seminar is here.)
I also wanted to know how to best select a work for a digitization project, though discussion never quite arrived here. In other words, what are the factors to consider when selecting a work to transform/transmit/translate as an electronic text? I can think of a few: How available is it already both in print and online? What is the payoff for digitizing this work– how might it add to scholarship in the field? How might it affect the canon? And similarly, does canon include media, or are there different canons for different media? More on this subject later.
Writing This Conference Talk:
I’ll admit it: this was the first talk that I have ever written that was not already pretty much a fully formed 25-30 page essay first, that was then chiseled down to 10-page talk size, argument and all. Nope, I wrote this puppy from scratch and it was an entirely different process from tip to tail, and a tougher process for me. And *never* have I been so glad that I started early and did not procrastinate. I must have written 30 pages of drafts in order to birth the final 10 pages of my talk. I wrote pages of questions and pages of paragraphs that I knew would be deleted while I was writing them. And I have my STS roommate extraordinaire and fellow Dublin NINES/DHO alum Jessica DeSpain to thank for helping me articulate my driving question in the most succinct manner possible, as well as Lori Emerson and James Ascher to thank for early draft feedback and conversations about the field of textual studies. I was nervous about this paper and it ended up going extremely well because I started early and asked for help. Lessons learned. I will be giving a revised version of this talk, entitled “What’s Code for the Gothic?: Digitizing Radcliffe” on April 8, 11am panel, Norlin room M549 at the “Reading for Relevance” graduate colloquium at CU-Boulder.
Is It Over Yet?
No, or at least it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve left the Penn Stater hotel (rather, space station), the panels have all ended, Day of DH 2011 came and went on 3/18, the #sts twitter feed may have slowed down or finally stopped as of yesterday–4 days after the last day of the conference–but the questions I asked (and re-asked), my notes, attendees blogs, and twitter conversations with new colleagues from STS are helping me write my prospectus right now. When you shell out for an expensive plane ticket and hotel room (and thank you to CU and STS for additional graduate travel funding) and commit to conference travel, you put your hands together and pray, or clap, for the kind of experience I had at this conference. Can’t wait to apply for the next one.

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