[Humanist] 24.811 literature brought virtually to life?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Mar 23 07:19:56 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 811.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 22 Mar 2011 15:02:20 -0700
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>
        Subject: Giving Literature Virtual Life
        In-Reply-To: <201103220950.p2M9oSF5007935 at mail.ucla.edu>

[Note below the sentence, “The Internet is less foreign to me than a 
Shakespeare play written 500 years ago.” Does that not speak 
volumes and give us a cause for concern? --WM]

---------- Forwarded message ----------
> From: Jack Kolb <kolb at ucla.edu>
> Date: Tue, Mar 22, 2011 at 2:50 AM
> Subject: Giving Literature Virtual Life

March 21, 2011
Giving Literature Virtual Life

BRYN MAWR, Pa. — Prof. Katherine Rowe’s blue-haired avatar was flying across
a grassy landscape to a virtual three-dimensional re-creation of the Globe
Theater, where some students from her introductory Shakespeare class at Bryn
Mawr College had already gathered online. Their assignment was to create
characters on the Web site theatron.org and use them to block scenes from
the gory revenge tragedy “Titus Andronicus,” to see how setting can heighten
the drama.

“I’ve done this class before in a theater and a lecture hall, but it doesn’t
work as well,” Ms. Rowe said, explaining that it was difficult for students
to imagine what it would be like to put on a production in the 16th-century
Globe, a circular open-air theater without electric lights, microphones and
a curtain.

Jennifer Cook, a senior, used her laptop to move a black-clad avatar center
stage. She and the other half-dozen students agreed that in “Titus,” the
rape, murders and final banquet — when the Queen unknowingly eats the
remains of her two children — should all take place in the same spot.

“Every time someone is in that space,” Ms. Cook said, “the audience is going
to say, ‘Uh oh, you don’t want to be there.’ ”

Students like Ms. Cook are among the first generation of undergraduates at
dozens of colleges to take humanities courses — even Shakespeare — that are
deeply influenced by a new array of powerful digital tools and vast online

At the University of Virginia, history undergraduates have produced a
digital visualization of the college’s first library collection, allowing
them to consider what the selection of books says about how knowledge was
classified in the early 18th century. At Hamilton College, students can
explore a virtual re-creation of the South African township of Soweto during
the 1976 student uprisings, or sign up for “e-black studies” to examine how
cyberspace reflects and shapes the portrayal of minorities.

Ms. Rowe’s students, who have occasionally met with her on the virtual Globe
stage while wearing pajamas in their dorm rooms, are enthusiastic about the

“Until you get Shakespeare on its feet, you’re doing it an injustice,” Ms.
Cook said. “The plays are in 3-D, not 2-D.”

Many teachers and administrators are only beginning to figure out the
contours of this emerging field of digital humanities, and how it should be
taught. In the classroom, however, digitally savvy undergraduates are not
just ready to adapt to the tools but also to explore how new media may alter
the very process of reading, interpretation and analysis.

“There’s a very exciting generation gap in the classroom,” said Ms. Rowe,
who developed the digital components of her Shakespeare course with a
graduate student who now works at Google. “Students are fluent in new media,
and the faculty bring sophisticated knowledge of a subject. It’s a gap that
won’t last more than a decade. In 10 years these students will be my
colleagues, but now it presents unusual learning opportunities.”

As Ms. Cook said, “The Internet is less foreign to me than a Shakespeare
play written 500 years ago.”

Bryn Mawr’s unusually close partnership with Haverford College (essentially
across the road) and Swarthmore College (a short drive away) has enabled the
three institutions to pool their resources, students and faculty. In
November students from all three participated in the first Digital
Humanities Conference for Undergraduates. Hosted by Haverford, the
student-run two-day symposium also attracted undergraduates from Middlebury,
Brown, Cornell, Hamilton and the University of Pennsylvania, who shared
their own projects and discussed other ways in which undergraduates could
use new technology for research.

Jen Rajchel, one of the conference organizers, is the first undergraduate at
Bryn Mawr to have a digital senior thesis accepted by the English
department: a Web site and archive on the American poet Marianne Moore, who
attended the college nearly a century ago.

Ms. Rajchel had experimented with building a digital archive at Haverford
with Laura McGrane, an assistant professor there who helped create the three
colleges’ digital humanities initiative last year. But Ms. Rajchel’s Bryn
Mawr thesis adviser, Jane Hedley, had never worked with an undergraduate on
this type of digital project before.

“She wanted me to show her that this was necessary,” Ms. Rajchel said.

Presenting a Moore poem on the Web site while simultaneously displaying
commentary in different windows next to the text (as opposed to listing them
in a paper) more accurately reflects the work’s multiple meanings, according
to Ms. Rajchel.

After all, she argued in the thesis, Moore was acutely aware of her audience
and made subtle alterations in her poems for different publications —
changes that are more easily illustrated by displaying the various versions.
The Web presentation of Moore’s poetry also allows readers to add comments
and talk to one another, which Ms. Rajchel believes matches the poet’s
interest in opening a dialogue with her readers.

She and her adviser both posted their evaluations of the thesis online after
it was reviewed. Ms. Hedley said she liked how Ms. Rajchel underscored the
link between a published poem and its readers, although she noted that a
project like this was “apt to have less focus, fullness and heft than a
conventional senior thesis,” which might run 35 pages.

Particularly inspiring to Ms. Rajchel is that her work doesn’t disappear
after being deposited in a professor’s in box. The site, which includes
scans of original documents from Bryn Mawr’s library, was (and remains)
viewable. “It really can go outside of the classroom,” she said, adding that
an established Marianne Moore scholar at another university had left a

Doing research that lives outside the classroom is also what drew Anna
Levine, a junior at Swarthmore, to digital humanities. Over the summer and
after class, she and Richard Li, a senior at Swarthmore, worked with Rachel
Buurma, an assistant professor of literature there, to develop the Early
Novels Database for the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and
Manuscript Library, which enables users to search more thoroughly through
fiction published between 1660 and 1830.

“I am the one doing all the grunt work,” Ms. Levine said of her tasks, which
largely involve entering details about a novel into the database. “But one
of the great things is as an undergraduate, it really enables me to
participate in a scholarly community.”

In a Swarthmore lounge where Ms. Buurma’s weekly research seminar on
Victorian literature and culture meets, Ms. Levine and a handful of other
students recently settled into a cozy circle on stuffed chairs and couches.
As part of their class work, they have been helping to correct the
transcribed online versions of Household Words and All the Year Round, two
19th-century periodicals in which Charles Dickens initially published some
novels, including “Great Expectations,” in serial form.

On a square coffee table sat a short stack of original issues of the
magazine that a librarian had brought from the college’s collection to show
the class. Students discussed how the experience of reading differs,
depending on whether the text is presented in discrete segments, surrounded
by advertisements or in a leather binding; whether you are working in an
archive, editing online or reading for pleasure.

“I was more immersed in the fictional world because I was concentrating so
much,” Esther Lee, a junior, said, describing her experience of reviewing
the online transcriptions for mistakes. “I was editing word by word by word
and noticing more of the details.”

Laura Backup, a senior, had the opposite reaction. “I couldn’t do both at
once,” she said of reading and editing. “I was too focused on finding the

For Charlie Huntington, a curly-haired junior, neither the pamphlet-sized
journal nor the Web made the novel “feel nearly as important as it does
here,” he said, tapping a paperback copy of “Great Expectations.”

Those skeptical of the digital humanities worry that the emphasis on data
analysis will distract students from delving deeply into the heart and soul
of literary texts. But Ms. Buurma contends that these undergraduates are in
fact reading quite closely.

As for Ms. Levine, she said she was not bothered that large questions about
the significance and direction of this growing field were still swirling.

“We’re really participating in something that’s happening right now,” she
said, “like being part of a political movement and not yet knowing where the
next critical thing may come from.”


Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

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