Encoding Early Modern English Drama: Embedding Digital Approaches In Undergraduate Literature Courses.

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Elizabeth Williamson

    University of Exeter

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There has been greater inclusion of teaching in DH debates in recent years, yet in practice, UK digital humanities teaching tends to be found in explicitly DH postgraduate courses or as specific skills training for self-selecting staff or (often postgrad) students; it also appears less in English literature teaching than in history, classics, media studies or linguistics. This paper offers a case study where TEI XML encoding was introduced to first-year undergraduates in an established course on Shakespeare, to facilitate discussion on how digital humanists can enable integration of digital skills into ‘traditional’ English literature teaching by capitalizing on affinities between DH, book history, and textual scholarship. Integrating digital approaches into undergraduate teaching of English literature enables us to introduce students early on to reflecting critically on the digital, and lets us embrace the complexities of encoding as editing, rather than allowing undergraduates to only interact with the digital through a GUI.
Early modern studies provides an ideal context in which to teach text encoding and digital literacy skills. In part this is due to the availability of encoded early modern texts for analysis and reuse, for example in the massive release into the public domain of lightly encoded EEBO-TCP texts in January 2015, and in part to fewer issues around copyright than with more modern texts (see Brown and Zimmer, 2017). More specifically, there is a synergy between the existing concerns of the Shakespeare course under discussion and those of digital publication, where the latter finds a natural fit in conversations on book history, text technologies, and editorial agency. Olin Bjork, in an article comparing American composition and computing classes to the “new media studies” side of digital humanities, suggests that “A weakness of digital humanities is that it undertheorizes the transformation of material objects into digital objects” (Bjork, 2012: 103). The materiality and the instability of the text are complexities that go to the heart of early modern literature studies: these are issues that our students grapple with when they consider the nature of the early modern play-text, yet rarely do we recognise that the digital text must be part of this conversation. Accordingly, in a course that unsettles the Shakespearean play as single authoritative text, there is a real need to push conversations on early print and textual scholarship into the realm of the digital, to unsettle and critique the digital texts the students encounter more often than they open their assigned course book.
The course under discussion is a first year module with c.200 students enrolled, and the digital element ran as a successful pilot in 2018 and was expanded in 2019. The digital element is introduced in a guest lecture by a digital humanist; issues raised are debated in seminar groups, and existing digital texts and projects are introduced to the students, including A Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama (EMED), Internet Shakespeare Editions, the Queen’s Men Editions, Digital Renaissance Editions, and Folger Digital Texts, where students use the Folger API to explore the possibilities opened up by text encoding. The students then have the opportunity to create their own digital edition of the ending of King Lear, opting in to an additional workshop on TEI XML. They can elect to do their final assessment as a TEI-encoded play excerpt coupled with traditional essay, which allows them to reflect on the differences between early print, modern printed editions, and digital media. Writing about the medium and the choices it encourages or enforces allows them to critically reflect on digital texts at a crucially early point in their university careers. In the encoding part of the assignment, by taking ownership of a digital play text, they come to see both the scholarly edition and the digital medium as less an unquestionably authoritative black box and more something that they themselves can have agency over and interrogate. By pulling back the curtain on the scholarly text and the digital medium, they are more able to critique both text and textual manifestation.
DH in the undergraduate classroom often tends towards GUI publication, with wikis, Wordpress sites, or platforms like the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture’s Scalar (Bjork, 2012: 99–100). While that is a valuable part of the picture, this paper explores what happens when students are introduced to the complexities of XML encoding as an editing practice, and how exposure to the component parts of a digital publication opens up that black box. This reveals to the students the variety of people involved in publication, in modern as well as early modern times, and demonstrates that encoders are editors and developers are intellectual partners who have concrete influence over the resulting output. Significantly, this message is also imparted to fellow academic staff teaching on the course. This approach thus invites fellow academic staff into the digital humanities, developing by proxy their understanding of digital resource creation and consequently their ability to critique this growing area of scholarly production.
The aim of this paper is to share experiences and create discussion around the natural affinity between early modern studies and digital publication and digital critical literacy, especially in an undergraduate context. A parallel can be seen between the instinct to view the digital object as something that appears from thin air and the unquestioning acceptance of a particular critical edition as the immutable authoritative text. It is too easy to ignore the digital provenance of a text online or the multiple agents involved in producing any (especially canonical) text. To do this is to remove those who construct the text, and obscure the encoding as well as editorial choices made at every stage of its creation. To direct attention towards these is to put them back. This is a conversation that we need to begin early on in students’ academic career, to situate digital critical literacy within an existing tradition of literary criticism: we need to teach students to close-read the material digital object at the same time as the literary text and its early print origins.


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Hirsch, B. ed. (2012)
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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO