Students, Building, and Sharing

This paper is a case study on an undergraduate digital editing project run in place of a traditional final year English degree dissertation. In this project I ask for volunteers to create an online digital edition of an eighteenth-century text in conjunction with the scholarly digital platform 18thConnect (Mandell, IDHMC, Texas). The project was built out of my belief that digital technology could offer English Literature students a way to demonstrate their critical skills in a more tangible way than in written coursework – to create something beyond the confines of the hermetic world of student/tutor/institution. Simultaneously, it was a response to what I perceived to be students’ limited knowledge about the nature of the digitized texts they accessed via databases such as EEBO, ECCO, or even Google Books.

The paper will also examine the ability of students to reflect upon and rationalise the use of digital technology; in effect, their answers to the questions: ‘What is a text in a digital context?’ ‘Why digital?’ and ‘Who is this for’? The interconnectedness of these questions draws upon two definitions of digital humanities easily misread as dichotomous. Stephen Ramsay’s post ‘On Building’ posited that ‘the move from reading to making’ enables a different experience of interpretation and so produce new insights. In this project, for example, encoding their edition in XML / TEI demands – and enables - students to reflect upon the nature and authority of the text in new ways. The ‘why digital’ question also asks students to think about audience: what are the best ways of building digitally to render biographical, literary, or historical meanings? So the students reflect upon, as Mark Sample put it, ‘the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge’ ('The digital humanities is not about building, it's about sharing'). This paper, then, is about how we can examine the intimacy between (contra Kirsch) interpretation and digital creation, building and sharing.