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November 30, 2015

Reading Digitally, Archiving by Smartphone

November 30, 2015 | By | No Comments

A friend of mine once joked that so many Victorianists become digital humanists because Victorian novels weigh so much. If the Victorianist is drawn to DH because of the ease—and chiropractic benefits—of digitization, then the Modernist might stay away for similar reasons. Hamstrung by copyright laws, modernist scholars like myself find it quite challenging to undertake a large-scale digital project with the texts we find so interesting. Of course, this is too simple: a number of online repositories, such as the Modernist Journals Project, the Modernist Versions Project, and Editing Modernism in Canada have done so much to increase digitization efforts and make rare texts available to scholars digitally. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder at the relative lack of digitally-inflected panels, workshops, and seminars at the Modernist Studies Association’s most recent annual conference in Boston last week (2 workshops, 2 roundtables, 1 panel, 1 seminar, and a “digital exhibition,” featuring 8 projects).

I set aside lobster rolls and Sam Adams and oh-so-good East Coast pizza to attend one of the pre-conference workshops that took up this issue. Led by my new #scholarlygirlcrushes Shawna Ross and Claire Battershill, “Digital Modernist Texts in the Classroom,” addressed questions of access and digitization for research and teaching. Shawna and Claire are a part of a group working on Open Modernisms, designed for digitizing, archiving, and anthologizing modernist texts. In many ways, Open Modernisms is a crowdsourcing anthology project: users can upload their own texts to the database and access others, creating their own anthologies for teaching. (Undoubtedly, Open Modernisms will have other uses, but our workshop focused on teaching).

Shawna and Claire encouraged workshop participants to teach not only digital modernist texts, but also the process of digitization, such that students would create their own course packs or anthologies, as well as “paying it forward” for students to benefit in the future. I like this idea for a number of reasons. It inspires a spirit of activism by discussing textbook pricing vs. open access, and actively involves students in the process of scholarly publishing. Of greater interest (if not import) is the potential for teaching digitization to draw attention to the medial properties of books, foregrounding related questions of book history, that students often overlook, and that can lead to fabulous opportunities for teaching formal and material analysis.

This issue—of the digital and/or the material, and the reading practices they engender—struck me throughout the workshop, and I think that the Open Modernisms Project is especially instructive on these issues. Claire opened by asking participants how students read digitally: that is, what has and what hasn’t worked when assigning digital texts. Participants commented on a few pitfalls: students can’t take notes (or they don’t know how to take notes), they skim on their screens (as we do), their access is limited by economic factors (such as the availability of devices or internet accessibility), and they do not always have a consistent version/page numbers to facilitate easy class conversation. But none of this, I thought, is unique to digital reading. My students do not know how to annotate unless they are taught, regardless of the format they are reading. Access to texts is still a barrier. Editions are as various as Amazon sellers. Increasingly, I find that I cannot assume that my students know how to read (or, use) a book, or that they understand what books do. I have to teach them this. And I think that the sorts of digitization practices that Shawna and Claire discussed in their workshop are incredibly useful in this endeavor.

I don’t mean to complain about “kids these days,” nor do I mean to suggest that there are not crucial differences between reading on a screen vs. on paper. Rather, I want to argue that we can better teach how to read through the sort of estrangement from the process of reading that digitization provides. Introducing digital texts, and involving students in the production of digital texts, forces us to reconsider some of the basic ways that we do—or don’t—teach students how to read.

After Claire discussed the process of teaching with digital texts and what Open Modernisms hopes to accomplish, Shawna led a hands-on workshop, teaching participants how to use the Scanner Pro app on our smartphones to digitize, and how to generate plain text using Google Drive’s OCR (um, yeah: how did I not know that Google could do this?) Participants got into groups and worked with texts that they brought, or with texts that Shawna provided. You can find Shawna’s workshop slides here to see exactly how these programs can work together for digitizing texts.

I feel somewhat uneasy about suggesting that this method addresses the problem of access to technology. While the Scanner Pro app is only $2.99, it presumes access to smartphones. Shawna addressed this concern: students should work in groups (and, certainly, groups can be assembled with at least one smartphone), but that smartphones are actually far more available and widespread than laptops, even for economically disadvantaged students.

Another concern was brought up about undergraduate labor. Is there an actual learning outcome that we can associate with this process? Or are we simply punting, and taking advantage of free labor afforded by undergraduates? I really resonated with this question: it feels disingenuous to suggest to students that, through digitization, we can stick it to the publishers trying to gouge us…while simultaneously relying on them to produce texts that will be used in perpetuity, without credit or compensation. I appreciated Claire’s generous response to this question; she acknowledged the difficulty with labor issues, but also argued that there can be real pedagogical benefits, honest learning outcomes, through teaching the process of digitization. I hope that this post has (at least partly) made that case.

I am excited to use this method in my classroom and research (hello, GoogleDrive OCR). This workshop—and the idea of digitizing with students—brought together all of the things (that I care about): critical issues in DH, modernism, the history of the book, media studies, digital pedagogy. It was energizing and challenging in equal measure.

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