Reflections on a Hybrid Dissertation

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The “Hybrid” Dissertation

Last week I submitted my completed dissertation, Database Modernism: Literary Information Media, am happy to have received a Ph.D. in English Literature.  Conceiving of and sustaining an argument of that scale was a challenge, and after some rest and a return to teaching, one I think I could tackle again.  In addition to the written arguments on Joyce’s Ulysses, H.D.’s Palimpsest, and Pound’s XXX Cantos, that were printed and bound, I chose to do a digital project in place of a fourth written chapter.  In my mind, the addition of this digital component raises some interesting questions that I’ve discussed before in some conference presentations, but want to revisit now that the dissertation is complete.  This post could sound a little whiny, but my goal is only to express the unexpected challenges my dissertation presented and how they led to some important conclusions, both in terms of the project itself and how I view my academic labor and ideas of completeness.

My dissertation argues that the information overload of the early twentieth century prompted Joyce, H.D., Pound, and other modernist authors and artists to devise new methods of information organization and access that forecast media strategies that developed into the digital database.  The argument uses a comparative media approach to isolate relationships between elements of information in these print texts in order to determine where they resemble the operations of databases.  The common denominator between these print and digital platforms, my dissertation argues, is the associational logic by which individual elements of information are organized by a designer/author and then presented to a user/reader.

I have some technical experience with transitioning print texts to digital platforms from my time working on the Modernist Journals Project here at the University of Tulsa.  Because of the text encoding and OCR skills I picked up at the MJP, and because the argument of my dissertation rests on this fulcrum between print and digital media, I decided a digital project might be an interesting way to both expand the project’s scope and engage with some new questions and methodologies digital humanities has introduced into the study of literature.  I supplemented my skills with two trips and three classes at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, experiences which were terrific in every possible way.  As it played out over the nearly two years I worked on the dissertation, I couldn’t be happier with the results, and I’m actually more confident in the findings now that it’s completed.  Still, I did learn some unexpected things about a dissertation that consists of traditional written arguments along with digital components.

The digital project is basically an expression of my written argument on Pound’s XXX Cantos.  In Chapter 3, I argue that the poem operates according to a dual structure of elements and relationships and that this structure resembles the node and edge structure of graph databases.  The elements, usually quotations, references, ventriloquisms, or other intertextual fragments,[1] Pound selected from the literary and historical archive and arranged on the pages of his poem according to an associational logic.  The project consists of a digital version of the 150 page XXX Cantos (which is kept secure for copyright reasons that I’ll discuss below) marked up with a custom set of tags drawn from the Text Encoding Initiative’s encoding language.   Using secondary sources (mostly Carroll F. Terrell’s A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound) and a lot of my own subjective interpretation of the poem, I used TEI tags and separate bibliography, prosopography, and gazetteer files to define as many of the intertextual elements as possible.  Then I collected/created a much lighter and more agile second tagging structure to express relationships between the different elements in the poem.  I won’t recap the project in too much detail here because I did here.

What I Learned

The clearest lesson I drew from the digital project revolves around notions of completeness: writing arguments about literary texts have different timelines than completing digital projects.  My goal when I began the digital project was simply to express the written argument of Chapter 3 using digital tools.  The encoded text I ended up with, however, is not shareable, usable, or publishable in the way that a written argument is.  Most practically, I can’t disseminate the digital project in its current form because it’s a digital version of the XXX Cantos, a text that is under copyright with New Directions.  Thanks to a lucky connection, I got in touch with ND and they were more than pleasant, but politely and understandably were not comfortable with me putting my digital version of the text on the web.  In a search for alternatives, I cycled through several options,[2] but never arrived at anything that would work in the short or long term without requiring some additional training and a sizable amount of work for a non-expert like me.

As it concerns the dissertation as a discrete project signaling the end of my Ph.D., the presentation of the project is actually a moot point, however, because the larger lesson I learned from the project is that the timeline for written arguments and complete digital projects differ in ways that may have impacted how I conceived of the project at the outset.   I wrote the bulk of the dissertation while on a fellowship that was generously awarded to me by my institution.  This fellowship is designed to allow dissertators to focus as completely as possible on writing and research so she or he can finish in a reasonable amount of time.  As it was, I was right up against the original deadline having drafted and revised three chapters and more or less finished the encoding of the XXX Cantos.  Building an interface for presenting the text (which, because of copyright was conceptually and technically difficult anyway) would have required more time, expertise, and most concretely from my perspective, more funding.  The funding schedule that covered the work that I did complete provided me with relatively lavish resources, but I was not able to reach a point where the digital component was presentable because it would have required more training.  Applying for additional grants, fellowships, and other funding sources is not impossible, but the acceptance and dispersion would have operated on a timeline that exceeds my dissertation fellowship funding.

Writing my dissertation was not at all easy.  As this post is probably itself evidence of, I am not naturally good at expressing ideas in writing.  But I do basically know how to use the English language and have written arguments about literature.  Conceiving of and executing a project using the TEI was somewhat different because it took a lot of basic learning to just to develop a familiarity, an admission which is itself a little embarrassing because of the complexity and ease with which I see scholars using it for other projects.  Gaining familiarity with the TEI required a lot of time on my own and the DHSI classes, through which I acquired a functional understanding of how to encode a text and assemble a custom schema and tagging structure.  The rest of the project required the actual creation of the text and the encoding, all of which are complete,[3] but, again, not shareable in its current form.  In addition, as I became increasingly aware as the project developed, the encoded text isn’t all that interesting by itself.  It embodies the written argument in ways that satisfy me and my dissertation committee, but it is not a useful tool or reading aid for anyone else.  In other words, I “completed” a written argument about Pound’s XXX Cantos and I “completed” a corresponding encoding of the poem, but only the written argument is something I can share with others, and this presents some unforeseen challenges, particularly as I go on the job market.

As is, I can’t publish the project because of copyright restrictions, but also because without an interface the encoded text isn’t at all useful or illuminating anyway.  The structural and linking tags are geared toward machine reading and so don’t reveal much to a human reader of the text.  In order to make the encoding useful, it’s necessary to build an additional interfacing structure which somehow presents the metadata to a user or reader.[4]  What I’m left with is a dissertation chapter’s worth of work that isn’t useful to a public or shareable with a hiring committee.  The question of completeness also affects how I talk about the project.  I submitted a written methodology and rationale as an article for publication and the peer review feedback was largely positive, but the piece was ultimately rejected because there was no completed project to unveil.  I wrote this article while on the deadline for my dissertation, a lot of extra work that resulted in a better grasp of the digital project, but no publication on my CV and more deadline stress for the other chapters because of the lost time.

I’m also in an odd position because my written dissertation consists of an introduction and three chapters.  Because it’s customary to have a fourth chapter for a book proposal, it will be necessary for me to at least conceive of another written chapter before I approach a press.  This is not impossible, and like everyone who writes a dissertation, as I was writing, many texts presented themselves as having potential for inclusion.   This doesn’t diminish the research and writing that I could have completed during the time I was working on the digital project.

What I Really Learned

Complaining aside, I remain glad I did the project and as professional and technical training and intellectual exercise, it was all very valuable.  In addition, the questions the project raised and, in some cases, answered, will be interesting to my work going forward and for what I can bring to a literature classroom or English department.

The immediate question that presents itself to me as I compare notions of completeness between written and digital instantiations of the dissertation center on labor.  I can’t present the digital project because I don’t have the technical expertise or the time and funding to build an interface.  What I had been eliding from the production of my dissertation from the outset, and may never have considered without the challenges the digital project presented, is that I don’t have the technical expertise to print and present my dissertation either.   This is labor and expertise, that, like so much that takes place in a university and the humanities, is passed off to librarians and other information media experts.  The labor and skill required to create the object that mediates my work remain completely separate from what constitutes my sense of completion for the project.  To take a rhetorical shortcut: THAT’S PROBLEMATIC!   It’s that much more problematic considering my dissertation explicitly engages with the conceptual and material differences that arise when transitioning information between print and digital media.  The entire argument of my dissertation rests on the notion that when Joyce, H.D., and Pound began viewing print as media rather than a conduit for the transmission of their romantic interiority, it significantly changed their work.  This is a lesson I had almost failed to learn about my own work.  My understanding of the practice of writing arguments about literature had to this point completely ignored the importance of these independently fascinating and integral components of scholarly production.

I don’t want to zoom out too far from this fairly insignificant event, but for me the realization that resulted from the tension between my interaction with print and digital media stands as an identifiable instance of the value of digital humanities.  The use of digital tools and media for humanities scholarship forces us to evaluate those normalized zones of our profession.  As an early career scholar going on the  job market next year, my hope is that these situated understandings of how media objects get produced and consumed is something I could bring to a classroom of students who are themselves constantly transitioning between all manner of media.

[1] I say “usually” only because Pound’s original poetry is also mixed in with the intertextual elements and relates to the other materials in the same way.

[2] For example, providing partial access for online users that aligned with accepted fair use practices.  Or, determining which of the individual cantos appeared in periodicals before copyright took hold and publishing the encoded versions to the web.  This is tricky territory, however, because it’s not totally 100% obvious that those are out of copyright either.  I don’t have the resources to litigate and this project isn’t nearly important enough to do it anyway.  On top of all that, I have an extreme appreciation for the work that ND does and fetishize the physical copies of their modernist poets (such beautiful paperback books!).

[3] Even this notion of completness is tricky because there are certainly sections of the poem I could encode more precisely, transparently, and usefully.

[4] I’m not convinced a digital edition of the poem is all that useful (mostly because I dislike reading complex texts on computer screens).

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