digital dickens notes: first prototype

Over the last few weeks I have put together a very early prototype of a Dickens notes page alongside the text of an installment. I have yet to upload the result (although screenshots are below). But while I work on fixing a few bugs, here is the XML file!  Together with its associated XSLT file, this produces an interface that highlights the connections between the working notes and the installment text for the second installment of Our Mutual Friend.  Hover-over critical notes explain the relationship between the working notes and the text, and each of Dickens’s notes can be highlighted to show the corresponding content in the installment text.  To create this I adapted the XML and XSLT files from the Versioning Machine.  The Versioning Machine is designed as a tool for comparing multiple versions of the same text to highlight similarities and differences or changes over time.  I adapted it to highlight connections between texts. (Many thanks to Tanya Clement, Associate Editor of the Versioning Machine, who introduced me to it at DHSI.)

This is very clearly an early, early prototype for the project, which will need its own interface tailored to the needs of the project.  My point was merely to use an existing open-source tool to display a prototype and to get me started encoding the text.  I still need to do quite a bit of work to encode the notes and the installment according to the TEI guidelines, but this is a start!

This is what it looks like (click to see file):

Watch this space for a working upload of the versioning machine page to try out yourself, but for now here are some screenshots:

Although this works for now as a prototype, it has some drawbacks.  The most obvious is the space allocated to the installment text, which is far too narrow and requires too much scrolling.  We need a feature that allows users to easily navigate to the elements of the installment that correspond to the working notes, which would either require the addition of more panels or a “next” and “previous” feature that jumps between portions of the text.  Another problem involves the space allocated to the manuscript, which is currently too small and makes the manuscript secondary to the transcription.  Finally, I would prefer an interface that features the interpretive component more prominently (beyond the critical notes).  But this is the point of a prototype: to test out and evaluate the idea!

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digital pedagogies

As part of the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke I've been eager to develop some concrete ideas for student assignments that incorporate digital pedagogy -- meaningfully.  I've seen a lot of attempts to liven up the classroom with digital tools, but I'm cautious about DH for the sake of newness, difference, or making research papers more exciting.  Not that these aren't real benefits of digital tools!  But how can we design undergraduate assignments that build upon (and enhance) the traditional research paper?  There's a reason we teach students to craft an argument about a text, to tease multiple meanings out of a passage, to respond thoughtfully and critically to others' interpretations, to explain how context matters and how reading can change depending on the cultural cues we are given.  How can we create student assignments that help students do more of what we ask them to do in a research paper, and to do it better?

A group of us got together recently to discuss how we can take advantage of the Ph.D. Lab to help ourselves and others successfully incorporate digital tools into the classroom, whether for occasional group activities, for single student assignments (presentations? final projects?), or even for structuring a whole semester of learning (content management systems? the course as one big collaborative project?)  We have a plan - or at least the beginning of one!  It has two parts. First, we talked about putting together a series of workshops in the spring structured around the theoretical and practical use of specific DH tools in the classroom, drawing on the collective experience of the Lab (and perhaps reaching out to the DH community in the Triangle). Second, we want to create a digital resource as part of the Ph.D. Lab (and therefore an ongoing Lab project) -- an idea space and a toolkit for digital pedagogy.  We are hoping that faculty and graduate students will contribute blog-style descriptions of how they have used or plan to use a digital component in a class or assignment (we'll begin with our own contributions and then expand beyond the Lab and Duke).  These contextualized descriptions of digital assignments should be useful to others planning to use a similar tool or design a similar assignment in their own classes. More details to be worked out, but I'm excited by the plan!

This has me thinking, not only about the kind of digital assignments I'd like to implement in my own future classes (I have lots of thoughts about this), but also about the sorts of considerations we need to have when incorporating DH into the classroom.  Some random thoughts based on my own experience, my conversations with others, and my reading (and I should gratefully acknowledge the great Digital Victorianist panel at NAVSA last month for getting me thinking more about these ideas after the Ph.D. Lab meeting):

  • Thinking about changing (and building) grading rubrics. How do you evaluate digital work?  How do you encourage creativity and experimentation but still create a framework for assessment?  Is a rubric the best way to do this?
  • Using digital work to encourage and enhance collaboration. Students bring different skills to the classroom and to a project.  They can teach each other when they work together. (Erin told us in our Ph.D. Lab brainstorming session that she embraces the role of project manager in her classes and has students identify their own skills early in the semester.)
  • But if students work collaboratively, can they still be assessed on their individual contributions?  How?  What about assessment on group work?  Need to give some thought ahead of time to how to identify roles that students will assign within their groups.  I would prefer to incorporate an individual portion to the assignment.  What counts as individual work and what counts as group work?  (J has students "grade" each other on their own and each others' contributions to the group -- a great way to encourage individual effort in group work.)  
  • REFLECTION!  The most exciting thing about digital work in the humanities is its potential to  facilitate interpretation and analysis, not to replace it.  By reflecting -- often, at different stages of a project -- students can think critically about a digital tool, about how it helps (or doesn't help) them read and interpret, and about just what analysis and interpretation mean.  How does mapping the relationships between characters in a play help us understand the play differently compared to seeing it on a stage or reading it in a book?  What does it leave out?  
  • This also means students can still develop writing skills; they can use a digital tool to help answer a research question. I like the idea of each group formulating a research question and planning their digital work at the same time so they're paying attention to the interpretive possibilities offered by various types of reading.  I'm concerned that digital tools need to enhance  rather than replace  writing in the classroom.  Can we use digital elements (screenshots, video, audio, maps, topic models, visualizations, etc.?) as a sort of enhanced form of quotation?  Quotations need explaining, contextualizing, framing as evidence for an argument...
  • Need to teach students SKILLS, and grasp them ourselves first!  (This isn't unique to a digital approach. Students enter our literature classrooms with their own reading skills, but we still have to teach them how to close read and how to craft an argument, how to carefully take on board and counter other critical points of view, etc.)  Need to work a skills session or two into the syllabus.
  • Preparation is important, but we also need to embrace and learn from missteps and failure, be prepared to adapt and get creative when things aren't working, work flexibility into a project. 
  • Need to start small and not get too ambitious, especially if you're not used to teaching with digital tools. Don't need to overwhelm students and yourself with lots of newness in one semester!  Embracing failure is great; courting it is probably not the best plan!
  • Think about resources that can help, especially libraries and the experience of library staff. Can we incorporate special collections materials into a digital project?  How about the current research resources available through the library?   

These are just a few of the things I've been thinking about.  And then there are the concerns I have that relate to my own digital work that apply to the classroom as well. I'm hesitant to reduce texts to data. That's not to say I don't think texts contain data; what are we doing when we identify literary devices or talk about the relationships between characters if not drawing information from texts?  But texts are not pure information, nor can they be reduced to datasets.  We read them, experience them, encounter them in time and context.  They are not merely synchronic, static, representable as data.  

This week I read about this assignment by Harvard art history professor Jennifer L. Roberts in which she asked students to spend three hours  (THREE HOURS!) looking at a painting in an art gallery. Her point: to slow down, concentrate, have patience, immerse yourself in art and the experience of art. Stop looking, reading, reacting so fast.  Her approach is an important counterpoint to a lot of digital work which attempts to read as much as possible as quickly as possible.  Close reading isn't out of date; it's why we read. 

My research focuses on narrative and its capacity to imagine, experiment with, and create forms of psychology.  Narrative moves, it flows, it sometimes backtracks and redirects.  It's a process, a form-in-process.  Can we really turn this into data?  I'm most interested in those digital projects in literature that embrace and explore literary form as an aesthetic form, and that's not always easy because a lot of digital work is a type of re-presentation.  It needs interpretation, and at its best digital projects help us experience literature in new ways and facilitate interpretive work (both in viewing and in creating digitized objects). For example -- as I have definitely discovered -- encoding Dickens's working notes with help from the TEI is interpretive work!   So if students get their hands dirty with some XML, they need to reflect upon the decisions they make about the tags they choose and what they choose to tag. 

So, yes, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing in DH, in research and in the classroom.  There's a lot you can't  do with a digital tool, and students should be encouraged to acknowledge and think critically about that.  But there are some things you can't do with traditional reading practices (and the example doesn't always have to reach beyond the capacities of a human mind, e.g. "machines can read in greater quantities than us and see things we can't see").  I came to my own digital project because I was frustrated with the difficulty of interpreting the relationships between Dickens's working notes and his serial installments by relying upon a linear critical format that restricted my ability to draw direct comparisons, demonstrate changes, set the texts side by side -- all things I would be able to do in an interactive environment.  I'm still in the process of figuring out just how I want to do this and just which tools I need to employ (playing around with my options is giving me some great ideas), but I'm excited about the possibilities and how they might open up new ways of conceptualizing serial form.  (I've been thinking, for instance, about how a digital project might critically narrate narrative.)  I want my students to approach digital tools with this kind of careful enthusiasm. Yes, I might require a digital component for an assignment, but my hope is that I can design some assignments (and adapt some old ones) that encourage my students to explore unexpected ways of thinking about analysis, criticism, and reading.


digital dickens notes

It's been a while since DHSI, and the Digital Dickens Notes project is slowly developing on the sidelines.  I played with some tools in the Digital Editions class at DHSI and had a good chat with Dean Irvine, and I have some ideas about how the project might develop.  In the future it will definitely be a collaborative project, and I have high hopes that it could expand to feature all of Dickens's working notes alongside his serial installments.  But one step at a time...

The first step: a home on the web.  Check out

The website will just serve as a basic placeholder for a bit, but it's there and ready for future developments! 

At DHSI I learned how to use Oxygen XML editor to turn the working notes into properly encoded text that will be viewable and searchable across platforms.  As I taught myself some of the basics of the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) I learned a lot more about the working notes and how they function.  For instance, giving XML tags to the working note text makes me wonder about the different ways Dickens combines character names with places.  My trial of Oxygen has run out, so I'm planning on purchasing an academic license to continue this work.

Our Digital Editions class experimented with the Modernist Commons, which wasn't too helpful for my project (although I do love the image viewer for browsing manuscripts).  It has a built-in XML function to allow you to add tags.  Useful for some projects, but not really for mine:

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Thanks to Tanya Clement I also played around with the Versioning Machine, an open source tool designed as an interface for displaying and comparing multiple versions of a text encoded via TEI.  Because of it's purpose (versioning!), it's not the best tool for what I want to do (although it's a fantastic framework for comparing multiple witnesses of the same text).  However, I played around with the XML and XSLT files in Oxygen and managed to make it do some pretty cool things.  

For example, I manipulated the code that is designed to highlight the same word as it appears in multiple witnesses of the same text so that it would highlight the instances of a particular character, place, theme, or idea across the two pages of working notes for an installment and the text of the serial installment itself.  This allows you to interactively see the development of an idea from generative note to chapter plan to text.  For instance, clicking on "Veneering" in the generative notes (the left hand side of the working notes page) will highlight Dickens's notes for how Veneering appears in the chapter plans (right hand side of the working notes page) and his appearance in the serial installment text.  

Here are a couple of screen-shots: 

If you look closely at the image below you can see how "Veneering" is highlighted to demonstrate the transition between the generative notes and chapter plans (the left and right sides of the working note page for that installment, which each get their own frame): 

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The critical note tool allows you to hover over a note in superscript beside a word in the transcription.  This is a fantastic tool for annotating the working notes.  You can also see a frame for an introduction to the text on the left, which would allow me to explain and contextualize the interactive tools and the relationship between notes and text.  The red "x" at the top of the frame allows you to get rid of it so that you have more room to view the transcriptions of the left and right pages of the working notes (which each get their own frame):

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The image viewer allows me to embed a thumbnail of the manuscript image above the transcription so that users can enlarge it (I have had to use poor quality facsimile reproductions because I don't yet have the digital color images).  I love that you can drag the pop-up to wherever you want it on the screen:

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While the Versioning Machine is certainly not what I would use for the final project, its framework and interface gave me some inspiration for the type of user interface that would best facilitate an interactive exploration of the relationship between the working notes manuscript image, the transcription, annotations, and the text of the serial installments  I love the hover-over critical note tool and the pop-up manuscript image (although I think the manuscript image is probably too central to understanding the working notes to be just an optional popup).  

My experience at DHSI and my research since then has already made me rethink a lot of the plans I put forward in the Digital Abstract, but for now I'm leaving it in place.  My plan is to purchase Oxygen and continue developing one installment of the working notes using the Versioning Machine so that I can publish it for users to experiment with.  I'll be participating in Duke's Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge this year and I'm looking forward to getting some advice and input from other scholars working on DH projects.


music of the spheres

A Henry Maudsley footnote:

"To persist in one mode or state of consciousness would be really to be unconscious; wherefore when our attention is given intensely to some observation or reflection, so that we are absorbed in it, we hardly seem to be conscious; in fact, consciousness is aroused when the attention wanders.  We do not perceive one continuous and unvarying action upon the senses, e.g. the movement of the earth, the pressure of the atmosphere upon the surface of our bodies, &c.  For the same reason probably we do not hear the music of the spheres; a sound of unvarying tone and continuance falling on the ears from the first moment of life.  And yet it is possible the noise may be stupendous."

Henry Maudsley, The Physiology of Mind, 3rd edition (New York: Appleton, 1889), p. 17.

abstract for digital dickens project

No 7.jpg

For the last few months I have been planning a digital project that will take advantage of an interactive, non-linear digital environment to help visualize one of the arguments I have been making about serial form in my chapter about Dickens's Our Mutual Friend .  

I am interested in the interactive nature of serial form, in the activity it requires of its readers, and in the ways in which it is shaped by its publication format.  My chapter shows that Our Mutual Friend works like a network rather than a linear plot.  It unfolds not as a continuous developing narrative, but as a constantly changing process of forming  as new combinations of characters are placed in interaction.  I won't go into too much detail about network form here, but in short I place Dickens alongside those Victorian scientists, including Charles Darwin and George Henry Lewes, who seized on the dynamic processes of a network as a way of describing biological life.  Like these writers, Dickens used network form to stage life as a dynamic system of interactions between mutable component parts.  But he pushed beyond these biological models by using the open interactivity of serial form to turn fictional narrative into an experimental testing ground for enacting networked urban life.  

Dickens's Working Notes

Dickens's working notes for Our Mutual Friend  are at the heart of this chapter and help me to demonstrate how each installment works as a separate narrative unit with its own purpose in actualizing certain possibilities made possible by the sections he had already written and generating another set of possibilities for those he still had to write.  The working notes record form as the process of formation.  They were a testing ground for potential events and combinations of characters.  He wrote the notes alongside rather than prior to the novel; they are filled with memoranda recording the process of writing, questions and answers, check-marks, changes.  They record his overwriting of installments; they offer reminders about the number of pages still to write; they experiment with character interactions.  The working notes are one in a series of documents that give us a sense of the process of a novel like Our Mutual Friend: changes of direction, alterations in response to reception, moments of indecision.  These documents include Dickens’s earlier book of memoranda, the letters he wrote about the novel to his illustrator Marcus Stone and other friends and acquaintances during its publication, his heavily-edited manuscripts, and his edited proofs.  Reading the novel alongside these other manuscripts brings to light the ways in which its form is impacted by its production and reception.  

The Digital Project

As I wrote about the working notes in this chapter I found myself frustrated by the linearity of critical writing.  I kept thinking that the argument that I wanted to make about the working notes -- after all, an argument about non-linearity in form -- would make so much more sense if it could be visualized interactively.   What if you could place the working note pages for Our Mutual Friend  alongside the text of the serial installments and demonstrate just how they relate to one another?  How does a note about the combination of two characters in an installment change once Dickens writes the installment?  Which notes do and do not materialize in the installment, and can we think about why?  Which combinations of characters get activated from notes to text?  How, exactly, did Dickens use these working notes?  We can't treat them as mere blueprints for a finished form: they were written alongside the novel.  They are part of its forming.  And in order to understand this, we need to see  it -- to see the texts alongside one another.  

The same goes for the Book of Memoranda Dickens kept from 1855, nine years before he began writing and publishing Our Mutual Friend.  Here he jotted down very short ideas for characters, scenes, titles, etc.  Elements from this novel can be traced back to over 19 separate notes spread throughout this memoranda book, which helps us better understand the finished novel not as the development of a single idea, but as the amalgamation of multiple disparate parts placed into combination.  What if we could better visualize the connections between these memoranda notes and the published installments?

So I am working on a project that will do all these things, that will take advantage of a digital environment to demonstrate the connections between Our Mutual Friend  and its working notes.  I'm excited to be sponsored by NINES to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute this June to get the training I need to develop this project.  I think it could be a fantastic resource for scholars interested in serial form and in Dickens's final completed novel.  It has huge potential for expansion to other Dickens novels and to other manuscripts and materials associated with this one text.  A digital project like this can really help us understand the form of a serial novel as inseparable from the records of its production.  Dickens's novels were living forms, constantly under revision and production.  We need to read them that way!  

Take a look at my digital abstract for the project.  I'll post updates as I work on the project.  Feedback/suggestions are welcome! 

an ode to technology

It's been an intense few weeks of chapter-writing, and spending hours every day hunched over my macbook makes me grateful for those little pieces of the 21st century that make 19th-century dissertation-writing so much easier.  It may not count as "Digital Humanities" proper, but without these little pieces of digital software and hardware this humanist would be much less productive.  So... my top three digital tools for the spring:

1. Evernote

my mind on my mac

my mind on my mac

Evernote doesn't just organize my dissertation notes; it organizes my mind.  I could not function without this fantastic (and free!) software.  Instead of a vast collection of separate Word documents, I have a set of notebooks, each with sub-notebooks, that are easily to flip between, save automatically as I write, sync with an app on my iPhone, and allow me to search vast amounts of information quickly without opening any other windows.  One of my favorite features: I can import screencaps from Google Books instead of transcribing quotes, and Evernote makes the text readable so that it finds the content of these books when I do keyword searches.  And the ability to search across so many documents is one of the things that makes Evernote so useful.  For anyone taking Ph.D. qualifying exams that require a written component: Get Evernote!  Cramming years of reading into a 12-hour take-home exam is just a tad less stressful when you can easily find that obscure reference to an obscure theory book you remember jotting down some notes about one weekend a couple of years ago.  


back to work! at the end of a tomato break

back to work! at the end of a tomato break

Since I began using this website last year, I have been measuring my life in tomatoes.  There are others sites and apps out there based on the Pomodoro technique, but after trying a few of them, I've settled on  While others might prefer the options for structuring tasks, setting goals, and organizing projects offered by alternatives like orkanizer, I prefer the simplicity of mytomatoes: create an account, log in, start the 25-minute timer, and when the buzzer rings fill in a little box summarizing your accomplished activity to start your break (lately I've opted for simple descriptors like "drafting," "researching," or "editing").  Now every day is measured in  25-minute blocks with 5 minute breaks, and if I don't manage at least 8 tomatoes of dissertation writing in a day, it's a wasted day.  This website has been so necessary this semester, my first without any teaching obligations.  It gets me working, keeps me honest, helps me focus, and controls that nasty habit of email and facebook checking whenever I hit a roadblock in my writing.  

3. An extra screen

two screens!

two screens!

Admittedly, since I've been working at the library almost every day over the last three weeks, I haven't been taking advantage of this one recently.  But today I'm back at my desk, working with two screens, and remembering how useful this is.  My Dad was responsible for this wonderful idea.  He has an extra computer monitor in his home office, and he suggested I do the same when I moved to Durham.  You can pick one up without breaking the bank, and macs are particularly good at extending a laptop screen to the slightly larger monitor that sits beside it.  This set up is particularly useful when note-taking from web-based research (articles, Google Books, etc.), since I can have my Evernote window open on one screen and the original text on the other.  But I'm most grateful for it when writing.  Since all my research notes and planning notes and notes to self and "what am I doing??!!" notes are in Evernote, I can have that window open on one screen and my current Word draft open on the other so there's no need to switch backwards and forwards between windows or squish each application into half a screen (or kill more trees by printing out notes, which used to be my bad habit).  

an 1851 excursion


If I could take a jaunt back in time, I’d pick a summer’s day in 1851 and visit the Crystal Palace, the building that housed what Lewis Carol called “a sort of fairyland,” that Walter Bagehot referred to as “a great fair under a cucumber frame,” and that Karl Marx (with good reason) read as a palace of capitalist fetishism. Perhaps I’d pick “shilling day” and mingle with the labourers. Or maybe I’d pick a day when I might run into Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, Marx, Eliot, Tennyson, or perhaps Queen Victoria herself among the 42,000 daily visitors. But time travel being impossible, I’ll just have to settle for the incredible amount of paraphernalia and ephemera produced for and about the Great Exhibition. The Victorians recordedeverything that went on inside the building, so in addition to meticulous catalogues of the 100,000 objects crammed between its glass walls, we also have records of how many tons of salt were consumed, how many gallons of pickles were eaten, even how many people used the bathroom (the record: 11,171 on October 8).

My favourite records of the exhibition are the telescopic commemorative cards. This one is in the collections of London’s Science Museum:


And this one is in the Victoria & Albert Museum:


And for much better images of Lane’s Telescopic View, see this fantastic collection from Johns Hopkins George Peabody Library collection of books and ephemera relating to The Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace.

Finally, here’s a video from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which houses a lot of the material originally included in the Great Exhibition:

automatic writing

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As I was doing some research on a tangentially-related topic of physiology and narrative, I came across some Victorian material on “automatic writing,” which was a manifestation of mesmeric or psychic influence by which a person unconsciously produced writing – channelled from another person – without consciousness of the act. But among these results popped up this one very different reference in the January 1870 issue of The Eclectic Magazine of Literature and Science to a machine for automatic writing: a futuristic technology that would have the ability to transfer a person’s spoken words into print. It makes for some fun reading:

mind movies

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I had a fascinating conversation with another Preparing Future Faculty fellow in the neuroscience & psychology department last week about the kind of visual processing that happens outside explicit awareness. He was talking about perception studies that are able to use brain activity to predict identification of visual stimuli. A few days later, I came across this article about research conducted in the Gallant Lab at UC-Berkeley. Three subjects watched movie trailers, and the researchers matched the recorded brain signals to a database of 18-million seconds of random YouTube video clips (which did not include the trailers they had watched). The computer program they designed was able to pick out clips for each of the brain signals and put together a composite video that mirrors the scenes the subjects saw in the trailers.

Here is their side-by-side comparison of the trailer they watched (on the left) and the composite generated from the brain signals:

The software selected multiple “matching” clips from the database and created a composite:

Although this technology has been used in the past, this is the first time the images have been dynamic: movies of the mind.

The range of ethical implications are vast, of course: what sort of right-to-privacy issues can we glimpse on these horizons? As it stands, the technology requires images that have already been presented to the subject (and we’re talking specifically visual cortex here; this is not quite “mind reading”… yet), but the potential for one day “decoding” the perceptions of unconscious subjects (dreaming to comatose) is just incredibly cool.

More related links: