Online writing instruction in the digital humanities

I attended Dr. Beth Hewett’s lecture Wednesday on “The Challenge of Online Writing Instruction.”  I found it intriguing that her talk was not billed as a DH event (and she did not frame it as such during the lecture) even though she discussed some topics that have particular relevance to our course readings last week and this week.  Hewett is primarily a rhetoric/composition scholar (as were many in her audience) and she spoke about the problems teachers may face when they are asked (as increasingly high numbers of them are — willingly or otherwise) to teach partially or wholly online composition classes.  She focused on several points for which she urges teachers to fight; among these were that online writing instruction (OWI) classes need to be capped at 20 students (ideally 15) because they involve a 200% higher literacy load.  Hewett feels strongly that online and in-person classes should be treated as having equal validity, but that, in order for them to work, it is necessary to realize that individual students’ learning styles may be much better met by one or the other of them.  Though she believes that OWI can be fruitful, she described a MOOC as “a big-ass classroom where people drop out like flies and nobody does the work;” she stressed instead that personal connection between teacher and students is necessary (for instance, she uses online course management software with a chat function by which she greets students — sometimes freaking them out in the process — and she feels that some difficult situations need a phone call to resolve them).  She also finds it very important to use platforms that enable students to talk to each other (though she cautioned teachers against using this increased visibility of student thought-in-progress to grade more harshly than they might in traditional classrooms) and — perhaps most importantly — allow OWI teachers to talk to each other.  Support for teachers who find themselves suddenly thrust into online classrooms (many of whom having been told in no uncertain terms that they will lose their jobs if they refuse), is crucial.  Hewett said “If you are teaching an online writing class and you haven’t received training, shame on the administration.”

I am curious about why there seems to be such a sharp divide between self-proclaimed DHers and rhet/comp folks who work in digital environments.  (Could this be echoing the making/critiquing divide in DH circles?)  The issues about which she spoke — social support between teachers, structural support from administrators, support for students via recognition that online and in-person environments address different needs — are at the heart of the MOOC question we will discuss in our next class.  The defining feature of MOOCs that Hewett condemns (their massive, impersonal character) is the problem, not the digital nature of the class itself.  This would seem to support Richard Grusin’s point in “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities — Part 2″ that administrators are wont to see MOOCs as shiny, easy things that fit into agendas of “quick fixes and bottom line approaches to the structural problems facing higher education today” instead of looking for ways to make their online course offerings actually helpful to students.  It seems that everyone would benefit if the people who make the online course management software and the teachers who use it were able to work more closely with one another.  (Perhaps rhet/DH collaboration could even help counteract the administrative neglect from which Hewett describes the OWI world as suffering?)

Planned Obsolescence by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

In Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, she tackles the crisis in scholarly publishing (as traditionally conceived) and encourages her readers to develop institutional and electronic cultures in which an alternate, healthier model can flourish.  She specifically states in her conclusion that she has “tried to avoid the prescriptive, focusing less on what the future of scholarly publishing will look like than on how we’ll need to think differently about our relationships – as scholars, publishers, librarians, and administrators – to the process of publishing” (195) as she feels certain that “the contradictions in our current systems are simply too great to be sustained” (194).  I appreciate her openness about the fact that she cannot offer definitive solutions, but I find that (even though she avoids prescriptive directions) my strongest impression of the book is that it is primarily about our need as academics to find better ways of thinking of ourselves and the social/hierarchical world of Higher Education.

In the Introduction and in Chapter One, Fitzpatrick draws the outline of the Problem for us.  In a nutshell, the current scholarly publishing system is broken – mainly because it is being asked to do too many contradictory things by the Powers That Be in the world of Academia.  Administrators want to use the existence and number of a job or tenure candidate’s publications (from established scholarly presses that use traditional closed peer review systems, and, to a lesser extent, in traditional print-based journals) as a simple scale by which to evaluate said applicant’s suitability for the position and ultimate worth as a scholar.  Problems with this role include 1) Scholarly presses just don’t have enough money to print everything that deserves their “seal of approval”; 2) Holding out from disseminating research that can’t be traditionally published harms the field because much that should be said isn’t — it’s dumb financial luck, not academic worthiness that is in the driver’s seat; and 3)  When scholars spend their entire professional lives being taught that their worth depends solely on finished, marketable, singly-authored projects that exist in print form, the kinds of work they attempt – the ideas they regard as thinkable – become unjustly diminished.  The system we now have is ailing and will die in the reasonably near future, but this is not because it has been neglected and needs us to take better care of it; it is ailing because it is simply not equipped to handle the expectations different groups of users place on it.  As Fitzpatrick puts it in her introduction:

“In the end, what I am arguing is that we in the humanities, and in the academy more broadly, face what is less a material obsolescence than an institutional one; we are entrenched in systems that no longer serve our needs.  But because we are, by and large, our institutions – or rather, because they are us – the greatest challenge we face is not that obsolescence, but our response to it.” (13).

Of course, the flip side to the problem of very little getting through the System to readers is how can we ensure the quality of the work that gets seen if we delete the System?  Fitzpatrick argues that we shouldn’t.  Instead of gatekeeping on the front end of the “publication” process, we need to create a scholarly environment in which everything can be “published” AND THEN evaluated by knowledgeable and helpful reviewers who can help guide readers to the best work and that which is most relevant to their needs.  Fitzpatrick acknowledges that it will be hard to create such a new system and that doing so depends on finding a way to reward competent reviewers for their time and effort, moving toward a “gift economy” in which scholars help each other for the good of their fields.

In Chapter Two, Fitzpatrick explores the often counterproductive ways in which we think of ourselves as “Authors.”  She argues that we academics are firmly habituated to thinking of our own writing in ways that, ironically, ignore the death of the author as we readily apply the theory to the writing of others.  We have pinned our very identities as scholars to notions of originality, individual creativity, and solitary intellectual labor; these beliefs about ourselves are deeply held, and so will be very hard to change, but they do not accurately describe the writing process as it actually is or as it should be.  Focusing only on academic labor as traditionally conceived can push us toward self-defeating evaluations of our own work; by internalizing the (broken) System’s values, we may feel that “as long as we are in the process of writing, we have not yet completed it, and without completion, we cannot get credit for what we have produced; we haven’t accomplished anything” (68).  She argues that we need to reconceive ourselves, our institutions, and our work in ways that allow the work-in-progress to mean something to our administrators, our communities of networks between scholars working in the same fields, and – most crucially – to ourselves.


Questions for Discussion

Fitzpatrick’s recommendations depend on the accuracy of her analysis that the so-called “scholarly publishing crisis” is real and operates in the way she describes.  Do you find her argument convincing?  Have you had personal experience with the publishing industry that might support or contradict her conclusions?

Who do you think is Fitzpatrick’s audience for this book?  When she hails her reader using “we,” she nudges that reader toward seeing him/herself as a part of a group about which she makes certain assumptions and in which she explicitly includes herself.  When she says “we,” do you think that she is talking to you?  We have a good mix of people on different career paths and at different stages of those careers in our class; I’m curious about what the multiple “audience” of our class finds relevant (or not) for our own work.

How do think of yourself in relation to your own writing?  Is Fitzpatrick’s diagnosis that “we” tend to semi- or unconsciously regard ourselves as Authors (with a capital A) applicable to you?  Or do you think of yourself in a different mode?  Does your self-identification change based on the type of writing you are doing, i.e. traditionally-published scholarly work, essays for classes, blogging, or content you post on personal and/or professional social media accounts?

Which of the models that Fitzpatrick suggests as possible solutions to the Problem do you think sound most promising?  What flaws seem most worrying?  Can you think of anything else that we might try?

Multimodal Stuff:  Do you make it?  Do you want to make it?  What (if anything) might you do (or do you do) with it?

How does Fitzpatrick’s Conclusion – a case study of her own book’s publication process – affect your evaluation of her argument?  Based on the evidence she provides, would you consider taking a similar approach if/when you write a book?

Gamers and Namers

This week, I have repeatedly found myself wondering about the modes of self-identification that games and other stereotypically “nerdy” pursuits can evoke or hinder in their participants.  Jane McGonigal’s “Growing Up Gamer” is intriguing to me because of the fervency with which she feels compelled to defend the type of self that she chooses to describe with the word “gamer.”  I’m not sufficiently steeped in Althusserian theory to give a full analysis of hailing “gamers,” but I do find it curious that the appellation seems such a slippery one.  Patrick Jagoda’s essay “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities — Part 3″ includes the statement that there “approximately 183 million American ‘active gamers’ (that is, people who claim to play digital games an average of 13 hours a week).”  Who has determined that this is the threshold for claiming the identity of “active gamer”?  By treating the term as one that needs further explanation, Jagoda implicitly acknowledges that  the definition he is using is not necessarily self-evident.  I am now pondering these questions alongside my experience at the GEO conference this past weekend.  During the “Cyber-Realities” panel, Kevin Kilroy began his presentation “Kurzweil, the Cyberman” by asking the audience whether they knew what “cybermen” are.  The audience (including me) were silent, so he explained that they were monsters from the British television show Doctor Who.  At this, several audience members (including me) gave a murmur of recognition.  Actually, Doctor Who is among my favorite shows and I did immediately think of it when I heard his title.  Why, then, did I assume he was talking about something else — something with which I was unfamiliar?  Perhaps because I was in a session of presentations that was prominently labelable as being about Digital Humanities (capital D, capital H) and I therefore assumed that the presenters held deeper knowledge of the field than I (digital immigrant that I am) possessed?  All I can say for certain is that Kilroy hailed “people who know what cybermen are” and I did not think he was talking to me.

Also during that session, I was fascinated by Nigel’s brilliant presentation.  He raised questions about the implications of achievements in games that had never occurred to me, but about which I now can’t not think.  What surprised me most was that I was able to follow what he was talking about, even though I went into the session thinking that my only reason for being there was as moral support to my friends.  In other words, since I have frequently felt bewildered or wrong-footed as I try to forge onward into new realms of digital existence (a phrase which here means “I had never before heard of most of the things we have talked about in this class before it began”), I assumed that any research project in a Digital Humanities topic would be mostly over my head (at least, if it involved stuff we haven’t gone over in class).  Nigel’s presentation used World of Warcraft as a focal point in discussing how achievement systems work.  I started playing it a few months ago, so I was familiar with the system and can now contemplate how my own game-playing behavior is affected by or reflected in the achievement log.  However, I don’t consider myself a “gamer.”  I don’t play every day (or even every week) and I certainly fall short of the 13-hour-per-week threshold for “active” gamership according to Jagoda.  However, I enjoy playing often enough that I consider it worthwhile to subscribe; Blizzard Entertainment is quite happy to consider me an “active” player in that I have a valid credit card and fork over their monthly fee (which would be the same whether I played for one hour per month or 24/7).  When I tried to determine why I, a player of this game, do not call myself a “gamer,” I came up with two possible reasons:  1) I haven’t been doing it for very long, so I don’t have the lifetime of social memories that McGonigal connects with her gamership and I could therefore imagine myself ceasing to play with no emotional trauma, and 2) I’m not very good yet, so I don’t have the warm aura of accomplishment that I could imagine feeling if I was actually really awesome at smacking monsters with a giant virtual hammer (though it has been ages since I died by falling off of buildings, thank you very much).

So, fellow DH-ers, my question is this:  How do you identify yourselves in the digital world?  Are you a gamer, a game-playing non-gamer, a nonplussed non-gamer, a digital native, digital immigrant, “active” [blogger, tweeter, Facebooker, instagrammer, etc.], conscientious objector, or none of the above?  Why?  How do we decide what to call ourselves, and how (if at all) does that decision impact the reality of of our digital lives?

Allegedly Interactive fiction; or, The Day My Computer Told Me “You Can’t Talk To Your To-Do List”

I went through “Howling Dogs” and found myself reminded of a conversation I had with an art major at a rather odd modern dance performance I attended.  We were sitting next to each other and fell to chatting about our majors, interests, and so forth.  Modernism in dance is not something I understand and I found myself engaged by the performance (sadly, I don’t recall the title) but provoked into thinking about it until my brain ached.  I was incapable of NOT trying to force the performance into a story that made sense, but its abstract nature defied me.  I confessed to my newfound artistically-inclined friend (when she asked what I, as a newbie, thought of it) that I couldn’t quite tell what it was about.  She told me that it isn’t necessarily about anything, and the experience of watching such a performance is more about letting it wash over you than anything else.  She explained that what you, as an individual audience member, feel while beholding it is the thing to analyze, not the performance itself.

This philosophy of art is very foreign to my usual way of thinking, but it may be the best available approach to something like “Howling Dogs.”  I cannot tell you what it was “about,” but it did serve to focus my reading experience in different ways than would a stationary text.  At first, I found it a little dull, but eventually I warmed up to the poetic cadence of the dream-like “activities.”  The first time I tried the shower and the trash chute, they worked fine; after that, they were broken and I have no idea why.  I suppose “I” was living in filth for a sizable portion of the story, but other than that I observed no effect from these elements of “my” habitat ceasing to function.  I assumed they were there for some reason (maybe that was a mistake) and so was deeply unsatisfied when I never found out what the point of them was.

As I read the story, I noticed that the links that revealed more text on the same page (rather than opening a new one) served to focus my pauses in a way that would not have been possible if the story did not rely on hypertext.  This feature helped shape my impression of the story as poetry because it emulated the way poetry can use line and stanza breaks to cause the reader to notice words that would be quickly passed if the same text were presented in prose form.  Even with the enforced pauses, the experience of reading the story — even though some of the links presented choices — was one of letting it wash over me.  It didn’t really feel interactive, since the choices were so limited and often did not stand in clear opposition (except in the battle-or-biscuits scene), so I would term it “exploratory fiction” if I had to produce a name for what this thing is.   This format allows the author to constrain the way the reader moves through it in more complex ways than are available for printed fiction, so I do not feel that it gives the reader enough agency to warrant the term “interactive.”

The constraint of apparent (fake) freedom can be much more infuriating, as I found out when I tried to do “Shade.”  There seems something almost perverse about telling a reader to use her imagination but only so long as she imagines what the author has decided is appropriate.  I had seen from Susie’s post that there was a glass to be had, but even with that cheating, I could not make this thing do whatever it was supposed to do.  The structuring force of the story began to take on a personality (an incredibly annoying one) as my enemy, and I reached a point where I could no longer focus on getting that dumb glass of water because I was too busy trying to outsmart or subvert this petty tyrant.

One good thing about this “story” is that at least it stood still in a way that let me save the text for future analysis.  Here is my attempt:  Shade take 1.   The effort required to simply walk around “my” apartment shut down any interest I had at the outset in the content of the story.  Did anyone actually figure out how to get through this one?

If I don’t like a fixed story, I can simply blame the author or say “it’s just not my cup of tea,” but this supposedly-interactive fiction denies me that chance.  It tries to trick me into thinking that it is my idea to do whatever it wants me to tell it to do.  I think I would prefer, as a user, to be called “I” in the first person rather than “you” in the second so that I could more readily imagine myself inhabiting the persona of the character that the author has in mind.  Maybe that protagonist can’t even find her own bathroom, but I jolly well can (thank you very much) and I don’t much like some disembodied entity telling me that I can’t.

I realize that the frustration I felt while striving for that willing suspension of disbelief was not warranted, and I am actually intrigued by the choose-your-own-adventure format of storytelling.  But — to return to the experiential model of art reception — the most noticeable thing about this genre to me is the paradox it generates; it takes away perceptive control at the same time it purports to offer the reader more agency.  With a fixed text, I can read the whole thing (even if it is abstract or I don’t like it or I have no idea what the author wanted me to think of it) and hold it in my mind and subject it to whatever analysis or re-purposing critique I want; I can use my imagination about it if not within it.  Interactive fiction offers me the chance to use my imagination within the story itself, but it forcefully rejects my attempts to control the story as a whole.  Electronic interactive fiction imposes further distance between the reader and the ability to grasp the overarching structure that governs the story because, even with a printed choose-your-own-adventure, one can eventually read each path or can even wrest experiential control away from the author by choosing to read it cover-to-cover, out-of-order, or backwards.

Adventures in respectful vandalism

I had a bit of trouble at first in selecting a place to vandalize with which to interact.  The locations to which I have strong connections are for the most part 1) In a different state, 2) On campus, or 3) My apartment.  A lengthy road trip was out of the question, the Tawes building (for all its charms) lacks a certain something, and the only evidence for other people interacting with my apartment was the vehicle registration card that was left here by a previous tenant and which I, sadly, threw away when I found it on the top shelf in the kitchen.  As I contemplated these considerations, I determined that it would be quite absurd if — here of all places — I couldn’t think of a sufficiently memorialized spot.  However, I also did not want to get arrested.  Thus I settled on a location of moderate fame:  the George Mason Memorial.  I discovered it by walking into it during a ramble around the tidal basin last year; I feel rather fondly toward it, mostly because it seems so easy to neglect or to pass by.

George Mason Memorial name George Mason Memorial from a distance


This is supposed to be a fountain in front of the memorial, but it has no water.  I think it looks like a great spot for some theatre-in-the-round.

Instead of a traditional blog post, I put a monologue in my QR code.  I wanted to do something respectful (since this is, after all, very public property with which to attempt interaction), brief, and that didn’t immediately indicate my real name.  I made a minute-long movie using xtranormal, for which I selected an animated character who could (with some generosity of the imagination) represent me.  The link to which I attached my QR code sends the viewer to my video as published on YouTube, here:  The video can also be played on here: , but I thought it best to use the YouTube link since more people are likely to be familiar with it and to have phone apps for it.  The movie itself is a little excessively cheerful, but I hoped that this might serve as a defense against the potential annoyance of serious-minded visitors to the memorial!


(I took some pictures and tried to look like an innocent tourist while I was waiting for my opportunity to pounce with tape.)

The statue of Mr. Mason was created by sculptor Wendy Ross.  More info about her work (including the memorial) can be found at her website, here:  I taped my code to the back of one of the pillars.  The way you see it is by sitting on the bench with George and sidling all the way back so that you are leaning on the back of the bench and (unless you are, like him, nine feet tall) your feet are dangling merrily straight out in front of you in the posture of a five-year-old on any adult’s furniture.  Judging by the number of people I saw climb up there while I was waiting for a witness-free moment to do the deed, I’m not the only one to feel that this is a desirable spot in which to sit (though few may scoot far enough back to spot my code).



These two photos were taken from the same spot; looking to the right, one sees my code on a pillar; turning to the left, one sees George.

After I finished (and ascertained that I had avoided arrest), I paid a visit to my other favorite statue in D.C. and bought a Rosie the Riveter lunchbox.  All in all, not a bad day!

George Mason Memorial with QR codeCIMG2349

Adventures in Transcription

Ladies and gentlemen, I encoded something!  This something, in fact:

Before I began this assignment, I anticipated that “encoding” would be an activity of saddening difficulty, but the actual process was not at all what I thought it would be.  The word “code” conjured up mental images of those mysterious black boxes (the kind that People Who Know What They Are Doing are wont to use) that contain endless tumbling cataracts of magical white text that could, most probably, break the world if improperly fiddled with.  However, the Transcribe Bentham project’s toolbar was very easy to use and I appreciated the beginners-welcome tone of the introductory materials.  The following sentence (from the Transcription Guidelines page) is quite possibly the most comforting thing I have encountered since embarking on Mission Digital Humanities:  “Some of this may seem daunting, but do not be afraid of having a go at transcription – it is impossible to break anything, and any errors you might make can easily be reverted.”

I love looking at old handwriting, but I think I’m on the same page as Dan when it comes to deciphering what it actually says.  I opted to start with a printed page so I could focus on the encoding.  After that went as well as it did, I turned to a handwritten page.  I decided to set that aside for now because I was having difficulty increasing the zoom to a comfortable level on the screen of my relatively small laptop.  I plan to continue working on it, but I intend to do it from the large screen of a Mac in the library.  Because my interests lie in the Medieval and Early Modern periods, I was delighted to find that Transcribe Bentham offers links to paleography resources.  I was not expecting to stumble into paleography as a result of DH homework!  This has been my favorite assignment so far! :)

Don’t Panic

Over the past week, it came to my attention that I have not been doing a very good job of not panicking in this class.  While I did suspect that Matt was not likely to assign a failing grade to the majority of the class for not having Paper Machines working by the end of the meeting (the stated assignment), I spent most of that session feeling miserably confused.  I probably looked quite grumpy.  (I apologize to anyone at whom I may have inadvertently frowned.)  While conversing with classmates in the days that followed about this thing that felt like a disaster — I had after all (for the first time ever) failed to complete a pass/fail assignment — I started slowly realizing that I may not be as hopelessly behind the curve as I felt.  From the start, I was uncertain what to make of the assertion that failure is a good part of DH work; I thought “That’s all very well if you’re trying to make something just because you want it, but what about when my grade/job depends on success?”  I realize that I have not been a very active participant in class so far, but I think I figured out that my real problem may not be that I am technologically inept (though I am), but that I habitually operate under assumptions about good academic work that are entirely incompatible the way DH defines good work.  It will not be easy to murder the little perfectionist angel/devil on my shoulder, but it will probably do me some good if I manage it.

So, moving on, I went in search of the reason I ever even considered signing up for this class.  Last year, I attended a Digital Dialogues lecture by Mike Witmore (the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library) called “Shakespeare from the Waist Down.”  I had seen flyers for other dialogues, but I didn’t think they applied to me (due to the technological ineptitude thing), but I was curious enough to go to this one because it mentioned Shakespeare in the title.  I was astonished by the idea that something as simple as pronoun patterns could enable a computer to tell the difference between comedy, history, and tragedy, and that it could identify the late romances (a modern editorial categorization).  The link to the podcast of that talk is here, if anyone wants to watch it:

I am also really looking forward to the Folger visit tonight.  The Shakespeare Quartos Archive is the first thing we’ve studied that I’ve actually seen before!  I don’t know exactly what I may do, but I hope to pursue it further.  Collation and archiving seem the sorts of things I am most likely to use in the future, so I’m happy to be on somewhat more familiar territory!  So, stay tuned; I promise I’ll have something more interesting to say soon.

(And maybe, someday, I’ll even figure out how to take screenshots!)

Wordly wobblings

My findings from the Google Ngram Viewer are that we did not like “idea” very much in the first half of the eighteenth century.  Our feelings about “truth” have varied substantially; we liked it quite a lot during the mid-nineteenth century, but in 1910 we started preferring “idea” and this has stayed fairly consistent since then.  Ngram

My Up-Goer Five definition of DH goes like this:

It is about doing old things in new ways. Or, if you ask another person, it is about doing new things in even newer ways. People who do it don’t agree on what things are most important or how to study them. Human life changed when books did away with forms of writing that came before them. Computer forms of stuff that used to be only on paper might be doing the same thing now. Computers can make stories look different, but does that mean that they ARE different at the bottom? Or is it only the way that we look at them? If we use computers to read books, we can study different ideas about them. The question is whether those kinds of ideas leave out the kind that came before. The question is also whether the old kinds of study leave out ideas that one can only reach by using new ways. Perhaps the best way to put the question is: How do we decide whether the old or new way is best for something we want to learn (or, better yet, how we can put the two together)?


While the original XKCD comic is funny, I think this concept can only work well when humor, not communication, is the point.  It could be helpful if someone is taking him/herself too seriously and wants to re-evaluate a statement in search of excessive jargon, but it does not seem useful for describing something to someone who does not already know what you are talking about.  Without the words “digital,” “humanities,” “electronic,” or “interpret” I wasn’t able to make a definition that could let somebody who had never heard of DH know what I was describing.

So, on to Wordle.  I used the Gutenberg text of King Lear (minus the fine print and introductory “comments”) and this was what I got:

Word it Out gave me this:


Obviously, the speech prefixes dominate these clouds; Lear and Kent are the most prominent in both clouds.

Running the Word it Out list through the Up-Goer Five produced these words:

tell one night Sister say make see great done further now man hath long life late Daughter good Daughters Enter name mans answer away yet part better Father fit eyes nothing cold else old some Horse Gods time home go hand least way take Letter heard here much against still know Sir rather heart both all though found more come art Let most well like little many place follow age gone made other comes hold death none mad call within Brother full power hast head Sisters makes Lady after two set being put came do’s thing What’s toward Boy where’s best world thought men reason stand word Oh before any dead first bring house Friend blood matter true since told dost draw fire doth Fathers course things cause strange sight stands


One thing that surprised me is that “Lady” could stay but “gentleman” had to go.  Someone who was not aware of the context could probably gather that family relationships are a major theme of the work represented, but could probably not go much further than that.

The CLAWS tagger produced this:

place_NN1 hast_VHB turne_NN1 feare_NN1 Storme_NN1 Master_NN1 since_CJS 
i'th_NN1 th_NN0 Edgar_NP0 halfe_NN1 Edg_NN1 businesse_NN1 else_AV0 Enter_VVB 
leaue_NN1 Slaue_NN1 done_VDN thing_NN1 stand_NN1 heare_NN1 Ha_ITJ Regan_NP0 
Cornwall_NP0 speake_NN1 Lady_NN1 comes_VVZ world_NN1 Madam_NN1 head_NN1 
some_DT0 still_AJ0 Sword_NN1 Sir_NN1 againe_VVB thy_DPS farre_NN1 liue_NN1 
till_PRP any_DT0 Cordelia_NN1 most_AV0 set_VVN Knaue_NP0 told_VVD forth_AV0 
fire_VVB Brother_NP0 Daughters_NP0 Ile_NP0 meanes_NN2 gaue_VVB none_PNI 
being_VBG fit_AJ0 know_VVB within_PRP do'st_NN1 Douer_NN1 Cor_ITJ call_NN1 
nor_CJC Bast_VVB other_AJ0 Gentleman_NN1 Foole_NN1 backe_NN1 men_NN2
things_NN2 Noble_AJ0 neuer_NN1 Trumpet_NN1 pray_VVB seene_NN1 Alacke_VVB 
hither_AV0 goe_VVB now_AV0 Glou_NP0 more_AV0 bring_VVB vp_NN0 true_AJ0 
though_CJS much_AV0 two_CRD Villaine_NP0 euer_NN1 heard_VVD fellow_NN1 
gone_VVN Edmund_NP0 Scena_NP0 Fortunes_NN2 hold_VVB put_VVB where_AVQ 's_VBZ 
whom_PNQ take_VVB himselfe_NN1 do_VDB 's_POS Corn_NN1 ere_PRP sleepe_NN1 
euery_NN1 better_AJC King_NN1 say_VVB Stew_NN1 deere_NN1 first_ORD bin_NN1 
Fathers_NN2 finde_NN1 Duke_NP0 Gent_NP0 Gloster_NP0 cause_NN1 Knights_NN2 
good_AJ0 name_NN1 Oh_ITJ T_PNP is_VBZ returne_NN1 Sonne_UNC Horse_NN1 away_AV0 
France_NP0 Exit_NN1 Bastard_NN1 looke_NN1 make_VVB after_PRP o'th_NN1 
Prythee_NN1 wits_NN2 makes_VVZ Reg_NP0 word_NN1 little_AV0 vs_PRP Steward_NN1 
like_PRP age_NN1 Nature_NN1 thine_DPS cold_NN1 follow_VVB shalt_VM0 
against_PRP stands_NN2 What_DTQ 's_VBZ rather_AV0 way_AV0 seeke_VVB 
further_AV0 came_VVD Father_NN1 haue_VHB answer_NN1 knowne_NN1 long_AV0 
home_AV0 many_DT0 loue_VVB Sisters_NN2 life_NN1 Gods_NN2 late_AV0 thee_PNP 
made_VVD Fortune_NN1 Alb_NP0 eyes_VVZ nothing_PNI farewell_NN1 Edmond_NP0 
feele_NN1 purpose_NN1 Tom_NP0 old_AJ0 Friend_NN1 see_VVB found_VVN least_DT0 
power_NN1 dead_AJ0 Traitor_NN1 well_AV0 Let_VVB vse_NN1 toward_PRP blood_NN1 
euen_NN1 Lear_NP0 draw_VVB Lord_NN1 reason_NN1 mad_AJ0 strange_AJ0 heart_NN1 
here_AV0 Letter_NN1 yet_AV0 Albany_NP0 Gon_NP0 Gonerill_NP0 man_NN1 part_NN1 
one_CRD great_AJ0 Glo_NP0 dost_VDB heere_AJ0 giue_NN1 downe_NN1 doth_VDZ 
poore_NN1 lesse_NN1 come_VVB hand_NN1 Kent_NP0 Grace_NP0 art_NN1 helpe_NN1 
go_VVB matter_NN1 foule_NN1 course_NN1 thou_PNP strike_VVB Boy_NN1 vpon_NN1 
whose_DTQ thinke_NN1 thought_NN1 beare_NN1 peace_NN1 hath_VHZ Exeunt_UNC 
death_NN1 full_AJ0 Sister_NN1 owne_NN1 house_NN1 selfe_NN1 night_NN1 best_AJS 
Fiend_NN1 keepe_NN1 both_AV0 tell_VVB Ste_NN1 mans_NN2 sight_VVB Glouster_NN1 
all_DT0 hence_AV0 before_PRP Daughter_NN1 time_NN1 ..._SENT **42;7;TOOLONG_UNC

I’m sorry; I can’t give a useful analysis of this.  The site is the opposite of the word cloud generators in that it is not even a little bit user-friendly.  The key to tags is not straightforwardly organized.  I tried to find what “NPO” (or possibly “NP0) might mean, but it was not in the list.  Perhaps this would make more sense to me if I knew something about coding.

Pushing onward into the land of things I don’t understand, I approached TAPoR and HyperPo.  Using this site was extremely frustrating because, once I uploaded the text (I couldn’t copy and paste, so the Gutenberg “comments” came along for the ride), the resulting window did not include labeled buttons.  I got the following analyzing the word “daughter”:



If I’m using it right, this tool indicates that the word “daughter” occurs most often in Act 1, Scene 2 — the scene in which Lear divides his kingdom.  This scene coincides with the highest number of mentions of “Cordelia” but not of “Gonerill” or “Regan.”  I think this set of tools has the most potential usefulness, but I had trouble understanding how to make them useful.  I tried some of the “help,” “tutorial,” and “tour” features, but I kept running into “page not found” and “router error” messages; I don’t know if I was doing something wrong or if the site just wasn’t working very well.

Ramsay was right:  these tools make the text of King Lear look completely unfamiliar.  As I flailed about through these mysterious new waters, I found that the mere strangeness of what I was seeing was almost overwhelming.  I can see that I might eventually be able to put these tools to productive use, but first I need to become more comfortable navigating digital environments.

The Past and Future King Lear

I selected Shakespeare because I recently had to explain to a student why the $1.99 complete works he found for Kindle would not suffice for the work we will do in class.  I was giving the standard “you need to get the books for this class ASAP” speech during our first discussion section, and I said something to the effect of “It’s ok if you have or want to use a version other than Signet, but be sure that it’s a reputable edition with good notes.”  I was astonished when this student asked “What do you mean by ‘notes’?”  I tried to explain the necessity of footnotes glossing words that persist in current usage but had different meanings during the early modern period.  Later, the student emailed me a link to Amazon’s page for the edition he had, asking if I thought it was good enough.  He said “I don’t see anything obviously wrong with it other than that it has no notes.”  I saw something else wrong with it:  It did not list the name of the editor or contain any textual information or any clues as to the principles by which the text was prepared.  I used King Lear as an example.  The text as we have it comes from two sources (the 1608 Q1 and the 1623 F1) and so an editor must either print one of those or conflate the two.  When I pointed out that – in the absence of any editorial notes identifying what was on his electronic pages – he might end up reading something very different than what the rest of the class was seeing, he decided to buy the recommended print edition.  (I didn’t even get into variations between copies of those early printings.)

I’m sharing this story because it seems that this student is exactly the sort of reader whom makers of electronic texts hope to reach: he wanted something both inexpensive and reliable.  He just didn’t find the information to evaluate whether or not the Kindle product at which he was looking answered his needs.

So, King Lear.

I started with Project Gutenberg.  I thought it interesting that ssing the “search” feature yields a disorganized mess that uses “by popularity” as the default ordering system.  I tried again by browsing.  Under Shakespeare’s author heading, one may find four texts for King Lear.  The first is helpfully accompanied by “Scanner’s notes” explaining that it is a reproduction based on the first Folio and pointing out that different copies of F1 differ from each other.  The scanner (who sounds like an editor) provides his rationale for spelling alterations and gives his name and email addresses, encouraging readers to contact him if they find mistakes or disagree with his choices.  This seems sound, but I am bothered by the “Executive Director’s notes” that precede the “Scanner’s notes.”  That note reads as follows:

In addition to the notes below, and so you will *NOT* think all the spelling errors introduced by the printers of the time have been corrected, here are the first few lines of Hamlet, as they are presented herein:

Barnardo. Who’s there?
Fran. Nay answer me: Stand & vnfold
your selfe

Bar. Long liue the King


As I understand it, the printers often ran out of certain words or letters they had often packed into a “cliche”. . .this is the original meaning of the term cliche. . .and thus, being unwilling to unpack the cliches, and thus you will see some substitutions that look very odd. . .such as the exchanges of u for v, v for u, above. . .and you may wonder why they did it this way, presuming Shakespeare did not actually write the play in this manner. . . .

The answer is that they MAY have packed “liue” into a cliche at a time when they were out of “v”‘s. . .possibly having used “vv” in place of some “w”‘s, etc. This was a common practice of the day, as print was still quite expensive, and they didn’t want to spend more on a wider selection of characters than they had to.

You will find a lot of these kinds of “errors” in this text, as I have mentioned in other times and places, many “scholars” have an extreme attachment to these errors, and many have accorded them a very high place in the “canon” of Shakespeare. My father read an assortment of these made available to him by Cambridge University in England for several months in a glass room constructed for the purpose. To the best of my knowledge he read ALL those available . . .in great detail. . .and determined from the various changes, that Shakespeare most likely did not write in nearly as many of a variety of errors we credit him for, even though he was in/famous for signing his name with several different spellings.

So, please take this into account when reading the comments below made by our volunteer who prepared this file: you may see errors that are “not” errors. . . .

So. . .with this caveat. . .we have NOT changed the canon errors, here is the Project Gutenberg Etext of Shakespeare’s The Tragedie of King Lear.

Michael S. Hart
Project Gutenberg
Executive Director

This is a very peculiar appeal to authority.  While it is good that Hart wants readers to understand something of the wobbly nature of early modern spelling practices, he is more or less claiming that we should trust the contents of Project Gutenberg’s books because the Executive Director of the company had a well-read father and is telling us that he knows what he is talking about.  As a scholar, I find it offensive to be called a “scholar” by Hart.  I do not need scare quotes, thank you very much.  His overt meaning is that one does not have to be an expert to make sound judgments about texts (which is, after all, the ideal toward which open access strives), but his implication is that experts are actually mucking up the process of letting people understand the play by nostalgically clinging to insubstantial quibbles.  Needless to say, this edition is not annotated.  As an attempt to faithfully reproduce the text of F1, it could have uses to some people (such as scholars who already have some understanding of what to expect, and would not need to lean as heavily on the notes as would a beginner), but Hart’s note could steer people away from more helpful formats for their needs.

Next, I tried Google Books.  A search for King Lear produced “ About 2,740,000 results.”  Following Duguid’s point that Google’s sorting is a powerful force on the reader who does not know what he or she is seeking, I decided to investigate the first hit.  It was the “Dover Thrift Study Edition” which contained word-definition footnotes.  The copyright page (which was visible in the preview) explains that Dover has reproduced “the unabridged text of King Lear, as published in Volume XVII of The Caxton Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare, Caxton Publishing Company, London, n.d.” which is accompanied by a study guide made by test prep company R.E.A. and notes that “were prepared” for Dover by a nameless editor.  Yes, they did indeed cite “n.d.” instead of – for instance – checking WorldCat to determine that the Caxton edition was published in 1910.  I thought I’d try again, but this was a mistake.

The first free edition in the listings is from 1808 and is keyed to performance at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.  There are some scanning oddities, but those are minor in comparison to the real problem:


It was dreadful (though popular) enough when Nahum Tate decided to “improve” (scare quotes warranted) the play for the tastes of the Restoration stage, but for Google Books to offer this version without a prominent disclaimer is unconscionable.  A version of the play in which Lear and Cordelia live happily ever after could appropriately be called a work “based on” or “inspired by” Shakespeare’s play, but this IS NOT Shakespeare’s play.  Google is doing its readers a major disservice and doesn’t even have the decency to give a person’s name to whom we can complain about shoddy (lack of) cataloguing.

Searching HathiTrust, the first item I found is the New Variorum Shakespeare edited by Horace Howard Furnace, Ph.D., L.L.D and published in 1880.  It appeared to be a fine, responsibly-prepared edition that reflects the critical tendencies of the nineteenth century.  The notes consist largely of collections of famous critics’ opinions about the text, but – as they are well marked as such – unlikely to offer serious trouble to the beginning reader.  There were many fingers, slightly crooked pages, and corner shadows in the scanned images, but I found that the clarity of the text and flexibility of the online viewer made it more pleasant to read than the other scanned versions I found.  While the old-fashioned, ivory tower model of scholarly authority was clearly present in this edition, I think that, of the ebooks I’ve discussed here, this would be the most helpful to a beginner because at least it clearly represents itself for what it is.  The multiplicity of the notes (which may look a bit daunting at first – but the reader would find a similar landscape if she wandered into a bookstore and picked up the modern Arden Shakespeare) draws attention to the fact that editors make choices in presenting texts; the first-hit items from Project Gutenberg and Google Books did not.  HathiTrust’s site layout is more user-friendly than Project Gutenberg’s and its sorting principle is likelier to lead the reader to something useful on a first try than is Google Books.

After this research, if I had the conversation with which I began this post to do over again, I would still advise my student that it would be much easier to spring for the $4.95 Signet Classics Lear in physical form