Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Interview

Victoria, BC-March 28/06-Professor Ray Siemens with a projection of historical writing and computer analysis of the writing (better confirm my explaination. -Photograph by Diana Nethercott
Photograph by Diana Nethercott

In April, we interviewed Ray Siemens, who, with Kenneth M. Price, Dene M. Grigar, and Elizabeth Lorang, is an editor of Literary Studies in the Digital Age (LSDA). This month, two new essays were added to the MLA’s first born-digital collection: Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirker’s “Whipping Boys Explained: Literary Annotation and Digital Humanities” and Gabriel Hankins’s “Correspondence: Theory, Practice, and Horizons.” Below, we talk to Siemens about the process of developing an open-access, openly peer-reviewed book on MLA Commons.

Tell us a little about LSDA’s inception.

LSDA was really a proactive initiative to let people know what DH [the digital humanities] could offer literary study, a place for us to provide reflection on digital-research practice and a coming together of the research and language communities. It came from a supergood place, and the MLA administration was extremely supportive. It was the start of a partnership with the DH community rather than a subservient relationship between the MLA and that community.

Initially, it was going to be a traditional print volume in the MLA’s primer series, and it was just a happy circumstance that with Kathleen Fitzpatrick coming on board, someone said, “Why are we going to print at all?” And so we created what I think remains the first digital, open-access MLA publication.

How did that move change the volume?

Well, it made it more immediate and readily available to its audience, which was great since the work is cutting-edge. It also meant that the academic audience it is meant to serve could pick it up more quickly, use it in the classroom, comment on it—and a lot of that comment is happening behind the scenes too, by e-mail.

Yes, we were a bit disappointed by that, since we’d envisaged the comments happening out in the open, which is what CommentPress is built for.

Well, we’re naturally a nuanced, annotated culture. We read and take notes; we record facts; we make notes; we work in that way. But the performative element of being on display can get in the way of that base, of that impulse to annotate.

Culture is still measured in terms of product, and scholars aren’t given credit for something that is evolving, that is harder to measure. The MLA’s Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media helps with some of that, and it is changing. In the sciences, the emphasis is on the process rather than the product—you can augment and build on a data set. We are more ready to make assertions when we think something is complete. We think of annotation as a definitive statement rather than something that can evolve.

But to return to the question of how the volume changed when we went digital: well, the field is a fast-moving one, and publishing it this way allowed us to come up with the notion of an evolving anthology, allowed us to consider having it evolve in terms of the areas traditionally represented, and to be more fluid and more open to new possibilities as changes happened in the field. It also allowed us to gain additional breadth and coverage, and having it open-access on the Commons has really helped with engagement. We’re now imagining an iterative evolution, but we could also change the scope, broaden out. Imagine David [Hoover]’s piece about text analysis; he has a colleague doing something similar but with different technology. Maybe someone will talk about Google map overlays. . . . It has also been suggested that we broaden the scope and include language study. We’re not there yet, but what we have done is invite two more people to join the editorial team, members of the library studies community, which is very active in digital creation.

Given that the humanities at large still values product over process, do you think a project like this is still only something that a scholar of advanced rank could undertake?

Well, yes, tenure certainly encourages a professionally driven type of rewards system. My personal belief in doing what you love aside, my professional side would have been naturally hesitant to invest time while I was being [considered for tenure]. I would have probably felt obliged to focus on approved professional products. Here again the MLA guidelines have been supportive in trying to argue that it’s not the medium that’s important but the assurance of quality. The guidelines have not only created value for digital work, but they have encouraged dialogue, education, understanding. Scholars should take the guidelines and talk to their colleagues, the dean. Some people have been able to make great strides by following those guidelines, having a conversation—and they’ve created amazing work.

Back to Ken and me: we were able to do this, I think, because we were cochairing the committee, and we were already midcareer.

Can you talk a little about the open review process?

The open review process is two-stage. Submissions go first to the editorial group, who look at them for scope before posting them for open review. Readers can comment directly, contact editors, and feed into standard review—all of which supports an assurance of quality. Quality assessment is vital and allows us to live up to our social contract. Open review is especially pertinent in the environment of MLA Commons, one of consensual engagement. I think it allows us to do more [and do it] better, but people are kind of hesitant. . . . I think when Shakespeare Quarterly had that issue up for open review, it garnered far fewer comments than they had hoped. On the plus side, though, [open review] opens up ideas and allows for a broader, more engaged, more diverse form of knowledge construction around evolving objects—think of Wikipedia, where there is evidence of the changes that have been made, an open and dynamic engagement with knowledge objects. We are still analogically inclined to what feels finished even though it’s not: there are multiple editions of books.

How has LSDA been received?

People are reading it, engaging with it, quoting it, using it in classrooms—and far more of them than would have done [so] if it had been a print volume. I’m sure of that. We continue getting comments and suggestions about what we could do next, ways to expand and add to the collection. Some have suggested concentrated anthologies around specific topics, where an essay in the original collection would serve as a springboard for a cluster. And people are submitting! The structure of LSDA allows for its growth and integration beyond its current iteration. It will be readily available to people when they become interested and used to annotating and linking. . . .

We’re just not there yet?

 The thing about the future is that you know where it’s going, and you get kinda impatient waiting for it to get there, . . . but we can see it! We know it’s going to happen!