This past Fall, the Penn State Libraries hosted a talk called “A Walking Guide to Virtual Shakespeare” by Katherine Rowe*, professor of English at Bryn Mawr College. Prof. Rowe uses digital humanities to explore the rhetoric of scholarly walking in the context of a small set of virtual Shakespearean locales.
While here, Prof. Rowe spoke to Helene Huet (PhD candidate, French) and Dawn Taylor (PhD candidate, Comparative Literature) about when and how she began incorporating media history and digital humanities to her work on Shakespeare, current and future DH projects, and advice for graduate students.
[Transcription lightly pruned for clarity and length, by HH, DT, KR]
Helene Huet & Dawn Taylor: When did you turn your attention to media history and digital humanities?
Katherine Rowe: It happened to me quite gradually. I’ve always been a scholar who has worked across long spans of time–a comparatist historically–and that was a bit weird when I was a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-80s (although I had terrific support for it). The historiographic unit that mattered then was the decade and I wrote a first book that spanned four centuries. So, in a way, I’ve always had that interest and what that meant was that my teaching then became a conduit for my scholarship to turn that way. I started regularly teaching adaptation courses around my core material and worked my way forward through the centuries. First, 17th c. drama adaptations of Shakespeare, then looking at 18th and 19th c. changing theater modes, and then I started thinking about radio and television in the early 20th c., and eventually, film. Gradually, with this series of courses, I taught my way into different media. However, I became unsatisfied with just “poaching,” as it were, without having some kind of disciplinary grounding. Then, in 2004-05, I won a fellowship from the Mellon Foundation to retrain and I went back to graduate school in Media Studies at NYU, at Tisch. I did an intensive year of the core graduate courses in their film and media studies program. I’m also unusual in that I’ve been on the other side of the classroom, relatively recently and as a senior faculty member.
HH & DT: We think it’s so great that you went back to school!
KR: I thought I was going to get a grounding in Media Studies from that experience – a conceptual landscape that would make me a more rigorous scholar when I moved across media. What actually happened was that it changed my sense of identity as a scholar. I found in Media Studies, my “tribe,” intellectually, in the sense that you need four centuries of study to have any “chops” as a media historian. You can’t make significant claims, you can’t be sophisticated and nuanced if you’re not looking across long spans of time. There I found scholars who understood this as an essential part of their methodologies. I also found, well, I’ve had a long interest in reception and the dynamics of reception in different kinds of performance venues. I found in Media Studies very robust reception work, much more than I could find in Renaissance Studies, where we have a very limited set of evidence to deal with when we’re thinking about reception. I found in Media Studies an opportunity to think about reception in very rich and complex ways that I hadn’t thought of before. I came out of that retraining with a different sense of myself as a scholar. That was a big surprise.
HH & DT: Would you define yourself as a digital humanist?
KR: I would. I think that’s a big bucket and we can talk about the different kinds of phenomena that have come together and converged under that umbrella. My areas of interest in DH have to do with changing scholarly and teaching practices, and changing institutional structures. I’m interested in the way our profession is changing as a result of the disruptions of communications technologies and the new kinds of methods that are now available to us as humanists. Though I would love to pursue data mining projects, I don’t have the expertise. Those are backburner for me right now. The projects I’ve been really actively involved with have to do with the way our field grapples with media change, which seems quite urgent to me. I’ve worked on new models of peer review. I did an early experiment with Shakespeare Quarterly and partially open peer review. I’ve also served on a number of committees thinking about evaluating digital scholarship for tenure and promotion, and I think a lot about the preparation, the pipeline, of scholars in the humanities who have expertise that embraces a wide range of methods and modes of inquiry. It’s that area of DH that I’m most closely associated with, though I’m also a designer. I’m cofounder of a small app company that’s designing reading apps for the classroom.
HH & DT: And how did this come together? How was the process of creating a reading app, like “The Tempest” for iPad?
KR: Actually, I have five more titles that will be released this fall with the Folger and with Simon & Schuster. With the Folger, they’ll be Shakespeare editions. It’s been really exciting and challenging. I guess I would say that I am one of those scholars who has an appetite for learning, as well as teaching (and that’s a good thing). But that is kind of the mutually enforcing part of why I have moved into new fields. And now this venture.
There are two core interests that my partner, Elliot Visconsi (University of Notre Dame), and I share: an intense sense of frustration with the current generation of e-books and their inadequacy for doing the kind of work that we want to do in the classroom–the social thinking, learning, reading, and writing we do in a literature classroom. We got to a point where would could not wait for the conventional academic presses to catch up with what we needed. Many of our students were asking for, or defaulting to, electronic texts, but without the robust capacity to get their hands inside the text, to write in the margins, to share their ideas, and to quote freely, as we can do with print texts. We had a wonderful opportunity with the support of Notre Dame and their Center for Research Computing to develop this platform, so we seized it because we knew we had to move quickly. The other motive is to find a way to connect with wider audiences who are interested in these modes of reading and writing the difficult and exciting texts that we teach. We had a strong sense that the ecosystem of academic publishing that we traditionally have access to wasn’t connecting with that audience. We are interested in tablet publishing as a way to connect the work scholars do with wider audiences. And so, we invented a genre of commentary, or we renovated an old genre, of scholarly commentary our the app.
HH & DT: You said there are five more titles coming out, what are they?
KR: Yes, five more titles. We are just preparing to move them through review in the app store. They are Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet.
HH & DT: What are you working on at the moment and what is a project that you dream of working on, that you would like to work on in the future?
KR: When you ask a scholar that question, there is always going to be more than one answer. Right at the moment, I’m working on getting these five titles out. My role is both as marshal of the process, acting like a general editor would for a large editorial project, and I’m helping to design. One of the things that is true when you go into digital publication is that you are, for better or worse, dealing with something that is not fixed. It will never just sit on the shelf and has to be constantly maintained and updated, and is always going to keep growing – if it’s going to be successful. This means thinking ahead, thinking about how the next design will have to go, how do we move on to a wider set of platforms (Android for sure). What are the features we wish we had that we don’t have yet, how do we improve the ones that are already in existence, as we move into classrooms around the country. We are testing in a bunch of high school classrooms right now because it’s important not to assume we know what the teachers and students want. It’s that recognition that started me on this project as a teacher, not having the resources that I wanted and needed, and having a really clear sense of what that was. I want that idea to stay at the heart of the future-looking design work that we do with the Folger for these editions.
I also have some DH projects I’m working on. One is the idea of a humanities lab at the Folger, where the hope is to be able to provide a clearinghouse of expertise and a usable digital corpus that scholars doing digital research projects in the future will be able to have access to. We assume the scholarship will be widely distributed throughout the field over the next thirty years. No one institution will control the scholarly agenda. In Renaissance Studies we need a sustainable infrastructure to make digital corpora available, to teach people how to use them, to support their use, to integrate them with traditional modes of study. The Folger seems a natural place to sustain curation, hosting, teaching, and support of research because they have always done that. The question is what would it look like to have the same structures they now have in place–graduate training, faculty convenings, individual research project support–for digital corpora? There’s a grant in process to begin to do the thinking, to support that kind of sustainability in the field of Renaissance studies at the Folger.
I have a couple of other DH fantasy projects that are on the backburner. One is a straight up scholarly one. I’m interested in and have a long-standing research agenda that’s thinking of constancy and inconstancy in the Renaissance. I’m interested in the social gesture to call something “new-fangled,” to say something has “new-fangledness.” I’d really love to begin to bring corpus mining research tools to bear on this. What are the topoi, from a literary perspective, that attach to the gesture of being constant in the face of change? I would love to be able to think about how to answer questions about that social gesture using iterative, large corpus research methods as opposed to what I can already do, which is study individual texts. I don’t see these as an “either/or” of different methods. I’d love to find out whether, if I brought a different methodology to this project, I would see things I haven’t seen. To me that would be the most exciting reason to be thinking about new methodologies, that they would show you something that you don’t already know. But I don’t yet have the expertise – that’s a downstream project, as we say in the software and app developing world.
HH & DT: How are you incorporating your expertise in Media Studies, in digital tools, into your teaching?
KR: It’s pretty organic. I’m in the middle of a book project on Shakespeare adaptations that mark moments of media convergence, where several media platforms are converging on the same problem. It’s basically a mid-20th c./early 21st c. project that grew out of the feedback loop between my teaching and my scholarship. It started cooking because I became interested in how I could use gaming environments to tackle a teaching problem. A long-standing problem for Shakespeare scholars has been how do you convey the ways in which the text of a play is organized by the principles of an unlocalized or bare performance space. In other words, who’s where is always an open question, and that where is not necessarily localized verbally, through description, as we might find in a novel. I find that a very exciting phenomenon and a challenging one for students now to grapple with. Mostly because they have learned to read by reading novels. What they don’t recognize is how they miscue when reading plays. There’s no long interior description, they don’t necessarily know who’s speaking to whom or who’s still in a scene because these details aren’t painted in fiction for them in the same way that they are in a novel. So, I started using gaming environments. There was a really wonderful virtual theater archive out of King’s College (in London) Visualization Lab. Theatron3. It’s currently on hiatus, unfortunately, but there are several other virtual Globe Theatres in gaming environments. The ones I began using were in Second Life, and as I started using them I got really interested in the kinds of adaptations that are possible in virtual environments for Shakespeare.
My talk today will partly be connected to this work. As I started working my way into game studies, where I found really exciting scholarship.I was in graduate school just as feminism and historicism were moving through Renaissance studies and I benefited enormously from that. One of the hallmarks of those movements was the demand to be rigorous about the critical frameworks that I was borrowing from in other fields. I think we need that same rigor in regards to media change and media studies. In other words, we would never, as scholars, write about questions of gender without thinking about the critical field of gender studies. But, it took a long time for my field to recognize there was a field of Television Studies. For a long time it was ok to write about television without engaging with the very robust work within that field. One of the things I try to model as a scholar is what it really means to take on board the work other scholars have done in a field that is not your own. I don’t know that I do it perfectly. But. I do aspire to do it responsibly.
HH & DT: Thinking of something you mentioned earlier about your role in the DH and questions of how to measure one’s work, what are some of the essential criteria or even suggestions you may have for scholars wanting to incorporate digital aspects into their own research or even into their dissertations?
KR: I would like to get a sense of what you mean when you talk about a digital dissertations. A digital dissertation could mean one of three things. First, you might mean a dissertation that is born, that has its life digitally, in the sense that it’s stored, archived and circulated digitally – but which is still a very traditional dissertation; it’s still written in prose. You might mean a dissertation that’s drawing on new digital methodologies. You might mean a dissertation that is taking on or expresses its findings, its arguments in non-standard forms that are digital – like video essays or data sets or visualizations rather than descriptive or argumentative prose. It might also be game work or game design. The first question for any graduate student, and also for an institution is: “When you say ‘digital dissertation’ what’s the scope of change that you’re interested in entertaining, looking at, providing for?” and “What limits do you want to set on that scope?”
The questions regarding archiving and support and circulation of digital projects – including questions of ownership/intellectual property around texts that circulate digitally – are different than “How do I evaluate whether this game design, which is part of a dissertation, is high quality work?” Or “How do I know when this dissertation is done if it has three prose chapters and a game design?” I think it’s important to tackle different kinds of questions separately and think about who are your institutional collaborators in tackling them. Some might be librarians; some might be folks in IT; some might be from the Dean’s or Provost’s office; some will be in the general counsel’s office; and some might be scholars who have experience in doing this work. It’s also really important to include folks who don’t have any experience with digital projects but who might be mentors or evaluators or pursuing new modes of inquiry themselves. It’s important to be including such folks in conversations about the way our output as scholars changes, folks that cross the spectrum of productivity in terms of their adoption of change. I think that can be challenging–it’s much easier to go with the early adopters and say “what do we want” and harder to expand your community and say “but I also want late adopters.” But you need to be able to talk and work with and for all of them even if you’re working in new modes. These questions are alive in almost every institution I know, undergraduate and graduate.
In terms of how graduate students grapple with the fact of entering their field at a moment of exciting but unstable methodological shift…there are some rules of thumb that you can use. One is to look for methods that are organically a part of your research agenda. Don’t do add-ons. For example, if you’re somebody who works on John Donne, what are the DH projects on John Donne right now? If you’re somebody who’s interested in dance, who’s doing interesting dance archiving initiatives, thinking of video tagging, studying dance form and its history using digital methodologies? Look for research to connect to. Make an attempt to understand the digital initiatives that are organically part of your research agenda. That will mean you aren’t simply dividing your attention. Let’s say you decide to acquire an additional arrow for your methodological quiver – it will still be supporting the work that you want to pursue. My long term, fantasy project on inconstancy and constancy in the face of change follows exactly this principle. This, I think is a good practice for everybody, not just for graduate students. But it’s particularly important for graduate students.
Another rule of thumb is: find the people whose work you think is really exciting and seek opportunities to connect with them. Invite them to speak on your campus. This is a good starting point and it’s relatively easy to do. Ask them how they do their work, how they got into it, what kinds of training they might recommend, what opportunities do they know of. Just as when you find a scholar or critic or theoretical formulation in an essay that really jazzes you, you look into its footnotes and ask “who is this person reading?” Do the same thing with digital initiatives. Ask for support from your institution to allow you to connect to that scholarly work; for example, “I’d like to go to DSSI for two weeks for training in the methodology this project uses.” Think in an entrepreneurial way about what resources are available and propose to do something, even if it doesn’t exist. It may not work, but usually that proposal will be a way to foreground a graduate student need and desire within the infrastructure at your home institution. More often that not, somebody will say “I don’t know how to support that exactly, but suppose we brought that person in for a weeklong intensive workshop.” Or you build this into a class.
In other words, a proposal creates an opportunity for you to do some creative thinking with your mentors and administrators. But they need you to bring them ideas that are concrete. This is a very important factor for success. Rather than simply express generalized “I wish I could” ideas about how to make DH a part of your portfolio, bring ideas that are actionable.
It’s essential to be discriminating in what you want to pursue. Take on one piece at a time. Know that any commitment of your brain to new modes of work is a major commitment, so think strategically about what you want to commit to and make sure you can back that up. The moment you go to the Dean and say “I’d like to do X” is actually a moment of peer review, in which you’re making a case. If you can’t make the case effectively to somebody else as well as to yourself, then you have more thinking to do.
My third rule of thumb would be collaborate. Don’t waste time starting from scratch. Learn what’s already going on and collaborate, attach to, help build out. Bring your own research agenda to an existing project if you can. This way you immediately reduce the resource expense in your own working life. This also benefits your institution by creating a connection with an exciting existing project and you won’t be “reinventing the wheel.” Instead you’ll be learning from folks who already know what they’re doing and you often won’t have to provide massive infrastructure, you just need support for yourself and your own labor. This benefits the world of DH because we are always short of human capacity to sustain projects. Projects that you, as graduate students, are excited about, may find it easier to gain grant support because they can shows they have legs among the next generation of scholars.
Now, we don’t always allocate resources within a home institution to facilitate collaboration. So, there needs to be a structure within your graduate program that makes it possible to collaborate outside of the institution. This is the kind of issue that’s worth talking through with your advisers and administrators.
These are the kinds of structural issues that I’m most interested in. How do we adjust our understanding of graduate preparation if we presume that the most sustainable way to train graduate students now might be to have them look outside of their home institution? It’s sustainable for the home institution but it involves rethinking. This has worked traditionally with archival research. Institutions send students to archives for research quite happily. That could be the model, but we haven’t seen quite the same happen with DH yet.
HH & DT: What futures do you see for digital publishing and print publishing?
KR: If I could answer that question, I would be the most highly paid consultant in academia. I think it’s import to understand that the challenges publishing is facing are with the ecosystem rather than the technology. Books are technologies that are very, very stable and their ecosystem was stable for a long time. But, their function as a technology is changing. The crisis that seems to be about books, isn’t about their “bookness” at all. It’s about the infrastructure for circulating and archiving books, and the disruption of this infrastructure by e-publications. Keeping an eye on the ecosystem is the only way in which we will be able to understand and grapple with the changes. The small amounts of evidence I look at, as someone who is designing an app, suggest that mobile devices are going to be the dominant media for at least the next ten years. The younger you go in the school age population, the higher the penetration of tablets and the more often students are using them for their academic work. So, high school students more than college students, middle school students more than high school students, etc. Of course, there’s a consequence of that for teachers, which is we have to think hard about how those changing practices, require us to change what we focus on when we teach. For example, I now teach slow reading. I have slowed my classes down because I want more space in my students’ reading lives to allow them to experience leisurely, penetrating, iterative re-reading. My syllabi from twenty years ago were not designed for that. They were designed to race through surveys, and I increasingly think that surveying is a skill my students know something about, although it’s inconsistent and not systematic. These are not inconsiderable issues, but what they have less time for is a sustained, slow learning.
What do I see for the future of publishing? I think it’s really incredibly important for scholars who care about literature to be involved and talking about, studying and reflecting on that future. I love the work of Kate Hayles right now because she’s out in front saying the most urgent question we have had in decades as literary scholars is How is reading changing? I think that’s an incredibly urgent question, for us to be asking continually, and in an agnostic way, rather than a terrified way. We don’t know the answer to that question. It’s not something we will be able to control, as scholars and as teachers. I think we must expect ongoing change.
We’re in a phase that a Renaissance scholar will recognize as a phase of “digital incunables.” For book historians, the word incunable means that early phase of the invention of the book. I think we need to teach and study our current incunable forms. And the expertise to do this comes from our traditional modes of knowledge, from the history of the book, from the history of publication, and every literary has that expertise. In your field you know things about the way the technologies for circulating your core texts has changed and that what you know has incredibly explanatory power right now. It seems to me there’s never been a better time to make a case for studying literature, to be an English major, a Comp Lit major, if you can make that connection for your students. Look at serial publication in the 19th c. novel, think about seriality and the way it’s taking off right now on the web. In any profession your students will go into, the ability to connect older patterns we understand well to newer patterns we don’t understand well is incredibly powerful.
So this moment of media change gives us an incredible opportunity to show the value of those traditional modes of knowledge. There’s never been a better moment, for me, in my career, to make the case to parents, employers, alumni about why it’s so important to be an English major. And I’m deeply committed to those traditional modes of knowledge. It’s not just that we’re needed, but now we can make the case for it. I guess that is my message, and ultimately, this is why I think DH work matters. It puts you in a position where you can speak with authority, to bridge the difference between traditional modes of knowledge and emerging technologies, and to do that in a way that’s rigorous. We need a generation of scholars who can do precisely that.
* Katherine Rowe (PhD, Harvard) teaches and writes about literature and media change. Trained as a Shakespeare scholar, she turned her attention to questions of media history and adaptation. Her courses explore the history of reading, writing and performance, from the Renaissance to the digital age. Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Education support her work in the digital humanities. She is the associate editor of the Cambridge World Shakespeare Online, a principle investigator for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s F21 Project and a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America. She has longstanding interests in faculty development, undergraduate research and curricular innovation. Rowe is also co-founder of Luminary Digital Media, a small commercial publisher of next-generation mobile reading experiences, including Folger Luminary Shakespeare.