Embracing Nature

I was never the most active child. I was in fact pretty lazy. I preferred to sit in my house and watch movies and soap operas, rather than go for a walk or do something to minimally increase my heart rate. 

In the last three years though, I have become more active. It was a decision I made to better my lifestyle because I knew I slightly enjoyed the feeling of working out and I knew I was helping myself too. I would run on the treadmill and use other weird machines at the gym. I was happy with my choice.

Before the pandemic, I would go to the gym and run on a treadmill; I was reliant on machines to help me move because they only stopped when you pressed a button. I disliked running in the streets simply because I had to force myself to keep running. I thought that if I was sweating and there was a high wind that I would break out with acne. That in itself was a nightmare.

Now though, with this pandemic, gyms are obviously closed which means I do not have the fortune of using a treadmill. When I came home from college, and later found out the gym at home was closing due to the virus, I felt lost. I seriously had no clue what to do. I disliked running outside. I did not enjoy myself while doing it and I was not a sucker for the nature around me. But I really did not know what else to do. 

Even though I previously had this more negative mindset, since the pandemic, I have been somewhat forced to seek alternative workout options. As it turns out, I have actually become increasingly fond of running outside. In fact, I love it way more than using the treadmill. I feel like I am one with nature since I run while surrounded by beautiful scenery. It is quite an exhilarating feeling. I get to see beautiful flowers blooming around me and I have a pretty little sun shining over my head. I feel unstoppable.

This feeling of being one with nature reminds me a lot of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In his chapter Solitude, the opening line itself reads “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.” 

While this line does not necessarily reference flowers and trees and that beauty, it does indicate a sense of wholesomeness. The wholesomeness of a man who lives in an area surrounded by nature; while he could choose to feel lonely, he instead embraces it. 

Lately, I run joyfully and am reminded of Thoreau’s work. I am reminded of the beauty of nature and how frequently I take it for granted. I am reminded of the beautiful world that lives beyond the outskirts of the various technological devices I use. I am reminded of how incredible it is to live in a place where I can see such lovely-looking nature. I feel more whole and I embrace the feeling.

I give myself more credit for opening my mind more and stepping outside of my comfort zone. I give myself credit for finally realizing that life exists outside of a smelly gym. 

In a sense, I do envision myself in the chapter Solitude. I see myself standing near what is described as an isolated home. I envision myself surrounded by what feels like a million trees scattered around me. I envision myself looking at flowers in front of me. While my previous self would have disliked this feeling and would have much rather preferred to go to a more enclosed space, I feel even more free. I feel more whole. I have, too, become one with nature.

Changing Perspectives on English

Over the duration of this Digital Humanities course so far, the way I view English as a language and subject, literature, and reading have all changed in different ways when I compare my new perspective to past experiences I have had with these concepts. I used to only see English for reading and writing it. However, the inclusion of Humanities in this English course taught me that there is much more to English than just reading poetry or prose and writing essays based on analysis. Although there are educational benefits to these types of English classes, it is more relatable to apply the concepts of the Humanities in a digital form as this relates more to the world we live in currently.

I have learned that annotating is a significant part of reading and writing. It helps to keep track of your thoughts, ideas, questions, and connections to the text. Something that Digital Humanities has contributed to the way I go about doing this is by using an online journal to organize the things I have learned throughout the course and ideas I have about what I am reading in the various texts. It has been helpful to learn how to use VS Code and go about keeping all of my journals in a folder that I could later submit and share with others on GitHub, which is another platform I learned how to use and push files to. This very blog post is a new experience for me as I have never used this type of platform to organize my thoughts surrounding these new considerations of the Humanities and share them with my peers.

In terms of literature, I only wrote essays and research papers on what I read in my previous English classes. After taking ENGL 340, I know there is a greater variety of ways to analyze what I read including journals, timelines, and examining the reoccurrence of words in a text in order to decide which words are significant and which are stop words. It was also different to look at various versions of books like we did with Walden. A lot of times, we don’t consider anything other than the book we are reading, but there is so much more to the process of writing than the published book in our hands. There is a long process of adding new ideas and narrowing down or taking things out that may not belong or may not pertain the the interests of readers. It was a change to consider just how different one version of a book can be from another and to think about the reasons each change might be. I learned that literature can incorporate Humanities and the ways our lives have changed over time based on technology, communication, what we prioritize, etc.

This class opened my eyes to more genres of literature outside of what I typically read. My other English classes involve reading 18th-century English literature and African novels, folklore, and even art as this is also a form of literature. The readings for this class have very different content than books like “The Information” and “Walden” do as there is less emphasis on the plot and literary elements, with more of a focus on the concepts, history, and the way the ideas about technology and the humanities make you think about your own life and experiences. The books read in ENGL 340 gave me a new perspective on what literature can ‘be’ as what “qualifies” can often be misread of undermined. Although not all parts of the course were based on reading and writing, we still used concepts of studying English and using resources like our own technology (computers) to share our ideas and consider our individual thoughts about humanity, technology, and how this has developed over the course of history.

As the entire world is in a unique situation with the threat of COVID-19, this course has had even more of an impact on my view of the world around me, especially being a college student learning remotely. It has caused me to reflect on the impact of technology on my life and how different things are when it comes to staying connected when you are being asked to stay away from them to prevent the spread of the virus. The way news and information has been shared regarding the coronavirus has also changed the way I see technology and the concepts involved with the Humanities. I will never be able to view life the same as I did before living through this pandemic, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Instead, I can remember this time of struggle as a learning experience to influence how I continue to live my life and interact with those around me, as well as how I consider what I have to appreciate about what resources I have to get me through such a difficult and trying time.

My Final Reflection

I came into the English minor knowing that I loved learning about grammar, and that I also enjoyed writing for the school newspaper. I have been writing for the school newspaper since I was in middle school. My writing feels more natural when I write articles and it is less stressful and time-consuming.  On the other hand, I strongly dislike creative writing. I do not have that crafty mindset, and quite frankly, I feel irritated each time I need to write a thought-provoking essay or poem. These crafty writing formats take too much time and also require a lot of skill. 

Since I am an English minor, I have taken various courses in my time at Geneseo thus far; however, only two of them have led me to feel satisfaction. This satisfaction, this great feeling, has occurred twice for me now because I went into a class feeling unconfident in my abilities as an English student and also disconnected to literature. This disconnection was like being stuck in a cocoon; I had to work hard and progress in order to emerge as a butterfly. 

I felt this satisfaction for the first time in Dr. McCoy’s English 203 class last semester as I realized mid-semester that I was becoming a stronger writer. She encouraged me to become the best version of myself as both a writer and student, and she did so successfully to the point where I eagerly completed our blog post assignments both in and out of class. 

Aside from Dr. McCoy’s class, I also experienced this feeling of achievement as a student in our English 340 Digital Humanities class this past semester. I came into this class having absolutely no technological skills, and gradually emerged from my cocoon. 

While still in my cocoon at the beginning of the semester, I felt totally lost in this class. I was constantly raising my hand to ask for help, because I was so unsure of how to use the different digital platforms we were learning about as a class. 

For example, a platform like GitHub, made absolutely no sense to me. I had no idea how to upload a journal file from my computer to this website, partly because I never took the time to thoroughly understand how to use the different commands. My skills in the class were imperfect. 

While still lost and in my little cocoon, I struggled to understand the uses of Visual Studio Code. I would somehow open what felt like 80 new journal files at once, all accidentally. I was just copying down the functions I saw on the projector screen in class, not actually understanding anything I was typing into my file. There were far more digital elements to this course than I initially expected, as funny as that sounds. 

Admittedly, my skills from the beginning to the midpoint of the semester were imperfect. While learning both in and out of class, I tried to work on my own skills as both a student and writer in order to strengthen my imperfections and emerge from my habitat. 

In the midst of trying to hone my own skills, I realized something interesting as I completed a recent Walden assignment. For this assignment, each of us had to compare different versions of Henry David Thoreau’s manuscript of Walden. Thoreau went through several revisions of this manuscript, and he was always willing to make adjustments to improve his work. From my own perspective, it can be said that at one point, Thoreau was in his own cocoon and was trying to strengthen his own imperfections. The beauty is that Thoreau both strengthened his writing and emerged into a butterfly, and that even through his several edits, he continued to preserve the intended meaning of his words. 

From reflecting on Thoreau’s progress, I made a strange observation. While this pandemic has been awful, I have had to become more independent as both a student and writer, which has given me time to work on my imperfections, just like Thoreau worked on his. 

With the time I have now at home as well as with how accountable I am to do work efficiently and, on a deadline, I realize that I have emerged into my own butterfly. I no longer need help uploading files to GitHub. I used to be scared of uploading files just because I had no clue what I was doing. Now, though, I have strengthened my weaknesses through the practice of using commands. Additionally, as for using Visual Studio Code, I no longer create what feels like a million journal files at once. I understand the commands I input into my journal file, for the most part, and I definitely feel like I have a greater grasp over the use of the Visual Studio Code application. Even though my skills are nowhere near perfect, I have definitely progressed. 

The perspective I gained as a result of being in this class led me to realize that no writer is perfect; practice makes perfect. There are always modifications I can make to hone my own skills and to learn how to use peculiar websites and applications. The only way to progress is through practice. After all, Thoreau did not create one version of his manuscript and call it quits. I do not hide away from GitHub or Visual Studio Code anymore. This growth is because I took the time to progress and work on my own abilities, and I am still making progress too. I am not nearly close to perfect, and neither are my skills as an English student in this class. But I am proud of myself for emerging from my cocoon into my own butterfly, and for developing a closer connection between myself and this discipline.

The Necessity of “English” as a Discipline

I believe that my view of “English” as a discipline has changed as a result of my work in this course, but not necessarily in the way I expected.

When I was planning and selecting which classes I wanted to take this semester, this one immediately caught my eye. Not only did it fulfill my Recent Literature degree requirement, but it was a topic that caught my interest. I may not know every detail of the latest and greatest technology, but I would not hesitate to label myself as a technophile. I enjoy learning how things work; I find it fascinating. I have also always wanted to learn how to code (even if it was only learning the most basic ways). Thus, Lit & Lit Study in the Digital Age sounded perfect to me. Over the past few months, this course has shown me a new side of “English” – one that I did not know existed. I never realized how hand in hand it went with information in the digital age.

In the last twenty years, give or take, a push for STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has become prominent. I remember in my high school, multiple art classes were cut in favor of technology ones, or they began to incorporate technology into their work. For example, they recently tore down the darkroom that several of our photography classes used to develop film and make prints. To the best of my knowledge, those classes now use iPads to edit their photos. While I understand why and do believe that STEM education is needed, I never liked how it seemed to take away from arts subjects such as “English”.

If I am being completely honest, I felt overwhelmed when we started to use programs such as Visual Studio Code and Python, despite how eager I was to code. I sometimes could not keep up, whether it was commands failing in the terminal or being unable to push my journal files to GitHub (I finally became confident about doing so just this past month). However, I still found it genuinely fun to do. I never thought that I would be able to make my own webpage, which was neat! I liked that we often had group discussions to go along with this work, too. Doing everything online can be very isolating, so it was nice to have face-to-face communication as well as someone to turn to for help. Before taking ENGL 340, I had my doubts about being an English major. Although, my faith has been restored, as this type of work is more of what I would like to pursue in the future.

Back to the topic at hand, I have learned over the past semester that to understand modern technology and ways of communication fully, we still need “English”. If I did not have any prior knowledge of reading or literature in general, I would struggle to do the activities we did in this course. I can not imagine trying to understand Walden in Voyant Tools if I had not read and studied it first, much less creating journal files using Markdown. I think that the new wave of STEAM education (STEM + Arts) is more ideal compared to sole STEM-based learning as it allows students to better themselves in disciplines like “English”. Furthermore, and for me especially, being able to intertwine skills from different areas helps students to better themselves in all of these subjects. For instance, writing lab reports with unfamiliar vocabulary and formatting is significantly easier for me because I have that background knowledge of constructing essays for my English courses.

Overall, this course has taught me a lot about “English” as a discipline in the digital age, but I know that there is so much more to learn – and I am excited to discover this information!

Understanding text as “data” and accepting its fluidity

The survival of the humanities in the digital age relies upon the understanding that text is data: specific information that is carefully packaged for our analysis. In my experience as an English major, analysis is typically undertaken as a quest for interpretive meaning, bringing to the fore questions of symbolism and literary devices, like: “What does the green light symbolize in The Great Gatsby?” and “How does Fitzgerald’s diction convey this particular meaning, and not another?”

After focusing primarily on qualitative approaches to literary analysis, ENGL-340 introduced me to the quantitative analysis of text as data. With quantitative analysis, each bit of information is examined without projecting more meaning than what’s provided. An example of quantitative analysis applied to The Great Gatsby might be: “How many times are the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg mentioned? Where are they mentioned most often?”

ENGL-340 also introduced me to text as a corpus of data, or corpora if there’s more than one distinct corpus. We apply quantitative analysis to one body of text, or a collection of related texts, in search of patterns. Patterns are the keystone of meaning according to quantitative analysis, especially when examining a large corpora. For instance, you might wonder “What patterns can we discern across classic novels written by the modernist “Lost Generation”?” These “patterns” might materialize as the repeated use of a word, theme, or structural organization. From there, you might imagine why the great writers of the Lost Generation made similar, or different, stylistic choices.

Incorporating this mode of analysis into our literary approach is crucial because it bridges the perceived gap between the humanities and the sciences. Human thoughts crafted into words crafted into sentences crafted into coherent bodies of text are historical objects of information worthy of scientific analysis. They are markers of humanity’s achievements: some of the greatest, most timeless self-knowledge we’ve touched upon as a species is found in literature. Why not examine its concordance, then? Some tips for quantitative analysis that I picked up in ENGL-340, and which I hope to bring to future classes, are:

  • Searching a corpus for patterns at the command line: using a digital copy of the text you’re analyzing and the command line, you can search the text for the occurence rate of specific words, for a total word count, for the longest and shortest words in the text, for the word that occurs most often, and so on.
  • Generating graphs and other visuals for your data on Voyant: rather than using the command line, you can also view the quantitative analysis of textual data you upload on the website, VoyantTools.org. The cool thing about Voyant is that it generates different charts, graphs, and visuals of the data you’re focusing on.
  • Comparing data across versions using a Fluid Text Edition: here, we can analyze how data in a corpus has changed or stayed the same over time.

The second necessary development in my perception of literature as a result of ENGL-340 is tied to this final bullet point. First, there’s understanding text as data. Then, there’s understanding that text is fluid: not a fixed and stable object, but rather, an ongoing project.

Our favorite books, poems, and plays were formed gradually and with great care– not suddenly and miraculously crystallized. If we have access to earlier manuscripts/revised copies, we can compare versions of a text to better understand its development. Referring to a fluid text edition also brings awareness to the humanity of the author: reading Thoreau’s first draft of Walden, we are reminded of the flaws inherent in everyone’s first draft. It also serves to remind us, quite fittingly for Thoreau, that everything is done with some degree of deliberation in the literary world. Individual words are chosen with extreme care: Thoreau scratched out the words “book”, “work”, and “lecture” when describing Walden across various versions before finally settling on “book”. The attention put toward such minute matters reveals Thoreau’s dedication to “getting it right” as a writer– a quality not all writers, or authors, possess.

Thanks to ENGL-340, I am able to see the oft-overlooked juncture between qualitative and quantitative analysis in literary studies. With attention to the nature of text as “fluid data,” we can study the information before us both objectively and subjectively. Subjectivity particularly applies to imagining plausible revision narratives that explain changes made to a text. Of course, quantitative data is also fodder for further interpretation. Information, writing, art, life– I think James Gleick once called it a “moving target,” and I find that more than adequate. These things are constantly in flux as a result of being alive; final stability is like death, or whatever name you give to completion. Just like the way we learn from one another, we learn from art as we observe and analyze its change over time, its variations and constancies. In this way, ENGL-340 enhanced my understanding of literature and life.

Literature and Technology: The Connection

Over the course of this semester in Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age with Dr. Schacht, I feel as through I was given a unique opportunity to not only learn more about the things I can do on my computer, but also to think about literature, books, authors, and English as a discipline through a different lens.

For starters, as we near the end of the semester, I feel as through I have learned more about what my computer can do and have been given tools to help me manage my computer more effectively. With the use of github and the command-line, I not only have an online space to upload and store files that may be taking up valuable space on my computer, but I also have a collaborative workspace that may come in handy in the future. Additionally, I’ve learned valuable skills about the markdown coding language and how the python coding language works. These skills are obviously in high demand in many fields in todays society, so having this basic understanding will surely only help me post undergraduate education.

While learning all of the new things I can do on my computer were interesting, I think the most valuable lesson I learned this semester is in regard to how I view literature and what tools myself and other people can use to further understand it.

I don’t think I ever fully realized the amount of work that goes into creating a work of literature. Obviously, I knew that in order to get published, authors go through an intensive revision process that often times takes several different attempts to get it just right. I don’t think I understood that those revisions can be as intensive and tedious as simply changing one word to a different one until the author is satisfied. This idea has given me a greater appreciation for all the novels that sit on my bookshelf and around my room.

Going off of this idea, I also have found an appreciation for how easy it is to track these changes using technology. Using Voyant Tools and the Fluid Text reader, I feel like I have been able to connect more deeply with literature. Being able to find specifics about a text in Voyant Tools and then to be able to track those changes over a series of manuscripts has only deepened my understanding of the pieces of literature that we have worked with this semester. On top of that, its just pretty darn cool to see all the revisions to a text and how a manuscript may have started versus how it was published.

Overall, I think there is a huge connection between English as a discipline and technology. I think before I use to think of English more as just reading and writing – now I think of it more as a way of communication, a diffusion of ideas, and how we get from one point to another with the impact of technology. English is about how we communicate and how ideas are shared through reading and writing, rather than just reading and writing. Technology plays a very unique role in this, as the more advanced we become with our computers and our phones, the more we can do to communicate. From talking drums to the first telephone created by Alexander Graham Bell to the ability to group facetime, ideas are spread at a fast rate through talking. On top of that, the invention of the printing press has enabled us to share ideas through writings at a much faster rate than ever before, and it has just gotten faster as time has gone on – the use of a printing press is not even required any more, blogs, such as this one, and other online sources give you the same way to communicate through writing.

The connection between English and technology is a great one. The more you can do with technology, the more english enables you to do, share, write, read, and communicate. We have a web of information at our fingertips to learn and improve. Without the diffusion of information that english enables and the use of technology enabling more people to access it, the world would most likely be very different than it is today. This course, learning all these skills, and being able to have access to the tools that have been shown to us has ultimately changed my view on both English and technology; it has opened my eyes to how english, as well as other disciplines, and technology have a connection to one another that leads to improvements and advancements in all fields.

Reverse Walden

As of Saturday, March 14st, 2020, I have been at home social distancing myself amid the COVID-19 outbreak, with my computer, my phone, my tv, and Netflix. Between moving from my bed, to my brothers room, to the couch, and then back to my bed, I’ve begun to think a lot about Henry David Thoreau and his experience with isolation in Walden. More specifically, how different the two are and how much I seem to be struggling with this sudden change.

Thoreau writes Walden about his feelings in isolation in the woods, completely away from technology. Thoreau is close enough to a town to be able to have human interaction and is in an area where people frequently visit his cabin. While I am surrounded by my family, I am in no way disconnected from technology. In this way, my experience is completely different from Thoreau’s experience in Walden. In fact, it almost makes me wish I did not have to be glued to my computer to complete my studies for the remainder of the semester.

Just during spring break alone, I spent two days over the phone and online trying to reschedule a trip, then, I spent a significant amount of time reading the various emails sent by the administration, and, most agonizingly, I spent time in front of the tv listening to President Trump and Governor Cuomo give various updates about New York State and the COVID-19 situation. I have been home for nine days – I am ready to throw my laptop out the window.

Thoreau, while in the woods, seemed to greatly enjoy being with nature and being alone – at least, that is what I have seen from his writing, for the most part, thus far. He would tend to his bean fields, entertain visitors, and travel into town. While being away from technology, he still was able to lead a somewhat normal life in the woods. I, however, and everyone in New York, simply cannot do that right now. We have to stay home to flatten the curve. We cannot see people who are not in our inner circle. We shouldn’t be taking trips into town to go to the store or the mall (not like we could if we wanted to since all unnecessary businesses are closed per the states mandate). Instead, as students, we get to sit at home in front of our screens, learning how to learn using a new style, and be surrounded by just our family.

My eyes are tired. I can’t rewatch another episode of Stranger Things. I can’t read another email about COVID-19 and the procedures to follow during te four days I had to collect my belongings from campus. I can’t watch videos of my professors teaching, I know I struggle to learn that way. On top of that, I need social interaction. I should be at Geneseo right now, rooming with my best friend from High School and preparing for midterms. Instead, I’m at home, in my childhood bedroom, with my brothers and parents down the hall.

The last time my whole family was home for an entire week on vacation was in 2007 – I was in Second Grade. That was when my oldest brother was a Senior in High School; it was the last time we all had a spring break at the same time. This upcoming week, while I begin to attend classes online, my entire family will be home, scattered throughout the house going about their day with a new routine. I can’t go to a library, a Starbucks, even just a random café – its all closed and I shouldn’t be leaving the house anyway.

At first, the thought of isolation was kind of fun, in the context of our readings for this course. I was going to really see what Thoreau discussed in his text. But this just isn’t it. I feel like I cannot escape technology no matter how hard I try. Five days of my week will be spent in front of a computer doing school work and going to classes. I know in this day and age we all use our computers to get work done frequently, but something about the prospect of taking classes online gives it a different feel. Before, I was able to put the laptop down and just relax with friends around campus, or I could take breaks in between classes from technology. Now it’s all technology.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful here. I love my computer, I love Netflix, I love being able to have information at my finger tips on my phone. But this whole thing? It feels more like a burden than a blessing, more like a hardship than a way of making something easier – you know, what technology was suppose to do in the first place.

Data-Mining Walden: Tools for Literary Analysis

Henry David Thoreau had a fraught relationship with technology. As we discussed in our presentation, it is difficult to tell whether he would be on board with our digital projects regarding his work. What we can say for sure is that the technology we have engaged with this semester have allowed us to read his book, Walden, as deliberatively and as reservedly as it was written. By apprehending his text in the digital dimension we achieved new and unique insights into the way Thoreau thought about place and how he crafted his thoughts into writing. 

Melissa, Sean, Cal, and Emma each took a chapter to mine in order to track the language of place and its developments throughout the text. This required the downloading and installation of some software with the help of Kirk Anne and Dr. Schacht. Brianne worked on answering the “so what?” question by analyzing the data collected by the other group members. We worked with the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) and spaCy,both of which allowed us to mine for certain words and types of words. However, eached proved to have their own limitations within each chapter. We found that spaCy was better equipped in Cal’s mining of “The Ponds” whereas NLTK was more helpful for Melissa, Sean, and Emma.

Zooming out, data mining a text such as
Walden did not come without challenges. Whether it was the virtual machine or the local server, Python proved to be a very demanding language, one with a steep learning curve which kept us guessing a lot of the time. Similarly, NLTK and spaCy had to be downloaded directly to our devices in order to accomplish the task at hand. It became pretty clear that while digital tools can often make reading easier learning the tools necessary to do so is all but simple. Still, when grappling with the limitations of all of our tools we seemed to be simultaneously addressing larger questions about the utility of technology, just as Thoreau does in
Walden.

Nevertheless, the technology proved indispensable for our project because it helped us to expedite the mining/reading process. Python, the language we used to learn more about Walden, allowed us to operate on the text, while spaCy and NLTK provided a bank of resources that we could apply to the chapters we all chose. Each tool informed us on a general sense of place which we followed up with closer readings. We were able to clearly discern between the broadly spatial chapters (“The Village” and “House Warming”) and the specifically geographic ones (“The Ponds” and “Conclusion”). Whether he was talking about physical places or metaphorical spaces, as in headspace, Thoreau constantly framed his thinking through place specific language. This sort of “mapping” truly makes Thoreau into the “Surveyor of the Soul” that Huey Coleman claims him to be. His attention to the local and the distant, from Concord to Siberia, demonstrates both the interconnectedness that technology in the 19th century was making possible and the expansive reach of an inner geography, a soul whose territory outran the map.

Just as some of Thoreau’s themes exceed the scope of a geographic specific reading, so too did our task at hand exceed the capabilities of some of our tools. One thing our group really wanted to stress in our presentation is the importance of validating failure in digital projects. All of the setbacks, miscues, and limitations faced by engaging with Jupyter Notebook, Atom, Python, Anaconda, spaCy, NLTK, and beyond were equally as useful to thinking about the digital humanities as our successes with each of these tools. When we encountered errors in our work we were forced to ask why. This moment of self-reflection was critical for doing digital work because of the knowledge that stood to be gained by asking questions about the tools. Coming to this class with a variety of digital backgrounds, it was very important that we moved as a unit. Fortunately, the tools we used leant themselves well to collaboration and, ultimately, this project became about creating our own community space around Walden. 

From his comparative measures of White and Walden Ponds, to his rambles through Concord, to his building of a house in the woods, and his reflections on place inward and outward, Thoreau was constantly attuned to the language of place. We too were attuned too language, constantly seeking the instances of geography in his text by moving through it digitally. Just as Thoreau spatializes his world in Walden, so too do we attend to space by tracking its relative importance throughout the book. By using digital tools we were able to read Walden collectively, collaboratively, effectively, and deliberately.

Digital Humanities and Literacy

In class a couple weeks ago we started to have a discussion on TEI and XML. At the start of this conversation I had no idea what those acronyms stood for or what they meant. I came to learn that TEI stands for Text Encoding Initiative and XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language. Even after learning what these acronyms stand for I still don’t really understand what they mean or why they are important. We started talking about how TEI and XML add a rigorous structure to data and they take the shape of a tree, like a hierarchy. I still don’t completely understand what this means, but I found a connection between this and my Literacy Education course I’m taking this semester. We discussed how our ebooks and books in general also take the structure of a tree. The title could be seen as the trunk because it’s the base of what you’ll read later on and then as you go up the tree things get smaller such as the paragraphs, sentences, words, and individual letters. We also have to take into account the punctuation, spacing, and all individual bits of data. While creating our ebooks it’s important to represent that data and be able to recognize it. I found a relation between this and my literacy course because on the first day of class the professor showed us a picture of a bunch of symbols and asked “What do you need to know in order to read this?”

 

Some of the answers that we came up with were what each symbol stands for, what sound is associated with each symbol, what the difference between one symbol and two of the same symbols together sound like, and you have to read left to right. There are five pillars of early literacy that are essential to learn in order to be successful in reading and writing. They are: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. In my literacy course we focused on phonological awareness and phonics. Phonological awareness is the general appreciation of how language can be divided into its components. For example, we speak in sentences. Sentences can be broken down into words and words into syllables. Just like TEI and XML having its own bits of data that people have to recognize and understand to be successful, children have to recognize and understand the small bits of language in order to read and write.

Democracy and Digitization

Like the human brain or the deepest parts of the ocean, the potential for discovery in the digital age seems boundless, especially to someone new to computing like me. Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age has provided me with keys to locks on doors that I never even knew existed. The technical tools and languages fascinate me, how they command my computer to do things I never thought possible. However, I want to focus on how these technical things build a sort of digital democracy and how this might act as a model for other social environments. We have learned that most of what makes the internet work is open source and free to use/observe. Granted, editing the web can be limited by administrative privileges, but if I learned anything, it is that I am more in control than I thought when it comes to shaping my computing experience.

Applying these technical tools and concepts The Reader’s Thoreau is the best example of the sort of democracy I am talking about. This community, in which Thoreauvians can exchange questions and ideas about his works, is a microcosmic formation of democracy made possible by the computer. Apprehending a plain text version of Walden, raw and unbound from the material book, allows readers the access to the words at a level beyond that of the book. Plain text and plain-text editing with XML or HTML makes things like CommentPress possible. Digitizing Walden has not only brought the text to the more readers, it has engaged them in conversations with other readers. Here, then, is an example of how the technical can perform the conceptual, how digitization can democratize. After working with XML and HTML in the fall to digitize Yeats, I ultimately wanted all of my digital humanist work to surround this core issue, the democratization of information. Little did I know that the internet is set up perfectly for this type of work.

In my investigations of Lessig and Free 
Culture it became clear to me that computers are the backbone of what Lessig calls “remix culture.” The ability of markup languages like XML and HTML are instructive and thus can produce and reproduce texts that shed new light on old words. Similar to riffing in music or stigmergy in organizational theory, these languages allow developers (citizens of the web) to repeat and revise content in new and interesting ways. Lessig writes, “democratic tools gave ordinary people a way to express themselves more easily than any tools could before” (33). Just like a camera, the computer allows take control of their reality, revise and remix it to their liking. This makes the internet rich in texture and vibrant in culture. It reflects what is so good with democracy and it relies on technical copying and revision. This copying and revision happens, for us, at the command line, where we have been spending some time this semester. We can participate actively in the process of making and remaking by directly accessing our computers internal structure. Knowing the technical hierarchy gives each of us the chance to govern ourselves, which is both fundamental to democracy and vital to self-preservation in the hyper-surveillance culture we live in today.

True, the accessibility computers provide people can be used for harm. We are living in an era of “memetic warfare,” where hate can be propagated through the exact same methods of copying and revision. Open sourcing the internet is always at risk of this. Trolls on YouTube and Wikipedia will constantly disrupt the ideal digital democracy, just as corruption and scandal will plague our own democracy. However, the moment we attempt to purify this democracy by placing tight restrictions on spaces like Wikipedia and YouTube we sacrifice that very same democracy. In my directed study with Dr. Doggett, we are talking about this precise issue. The theorist we are reading, Slavoj Zizek, would say that to purify democracy is actually a totalitarian move. Thus, we must preserve the aberrations and deal with hate quickly and effectively. Wikipedia does this by running a “Talk” page alongside each entry, a separate HTML file for people to discuss and suggest changes to each page. It relies on a democratic schema to self-organize and create good.

Similarly, we have seen both sides of computer-as-society with The Reader’s Thoreau. We have engaged in a rich conversation of Walden all semester with each other and readers around the world. Blogging and commenting has fostered a community that exemplifies what we should strive for on and off the internet. We have also seen individuals penetrate the community looking to cause harm (I am referring to the woman asking for money). However, thanks to the self-organizing principles of the internet and some quick action from the site’s administrator, the community was able to move passed this and get back to reading deliberately.

All of this has been made possible by a hyperlinked internet that allows users to move freely between data points and information. As Jeffery Pomerantz points out, the potential of an HTML file is the precise reason why we have the internet. This the underlying technical structure of what makes the computer a democratic tool. Texts connect to other texts which connect people to texts and people to people. This is probably the most important thing I will take from this class. The computer’s ability to convene more and different people around a text, inviting new perspectives always, intrigues me as a student and excites me as a person. I want to take the digital humanities into my education going forward as it has proved so helpful in considering the ethics of writing, something I think about constantly. In short, the technicalities of digitization have prompted me to think in new ways about things that have always been important to me. By continuing in the pursuit of discovery, I will continue in my pursuit of democracy.