What is a Digital Research Environment?

The group project for this course is to create a digital research environment for the study of literary networks. What is a digital research environment? And how might that be constructed and function for the study of literary networks? Of course, understanding those questions is largely the purpose of this course.

This project directly relates to Washington and Lee University, which publishes the Shenandoah literary journal. The library has significant archival material about the early years of Shenandoah in the 1950s. This is not simply a historical project. Literary journals, which mostly exist online today, are a vibrant and struggling part of our global culture.

The project you create will serve as a foundation for ongoing and future research in this area by faculty and students. Your work in this class will not be merely academic exercises but actual contributions to scholarship.

The research question forming the framework of the literary networks project:

Individual editors are important in the quality of a literary journal through setting the tone, direction, and selection of material in publishing. An editor does not exist in isolation but depends upon a network of writers and ‘consulting editors’ to advise and recommend authors as well as to market and promote the publication to potential readers. These connections, rather than the individual editor, form the essential pattern that determine the extent of a publication’s reach. Through examining the networks within literary publishing what lessons do we learn about the evolution of literary journals that impact the current generation of literary outlets that bring new voices to the public?

Clearly, that is a multi-year study. There are dozens of paths that the project can take. Your challenge in this course is to identify a manageable digital aspect of this larger research that can be accomplished in the Spring Term.

A digital research environment is a Web site focused on a specific topic designed to serve several purposes:

  1. organize access to information sources and raw data
  2. provide tools and methods for analyzing data
  3. communicate findings by publishing the results of research studies, which may be in digital form or links to traditional print publications

Crafting such a research environment is known as digital scholarship. Activities involved in creating a digital research environment involves project management, software integration, data collection, data scrubbing, metadata creation, and may include transcription, textual markup, geospatial mapping, data/text mining, software development as well as a variety of other DH methodologies.

Considering the range of possible functions, it’s essential that you learn project management skills to keep the scope manageable within a limited timeframe. A digital research environment is software and you should think about it in terms of versions, e.g., version 0.1, 0.2, … 1.o, 1.2, …2.0. The process of versioning software forces you to think in terms of stages and identify the feasible number of features that can be completed in each stage or phase of the project. You also should chart out a roadmap that describe features and functionality desired in future releases. Stage those desired features into milestones (the anticipated versions in which those features will appear). Remember: crafting a research environment, developing software, and even writing an essay are all iterative processes. If you’re interested in learning how this process applies to the business world and non-academic endeavors, read about the Lean Startup Methodology.

Planning the Digital Research Environment

We’ve identified the very broad topic of literary networks. To get started we must narrow the scope. One could narrow it to mid-century literary journals that published during the 1940s – 1960s but that’s still very broad and covers a range of publications. We could narrow to one journal during that period, such as Shenandoah. The project scope could be narrowed even further by focusing on the early years of Shenandoah (1950 – 1955). We could narrow that even further by focusing on one editor in that period, Tom Carter who edited Shenandoah from 1951 – 1953.

A large part of planning any digital project is in understanding the possibilities. Here are some possible components of a digital research environment for this project as well as further questions to explore:

  • publish an online index of Shenandoah to serve as a data set
  • prepare a timeline of Tom Carter’s correspondence with various authors (e.g., Pound, William Carlos Williams, Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, E.E. Cummings, Katherine Ann Porter, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, Flannery O’Connor, John Crowe Ransom, Wallace Stevens, James Merrill)
  • create a visual timeline depicting the authors published in Shenandoah
  • create a network graph of editors and authors
  • create a multimedia site that explores the world of Shenandoah in the early 1950s
  • what does the Carter Collection, combined with other resources, tell us about the experiences of the life of an undergrad at W&L in the 1950s. Can that story be told through a Web site?
  • create a multimedia site that explores the brief life of Tom Carter
  • create a site digitally tells the story of Tom Carter and Ezra Pound and their interactions about Shenandoah
  • re-create a virtual version of the personal library of Tom Carter to gauge the reading interests of an emerging writer/literary scholarly of the 1950s
  • create an online research journal using blogging software for documenting developments in the research process
  • develop a network analysis of Shenandoah based on established methodology in visualizing periodical networks. Analysis could examine archival letters between editors and authors as well as identifying the networks of authors and editors over the sixty-plus years of Shenandoah
  • use JSTOR’s Data for Research to compare and contrast publications in Shenandoah with those in related literary journals, e.g., Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review
  • curate a digital selection of archival materials from the Thomas H. Carter and Shenandoah collections
  • create a digital edition of the Carter/Pound correspondence
  • geographically tag the locations of authors in Shenandoah to visualize the spatial distribution of contributing authors. Is the pattern more regional or national? Has it changed over time?
  • prepare a timeline of Tom Carter’s life
  • prepare a timeline of Ezra Pound’s life and his intersections with other literary journals (of which there are many)
  • what is revealed through examining the advertisements in Shenandoah and other literary journals? Which journals used reciprocal advertising as a way of promoting readership?
  • what was the initial audience of Shenandoah and why? Identify and examine other archival documents about why Shenandoah was established and the evolution of how it was perceived (within W&L and beyond). How has the audience changed over time?
  • how do scholars present controversial material such as racism and anti-semitism?
  • explore what type of journal Carter and Pound would have created at that time. Which authors would they have included? Can this be extrapolated from other periodical networks?
  • explore what type of journal Carter and Pound would create if they lived today and started an e-journal. Identify the challenges of modern online journals.
  • apply periodical network analysis to the modern little magazines found on the web.
  • e-mail correspondences and archives. What will we be missing in the future if we don’t find a systematic way of preserving that material among editors and authors. Is there a way to create an initiative to archive the email correspondences from a variety of literary e-journals today? A way for editors to safely deposit their emails without concern that the material would be used for non-scholary purposes?
  • what can be learned from the tweets of literary editors, writers, and readers?
  • w2hat do we learn about editors, critics and publishers as agents of cultural production?

Those are only some of the possibilities. We’ll go over these in class to help you narrow the scope of your group project for Spring Term. Or, maybe, through our class discussions we will identify something entirely different. Once the project scope is defined, then we’ll be able to establish the exact project deliverables.