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Online publishing and pedagogy: some thoughts from working on NAVSA’s COVE

I have been working on various parts of NAVSA‘s Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE) for six months now, and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the experience, as well as on how COVE might serve educators in the future.

Dino Felluga, who conceived of COVE and has been its driving force, wrote about the project in an article for 19, sketching out how the tool could function. He writes about the motivation to protect and fight for “untrammelled scholarly and public access to our cultural heritage”, incorporating the hugely informative BRANCH website into a site that offers both a repository of information about nineteenth-century literature and history and a set of tools for reading, editing, and working with primary texts.

I started working on COVE as a Postgraduate Researcher, annotating one of the set of initial editions, Oscar Wilde’s Harlot’s House. Partly proof of concept for the final product, these initial editions were also a way to test the working methods for producing such editions collaboratively. Different editors took different approaches with their editions. For Harlot’s House, Regenia Gagnier allowed scholars to annotate freely, and as well as adding commentary from past print editions, I also had the opportunity to add some information that I thought might prove useful. This mostly took the form of adding multimedia annotations to the poem, such as a video of a quadrille dance, essentially pre-empting some of the Google searches that I thought first-time students might be inclined to make.

To my mind, COVE’s annotation function, built on annotatorjs, can allow us both to support basic comprehension of a text, by providing definitions or illustrations for unfamiliar terms, and enhance our understanding of it, through critical analysis and argumentation. One of the challenges, however, becomes seeing the wood from the trees.

An important facet of COVE is that it acknowledges that the utopian vision of having immediately at-hand the commentary of many scholars on a single text does not necessarily produce an ideal text to teach from. While perfect for scholars and advanced students, for students who may be encountering the text for the first time, I think it is intellectually helpful that COVE also allows classes to begin with editions as complete blank slates, on which students can place their own annotations. Stripping away the critical edifice can make texts more accessible for undergraduates (or talented high-schoolers) who are developing their close reading or researching skills and thinking about how to relate text and paratext, content and criticism. It is to COVE’s credit that both these possible uses are acknowledged and encoded within the developing site structure, even though the focus of the initial mission statement in 19 was on disrupting for-profit academic publication that can keep research and commentary behind closed doors.

In the same edition of 19 as Felluga’s essay on the origins of COVE, David Gillott reflects on his experience as an intern on 19, helping produce its digital products behind-the-scenes. While font styles are often the source of much deep thought by students (seeking to expand, shrink, or merely beautify essays), HTML, CSS and javascript still remain a mystery to many humanities students, despite the increasingly digital nature of our work. One of the great functions of digital projects like 19 or COVE is that it allows graduate students the opportunity to work on established projects that can either teach them these skills from scratch or help them apply those skills to scholarly work, and I’ve been lucky to receive that benefit from COVE. Having annotated Harlot’s House, I got to take up a coordinating role, which includes marking up new editions and thinking through what the site needs to function as a bigger enterprise (from things as mundane as fresh guidelines for a swell of new users to questions of form and structure, such as how COVE should store and use images).

Using such skills to produce editions on COVE will likely always be a role for graduate students, but that work creating digital editions also offers advantages for undergraduate students in the classroom. COVE offers the ability to compare and contrast the form of digital editions with physical ones, bringing home questions about consumption and the role of texts’ physical material. COVE highlights the editorial decisions that affect the appearance of an edition, even when all of the same words are there in the same order.

Coding an edition of Trilby, based on this Archive.org edition, illustrated to me the difficulties involved in producing a digital text that can approximate the visual effect of a printed original. Whilst all 120 illustrations were readily available, it still wasn’t possible to reproduce the edition as-was: wrapping text around L-shaped images in the exact same proportions and position just wasn’t feasible. However, it was possible to approximate the effect of such interweaving of text and image. These sorts of decisions are ones over which editors and scholars agonise, and can produce heated debate. For students first encountering these issues, though, the possibility of seeing side-by-side COVE’s digital edition of Trilby and Archive.org’s digitised edition of the text is a great way to conceptualise the issues. A perfect reproduction of the text, then, just like a perfect reproduction of the leading scholarship thereon, is not necessarily key to students’ learning.

Although classes are now being taught using COVE, and the number of annotated editions is increasingly rapidly, the project is still in its early stages. It’s important to their survival as projects that both COVE and BRANCH are “collectives”. The idea is that knowledge is collectively held; shared freely; put to work in ways that are generous and collaborative. As Felluga notes, since decisions about what to include are driven by scholars, “the final product is as much a reflection of the critical interests of the present as it is an elucidation of nineteenth-century history and culture”. However, he also hopes that using COVE will act as a feedback loop, influencing that scholarship in turn. His vision includes as a first step “reimagining” our current activities as scholars of nineteenth-century culture through the tools that are digitally available to us, just as the annotation interface reimagines our handwritten notes or the immutable printed version of a scholarly edition.

Having done this reimagining, however, the hope is that we then become able to “follow the logic of the new tool” and make our way into new forms of scholarly work. Felluga warns about skeuomorphs—objects or features that imitate the design of a similar artefact from another material, such as using the shape of an envelope to indicate an e-mail app—preventing us “from fully exploring the potential (or even the logical fruition)” of new tools and innovations. It is here that COVE offers the greatest provocation to the scholars who will produce its content. What tools and ways of working does COVE offer that a stand-alone website using open source tools, or a project produced on SCALAR, could not?

I do not have a clear answer to this. Thinking about individual classes, or individual editorial projects, it is true that stand-alone websites could do the job just as well (and for many classes and projects they already have). However, it is here that I think, in due course, the integration of BRANCH with COVE will yield results beyond what individual efforts might achieve.

BRANCH holds a wealth of knowledge that can help elucidate COVE’s editions and support students’ use of them. Conversely, COVE will hold the primary texts that are so often at the heart of BRANCH’s scholarly work. Combined, and with a user interface that not only keeps one on-site—whether exploring at a Google Map, looking at a timeline, watching a YouTube video, or producing content—but also makes one feel on-site, COVE can become the hub that Felluga envisages. The expectation of digital tools is now not only that the information be there, but that it be surfaced in the most intuitive way possible. COVE has the potential to change what that “intuitive” means for scholars and students alike, making the availability of scholarly content, objects of study, and a plethora of related data the norm. To do so, however, remains an enormous—and enormously exciting—scholarly endeavour.

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1 Comment

  1. […] Online publishing and pedagogy: some thoughts from working on NAVSA’s COVE […]

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