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Neo-Victorian #AcWriMo: week 3

Week three is up, and my #AcWriMo/#NaNoWriMo project is on-track at 36,500 words and counting.

I spent a fair amount of time this week tinkering around with Scalar to try to improve the styling, and I’m increasingly sceptical of the merits of Scalar for digital publishing. It might be useful for people without the time or inclination to produce something independently, but the Scalar 2 interface is currently poor. In the end, I abandoned it and reverted the whole piece back to Scalar 1 in order to get something that was more manageable. In Scalar 2, for example, it proved difficult to change the background colour (because it overlays its grey-and-white page over the top of it) or right-align any text without it intervening into the space left for the annotation tab. The whole structure seems to be under-developed at the moment, so reverting felt like the right thing to do.

I also had to go through the pieces already posted in order to deal with html that followed me from Scrivener. I haven’t used Scrivener for quite a long time, as it didn’t really suit my PhD writing process. Although I still like the organisational structure it gives for chapters and other pieces, which works well for creative projects, for future chapters I’m going to take things first through Atom and do some marking up there, as the Scalar HTML content pane isn’t very friendly for larger pieces (this is one of the few points where the Scalar 2 interface had the upperhand).

In terms of the writing itself, the story is finally branching out from the original, so the amount of creative work required has increased substantially. There’s quite a lot of research to be done, but I’m looking forward to getting the story substantially completed this week, and then getting to work on the framing and final touches. Only 10 days left!


Neo-Vic DH writing project: week 1

Week 1 of NaNoWriMo is now complete, and as I mentioned in my planning post, I’m using the month as an opportunity to pursue a digital humanities, neo-Victorian project that I’ve had on my mind rather a while: an intertextual, part-epistolary rewriting of Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun in the style of Oscar Wilde.

NaNo has been going pretty well this week. I’m on target, in terms of word count, so I thought that I would take a little time last weekend to think about the digital presentation of the piece. My aim from the beginning was to use Scalar to present the project as a whole, setting up multiple paths through the content that would otherwise be common fare in a new critical edition.

It took me two attempts to put up the content that I had already produced (some letters, some chapters, and some editorial commentary). The first attempt I made on my own, existing Scalar account. However, as I began to think through how I might use hypothes.is to present editorial inventions like explanatory footnotes, it occurred to me that the project itself might be better presented by the ‘editor’ (my meta-narratorial invention). A quick gmail account later, and I was starting all over again on a new Scalar account.

In terms of the experience using Scalar itself, I will say that it is pretty non-intuitive, and as yet the product is not the most attractive. The individual pages themselves (in the “basic” Scalar 2 layout) resemble the pages that I’m used to working on via COVE’s annotation.studio site. There is something off about the way that text is arranged on the white of the “page” that isn’t quite as I would like, although it does at least make space for the bulk of the annotation bar in the margin, when that’s activated. I’m fully willing to accept that this is in part a personal failing, and that a little more work will lead to me improving it.

The other challenge, which I quickly overcame when I started from scratch, was the need to have a fairly strong visualisation of the content ahead of time. Setting up pages and paths was something that I played around with quite a bit before I identified that I wanted at least three distinct paths: the novel itself (let’s face it, many readers skip the critical apparatus of a scholarly edition anyway!); the correspondence itself; and an arrangement in chronological order of when sections were written (i.e. letters and chapters intermixed). Initially, I wanted to have an “editorial” path too, using the comment type in Scalar to present the editor’s “footnotes”. However, it seemed difficult to position those with the same sort of accuracy as I wanted, interlinking words, sentences and paragraphs with the commentary, and that’s when I decided to employ hypothes.is instead.

The result, I suspect, is going to resemble quite closely the vision for annotated editions on COVE, but with multiple routes through the material. In a way, I’m slightly disappointed by that outcome, as it might imply a lack of imagination on my part! However, I do take heart from the fact that, despite quite a different set of intentions, I’ve come to use a lot of similar apparatus, as it suggests that COVE is making the best, most intuitive use of the range of tools at digital humanists’ disposal.

Because I’m not quite persuaded by the pages’ appearance yet—I need to think more about what media, if any, I want to embed, and their layouts may therefore change—I don’t want to make the project public just yet, although I will try to do that in a week or so. In the meantime, here’s a Scalar visualisation of the content and paths that I’ve uploaded so far!


Academic publishing: four conundrums starting out

As the cliché goes, most people have summer reading, but academics have summer writing. August is a key time for ‘side projects’, and for grad students this is often writing for publication, versus writing for one’s degree. I’ve been keeping a running list of open calls for papers during the spring, and this August is time for me to polish those abstracts and check out some possible key terms. As I wrap up my thesis, I know that I need to be making a start on building a publication record, but how to proceed is always fraught. I don’t pretend to have firm answers, but these are some of the conundrums that I’ve come up against while planning my workload for the summer and the months ahead, and my inclinations on how to solve them.

1. Call For Papers vs journal submission

Lots of journals pitched towards graduate students and early-career researchers have calls for papers that do the rounds in the winter and spring, including the journal that I’m an editor for (HARTS & Minds). Meanwhile, many of the more established or prestigious journals operate rolling submissions, usually accompanied by somewhat opaque or unpredictable assessment processes and timelines.

CFPs can be very attractive, as they often require only a 500 word pitch, rather than a completed, polished manuscript. For time-strapped grad students, particularly those who are focusing on publishing mostly during the summer months, this has a real allure, as it keeps the up-front investment low.

The difficulty, however, is the risk that the short-term gain is a long-term loss. It takes real insight and experience with academic work to know the level a particular piece should be pitched at. Coupled with the anxiety that (for most grad students) comes with the first steps into publishing, the decision is a tough one.

I suspect the best advice is still to wait and publish something of excellent quality in as prestigious a publication as one can muster. But that seems predicated on an old, romantic view of academia where academics might be protected by their institutions until they can achieve this. Now, ‘publish lots’ seems to be the prevailing wind…

2. Fresh work vs developed grad-school work

Whether you’re developing a 500-word abstract to pitch a book chapter or journal article, or preparing a polished manuscript for submission, it’s difficult to know whether to build on your existing work or to produce something bespoke. Again, this is about up-front investment.

Developing grad-school work appears to be the easier option. You’ve done all that thinking already, right? However, there are challenges around trying to force old work into a new hole, such as a specific CFP, and of course the fact that most polished grad-school pieces are longer than your average article. Trimming a piece down is a skill in itself, and not one that we necessarily all develop while producing academic work. There’s a risk that trying to customise grad-school work leads to something less publishable than if one had struck out into a fresh field of research, meaning that in fact the time investment may be wasted.

3. Thesis vs ‘old’ work

A subset of the conundrum above, but I think this poses an additional dilemma.

Most grad students will have produced good research while completing previous degrees. Is it best to use our newest research or to refresh older pieces? Work on a PhD thesis is likely the highest quality academic work that any graduate student will have produced. That means it’s automatically ripe(r) for publication than, for example, Masters research. However, there is an increasing tendency for PhD students to draft their thesis as a prospective monograph. Taking chunks out of it might, therefore, risk the publishability of the whole, or at least present additional copyright difficulties.

Masters work may, therefore, seem like a better bet (unless the PhD follows directly on from it). However, there’s a lot of critical thinking to be done about the quality of Masters work—even if it achieved a glowing mark. The Masters degree is a staging post in terms of preparing for a research career, and accordingly the critiera for excellence differ. If approached well, however, developing Masters work for publication can be a learning experience, and be like coming to a subject fresh, but with a hell of a lot of background knowledge!

4. Submission articles vs thesis

As mentioned above, there is an increasing tendency for PhD theses to be constructed and drafted as prospective monographs, in order to cut down on the time from degree to publication. Not only does this have an impact on the types of theses that are being written (an issue worthy of a whole other list of conundrums!), but students in this position have to balance time spent on their thesis with time spent on side-project publications.

Graduate school can be a great time to begin building experience with academic publication, and ideally a publication profile. Protected time with an academic affiliation (and the attendant access to journals, seminars, supervisors, etc.) is a safety net that ECRs cannot take for granted, in particular in the light of the increasing adjunctisation of higher education. However, anxiety about being seen to ‘dally’ in grad school is a real pressure. And let’s be frank: the summer is just not long enough for side projects.

With ‘publish early and often’ becoming the guiding force for grad students, there is probably no decision to be made. Both articles and thesis seem to be ‘top priority’, as though we’re politicians unwilling to say where they’ll make the hard choices! However, scandalous though it may sound, for grad students aiming for a research career (and not everyone is), I think the thesis should take second place. To attain the degree requires a lot of hard work, but no thesis is immediately publishable without revision. Developing the skills to produce publishable work—and deal with journals and publishers—will stand you in good stead for your whole career. Why not develop them while you have the support of supervisors and can work on side projects that are shorter, more contained, and frankly things that you likely care less about than the thesis? Once you have those skills, they’re yours, and you can use them to produce publishable articles, or a monograph, from the thesis that earned you your degree.