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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!


Neo-Vic lit, Oscar Wilde and NaNoWriMo

It has been years since I’ve had enough time to do any writing creatively. I’ve dabbled a bit each summer, but the full-time job and part-time PhD have been more than enough to handle. Now that I’m on career break to focus on writing up, though, I think I might actually get a chance to focus on some creative projects, and the fact that it’s almost November is just perfect. I’m going to go back to NaNoWriMo!

While researching my PhD chapter on Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, I did a lot of wider reading and reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. The homologies between the two novels—with characters and art blended in unusual ways—got me thinking, and I couldn’t help but wonder how Hawthorne’s tale might have been told differently. (Despite the very best efforts of Elisa New and her class on American poetry, my enjoyment of more overtly Puritanical nineteenth-century American fiction is always tempered.)

I started wondering how the bare facts of the story might be retold by a young Oscar Wilde, travelling Rome and the surrounding area. The ideas and values that produced Dorian Gray might have led the story in a completely different direction. I made some notes and toyed around with the idea a little a few years ago, so I’m going to resurrect it. As well as reframing the novel as a piece of neo-Victorian literature, I also plan to construct a critical paratext around the new text, framing it as a digital critical edition, with analyses of differences in style, form, and content.

Although most of my fiction and poetry writing has been digital, I’ve never conceived of novel-writing as a digital humanities project before, and it’s going to be fun to try out some of the skills that I’ve used annotating and creating editions on NAVSA’s Central Online Victorian Educator on an independent project.

Pitching papers

Inevitably at the end of the summer, there is a crunch period for submitting papers to conferences for the next academic year. Some of the biggest conferences have deadlines well in advance of the conferences themselves, as do journal editions that take years to produce, so getting things in for September and October deadlines becomes a bit of a struggle.

I find producing abstracts for pitching to conferences or journals to be a particular challenge because I so often don’t know what I’m going to want to say until I’m most of the way through writing!

Opportunities to review recent articles or new publications have also been coming out of the woodwork, so I now have a wide set of documents open lest I forget about them.

If I have any success at all with my abstracts, this year could be one of many irons in the fire…

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.

Accidental blogging: some thoughts on academia.edu’s sessions format

I’m a relatively infrequent user of academia.edu (aren’t we all?), but I noticed recently the ‘sessions’ feature. And by “noticed recently”, I mean that I logged on one day to find that academia.edu was telling me I had an “expired session”, and I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, so I went away to find out!

It turns out that a session is a piece of writing that is opened up for comment and discussion. To open a session, one uploads a draft paper. One can ask for feedback from specific people in your network, but the draft is automatically open to comment by certain groups of followers (e.g. supervisors or mutual followers). I now recall that when I uploaded the paper in question, I did upload it as a ‘draft’ because it was a record of what I had presented at a conference, which was still a work in progress. I didn’t realise that labelling it ‘draft’ would throw it open in the way it did. 

With this particular paper, I don’t mind too much that confusion during the upload process meant it was accidentally opened up, but: 

  1. I don’t particularly like the way that academia.edu is trying to redefine collaborative processes as inherently a public one; and 
  2. I think it will only lead to the site becoming a partial blog for people workshopping general ideas.

Rather than, say, uploading your paper to Dropbox, or iCloud, or Google Docs, or just plain ol’ emailing it around to people whose insights would be valuable, this proposed model of academic collaboration is open by default. There are some pluses, perhaps. Your paper might receive attention from those in your extended network, or beyond, who can offer valuable insights that you might otherwise have lacked. 

However, the process fails to take into account the fact that publication is a key metric for academics hoping to progress in their careers. There are relatively few disciplines or cases where the model that academia.edu is offering is a desirable one for academics. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it does mean that the incentives to share so publicly early drafts of exciting and publishable work is pretty low. 

In addition, particularly for those who are on the very lowest rungs of the academic ladder, for whom publishing might be a hurdle they are seeking to jump, academia.edu muddies the water. By taking steps to link one’s rate of “producing quality content” to the metrics of how much pieces have been viewed and commented upon, it constructs a competitive blogging environment. 

In terms of how the feature will be used in practice, perhaps it remains to be seen, but what I have seen of the feature so far doesn’t make it a great method for collaborative working. One session that I joined, out of curiosity both about the form and the subject matter, was on The Study of English Literature, based on a short paper by John Xiros Cooper of the University of British Columbia about the future of the discipline. I did not actively seek the paper out; nor did Cooper seek me out to solicit my feedback. His session simply appeared in a list of open sessions related to my research interests, floating on the right-hand side of my home page. I requested access and was granted it. (Many thanks, John!)

To me, the paper was the sort of thing one might expect to find on a high-calibre academic blog as an extended post, and the comments were similar to those one might expect on such a post. The feature doesn’t allow for in-line editing and commenting, such as might be seen on scribophile.com or even in OneDrive, that old corporate lag. In general, the way that papers are presented is a bit undesirable; they rely on scribd, and there is always a delay in viewing/downloading a paper. If the purpose of the ‘draft paper’ function is actual collaboration, then it lacks the features necessary for nuanced comment and discussion.

Personally, if I wanted to throw open ideas for comment by anyone with an interest, I would use a blog post with moderated comments and tweet the link… 

Disclaimer: I should also say that this is a very separate issue to open access to academic literature, which is one of academia.edu’s main aims, and a laudable one. As part of its general mission to open up more and more content to be available for free on its site, academia.edu encourages academics, particularly doctoral students and early-career researchers, to publish PDFs of their work. In 2013, when Elsevier issued a take-down notice for numerous papers, the site was clear and unequivocal in criticising the move, as were many academics (Michael Clarke’s analysis of the incident is particularly worth a read).

Acwri tools (old and new)

I’m rather relieved that in the deepest recesses of August, I have finally found enough time to escape from work, decompress, and get properly stuck into PhD work ahead of the autumn term. As an ‘off-campus’ part-time student, I will be working on my own over and above the usual experience of a PhD student. Whilst that was true of my MA too, a PhD is rather different in scale and scope. At the moment I’m not anxious about it, but I am conscious of needing to do some groundwork now to make the most efficient use of the resources I have — included my own time — later.

Some of this is practical. I have yet to quite figure out how I’ll address my library needs (membership of The London Library is a luxury I don’t think I will be able to continue to afford, quite literally; on the other hand, the university campus is several hours away by train…). I have yet to have a detailed conversation with my supervisors about exactly what they will expect from me in terms of ‘face time’. I know that work commitments mean that I will struggle to do very much in the autumn, so I hope that I’m on the right track in terms of my preliminary work this summer.

Some of this is also exciting, though. I have an opportunity now to try to set up a process that will serve me well over the next few years, particularly in terms of writing tools:

  1. I’m still using Scrivener, which I used for my MA, but I’m finally starting to make better use of its tools because I’ve had a moment to think clearly about structure. I have folders for all of my readings: primary (fiction); primary (non-fiction); ‘pre-primary’; and secondary. I have a serious number of sub-folders for each author and specific works, within which I have PDFs, imported webpages, links to sound files (for references to lectures by Foucault, etc.) and jpegs of related paintings and sculptures. Being able to include the PDFs means that I can now do a lot of my readings from within Scrivener, making it even more of a one-stop-shop. 
  2. I have finally gotten to the stage where I feel like Zotero will be helpful. It is a bit clunky, and it is harder to organise citations in the same way that I can organise texts in Scrivener. Given that I’m working with a lot of obscure texts, I’m finding that even when I have ISBN numbers, they don’t necessarily exist in the databases that Zotero uses, so I’m entering a lot of things manually. I know it’ll be a kludge and still take me a long time to clean up the bibliography, but I think it’s going to be more efficient than trying to keep my bibliography up-to-date any other way. 
  3. I also have a new to-do list keeper: Wunderlist. I have a work, research and personal to-do list, and the app syncs across all of my devices, including my laptop. It’s a much more efficient system than typing out a to-do list in Evernote! It also allows me to structure my time more successfully than blocking out chunks of time on my calendar, which I do at work, but which I find to not be a very responsive or flexible structure.

The layered and multimedia nature of my Scrivener project has also led me to wonder whether I should think about producing a digital thesis.

One of the academics I follow on Twitter (Lee Skallerup, @readywriting) tweet about an interesting new authoring tool, Scalar, which aims to provide a platform for writers (academic and not) to create interactive, multimedia publications. It is pretty new, and the website is not fantastic at the moment (resemblances to Wikipedia are striking). Still, I think it is pretty interesting. My thesis will focus on how aesthetic responses to art-objects are coded in poetry and prose fiction, and it would seem logical to try to produce something that can juxtapose the written art-objects I am analysing with images of the art-objects to which the authors are responding. Given how effective Scrivener is as a tool for collecting my sources and structuring my thinking, however, I suspect that any Scalar project would be more of a restructuring of a finished thesis, which misses the point… Still, I’m giving it some thought!