U.Va. Shows Off Digital Projects at MLA Conference

January 19, 2011 — A digital scholarship session at the annual Modern Language Association conference, held Jan. 6 through 9 in Los Angeles, unveiled a new format and showcased the work of several University of Virginia faculty members and digital scholarship experts, among others.

At a conference where long papers and question-and-answer periods are the norm, the "Electronic Roundtable" was held in a room equipped with eight computer stations at which participating professors demonstrated their research and digital projects.

Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship in the Scholars' Lab of the University of Virginia Library, organized the Jan. 7 session, "New (and Renewed) Work in Digital Literary Studies: An Electronic Roundtable," in her role with the Association for Computers and the Humanities, an MLA-affiliated professional society.

"The ACH has been tracking and providing a guide to technology-related panels at MLA since the mid-1990s, and U.Va. has always been a strong presence," Nowviskie said.

Although illness kept Nowviskie from attending the conference, Scholars' Lab consultant Joe Gilbert took her place in introducing the session.

Gilbert said the session, in which two of the computers were devoted to five U.Va. projects, drew about 50 attendees in addition to the dozen presenters.

"I believe the event's focus on fully realized digital projects proved important to its success. The lively, conversational tone of the session also helped it to stand out," he said.

"The majority of the session was set aside for attendees to wander around to various computer stations set up and have the kinds of conversations that so often lead to new collaborations and project ideas in the digital humanities," Gilbert said.

The presenters gave three-minute introductions of their work and then offered simultaneous, hands-on demonstrations. At one station, Miami University English professor Laura Mandell, associate director of NINES and 18thConnect, showed the progress made on NINES – Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship, founded at U.Va. in 2004 – and a newer project using the same software, 18thConnect. NINES provides rigorous peer-review of digital resources and brings these various resources together into a common index for complex searching via a single portal.

Discussions are beginning to expand the NINES model to other historical periods, said its director, Andrew Stauffer.

At another station, three projects made possible with help from U.Va.'s Scholars' Lab were on display. Chip Tucker, Alison Booth and Brad Pasanek, English professors in the College of Arts & Sciences, presented their projects and said they made connections with scholars from other schools.

Booth's project, "Collective Biographies of Women," based on her 2004 book, "How to Make It as a Woman," began as an online bibliography of Victorian Era books that focused on types of women, especially those who were exemplary in some way. The project represents thousands of remarkably diverse women, says the summary. "As a Scholars' Lab project since 2006, it has developed new ways to access and analyze this rich corpus: more than 1,200 books (in English, since 1830) that collect three or more short narrative biographies of women only."

"A search through this bibliography and the books it registers helps to correct some distorted generalizations about the lack of records of women in the past," Booth says on the website.

She said several people wanted to see how the search function works in her online bibliography or to discuss the elements of biography that she and her team are identifying and analyzing in a pilot project under way since the fall with the University's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

Tucker demonstrated his website for teaching prosody, "For Better for Verse," a freely available, interactive, online tutorial for learning how to determine the meter of English poetry.

"Several conferees expressed interest in my site, which was news to most but not all of them, and I got them to sit down and work on a poem or two," Tucker said. "I was, on balance, well-satisfied with this opportunity to show the site to a set of potential users who may be able to recruit still other users. It's free, it works and for those of us who pursue this sort of analysis, it's fun."

Pasanek showed attendees his evolving online work of reference, "The Mind is a Metaphor," a collection of mostly 18th-century metaphors that serves as the database for a scholarly study of the metaphors and root-images appealed to by the novelists, poets, dramatists, essayists, philosophers and preachers of the 18th century, his summary says.

"I was proud that so many of our local collaborations were an obvious match to the goals of the session," Nowviskie said.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications