ENG 150A/ISIS 150, Digital Textuality: Theory and Practice of Digital Editing in the Humanities

November 30, 2004
relief sculpture on campus

Among its many precious holdings, the Duke Rare Book Room and Special Collections Library has two copies of an especially rare and important book, volume four of Horace Traubel's nine-volume With Walt Whitman and Camden. Matt Cohen, professor of English, would feel much better if it were digitized. As an editor at the Walt Whitman Archive, Cohen is part of a team devoted to digitizing--transferring printed text to electronic format--the entire Whitman canon, "making it, for the first time, easily and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers," according to the archive's website.

The digitization, Cohen acknowledges, will take a very long time. But he has enlisted some help. In his self-styled "English class with a lab," English 150A/Information Sciences and Information Studies 150, "Digital Textuality," Cohen offers up what he calls "the practical side of humanistic study." The course, he says, surveys a range of bibliographic concepts--textual mark-up, proper notation, and transcription and encoding techniques--and introduces students to the "long history of arguments about textuality." Perhaps most attractive to potential takers, though, is one striking claim: Everyone gets published.

"We were trying to come up with a way to teach what we do, effectively, as literary scholars instead of just the theoretical parts of it," says Cohen. "And we've got a ton of work for people to do, all of which is going to be published on the Web on a site that gets 14,000 hits a day."

In collaborating on the semester-long production of a digital edition of volume four of With Walt Whitman and Camden, students are confronted with many of the same decisions scholars have had to make for centuries, Cohen says. "If you're going to make a new edition of Shakespeare's plays, for example, how do you choose which older version you want to use? And if you decide to use all of them, how do you do that in an economical way that's not confusing and that will actually sell?"

And then are the "newer" questions, he says, the ones that have to do with electronic form and what it means to represent literary text on the Internet: "How do we make decisions about what should be given democratic access to?" and "What makes for an 'authoritative' edition?"

In addressing the latter, Cohen says, scholars disagree about whether an electronic text can be referred to with the same degree of authority as a printed one. "We feel better making a citation, we feel more sure that the information is accurate, if we get it out of a print text. Why is that? You know, there was a day when a personal authority was always better. If you said you found your information in a book, people would be skeptical. But if you could say, 'Erasmus told me so'--now that carried some weight."

Prerequisites
None

Readings
Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?"
Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"
T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
Fredson Bowers, "Some Principles for Scholarly Editions of 19th Century American Authors"
Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text"
Jerome McGann, "Radiant Textuality, The Black Riders, Endnote: What is Text?"

Assignments
Collaborative production of a digital edition of volume four of With Walt Whitman and Camden
Brief in-class assignments
One 8-10 page essay due at semester's end
No tests or final exam

Professor
Matt Cohen grew up in Murray, Kentucky, a small town in the western part of the state. His interest in computers began in middle school and was fueled, he says, by a summer at Duke's Talent Identification Program, where, for the first time, he learned programming languages. He majored in history and minored in Spanish at Oberlin College, and went on to earn his Ph.D. in American studies at the College of William and Mary. In 1995, he joined the Walt Whitman Archive as a technical assistant and in 2002 was made lead editor on the Traubel project, a job, he says, that involves "a lot of thinking and theorizing about authorship, publication, and the physical text."