Category: early modern

Forthcoming: Poetico-Mathematical Women

I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming collection on history of early modern science and I was just asked to write up the abstract for said piece. In writing, I found myself pretty jazzed about the piece and thought I’d share at least the abstract with you all. I’m particularly tickled by the way the chapter harmonizes with work I’m doing right now on my book, which is all about long histories of quantifying media and interfaces.

“Poetico-Mathematical Women” offers a recontextualization of the first ever mathematical periodical – The Ladies’ Diary – as central to the tradition of early modern aesthetic rationalism. Pairing poetic enigmas with mathematical inquiry, the Diary creates readers attuned to a new intellectual paradigm and leverages early modern interest and pleasure in the procedural, formal qualities shared by mathematics and poetry.  While often held out as exemplary in bringing mathematics into a humanist context, Wernimont demonstrates that the Diary actually follows a well-worn, if under-recognized path that includes canonical history of science texts such as: Mercure Galant (1672-1724), Bernard Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686), and English works such as Aphra Behn’s translation of Entretiens, titled A Discovery of New World (1688), and Peter Anthony Motteux’s Gentleman’s Journal (1692–94). In so doing, she argues that such texts represent early lineages of modern algorithmic culture – a culture invested in the pleasure and power of procedural logics – and demonstrates the centrality of women’s writing within this tradition.”

A Paradox

The EMDA folks spent yesterday afternoon enthralled by Mark Davies’ corpora and his interface for them. Rather than casually noodling around, as I like to say, many of us were in a mad dash to engage with one corpus in particular. Dashing because while Davies had built the thing, most of us had a very short window to access one particular corpus. I’m being deliberately vague here because I value the access that Davies gave us and because my point isn’t about the particularities of any one resource. Instead, I’m concerned with differential access to legacy data and how we think about this problem.

The data that Davies was working from belongs to a major organization, one that many early modernists depend upon. But, as we learned in earlier in the week, our access to that data is not equal. Rather, there are multiple levels of subscription for this resource and with that comes differential access to the underlying data. If one is at an institution that has the highest level subscription – then using Davies’ bewitching tools in the future is not a problem. If, however, one’s institution has one of those other levels of subscription….well, access was limited to a window measured in days. Hence the dashing.

What was paradoxic about my own dashing yesterday is that I’m not generally interested in corpus analysis and I am pretty suspicious of the quality of this particular data resource. What’s more, while this isn’t ‘big data’ in the sense of the sciences, it is bigger, and my current research agenda is focused on relatively small scales. There are a number of reasons for this, which deserve a different post, but none of this kept me from feeling desperate about the short time I had with the data and Davies’ interface yesterday. Nor did it stop me from being openly frustrated about hierarchies of access.

We all know that there are different resources and expectations (although this latter bit is shifting in disturbing ways) at R1s. As a colleague helpfully pointed out via twitter, it’s not just small liberal arts colleges (SLAC) where these differences become apparent – comprehensive universities and community colleges have similarly differential access. While there are a handful of SLACs, CUs, and CCs, that have access, it’s far less likely to see smaller or less affluent institutions subscribe to a $60,000 humanities resource (don’t get me started on the comparison with science data subscriptions).

A handful of people spent some time yesterday talking about the ways that we might address this kind of issue. We might leverage local consortial arrangements to make the case for subscription, we might engage with national consortia (like the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges), we might turn to our professional organizations (MLA, RSA, etc) for help with subscriptions and data access – or we might undertake more “guerrilla” approaches. Each, I suspect, has its affordances and constraints. But I’m aware that I spent a bunch of time thinking about getting access to something that I’m not even sure I want.

Jonathan Sawday asked us earlier in the week if our current technological situation might have been otherwise. This morning I think that this might be a more fruitful vein of inquiry than the “how can I hack access?”. It’s easy to become entrenched in the have/have nots conversation  – while the structures of higher education hierarchy and closed data deserve calling out, they might also be a distraction. Why bother fighting for a very dirty data set when we could create it anew and in better form? We were shocked to hear how little it would actually cost to create a new set of high quality images and transcriptions of early modern texts, particularly given how much we value that kind of resource. Given that we’re talking about a relatively small set of texts, such work might not actually take that long.

Now, having hand encoded texts myself as a graduate student and now as a researcher, I know that the devil is in the details and that one needs money to make the work flow happen on a scale of months rather than years. But I’d rather put my energy into that set of intellectual and practical questions. Focusing on making a better, open data set wouldn’t constitute an avoidance of the real issues of access inequity but, rather, a refusal to engage in a battle created by corporate control of humanities resources. I woke up with Audre Lorde in my head (at a spaghetti dinner, but I digress) and I think its worth considering alternative approaches when tools are old and broken. And we don’t have to start from scratch, there are a number of existing projects early modern text projects (Women Writers Online is just one) that have already begun the work, in some sense. That’s where I’ll be hanging out.


wikipedia’s Augustine

Because I work on literature and mathematics, I tend to look at a number of different forms, modes, and genres. What this loses in particularity, it makes up for by illuminating shared traditions. Emerging from the discussions at EMDA thisweek, and of the ESTC data in particular, are a number of questions and ideas about early modern exercises as part of the print tradition.

I’m not quite sure right now how to talk about exercises – are they a form? They aren’t quite a genre (?), but they do entail expectations and function as techne in ways that I might think of genre doing. Perhaps the most famous of the exercises in the early modern are those of the Augustine tradition, beginning with St. Augustine’s Confessions, which include a set of spiritual exercises.

Pierre Hadot argues that spiritual exercises like those of the Augustine tradition focus the believer in a state of attention – they are designed to create a specific kind of temporality, that of the eternal present. Hadot is interested in tracing a long lineage for spiritual exercises – extending from antiquity to Ignatius of Loyola, Descartes, Pascal, Wittgenstein, and perhaps even Foucault. While I like Hadot’s long view approach, I miss the koan-like quality of the Augustine exercises themselves when I try to think Wittgenstein or Foucault in there.

It occurred to me yesterday, however, that there might be a tighter formal link between the rhetorical and mathematic exercises of the early moder period and that such a shared formal schema might suggest certain common habits and cultural values around rhetoric and mathematics.

Progymnasmata – classical preliminary exercises for the “intro” rhetoric student were designed to focus the student on a particular area of classical oration. Did they share the emphasis on the present that Hadot argues for in the Augustinian exercises? I’d have to think more about it. While they were designed to be cumulative in a way that I’m not sure is there for the spiritual exercises, there remained the possibility of returning to the exercises in non-sequential ways for the purposes of inventio or invention.

early modern paper mathematical wheel (Yale)
early modern paper mathematical wheel (Yale)

Then there are the mathematical exercises. They are at least as old as classical rhetoric and devotional writing, with the earliest known mathematical exercise dting from ca. 3350 BC. Like poetry, mathematical exercises were considered “recreation” – both in the sense of re-creation and of play. A night spent working through mathematical problems was on par with a card game for Samuel Pepys and his wife. 

What does all of this have to do with anything digital? Well, I’m looking for a better sense of how many people were writing about exercise – whether spiritual, rhetorical, mathematical or otherwise. Right now, I have a hard time understanding the scope of the field, as it were. To give you a sense of what I mean – here’s a snapshot of what “mathematical exercise” (variant sp but not forms) yields in just the Folger Shakespeare Library’s online catalogue

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800+ entries, even if there are numerous false hits, is a enormous number of texts and this is just for one archive (partially catalogued) and for one kind of exercise. My problem is a pretty classic one of size – I can’t see the forest. Using the ESTC data and a visualization designed to illuminate the different kinds of exercises and their dates of publication would at least offer one view of the forest – still a partial view, but a view nonetheless.

Be Bold! Create a Wikipedia Page and Skip the Review

I’ve had the pleasure of talking with new editors (I, myself, am relatively new) about Wikipedia editing, both at our WikiStorm event at THATCamp Feminisms this spring and via social media. In my academic circles, which includes a number of medieval and early modern scholars, it’s become pretty popular to edit pages. We have a lot of knowledge to contribute and I’m delighted to see so many people adding to Wikipedia.

One issue that has come up repeatedly is the review process – you can create a new article and submit it for review, which takes an agonizingly long time given the backlog. Or, you can follow the Wikipedia advice to “Be Bold” and just publish that article right away.

This post offers a step by step guide on how to publish, rather than submitting your article to queue of dispair. You can also find much of this information on Wikipedia’s own pages on the topic.

First step – log into your Wikipedia account. Don’t have one? Create one!

To demonstrate the process, I first needed to decide what I’d be writing on. I’m an early modern literature and history of science scholar and I focus on creating Wikipedia pages that provide information on women writers in both literature and natural philosophy (early sciences). So I was looking for an early modern/18th century writer who did not yet have an entry. A simple search of Wikipedia using the authors list at the Women Writers Project revealed that there were no existing articles on either of Margaret Holford, or her daughter, also named Margaret Holford.Image

Knowing that there are no existing pages, I then clicked on the red link circled in the image below to create a new page.


Which brought up the following screen, where I was able to create the new page:Image

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Now, you can edit here, but it’s worth using your user Sandbox to draft, revise, and even receive feedback on your new page creations. Rather than make the page, live, here, I had already drafted it in my user Sandbox. The first image to the right here is my empty Sandbox, then below it is the draft in progress. You can (and should!) use the preview function to see how your pages look along the way.

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Among the benefits of using the Sandbox is that you can revise your content, formatting, and citations at length. You can save the draft and come back later, when you’ve finally gotten your hands on that critical book, without risking having uncited material on the live page. Once you’ve refined your content to your satisfaction, you can then copy and past the entire field into the Create page.

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What I’m doing here in the image on the right is copying and pasting the content from my Sandbox into the Create page. Note that above the image line there is a preview of the page and then, if I scroll down, there is a Save/Preview button.

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Hit Save and Voilà! A page on Margaret Holford (the Elder) exists!

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Now,  this is really short page – I really should have more quality content here, but I wanted to get a demo up fast. So I need to flesh out the content further. Beyond that, the usual next steps for me are to link this page to any relevant existing pages, including those of Margaret’s family. I’ll also likely want to create a page for Margaret the younger and to connect the two pages. But both of those items are work for another day.

Learning from colleagues: Shakespeare, fearlessness, and innovation in teaching

Courtyard exercises, as led by Amy Hayes

Scripps College hosted the “21st Century Shakespeare” faculty workshop this past weekend, which brought a group of  Shakespeareans working at liberal arts colleges together to share tools, strategies, and ideas for teaching the Bard’s works in our current cultural context (see our Workshop page for the talks).

We were joined by two outstanding digital Shakespeareans, Michael Best, of Internet Shakespeare Editions, and Peter Donaldson, of the Shakespeare Electronic Archive. As I listened over the course of the weekend, I was struck by two things: the many exhortations to fearlessness and a palpable enthusiasm for innovation in teaching.

Run toward what you fear 

Whether is was approaching Elizabethan music and dance, mounting a modern performance on a shoestring budget, engaging with global adaptations of Shakespeare, or understanding the range of digital textual resources, we heard some form of a call to fearlessness repeatedly this weekend. Scholars are a, well, scholarly bunch. We’ve been trained to devote a depth of time and thought to our objects of study, to master long histories of readership, reception, and cultural production. Generally this is a good thing – we are dedicated to the labor of our craft and to due diligence. But it can lead to something like academic trepidation – a fear that I cannot possibly begin to talk about that madigral or recipe without many hours of careful study. I might, after all, get it WRONG. Instead of fearing the unknown, or under-known, what I heard my colleagues saying this weekend was that we should feel authorized to let go, to play with the possibilities that historical artifacts afford us.

For Amy Hayes this manifests in her work to bring a “living Shakespeare” (rather than the right Shakespeare) into the lives of high school students through the DePauw “Will Power: Shakespeare in the Schools” program. A similar note was struck by Denise Walen’s suggestion that teaching students to read Shakespearean texts as scripts (rather than authoritative, sacred texts) enables a more embodied engagement of Elizabethan drama. She had us up and on the green, reciting a short excerpt while changing direction every time we “ran into” the punctuation. I can say that I came away with a new appreciation for both the pacing of Shakespearean language and the power of embodied experience. Such fears assume that there is a way to get any cultural history of the early modern period right, a positivistic stance that most of us these days eschew in our scholarship. Nevertheless, it haunts our teaching.

We were encouraged by Leslie Dunn to brave past the uncertainties of the dances and songs that are marked in so many of Shakespeare’s texts in order to find ways to bring the possible song, the possible dance into our teaching. We had seen such bravery in action.

Royal Shakespeare Company’s Production of the Winter’s Tale

As part of our grant we each had the opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 5 play run in New York last summer. Their production of The Winter’s Tale, with its bizarre, almost tribal, and surely ahistorical dances was an absolute delight.

At one point this weekend, Peter Donaldson suggested that a certain degree of irreverence is critical to the classroom and to education generally. He was particularly gleeful about Asian appropriations of Shakespeare and their willingness to mashup, re-use, and refigure Shakespearean texts.

The take away: jump in, preferably feet first. Rather than shutting ourselves up in the cloisters of long studied contexts, we should feel free to bring a range of lived and living contexts to bear on our readings and performances of Shakespearean texts.

Variants as a path to fearlessness in students

While we indulged in the “wild and wacky” and practiced being unafraid of the unknown, we also stayed true to the textual scholarly modes that are the bread and butter of our craft. Textual cruxes were on full display as pedagogical tools over the weekend. Timothy Billings walked us through a great set of exercises that drew on digital editions to teach students about the editing process, the slipperiness of the idea of The Text, and the playfulness of variation. Michael Best offered us a first glimpse of an animation under development for ISE that allows for an elegant switch between variants. In both cases, the foregrounding of variation, of the problems like those of the “bad quarto” and “authoritative editions,” gave us another opportunity to think about fearlessness in Shakespeare pedagogy. Over and over again people spoke of breaking down the produced authority of the major editions (or even the historical editions – it is certainly possible to fetishize the Folio or Q2), and of giving students both reasons and the confidence to question editorial choices. We were looking for ways to encourage students to see Shakespeare as an artist at work rather than his work as an ossified set of texts.

The faculty group had come together in order to share ideas, resources, and to teach one another about new tools and techniques. But it also became clear that making the issues familiar to textual scholarship “alive” for students is as much about professorial enthusiasm as possible digital tools or new contexts and practice. Yes, digital editions made it easier to make editions “talk” to one another in a single page – allowing for rapid comparison and, consequently, the ability to see Shakespeare’s works as a process of revisions. Animation and visualization are tools that we can and should deploy. Yes, embodied practice brought new insights. But it was also clear that the passion of the teacher, the willingness to put in the time to make the argument clear and to lay the groundwork for understanding, is absolutely essential. It was evident that this is a passion with a long, slow burn.

As the most junior faculty member in the room, I was struck by the time and thoughtfulness evident in each person’s description of his/her teaching. In my second year on the tenure-track I can say that I have intimate knowledge of the labor involved in new preps – I’ve yet to repeat a course here at Scripps. I do not have personal knowledge of the long evolution of a class taught many times – of the years of thinking and refining that go into great teaching. Such dedication and engagement was on full display this weekend, however. I found myself humbled and inspired by the thoughtfulness, the pedagogical generosity, and fearlessness of my colleagues.

We closed our first day with an affirmation exercise that Amy Hayes does with her performance students. I had three students who participated in the workshop this weekend and they took part in the exercise as well. A synthetic paraphrase of two of their affirmations might read like this: we reaffirm the commitment of good teachers to exploring new technologies and techniques to become great teachers. Amen.