Rebecca Nesvet is Assistant Professor of English Literature, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She kindly agreed to be interviewed by Lee Skallerup Besette on her use of FromThePage in her classroom.
Lee Skallerup Besette is an Instructional Technology Specialist at the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington, specializing in the intersections of technology, pedagogy, and collaborative learning.
So let’s get started. Tell me a little bit how you’re using FromThePage.
I have a course that’s called English 364: The Sweeney Todd Project. It is an editing course, so upper-level students, mainly in English. They are learning about documentary editing, critical editing, and the TEI by creating a TEI addition of The String of Pearls or The Barber of Fleet Street. This is the second oldest story of Sweeney Todd. The oldest version was a book of nearly the same title, The String of Pearls, that was published as a periodical serial in 1846-1847 and is mostly written by an author named James Malcolm Rymer. It was a huge hit. In fact, it was adapted to the stage before the serial ran out. Then Rymer expanded it in 1850-51 as the longer work that we’re now editing. It’s published in “penny parts,” it totals 732 pages, and almost every installment is illustrated, so, it really has defied modern print publication. There has never been a complete print version of it published since 1851. Several attempts to create a print critical edition in recent years have failed because of the size and the expense that would involve.
So in a lot of ways, this is a perfect digital humanities course project. There are students who want to learn about Sweeney Todd because they’ve seen the musical or the movie. At the beginning, the students each get one chapter, and they usually complete two within the course of the semester, where they learn basic text encoding with the TEI. We use Oxygen to do that. They write the notes for their chapter, and we need to have a transcription of the book to do that—which is where FromThePage becomes essential.
We’re producing our transcription from images of one of the two copies of this text in public library collections: the copy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Rare Books Collection. This copy was digitized in facsimile by UNC in 2014 and archived at the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). The Internet Archive’s OCR of this item is really bad. It’s got lots of noise, particularly where there are borders, and lots and lots of typos in the original. There are illustrations in the middle of the page that confuses the OCR. We needed to be able to transcribe that.
The first year we began to correct the OCR (2015), it took forever. There were a lot of typos remaining because we didn’t have a program like FromThePage. Then we started using FromThePage because Ben gave us permission to test it for him, for which I’m very grateful. It cut down on the time and the frustration, and it massively improved the accuracy of our transcriptions, which is still not perfect. (We’re proofreading the earliest-transcribed chapters now—as I suppose any similar project requires.) But FromthePage really helps and students appreciate having access to it. Also, I appreciate that everyone in the class can work on their own part of the transcription at the same time. That’s really very useful.
Yeah. And they can also build on the work that other courses have done, every semester.
Yes, and they do. Every generation of editors creates work that has been updated by others. We’ve had notes that have been updated where someone does some more research and says, “No, I don’t quite agree with that. I think we should change it,” and we come to an editorial decision about whether that should happen. Or their chapter provides information about a place, cultural convention, or character that would be useful to readers of a previous chapter.
So how easy is it to get the students up and running on the platform at the beginning of the semester?
Oh, it’s incredibly easy. I love that it’s web-based because we don’t have administrator control over the classroom lab that we use for this course. When we need to use Oxygen, somebody else has to put it on the machines for us, and then the students have to do all of their work with it in that same room. There is a homework license, but not every student can use it effectively. Not every student owns their own computer, has administrator control over it, and has reliable home internet access.
Because it runs from the web, they can immediately get started after they log on and register, which is very simple, and they can use it from their own computer, and if they don’t have one, any computer on campus.
In short, it’s great that FromThePage is accessible to every student enrolled as a contributor. It doesn’t discriminate in favor of those with fancier or more reliable IT resources—or in favor of well-supported ‘traditional’ students. Using FromThePage, everyone can transcribe with equal ease.
Moreover, it’s really user-friendly. I don’t know of any students who have been confused by how it works. I know this not only from observing them in the classroom, but because for three years I’ve asked them to write up paragraph-length reflections on their user experience of this program. What they’ve written for three years has been consistently extremely positive.
Excellent. So what else would you love to see FromThePage add that would help you and your teaching or help your students in their learning?
Most of them say, and I paraphrase, “This is great. This is really useful. A few things I would change are...” and then some tapering into criticism—I think many students new to Digital Humanities need to give themselves permission to constructively critique professional software developers. But, having read their feedback, I think a few additional features would be useful. I’d like to see a function that heat-maps variations of texts. So if we had the ability to create two different transcriptions of the same page of a manuscript or a rare book, and then heat map the differences, that would be very useful for taking a second look at controversial aspects and for proofreading.
Also, one of this year’s student editors pointed out that you can’t see a whole lot of the contents in the contents view. So there might be a way of doing a gallery view or something like that where you can see more of the book while searching for particular pages to transcribe.
Something I would personally love is for you to make FromThePage compatible with tablets, so that transcribers can work anywhere—for instance, in a chair with a tiny, fold-up keyboard, which is how I write when I can. That may enhance the large crowd-sourced transcription projects because volunteers can transcribe small bits from anywhere—from home, on public transportation, in whatever small amounts of free time they have. I think it’s very good that it’s not compatible with phones because you don’t want anybody transcribing from a manuscript image of that size. But tablets are a lot more reasonable, especially when you’re dealing with works with pages that were originally the size of the tablet screen or smaller.
So you’ve talked about how it’s helped your students, how it has really made this transcription a lot easier. So maybe explain a little more of what your pedagogical goals are in using FromThePage?
It supports the pedagogical goals of the course. I aim to teach analysis of the text and contexts of the source text, basic documentary and critical editing, basic text encoding (with the Text Encoding Initiative), and critical reflection on digital media and culture.
Firstly, students learn the original cultural context of this particular work, The String of Pearls, and the larger Sweeney Todd tradition. Incidentally, we are trying to make our edition easily legible on the mobile phone, because The String of Pearls was originally popular reading, and I think that today popular reading increasingly happens on the phone.
Another skill the students learn is how to distinguish different kinds of editions. Ours is a bit of a hybrid—documentary in the transcription, but critical in the apparatus. Students also learn about the world of the 1840s penny press, Chartism, and so on. They learn to perform independent research on an undergraduate level.
Most importantly, they make a real contribution to the reading community. Students of professor Kellie Donovan-Condron at Babson University in Boston have been reading this for a while and giving us feedback both of their experiences with text and their experience of the edition. For instance, what device are you reading it on, or are you printing it off? Which annotations are helpful? What material do you wish had been annotated that isn’t yet? These readers know it’s a rough draft, that it’s not yet an exact transcription, and that at this point the text ends at chapter 60, about 1/3 of the way through. But I think those students and the students editing the text are helping each other to learn.
Something else I’ve noticed coming out is that you really do learn a text or a part of a text inside out by transcribing it. It’s probably unpopular now to tell students that they should memorize and recite poems. I had to do that as an undergraduate. Or copy something out exactly as it was. It really does root the words and the structure of the thing in your head. And students have commented on that, on how well they know their particular piece of it. So that’s not the primary objective of transcription in this course, but it’s still a useful thing that they’re doing.
Yeah. And I love that because there’s so much – generally, this an aside commentary – where there’s so many people saying, “Oh, digital humanities, we’re giving up on close reading.” But projects like this allow for that kind of close, careful reading to come back again.
I think that’s true. The notes where they’re defining terms or dialectical phrases, if you spend an afternoon trying to figure out what “pearlometrical savonia” is.” (And, no, it’s not in the OED.) Then that student really knows that bit of the text better than anybody else on earth, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Also, I want them to learn enough basic text encoding to feel like they can go on and they can do more of this (which many of them in fact do), that coding is not this scary, completely other field for humanists. I know there are now a lot of graduate courses that are now in digital humanities. They’re teaching text encoding and that’s fairly standard. But I think it should be standard in the undergraduate curriculum as well. It’s a useful skill set, it helps us think about language and genre in new ways, and I have seen that it really gives students the confidence to learn other skills, often autodidactically. The TEI has utterly transformed many students from this class. FromThePage is essential to such transformation because if we don’t have a transcription of our source text, we can’t make an edition.
Excellent. I think you’ve given me a whole bunch of really great stuff. Anything else?
Yes. One last observation: I’ve been looking at all the other projects on FromThePage. It’s really exciting that you can see not only what people are transcribing, but the pacing and the number of contributors and that kind of thing. So FromThePage is also a community like the way in which DHCommons is also a community. If there were ways to get the students in my course who are using it right now in touch with other members of that community—I don’t know if we can do this via forums or have an annual FromThePage conference that would be digital or something like that—but opportunities for them to meet other people using the same software for the same purpose, particularly if some of those people are the general public, the Zooniverse-type transcribers. I see there’s a lot of that. And then there’s also people who are specialists with PhDs where this research project might be 70% of their job. We’re at a teaching-focused branch campus, so we don’t have nearly anybody where that is their job description. But the potential for seeing FromThePage as not only a tool, but a community is something that incredibly excites me.