Mobilizing Student Scholarship for The Map of Early Modern London

I like the recent trend, particularly noticeable in the DH world, of posting revised versions of conference papers to our websites and blogs.  Too much scholarship goes back into the electronic filing cabinet after a conference, never again to see the light of day.  Yet it does filter into academic discourse via those people who attended the session.  As a conference-goer, I always want something to cite when I share the intellectual bounty with my students and colleagues back home.   But as conference participant, I don’t always want to turn my conference papers into articles.  Sometimes the argument isn’t weighty enough; sometimes triggering dialogue is the main point of the paper.  In any case, my conference “papers” these days consist of speaking notes, or, occasionally, something carefully scripted for oral performance.  (Thank goodness we don’t read our papers aloud to each other as often as we used to!)  The idea has been shared, we had a good discussion, and I have other things to do.

So, in the spirit of sharing my ideas freely (the Sample Reality principle), here’s a slightly revised version of the five-minute paper I gave at “Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom” at MLA 2012 in Seattle.  Brian Croxall (co-organizer with Kathi Inman Berens) created a website for the “Hands-On Show-and-Tell” session, where you can read the session proposal (which responds to Stephen Ramsay), panelist bio-bibliographical notes, project abstracts, and assignments created by panelists for their courses.   The session was well attended (over 100 conferees, I believe); I hope the MLA will offer more sessions of this nature.  Thanks to Brian and Kathi for organizing and presiding over a wonderfully stimulating exchange of ideas and projects.


Mobilizing Student Scholarship for The Map of Early Modern London

I tell two stories about the building of The Map of Early Modern London.  One is the grant-application version in which I frame the project as a contribution to the new discipline of spatial humanities or geohumanities.   I explain that our project builds an understanding of the literature of London by mapping its references to streets and sites.   I talk about Franco Moretti, distant readings, and space as a signifier.  This is a “why” story in which I explain why we need to map texts.

The second story is the messier history of the project.  Three students needed something to BUILD because they were in a course on building websites, way back in 1999.  This is the “how” story of how the project came to be.  Some of the chapters in that story are the painful chapters of turning HTML into XML, pages into databases, WYSIWYG into TEI tags, and formatting into stylesheets.  These chapters constitute the fits-and-starts growth curve of many first-generation digital projects.

The “what” has changed over the years; in fact, we still struggle with the “what” question.  What IS this project?  Originally, it was a digital atlas of a historical map of 1560s London, drawn at a time when the genre of civic maps was being developed.  Our work was to annotate the map in this new and cool digital way.  Increasingly, the map became more of a platform – the background rather than the foreground.  These days, many parts of the site function without needing the map at all.  We’ve built geotags into every file in the database, so we could, in theory, attach our work to any georeferenced map of London.  

Along the way, I have learned just as much from my students as they have learned from me (and perhaps more).  It’s been profoundly humbling and exciting, and I like to think that this is pedagogy at its best, not least because well over half of the students who have been part of the project now work in the fields of literary studies, digital humanities, or IT.

Kathi and Brian challenged us to describe how we build DH projects in the undergraduate classroom.  I would like to think more deeply about what building entails, and what it is that we ask our students to build.  “Build” is a verb.  I therefore offer a set of verbs that describe what students DO when they BUILD the SITE, the CONTENT, and the PAGES.  Then I’d like to reframe the question and ask what we as teachers do to BUILD the student.  Finally, I’d like to offer a refinement on the noun, “student.”  When we have our students build projects, and when we invest in building their skillsets, we offer opportunities for students to inhabit professional roles.

What do students do when they build the SITE?  They…

plan (the steps)

digitize (a printed map in this case)

scan (the textual artefact)

design (the menus and TOCs)

choose (the keywords and terms)

identify (each place)

regularize (each name)

assign (XML:ids)

structure (the database)

encode (the articles)

activate (the links)

What do students do when they build the CONTENT?  They…

prioritize (the places to be described)

flag (places of literary significance)

determine (the “thickness” of the description)

research (the history of)

        • people, events, buildings
        • street name etymology

research (the literature by)

        • place of printing and dissemination
        • construction of place within literature

differentiate (present from past and future)

find (other web resources and open-source articles)

What do students do when they build the descriptive or argumentative PAGES?  They…

integrate (the historical, geographical, and literary)

write (the encyclopedia-style entry)

respond (to feedback)

revise (their writing, their ideas, their presentation thereof)

co-edit (with the general editor)

identify (each site by its XML:id)

justify (site identifications)

cross-referee (all linking pages)

respond (to future cross-referees)

What do teachers do when we build the STUDENTS?  We…

provide (a high-impact opportunity) [MoEML receives over 400,000 page requests per month, with over 20% of visitors requesting more than ten pages]

invite (them to contribute)

teach (skills)

share (tools, resources)

expect (high standards)

coach (through co-editing sessions)

appreciate (their contributions)

learn (from them)

include (their work alongside that of senior scholars)

follow (their careers)

What do students BECOME by doing these things?


Information architect





Test user




Transcription checker






Project manager

No doubt, each of us here today could add other verbs to refine what it means “to build DH,” and other nouns to describe our students’ roles.  Let’s build a capacious definition of building, large enough to house the many things we do with DH in the undergraduate classroom.