September 15, 2010 As presented to the Bryn Mawr English Department
What did I learn from this project?
Professor Hedley: I learned that an impressive web-site and an impressive 35-page essay have some of the same strengths, but also that they differ in important ways. The payoff from a web-based discussion of Moore’s Bryn Mawr poems lies in the multiple ways a single poem can be contextualized and the multiple ways you can intervene textually to good effect. The downside of this multiplicity is that the whole project is apt to have less focus, fullness and “heft” than a conventional senior thesis. Instead of a linear journey whose recursivity can generate a deep, conclusive engagement with the material, web-based presentation ramifies outward, privileging nimbleness, variety and open-endedness.
Jen Rajchel: Using a virtual platform stimulated me to think of scholarship in a three-dimensional way. I was challenged to explore every aspect of scholarly work from first-hand research in Special Collections to editing for publication. Through the website thesis, I learned how to approach a major project while still familiarizing myself with the tools. I also gained the confidence to seek advice from experts (from Marianne Hansen in Special Collections to Vince Patone for IT development) and manage collaboration on large scale. The work I did on my thesis demonstrated for me in very concrete ways how the skills I gained as an English major are marketable in and outside of academia.
Synergy between critical analysis of Moore’s Bryn Mawr poetry and design of the webpage:
Professor Hedley: Even more than Emily Dickinson, whose unorthodox modes of poetic ‘publication’ have received a lot of attention in the last two decades, Marianne Moore is a writer who was attentive to context in clever, subtle and unexpected ways. Each of the poems Jen worked with allowed her to engage with the text-to-context relationship differently, so that she was not just talking about this relationship but finding ways to dramatize it for us.
Jen Rajchel: The questions of space and publication I faced with my own medium helped me to theorize more deeply about Moore’s own tensions with publication and consider the subtle aspects of Moore’s revisionary tactics. Thinking through the design of the website allowed me to consider how Moore’s experience as both a reader and writer influenced her conceptions of public and private space.
Intellectual payoffs from the project:
Professor Hedley: Jen’s analysis of how each of the poems she chose from the archive highlights text-to-context relations gave me a new sense of why Moore’s poems are worth studying, as well as a new appreciation of the value of archival scholarship. In addition, Jen did some really good thinking about the reading experience a webpage fosters. In her ‘Introduction’ she theorizes that experience vividly and persuasively, which was a goal of her project from its inception. (Her thinking about this might have gone even further had she begun working with the CommentPress program sooner.) Setbacks and problems were less demoralizing than they might have been, insofar as the emerging field of digital humanities is itself a work in progress.
Jen Rajchel: As an undergraduate student, I had become jaded when it came to issues of editing. Certain fundamental issues of editing such as shaping a paragraph and guiding the reader faded into the background as I focused on diving into theory and crafting my own ideas. The digital platform necessitated that I revisit these issues and enabled me to hone my technical skills. In the papers I have written since working with a digital platform, my approach has included a strong emphasis on clear, focused progression. While editing for publication was a daunting task, the more risk that was involved, the more I realized I had to be invested in my own work.
Professor Hedley: Any student who undertakes a web-based project will need to take full responsibility for pacing both the labor involved in creating the website and the timing of her consultations with tech support staff. Her production of the thesis must, of necessity, unfold not only with reference to departmental deadlines for submitting new writing to her advisor, but also with regard to the lead-time needed for website implementation, feedback, and revision. This was not a problem with Jen, who is adept at working with other people and was determined to make her project work; it could become a problem if a student were to underestimate these challenges.
Jen Rajchel: It was difficult to seek out a platform for my site without having a lot of experience with web technology. Furthermore, it was challenging to anticipate the obstacles which would arise from the inherent technological limitations. In the beginning, it was a challenge that both Professor Hedley and I were unfamiliar with the platform. But with this challenge, came opportunity; I recognized that if I did not take responsibility for this facet of my project, it would not be possible to create a website thesis. I was inspired to learn as much about the functionality as I could, and ultimately, this made me a better student of the medium.
Professor Hedley: Archival projects seem especially well adapted to web-based presentation. This could be an exciting way to involve our students with local archives, whether at Bryn Mawr, in Haverford’s Quaker Collection, or perhaps at the Rosenbach in Philadelphia.
In future I would recommend that webpage design and implementation be recognized to be at stake from the inception of the project, as a key piece of the intellectual and practical labor that is entailed: this dimension would need to be a crucial component of English 398 for any student who wants to undertake a project of this kind. Ideally, also, a senior who goes down this road will have prior coursework in the history of the book and/or the history of reading, as well as some familiarity with contemporary scholarship in the digital humanities.
If there were more than one such project being staged in any given year, I would recommend that the chair of the department clear them in advance with Information Services, to ensure that the necessary technical assistance and mentoring from IT staff members could be forthcoming.
Jen Rajchel: A student wishing to embark on a website thesis must demonstrate prior experience with digital media. This will become easier as more and more courses in the Bi-Co incorporate digital media in courses.
The proposal for a website thesis must include a section which discusses how the virtual platform enhances the thesis topic at hand.