Reflections on the Modernism Lab

8/12/17

By Sam Alexander, in response to Ally Findley

A recent book on modernist DH projects includes a description of Modernism Lab in an appendix titled “Field Guide to Digital Projects”:

Focusing on the networks of people, places, ideas, and works of the early modernist period (1914-1926), the Modernism Lab grew out of Pericles Lewis’s modernism courses at Yale in the mid-noughties. With an intellectual focus on the roots of modernism’s emergence from the political, social, and cultural ferment of these years, site content is collaboratively generated by students and used in class research projects.[1]

It’s strange to see your grad school course years become a historical period, especially since the rationale for the Modernism Lab remains just as relevant today as it did when Pericles Lewis initiated it in “the mid-noughties.” We wanted to make the study of modernist literature more collaborative by creating a space where students and scholars could share the raw materials and early stages of their arguments about modernism.

This makes the Modernism Lab distinct from other DH projects in modernist studies, most of which focus on digitizing primary texts. This trend began with the highly successful Modernist Journals Project, and continues with the Modernist Versions Project and the Modernist Archives Publishing Project. By contrast, Modernism Lab focused not on reproducing primary texts but on reconstructing the “background of social, political, and existential ferment” out of which those texts grew. This often meant drawing on editions of letters, journals, and biographies that had not entered the public domain and will not for some time.

The YNote database offered a solution to that problem. Because it was built out of short passages that (theoretically) would be entered and tagged by students of modernism as they completed their research, YNote could skirt the copyright restrictions that apply to full texts. We envisioned it as a collective research database for modernist scholarship, composed of the smallest units of research for most writers: quotations. This is one answer to your question about the formal parallel between the Modernism Lab and its object of study. YNote tries to break down research and academic argument into their smallest constituent units, much as modernist literature—particularly poetry, as Daniel Albright argues in Quantum Poetics—tried to isolate the smallest constituents of literary meaning.[2] Our hope was that the tagging system in YNote would allow these fragments (to channel Eliot) to rearrange themselves into new patterns long after they had served their original purpose, allowing scholars to recognize new stories about modernism

I would imagine that the Modernism Lab is not presently being used in the way I just described by many people. This is partly an issue of scale—we just didn’t get enough users into YNote to make it an indispensable research database, even though undergraduate research assistants like Jessica Svendsen and Daniel Jordan did some remarkable work laying down an initial layer of evidence on Woolf and Joyce. What I considered the less innovative element of Modernism Lab, the Wiki, may have a more lasting influence. When one of my students plagiarized from an ML essay, I felt a touch of pride along with my frustration: we’d made it!

And the Wiki essays have made it into strange and unexpected places—not just parasitic content aggregators like gradesaver.com, where my student found the essay he plagiarized (http://www.gradesaver.com/w-h-auden-poems/study-guide/summary-in-memory-of-sigmund-freud) but also in more pleasant digital locales. Here’s my essay on Eliot’s “La Figlia Che Piange” transformed into a student analysis for the Wrotham English Department: https://wrothamenglish.wordpress.com/eliot-la-figlia-che-piange/. And an essay I wrote on a little-read Yeats poem is cited in an academic book titled Israelites in Erin: Exodus, Revolution, and the Irish Revival (available on Google Books—see p. 213). Measuring the impact of humanities research is notoriously difficult, but I think it’s likely that the essays I wrote for the Modernism Lab have affected more people’s understanding of modernism than anything I’ve published in more formal academic contexts. The Wiki entries continue to be cited because they are useful to entry-level students of the subject.

That’s part of what the Modernism Lab gave students of modernism, particularly graduate students: a space to experiment with expository (rather than argumentative) prose about modernism. Pericles gave us a good example of that kind of writing in his Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, which is quoted extensively on the site; I also remember modelling my writing about poems on the style of Helen Vendler.

As for what the Modernism Lab gave me, I can think of a couple of answers to your question, “Is there a connection between your current work and your work on the Modernism Lab?” Soliciting and editing Wiki essays from graduate students at universities across the country helped me connect with a group of talented modernist scholars around my age. That network is one of the more practical things I took from my work for ML, along with experience with recruiting (and chasing down) contributors that I continue to use as a co-chair of the Modernism Seminar.

At a more intellectual level, the ethos of the Modernism Lab informs my current work in and around the Digital Humanities in the form of two commitments. One is to sharing the data that underlies an argument—not just the end product. I am currently completing an essay on network analysis of modernist fiction, which will link directly from the essay to the set of Excel sheets that I used to generate my network maps. In addition, the network maps themselves (and the formulas I used to generate them) will be posted in the NodeXL gallery so that scholars can reproduce my “experiments.” This effort to store raw data in an accessible form also motivates a project I am working on at my current institution with the help of a “Digital Liberal Arts” grant from the Davis Foundation. As part of the grant, we are developing a database that will house data and results from digital projects using a range of methods, including network analysis, GIS, and large-scale text analysis.

The language of data and experiment sounds a little scientistic, especially given the second commitment that I wanted to articulate, which I think is already present in the original structure of Modernism Lab. In a DH landscape that often seems to reward the elimination or abstraction or automation of the individual reader, Modernism Lab does not hide the role of the researcher—in entering the data, writing the essay, identifying tags. I think that the distinctive importance of human reading and intuition is too often ignored by DH scholars, and I try to emphasize in my current work the points at which the automated extraction of networks, for example, works best in combination with actual reading of the novels.

Thank you for reaching out and asking for my thoughts on Modernism Lab, which was a really important part of my introduction to the academic study of modernism. I feel lucky to have been a part of it in the early stages and grateful to Pericles for the opportunity.


[1] Claire Battershill et al., Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Making the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017), (157)

[2] Daniel Albright, Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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