ESR1: DiXiT Experience

So. Farewell, then, DiXiT.

The only research
Network named
After a board-game.

Which is good because
“Monopoly” and “Settlers of Catan”
Don’t sound like
Research networks
To me.

— Richard Hadden, 33⅓ (after E.J. Thribb)

I have to put horizontal lines through this. It is impossible for me not to look back at my experience of DiXiT without it being refracted through a lens of sadness. Not just because DiXiT is over for me, and for the other fellows, who have become some of the closest people to me, through shared experiences, learning together, travelling, discussing, supporting each other, becoming more rounded, aware, tolerant of cold lakes and neat spirits. It is not just that a wonderful period of my life is coming to an end: things end; three year contracts last three years, and tend to fly past pretty rapidly. This is the kind of sadness that makes for a good reunion in a couple of years.

My sadness is rather that, of all the countries represented within this organisation that has done so much for me and others, my country is the one that has decided to pull up the drawbridge. If there is a next generation of DiXiT — or another similar project — young British scholars will not have the opportunity that I did.

It feels hard to write about my experiences of the past three years without this reality intruding. But here goes.

My first encounter with DiXiT was an inauspicious one. Having not read the (admittedly very small) small print, I received an email from the administrator in Cologne wondering why I had applied for a position at Kings College London, in my country of residence. (The small print was very small indeed.) Fortunately, deadlines being not so much death-inducing as life-affirming, I was encouraged to apply for other positions. A couple of interviews later, I found myself accepted as Early Stage Researcher 1, in Maynooth University, Ireland, studying Scholarly Editions and Mass Digitisation under the supervision of Susan Schreibman, and working on the Letters of 1916 project. All without, really, having any concrete idea about what a scholarly edition was, or where Maynooth was.

When the first DiXiT conference, in Cambridge and London rolled round a month later, the sense of imposter syndrome became more pronounced. Unfamiliar terminology abounded. A critical edition? (Who, or what, is being criticised?) Ultra-diplomatic? (Tries really hard not to upset anyone?) I can’t imagine what it was like for the majority of fellows not being taught in their native language. Fortunately, I had a little bit of XML knowledge — TEI is just learning some new tags, right? — from my Masters degree, which helped alleviate the sense of not having a clue what was going on. But, as the week unfolded, and we handled Darwin’s notebooks, had a crash course in Lachmannian stemmatics, and relaxed over warm ales, the sensation that everyone was suffering from the same imposter syndrome gradually emerged. It was quite a relief. Of all the benefits of being part of a research fellowship, this, to me, is the most important: being in the same — diverse, geographically dispersed, but technologically connected — boat.

Back in Maynooth, I got to work reading about textual scholarship, learning about text encoding, and machine learning, and taking my first steps (thanks to a two-week intensive DARIAH course in Göttingen) into the rigorously indented world of Python. As part of the MA class on Digital Scholarly Editing at Maynooth, I helped to produce an edition of a First World War signaller’s diary, getting my first taste of (the dreaded) overlapping hierarchies along the way. Working with the (newly arrived) DiXiT experienced researcher, Linda Spinazzè, we set about building a set of tools to transform the crowd-sourced Letters of 1916 data into functioning TEI-XML documents. I also built a collaborative editing platform, LetEd., that was used in the final editing stage of the project.

And I wrestled with mass digitisation and scholarly editing — poles apart in terms of methodology and even attitude to text — trying to fit them into a theoretical framework for my thesis. The approach I took was to consider textual transmission as a series of interactions between (borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari) material assemblages: the document, the editor(s) and their computers and scanners and cameras and TEI customisations, the output, and then the user. What, then, makes an edition — or a mass digitisation — a transmission of the source? And how can the user of the edition be certain about what it is they are reading? And how does crowdsourcing, and the Letters of 1916, fit into this model?

With DiXiT (as well as DAH) funding, Maynooth was able to host a week-long crash course in using eXistDB for building digital scholarly editions, which I helped to organise with the DiXiT fellow Magdalena Turska. (Special thanks to Alex Czmiel, James Cummings and, particularly, Wolfgang Meier for their time and effort in doing most of the actual work!) I also, at this point, got engaged to be married — memorably celebrated on a cliff-top in Howth thanks to Tuomo Toljamo happening to produce a bottle of scotch from his bag.

In May of 2016, with the Letters of 1916 finally launched, I set off for a secondment in Cologne, at the Centre for eHumanities. The time spent there was invaluable: I learned more about text encoding, eXist, JavaScript packages, emerging web browser technologies, the benefits of a twice-weekly academic sub-yoga stretching session, and gained new insights into textual scholarship while being thrashed at darts (thanks Misha).

Thanks also needs to be given to all the supervisors, whose help at every point has been amazing, and to the administrators in Cologne. Now, DiXiT has come to an end, and I have a thesis to finish.

But, as I began, there is more that feels like it has come to an end than my personal experience. The 24th June 2016 was the last day of the Digital Editing of Medieval Manuscripts course at Queen Mary, University of London, with which I had been involved for the previous week as a developer. Working with a wonderful group of students, whose knowledge of Latin manuscripts was the precise inverse of mine (and of XSLT the other way round), we had collaborated on turning their TEI-encoded texts into functioning editions.  The final day was to cover applications for funding. In an inauspicious sign, the building in which we had been working flooded. And Britain had voted to leave the European Union. The train to Mile End was the quietest I’d ever heard in London.

Then I arrived, a new, non-flooded room was acquired, and presentations re: applying for European Union funding began. Any British people here — a wry, very British un-humour — might want to look away now. I don’t think any other dawning reality has kicked me in the teeth and the stomach at the same time. International collaboration? None of that. Travelling, meeting people, opening minds? No: stay at home.  Keep minds small. Look inwards, not outwards.

In the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — which I won’t be able to cite in my thesis but might get away with here — they talk of one character having friends “in every city from here to the Sudan.” I can’t quite reach Sudan, but thanks to DiXiT I can make it at least as far as Greece or Finland. And I can barely contain my anger at a decision that denies this to others.

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