Antwerp ESTS/DiXiT Conference Report – October 2016
This is a report about the final convention in the Digital Scholarly Editions Initial Training Network, which co-hosted the annual European Society of Textual Scholarship (ESTS) conference in Antwerp, from 1-8 October 2016.
(All photographs were taken by me unless otherwise noted. You are free to download and share them on social media, but please be kind and give them proper attribution. Thank you!)
As I look back over the week in Antwerp at the annual meeting for the European Society of Textual Scholarship, I am struck by the variety of experiences I encountered. I saw students celebrating their first week of university over a glass (or three) of de Koninck, dynamic street art, beautiful locally designed clothing, and a captivating printing museum. Perhaps the most important aspect of this week was the reminder that with some friends, it is possible to pick up right where we left off, even if the intervening months and pressure of PhD projects have meant little to no contact. I consider myself truly lucky to be a member of DiXiT, not because the odds of selection were extremely small and it is, as Franz Fischer noted in his presentation, “the most prestigious fellowship in Europe,” rather because the people I work with are intelligent and thoughtful in the extreme. As a final DiXiT convention it was, in a word, perfect.
Our hosts Dirk Van Hulle and the staff of the Center for Manuscript Genetics at the University of Antwerp were helpful to a fault. When the nearest cash machine was out of service (and because Antwerp seems to have an aversion to paying with credit/debit cards), the student volunteers offered to let us pay on the second day instead of the first. When we were lost, they provided helpful and accurate directions. Having organized a conference in Borås for DiXiT last year, I can say with confidence that corralling a group as large as we is no easy feat. I must embarrass a few key people, namely Elli Bleeker, Wout Dillen, and Olga Beloborodova. Their tireless effort on our behalf was a great gift and one I will remember fondly for a long time. I could go on, but it would not be in keeping with the Belgian and Dutch cultures of moderation. (Which strangely enough does not extend to alcohol).
For the DiXiT fellows, the events started on Sunday with an unconference in the lovely Café Kornél. Organized by Elli Bleeker, this meeting was a way for the fellows to share our current work, propose collaborations and discuss plans for the future. As most of us are fast approaching the end of our research, it was a great way to look back on all that we have accomplished so far, and reward ourselves with some hard-won cakes and coffees. (And prosecco, though that was not planned.) One outcome of the unconference was a decision to propose a panel for DH 2017. This seemed a natural way to reflect on our experiences in a training network of this kind, and to propose future research questions that can be explored in a potential DiXiT 2 group (if our supervisors are successful in their bid for continued funding). It would also be a venue for ever-so-subtly pointing to the fact that most of us are now looking for jobs and eager to meet with potential employers!
Once we had all presented our current research and enjoyed enough coffee and cakes to make us loosen our belts, we were treated to a tour of the de Koninck brewery. This was an interesting departure from some of the previous brewery tours I have been on, which ranged from a person leading me around the machinery and pointing out brews of interest, to complete freedom while exploring the different buildings with no guide whatsoever. De Koninck took what I considered to be an interesting and engaging approach: starting with the first room, we were treated to interactive and humorous built in video displays detailing the brewing process, the reason that a hand is the symbol of Antwerp, a funny two-man act on the history of the different brews and stemware, and then a ride in a car to reenact delivering de Koninck to different pubs around the city. We laughed A LOT and drank our way through a flight of three tastings at the end of the tour; Bolleke (named after the shape of its glass), Triple D’Anvers, and a test brew.
After the brewery tour, Elli and her partner Stefan hosted us at their house in Antwerp and prepared a tasty vegetable curry with rice. The evening’s entertainment included something we had all been waiting for: a chance to play the game that shares our name! Dixit proved to be a rousing success for Francisco and Frederike, and a not-so-agonizing defeat for Tuomo and me. I highly recommend this game to any large group; it was incredibly fun and I hope we can all play together when we meet again.
Monday was devoted to our DiXiT reading groups, in which we presented drafts of chapters and articles to a small selection of supervisors in order to receive feedback and in my case, direction. I handed in a short description of an ongoing project (discussed below), and was grateful for the comments I received to help me work out some thornier issues of honing my research questions. While I recognize that other fellows may not agree, I found this exercise to be an effective way to get help from people I respect and whose perspective can give me new ways to think about my own work.
On Tuesday we split up into parallel workshops. I attended Peter Boot’s group discussion on project design issues in digital editions. One of the presentations by Thomas Stäcker of the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel discussed the library’s potential role in the maintenance of digital editions, which I appreciated as someone who researchers library and scholarly editor interaction. However, a comment he made about the library as a stable institution was one with which I disagreed; this is certainly more true in some national contexts than others, and should not be taken for granted. Indeed, many libraries are struggling to fulfill the institutional missions they are charged with, and help from scholars would be appreciated to demonstrate the value that libraries can bring not only to digital projects, but also in their traditional roles of purveyors and keepers of cultural heritage.
When the workshops concluded, we walked over to Papa Jos, the nicest student pub I’ve seen in a long time. The upstairs was entirely reserved for our use, which proved to be necessary as most of the conference participants turned up for a free pint, thanks to our generous hosts.
Paul Eggert provided a lot of food for thought during his opening keynote on Wednesday. His discussion of the archival and editorial impulses on a scale, with automatic collation as the “pivot point” that sits at the center of this scale was extremely interesting to me for a personal reason. Oddly enough, I had a very similar idea last year in my DiXiT thesis plan, completely separate from anything Paul described, about a scale of library projects parallel to a scale of digital editions, and trying to figure out where in the middle they might meet. It is always gratifying to see preliminary sketches of an idea illuminated by someone else, in a much more coherent and engaging way. While Paul was discussing the archival rather than library impulse, I feel my potential model might overlap with his, in that the ways of reading, organizing, and knowing information have much in common. As with archival and editorial work, much of digital librarianship is a chain of critical choices used to determine the best way to convey context. I appreciated this as a starting point for the conference, so that the focus was not just on textual scholarship but also the physical materials that make it possible.
A particularly special treat for me was the evening reception honoring Hans Walter Gabler and Peter Shillingsburg in the masterfully adorned Antwerp City Hall. Having never met either Hans or Peter, but knowing their work and their reputations from afar, I was delighted to find them two amiable and deeply humble individuals. Hans and I shared a fondness for the Swedish language, having both been exposed to it as children, and Peter offered excellent PhD (and life) advice to all of the DiXiT fellows. My take away from Peter’s talk was his assertion that recognizing key differences and tensions between Anglo-American and European editing traditions is a good way to bring us together and stimulate fruitful conversation; a point that is important to hold on to as we navigate an increasingly divisive political climate. Peter also urged us to consider with whom we surround ourselves; by choosing people who are, in our estimation, brighter minds and better critical thinkers, we can ensure that we never take for granted that we have nothing left to learn about textual scholarship, collaboration, or ourselves.
I know that for my DiXiT supervisor Mats Dahlström, whose favorite literary character is Leopold Bloom, one of the highlights was definitely Hans Walter Gabler’s recitation of three separate versions of an excerpt of Ulysses. Indeed, I would argue that there is a future career in audiobooks or radio drama for Hans, if he should be interested in a new occupation. In my mind, his recitation drove home an important feature of digital editing: we have the capability now to capture and disseminate not only the distinct characteristics of the text and the work, but also the audial features that variations in documents can provide. Listening to different versions of a text harkens back to an ancient way of reading and knowing – the absorption of information through sound rather than reading words on a page- which can indeed transform a document, as Hans so profoundly conveyed.
The reception was followed by a beautiful evening walk through Antwerp, and a pasta feed hosted by Elena Pierazzo at her Airbnb at Falconrui 44. Completely by chance, Magdalena Turska was living in an Airbnb right above her, so we all got together for a jolly party. Elena, doing her best impression of Strega Nona, fed us all spaghetti and beer. We took a much-anticipated break and enjoyed the delight of a home-cooked meal.
On Wednesday, Tara Andrews’ presentation “What We Talk About When We Talk About Collation” challenged the assumption that our vocabulary is static or even largely agreed upon; and instead posited the argument that assumptions like this actually keep us from having important discussions that move the field of textual scholarship forward. In doing so, she used several definitions from Wout Dillen and the University of Antwerp’s Lexicon of Scholarly Editing.
I was particularly proud of Frederike Neuber for her presentation on the digital edition she is building of Stefan George’s poetry. Her focus on typography is something I am really intrigued by, and the way she slowly reconstructed the requirements of a digital edition of this nature showed a critical approach to her work that must have taken months of effort to develop. Typography on its own is an interesting subject, and when engaged as a mode through which to analyze a document and a text, it is a brilliant piece of work. My hope is that she will share her slides so that those who could not attend her session can still benefit from her presentation.
Another interesting presentation from a DiXiT fellow was Tuomo Toljamo’s discussion of his image-processing tool developed during his secondment at the Huygens Institute, formerly in The Hague and now located in Amsterdam. In typical Tuomo fashion, he suggested that the tool he built would not work for anyone in the audience as it was so specialized, and indeed, he was not even sure if the word ‘tool’ was correct in these terms. He noted three areas of tool development: 1) the editor-centric approach; 2) the development-centric approach; and 3) the project realities-centric approach. This breakdown from a computer science perspective was a helpful way to understand the other side of the coin, so to speak. Tuomo noted that he would like to see more editor-centric tools that also emphasize the theoretical need for the tools. Specifically tailored tools that are not interoperable are, in my opinion, an important part of experimentation but do not necessarily drive forward the mission of standardization in the field of digital textual scholarship. As I am not sure I have fully accepted that standardization in this respect is necessary, I was grateful for Tuomo’s demonstration and his thoughts on the subject.
Magdalena Turska’s presentation covered the introduction of the TEI Processing Model toolbox; a project she conducted with the late Sebastian Rahtz and James Cummings among others during her DiXiT Experienced Researcher Fellowship at Oxford University. Particularly amusing to me was her characterization of those who are not the biggest fan of angle brackets, and she used a picture of me from our workshop in Graz as an example! I laughed and got a conciliatory pat on the back from Elena Pierazzo. (By the way, she is right: I would much prefer an option like TEI Simple, as there are other things I am interested in focusing on).
Elena Pierazzo’s presentation about solutions to issues in the creation of digital editions was particularly important for the ESTS audience. Many responded to her list of required skills for digital editing with an overwhelming sense of frustration; agreeing with her that the current set up of “super editors” not being feasible or sustainable. I think the field is certainly experiencing a crisis as its practitioners try to come to grips with what a “minimal” standard for potential students should be, and indeed how to supplement their education in an appropriate way with suitable pedagogical approaches.
During the conference Mats and I were approached by one of the other DiXiT supervisors, Susan Schreibman, to participate in her video series on Digital Humanities for the DARIAH Teach network. As someone who recently started making videos about my work, I was happy to help a fellow colleague explore this medium as a means of disseminating ideas about textual scholarship. While nerves certainly precluded me from remembering exactly what I said during my interview, I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with Mats over issues of changing identity in libraries with the introduction of the digital medium, more diverse collaborations, and a growing focus on the building and preservation of digital editions. I also discussed an ongoing study I am writing, which focuses on national library digitization projects in Scandinavia and how they convey the complex, shifting relationship between memory and identity. As we construct our past in the present through the creation of digital editions and digital collections, we have the benefit of perspective to help us give context to these projects with our metadata and annotations. However, these connections are by no means value-free, nor are the selection of materials that we choose to digitize, and being aware of our motivations and subjectivity in these respects can provide their own interesting avenues of research.
The conference dinner on Thursday evening provided a much-needed way to unwind and discuss the events of the week so far. With the University Club as our venue, we were treated to a tasty amuse bouche, salad, roasted Duck, and Belgian chocolate mousse for dessert. Most importantly, the wine was flowing. In fact, it might have flowed all over the table, only to be hastily covered by a napkin.
The fancy dinner was followed by another excursion to Papa Jos. We tested the keg several times to make sure the beer was of a high standard, and treated the rest of the bar to patchwork renditions of traditional Irish ballads, Dutch ballads, German ballads, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, NSync, Oasis, Bomboleo, and the list goes on. We are a group who loves a good sing-song. And a group hug. And toasting. Moving on from Papa Jos, we tripped the light fantastic a few blocks down the road to a dive bar of equal standing, with cheap flowing drinks and ample seating for our group. It was a (late) night to remember. Or forget, in some cases.
The next morning afternoon was a great opportunity to get some food at my favorite joint just around the corner from my AirBnb: Coffeelabs. While it was pricy (and hipster AF) by Antwerp standards, it was still cheaper than anything I could find where I live in Sweden, and the food and coffee were both excellent. Daniel, Elena Spadini, Anna-Maria and I recovered from the night before with some much needed sustenance before heading in to the final presentations of the week.
Using Jane Austen as a backdrop for her closing keynote, Kathryn Sutherland discussed image reproduction, remediation, digital facsimiles and their effects on the idea of representation and what questions we can ask of our digital documents. This keynote is one that I hope will be available in full-text soon, as there were so many ideas I think I need to read it in order to catch whatever bits I might have missed.
We capped off the conference with something special to the DiXiT group: a presentation of cards and two bottles of University of Antwerp “Cum Laude” beer for our recently graduated fellows. Elena Spadini defended her thesis during the convention and then flew in from Italy, whereas Daniel Powell received his degree over the summer at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. It was a landmark occasion for us, as they are the only two fellows to receive their degrees (so far!) during the DiXiT fellowship. We fellows and supervisors are extremely proud of their hard work and their accomplishments.
Post keynote, a smaller group of us headed over to the Plantin Moretus printing museum, where we were treated to a fascinating discussion of the history of printing in Antwerp and northern Europe. It was certainly a highlight of the trip for me; not only because of the tour given by our very knowledgeable guide, but also because it was an opportunity to see how a recently reopened museum has incorporated multiple styles of engagement into its collection. There were screens in each room with short presentations about the impact of the types of printed books coming out of the workshop on the larger scientific and artistic world. Having worked on the Longitude Project in Cambridge, I enjoyed one of the presentations on mapping the stars and the earth, as well as a presentation on how the Gregorian language was chosen as the official language for chants in the Low Countries. I also thought that as far as museum shops go, the Plantin’s was really cool. There were lots of different typographical cards printed on various weights of paper. I bought postcards to frame for my office and to send home to my family in Seattle, and was tempted to buy a shirt with the Plantin motto on it.
The week was capped off by a lovely dinner with my supervisors Mats and Mikael Gunnarsson at Wout Dillen’s house. Since Wout’s move to Sweden last April 2016 to start his DiXiT fellowship, he has told me many stories about his lovely cats Moody and Juno. It was nice to finally meet them and also to see Wout’s wife Annelies again. Annelies treated us to a local specialty: a Stoofvlees stew made entirely of meat and beer, served with Antwerpian frites. Multiple helpings were had by all.
It is bittersweet to acknowledge that this will be our last DiXiT-specific conference; as it signifies the fact that we have accomplished so much but also that DiXiT is winding down. The experience has been one to treasure. All of the supervisors and fellows, in their own ways, have taught me valuable lessons about scholarship. It’s been my pleasure to learn more about their work and their lives. As I will write a final blog post about my fellowship next March, I’ll keep the rest of my thoughts about the program to myself until then. For now I will only say that so far this has been the best and most challenging experience of my career. And I am so damn lucky to be a small part of it.
To my beloved fellows: See you all in Crete next March for our farewell dinner. Until then, I wish you all the best of luck on your projects.