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Adventures in the Archive: Writing and Research in the Digital Age

By: Kate Templeton

After flirting with Digital Humanities last Summer and Fall, I’m excited to formalize my relationship with NULab this semester as a NULab Scholar. For this first blog post, one in a series I’ll be writing this Spring about the digital turn my dissertation in English literature has taken, I thought I’d share some confessions from the archive—and how this analog girl got her digital groove on.

Last Summer I spent a whirlwind weekend in New York City, working with the Modernist poet Muriel Rukeyser’s papers in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection of English and American Literature. Rukeyser’s nearly book-length poem The Book of the Dead is the topic of the first chapter of my dissertation, which considers the relationship of modern American literature to documentary photographic practices, arguing that this complex documentary “impulse” is an inherently modernist tradition. Rukeyser’s correspondence was enthralling, not only for its sudden turn from the romantic to the political—or even the quotidian—but for the network of social connections that spread out map-like in my mind, like a Who’s Who of the Modernist scene: Berenice Abbott, John Dos Pasos, Dorothea Lange, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens. I had seen Gephi used very effectively by a colleague at a conference panel I’d been on the previous Spring, and the idea of a visual representation of Rukeyser’s network stuck.

Conversations during the Summer and early Fall with the inimitable Julia Flanders, who encouraged me to pursue what I’d come to call my “fantasy” dissertation chapter, helped me see how I could turn an inchoate idea into a chapter that would tie all the threads of my dissertation together. The Digital Scholarship Group’s Dissertation Colloquium last Fall allowed me to more formally present my project. The feedback I received from peers and faculty alike gave me the support I needed to present my idea to my Dissertation Director, Professor Carla Kaplan, who was in turn very supportive. Finally, I attended NULab Fellow Devin Gaffney’s excellent—if mildly terrifying—Gephi workshop to start to learn the ins and outs of the tool that first sparked my interest in DH. I spent the first ten minutes sure I was in over my head, but Devin presented Gephi in a way that someone whose last math class was Algebra I as a college freshman could grasp. By the end, I was manipulating data sets with the help of Carolina Mattsson, another NULab Fellow.

I’m thrilled to see what the next few months will bring, as I expand the connections in my network by continuing research on my dissertation—forthcoming chapters include Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and New York’s Photo League—and keep climbing the DH learning curve. For someone whose coursework never included any aspect of DH—it simply wasn’t offered—I’m excited to be part of a group of Humanities scholars bridging the gap between the analog and the digital, the qualitative and quantitative. I invite feedback and suggestions from the NU Community here.

Photo: Muriel Rukeyser © Rollie McKenna

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