“I’m in a position where almost everything I do, I would do for free, too. It’s nice to have a professional life that is rewarding intellectually and where I’m learning constantly.”
As the Assistant Director for the Women Writers Project (WWP) and Assistant Director for the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, self-described “book nerd” Dr. Sarah Connell (Ph.D. ’14) is central to Northeastern’s strong, supportive community of digital scholars. She is involved with directing a major digital humanities project (WWP) and serves as a co-PI on an NEH-funded Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities grant, “Word Vectors for the Thoughtful Humanist.” Sarah trains and mentors graduate students in digital text encoding, editing, and methods of digital analysis and leads workshops and working groups on a range of digital humanities (DH) topics. She also co-teaches two undergraduate and graduate courses: Literature and Digital Diversity with Professor Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and NULab Project Seminar with Professor Julia Flanders.
The Women Writers Project’s focus on early modern women’s writing and electronic encoding and the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks’s role as NU’s hub for digital humanities and computational social science perfectly complement Sarah’s current academic research on the intersections of early modern literature and the digital humanities.
Here’s how Sarah got here:
“For me studying literature just made sense. I want to basically be around books all the time.”
Sarah Connell entered Northeastern University with bachelor’s degrees in English and Classical and Medieval Studies. Over the course of her doctoral studies, her research interests evolved and expanded through experiences in the classroom, engagement with faculty mentors and peers, and research opportunities in digital humanities.
Sarah was introduced to Irish literature of the early modern period in Professor Patrick Mullen’s course, ENGL 7351 – Topics in Literary Study: Irish Film and Literature. One text in particular revealed new and exciting directions for her examination of Irish literature.
“I read The History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating, and it was the most remarkable experience, because here were all these stories that I knew quite well from their medieval context being retold and kind of reused by this early modern writer. I wrote a three-page paper on the ways that this one particular Irish king had been relocated by Geoffrey Keating by one hundred years and why I thought that might be happening. Professor Mullen wrote on the side of the paper, I think you’ve got a dissertation in this.”
Sarah continued to perfect her language skills—eventually working in early and modern Irish as well as Latin—and used her talents for astute close reading to reveal complex combinations of the genres of history and poetic legend.
In her dissertation, entitled “’No Room in History’: Genre and Identity in British and Irish National Histories, 1541-1691,” Sarah examines how early modern writers used medieval legends and forms to construct national identity. “Sarah’s work in Irish studies is truly exceptional, and I eagerly await her first book,” says Professor Patrick Mullen.
“[Medieval] stories still had very real political consequences in the seventeen century. I became very interested in the rhetoric around justifying the continued use of these stories and their importance in the early modern period.”
Sarah had faculty mentors from a number of fields, and each played a critical role in her intellectual and professional development. Their specializations include:
“There was a really strong sense of community spirit. So there was not the competitiveness that you sometimes see in graduate programs. People really did seem to want everyone to succeed.”
At Northeastern University, nationally-recognized digital humanities scholars, including Professor of the Practice Julia Flanders and Associate Professor Ryan Cordell, teach graduate and undergraduate classes in DH and direct a variety of DH projects. Graduate students have opportunities to work on these projects and gain valuable professional experience in the field.
Sarah became involved with Northeastern’s Digital Scholarship Group, first as an encoder for the Women Writers Project and then as a project team member with the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Her work in digital humanities continues even after graduation, as she explores the intersections of early modern literature and the digital humanities.
“This is a school that rewards genuine investment in developing your own professionalization and that can happen for different people in a lot of different ways. For me, when I started working for the Women Writers Project, it soon became clear that this was something I was really excited about, so I started to have more and more opportunities to get involved.”
Sarah is now the Assistant Director for the Women Writers Project. “I’m impressed by how thoroughly Sarah is mastering not only the technical domain, but also the scholarly and strategic issues,” says WWP Director and Professor of the Practice Julia Flanders. “It’s also exciting that she is now mentoring another generation of graduate and undergraduate students. I think she has a special rapport and a valuable perspective to offer them, because of her recent experience as a graduate student herself.”
Sarah is currently engaged in longer-term research into applying digital tools and methodologies—not just text encoding but also text analysis at scale—to pre-Victorian texts, with a particular interest in examining how people wrote about the past. An important strand of her work involves using markup to conduct literary research, with a current focus on the works of Margaret Cavendish. Sarah now has a publication related to this research: Connell, Sarah. “Companions, Competitors, Contexts: Margaret Cavendish in Women Writers Online.”Cambridge Companion to Margaret Cavendish. Brandie Siegfried and Lisa Walters, eds. Forthcoming.
As part of wrapping up the WWP Intertextual Networks project, Sarah and her team have created a bibliography linking to all the texts named, referenced, cited, or quoted in Women Writers Online, and are currently working to develop an exploration interface for that bibliography. Several visualizations of that bibliography can be found online at the WWP Lab. The WWP has also launched a new series of exhibits on their Women Writers in Context platform.
For Sarah, studying and working in Boston has connected her to a much larger academic community.
“I’ve been collaborating with scholars at MIT, Harvard, Brown, Boston University, Stonehill College, Boston College, and several others on research, teaching, and the development of programs in digital scholarship. There are also opportunities to attend workshops, participate in writing and working groups, conduct research in various archives and special collections, and so on. I really appreciate having the chance to work face-to-face with such a large and vibrant intellectual community.”
Sarah will be continuing development of a new CSSH project known as the Digital Integration Teaching Initiative. Working alongside Professor Elizabeth Dillon, Laura Nelson, and an excellent team of graduate students–including Cara Marta Messina (PhD ’21)–the DITI supports collaborations to bring digital tools, methods, and skills into CSSH undergraduate and graduate classrooms. The DITI is currently planning partnerships for the fall of their third year.
Sarah will also be developing four workshops at Northeastern between 2019 and 2021 for the “Word Vectors for the Thoughtful Humanist” project, focusing on applications of word embedding models for both research and teaching. Sarah will be partnering with Julia Flanders and her colleagues at WWP to develop and teach a curriculum for this series that will allow for the discovery of relationships between words in large corpora of texts. In addition to these endeavors, Sarah will be continuing development of the NULab’s programs in digital scholarship, particularly the Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities.
Northeastern Department of English – Graduate Programs