(Re)orienting TEI in the classroom: Notes on an evolving project

[note: I briefly considered an alternate title: “And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?” before I thought better of it]

This semester I’ve been interested in the use of XML markup as an approach to composition (up front, I would like to credit Trey Conatser’s piece, “Changing Medium, Transforming Composition,” for an invaluable touchstone project; I will talk a lot more about Conatser and his approach towards the end of this post). As I’ve had this idea in the back of my head throughout the past few months, I’ve been thinking about two things. First, the ethos of “making” in DH; particularly the way a focus on making/the material can make explicit some implicit features of academic discourse (but also how a making focus may elide certain theoretical decisions/considerations). Sometimes this discussion is (problematically) called hack vs. yack; a false binary that is more usefully approached as the role of theory in DH work, and the level of discursivity of said theory (see? not nearly as sexy as hack vs. yack). The most recent issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities includes Bethany Nowviskie’s recovered history of the origins of this debate. Second, and perhaps more pragmatic, I’ve been thinking about ways to approach the introduction of DH methods to first-year undergraduates in a composition course. Is this even appropriate?


As I’ve established,  I am interested in the idea of having students encode their own writing in TEI. The main benefits I see of this is to make explicit the often implicit conventions of academic discourse. As Trey Conatser argues:

Requiring students to compose and tag their writing within an XML editor ensured that they explicitly and deliberately identified their own rhetorical and compositional choices.

I agree, but wonder how the critical interventions made by scholars like McPherson, Koh, Bailey, and Cecire need to inform this practice? Cecire underscores the theoretical burden of established DH practitioners to make explicit the often tacit knowledge of the field. Here, she responds to the idea of a fundamentally non-discursive theoretical mode argued for by Ramsay in his influential MLA talk and blog post. Further, Nowviskie argues that the “eternal September” of DH means rapid growth, an influx of amateurs, and institutional support—the field (especially the established practitioners) cannot afford to be implicit. Similarly, Cecire argues that it is not that DH isn’t theoretical, it is that real consequences arise when “we fail to theorize practice, or when we insist on the tacitness of our theorizing,” while McPherson critiques the history of DH, as work “proceeded as if technologies from XML to databases were neutral tools.” Important, difficult, and still-evolving questions for the field are packed into these and other critiques. Fortunately for me, I can control a composition classroom in such a way that takes account of these perspectives. I can assign these articles and blog posts. I can ask students to question the hierarchical structure of XML. I can approach the course in a way that resists facile binaries. “Both/and […] hack and yack,” as Nowviskie ultimately asks of us.

Functionally, my approach to this is informed by Trevor Owens’s discussion of design-based research, which rests on the idea that “there is some kind of hybrid form of doing, theorizing, building, and iterating that we should turn into a methodology.” Owens contends that all designs have “implicit and explicit arguments inside them,” and that one solution to the problem of tacit knowledge is to write these arguments down. Owens is arguing for a change in the way we as humanists value the documentation produced in the process of a project—grant proposals, memos, documentation—as a form of scholarly production (a lofty task). For my purposes, this hybrid methodology can be the basis of the course. Theorization can be made explicit (indeed, be required and valued) relatively easily in the space of the classroom.


How will students have time to meaningfully engage these methods while also taking the time to critically examine them? To answer this question, I will discuss the two primary methods to my approach: first, conceiving markup as a kind of direct visualization; second, crowd-sourcing (sort of) a customized TEI schema.


I was struck with Lev Manovich’s description of “direct visualisation,” especially after hearing about the “generous interfaces” of Mitchell Whitelaw from Katherine Bode’s talk at Northeastern titled “Digital Humanities & Digitized Newspapers: The Australian Story” (you can view the slides and read the transcript here). Now I’m not sure which of these terminologies I prefer, but I will use direct visualization for the remainder of this post, as I think Manovich’s idea gets closer to my own project, which I will eventually talk about. I still think there are problems with direct visualization. Some of these problems are brought up in Denis Wood’s article, “A Map is an Image Proclaiming its Objective Neutrality.” In particular, I think that often visualizations (of all kinds) participate in the same kind of rhetoric of objectivity that Wood associates with (official) maps. While direct visualization promises to visualize in a way that is less abstracted from the original material, the name itself belies the reduction of the material that is a necessary byproduct of visualization as such. Right? But Manovich pushes his description of direct visualization further. The capabilities of digital technology are such that there may be ways to visualize materials without reducing them at all. When describing what direct visualization would look like without reduction/sampling, Manovich analogizes:

But you have already been employing this strategy [direct visualization] if you have ever used a magic marker to highlight important passages of a printed text. Although text highlighting is not normally thought of, we can see that in fact it is an example of ‘direct visualisation without sampling’. (44)

When compared with generous interfaces, this description (without sampling) seems to be a difference in kind, rather than a difference in degree. This is where I begin to think about using this terminology in my own project. Despite the fact that we would not be spatially representing anything, would it be possible to present this project in terms of mapping? Or as a form of visualization? Can direct visualization be deployed as a tactical term to get students thinking productively about what text encoding affords? It seems to me that this approach could be helpful in shepherding reticent students. The key aspect I want to get at here is something Bethany Nowviskie asserts when talking about Neatline:

Neatline sees humanities visualization not as a result but as a process: as an interpretive act that will itself – inevitably – be changed by its own particular and unique course of creation.  Knowing that every algorithmic data visualization process is inherently interpretive is different from feeling it, as a productive resistance in the materials of digital data visualization. So users of Neatline are prompted to formulate their arguments by drawing them.

The act of drawing is productive in a way that abstract thinking about drawing cannot be.  Already in my composition classes, I ask students to create abstract models of writing. This primarily takes two forms: first, ‘reverse outlining’ their own papers to prepare for revision; second, generating abstract outlines of examples of writing (student and otherwise) to use as models for their own writing. I use these methods because they work. These activities help students organize their writing. But they also help students understand how to speak back to texts. Understanding the underlying structure can help them get at how an argument is functioning and help them critique that argument. My argument with using TEI/XML is that we could formalize these abstractions, and make them an explicit part of the composition process. Indeed, in a nod to Manovich’s idea of highlighting-as-visualization, I want to make the markup visible in the final product. This (I hope) can be accomplished through XSLT (though this is an area I need to familiarize myself with)

Even if my conception of mapping/visualization of texts is problematic, there is also a pragmatic ethos to Nowviskie’s assertion that is very seductive to me. And one that I think applies to textual encoding as a scholarly activity inasmuch as it applies to deep mapping. Part of what the discussion above (regarding hack/yack) was meant to work through is the common ground in the “making” methodology. What is it that these disparate methods of DH have in common? To make TEI markup the principal form in which students compose texts, there will be moments that are difficult. One can imagine having whole classes dedicated to deciding between the deployment of one or another tag. The interpretive process of TEI is certainly one of the primary features that makes it a productive tool for scholarship. Eventually, though, the students will have to choose one option and roll with it of they want to complete their composition. They simply can’t endlessly discuss the relative benefits and drawbacks of a particular tag. This grounding in the material (i.e. the tags) seems to enable both abstract and concrete thinking with respect to a text in a way that I think will be productive in a composition classroom. All of which relates to the “productive unease” which, Flanders argues, arises out of our creation of digital models of physical artifacts, “productive: not of forward motion but of that same oscillating, dialectical pulsation that is the scholarly mind at work.” While my students will not be creating digital models of physical objects, I think the key for Flanders still applies:

it is the act of stating rules that requires the discipline of methodological self-scrutiny … [A]s our tools for manipulating digital models improve, the model stops marking loss and takes on a clearer role as a strategic representation, one which deliberately omits and exaggerates and distorts the scale so that we can work with the parts that matter to us.

This methodological self scrutiny is the same thing I ask of my students when I ask them to create abstract models of writing: let’s state the rules abstractly. Together, let’s feel the complex and situated writing we do resist abstract modeling. What can we learn from this resistance? This feeling is productive whether the feeling is generated through drawing on a map, or creating a digital scholarly edition, or deciding one tag or another in a markup scheme. This last area, the markup scheme, is the final consideration I’d like to outline with respect to my planned approach.

I plan to have the class collectively create (I’ll call it crowd-sourcing or student-sourcing) a schema for marking up texts. Conatser describes personally creating a “markup scheme in line with [the] most urgent goals” for each of the four assignment in his XML-based composition class. Part of this consideration must be logistical (something I continually worry about). But another part of me sees this as unnecessarily prescriptive. To be fair, I think Conatser convincingly justifies this choice:

Rhetorically-oriented markup schemes make assignment goals explicit in a way that traditional prompts simply can not; they provide consistent opportunities during the writing process to reflect critically on whether the composition is successfully working toward the assigned goals.

So again we are talking about implicit vs. explicit expectations. I sense a theme here. Conatser’s approach put the onus on the instructor to be explicit. To not obscure the tacit knowledge we employ to participate in scholarly discourse. And I think he is right here, so far as it goes. Part of teaching composition (especially to first year undergraduates) is an attempt to make explicit some of the implicit rules and conventions of academic discourse. As an instructor, creating a markup scheme creates actually-existing mechanisms (as opposed to abstract concepts) by which students can assess their work as they write. Then again, the term “academic discourse” is problematic. So in my classes a lot of the time what I end up talking about is John Swales and “discourse communities.” And generally, I let students choose their audience for any given assignment. Given the diversity of approaches in the class, I have (often, not always) crowd-sourced grading criteria for these assignments. After completing some pre-writing and early drafting, we use a class to collectively discuss and compile the metrics by which their assignments will be assessed. The results of this approach have been mixed (to say the least), but I am not prepared to abandon it. At its best it serves to create a meaningful discussion about what is expected of writing in myriad contexts. How do disiplines and audiences constitute conventions? How does the setting of the classroom obscure the readers of texts? These are old questions in composition, but important questions nonetheless. In the same way that I have student-sourced the creation of grading criteria in the past, I think a student-sourced markup scheme would allow a more complex conversation to arise around the structure of XML, writing conventions, and issues of authority. I suspect that the schema will evolve as the course evolves, adding elements, attributes, and attribute definitions as the need for them arises. Again, it is this process of formalization, of stating the rules, that is so compelling for me.


Finally, I want to address the most pragmatic of questions: what are my next steps?  It’s time to start working on this project.


Ultimately, I suspect there may be a happy medium between Conatser’s approach and what I envision. I plan to customize a TEI schema that I feel can serve as a foundation of sorts. This will both constrain the TEI—removing elements, attributes, and definitions that are extraneous to my project—and expand it—adding elements, attributes, and definitions—based on what I think students will and will not need to compose in XML. I’m lucky to know several people working on the (amazing) Early Caribbean Digital Archive. My plan is modeled off of my understanding of how the ECDA customized their TEI schema (thanks, Sarah Stanley!). The first major step is the creation of my ODD file (which will generate the schema). I’ll attempt this by marking up a sample (or several samples) of my writing, paying particular attention to the rhetorical features without thinking about validation. This will (hopefully) lead to identifying the necessary, unnecessary, underdeveloped, and non-existent elements, attributes, and definitions. Validation errors will serve, as Sarah described it, as “notes to self” about what needs to be customized for my purposes. This will be the basis for the ODD file and the customized schema.

So after a lot of talk of how I got here, that’s where I’m going (hopefully).