Teaching with TEI: Encoding the Lizzie Johnson Papers

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During the Spring 2016 semester, I taught an English class at Southwestern University titled “Digital Frontiers in American Literature.”  (Check out the Digital Frontiers in American Literature Syllabus here.)  As part of a collaboration with Southwestern’s Smith Library Center Special Collections, our class encoded a selection of letters from the Lizzie Johnson Papers using the Text Encoding Initiative guidelines.  For their indispensable support as I developed this assignment, I’m grateful to Laura Mandell, Sarah Connell, Sarah Stanley, Grace Thomas, and Philip Palmer, my collaborator on the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) micro-grant project “Teaching Digital Approaches to Special Collections: TEI as a Mode of Primary Source Engagement in Undergraduate and MLIS Pedagogies.”

Text encoding enables the creation of digital editions of texts that can be searched and queried based on how they’re marked up.  As Sarah Connell puts it, encoded texts are “texts that know things about themselves.”  Encoding is a highly interpretive process.  People encode texts differently depending on what they think is important to draw out and emphasize.

In our class, students worked in pairs using oXygen XML Editor Academic 12-Month Subscriptions.  Over the course of four in-class TEI lab sessions, students collaborated to transcribe and encode a letter, display their thematically color-coded encodings on TEI Boilerplate, and blog about their results.  I am indebted to Sarah Connell and Sarah Stanley for an assignment they created that was an invaluable model for my assignment.  You can read students’ reflections on the TEI process on our class blog below.

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Each pair of students started with a digitization of a letter from the Lizzie Johnson Papers.

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After reading the letter carefully, each pair transcribed their letter in a Google document.

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They encoded their letter in the oXygen editor.

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And they displayed their encodings on TEI Boilerplate using a little bit of project-specific CSS.  (Again, I’m indebted to Encoding the Archive for that bit of assignment brilliance!)

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The assignment was a success.  It was well-paced: four 1-hour-and-15-minute class sessions was just about exactly the time the class needed to complete it.  Despite some students’ initial apprehensions about the techy-ness of it all, every pair succeeded in generating a valid encoding that they could display on Boilerplate.  According to their blog posts, this was an empowering experience and a fun alternative avenue for literary analysis.  One student, Rachel Robinson, blogged that before the transcription and encoding process, she “primarily noticed the addresses of the author and the receiver, the postmark date, and the general content of the letter, which included references to the Civil War and reports on social life.” Over the course of the assignment, however, she “realized that there were many unanswered questions in the letter.” In the process of encoding the specifics of the letter, Rachel researched a passing reference to a “protracted meeting,” which she learned connected her letter with a fascinating history of 19th-century Protestant revivalism in Texas.  Rachel concluded, “This would be an interesting topic to pursue and see if and how Lizzie’s correspondents or family were involved in this phenomenon.”

The digital humanist in me likes that in addition to enhancing close-reading and serving as a launchpad for research, this assignment provides a subtle introduction to XML and CSS.  Want to experiment with TEI in your own teaching?  Feel free to check out my English 10304 Text Encoding Initiative Project Directions and adapt them for your own purposes!

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