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Creating A Digital Edition: Looking For Ideas

It is the waning days of this semester and I’ve been planning my class for the spring. One of the centerpiece texts we will be reading in the spring is A Narrative of the Sufferings of Massy Harbison. Harbison is somewhat of a local celebrity in these parts of western Pennsylvania. I am hopeful that reading this text resonates with students as they see places mentioned from their neck of the woods. I wasn’t familiar with Harbison’s Narrative until I visited the Fort Pitt Museum’s Captured by Indians exhibit, which recently closed after an extension of several months.

One of the difficulties I had in planning to use Harbison’s Narrative had been finding a suitable edition for the class. By suitable I mean finding an inexpensive text that students could actually read and mark up. A local organization created a reset version of Harbison’s Narrative. However, the text is tiny, the font is small, and the book was expensive. A publisher specializing in Christian subjects had a text that was a reprinting of a digitized version.

And there is the original digital version that the Christian publisher uses. The PDF version of Harbison’s Narrative was digitized by the University of Pittsburgh’s Library System. However, the version online requires users to page through pages of the Narrative one screen at a time; I knew that would potentially be a burden for students. I sent some emails and was fortunate to receive a full PDF that I could use in class.

The difficulties of finding a version of Harbison’s Narrative got me thinking about creating an online edition of the text. The main project we will be working on in class will be the creation of a digital edition of Harbison’s Narrative from 1825. I’ll have around 88 students in the spring. I envision each student being responsible for transcribing one page of the Narrative. There are around 66 pages in the 1825 Narrative. I also plan to incorporate selections from a later version of the Narrative published in 1836 that includes additional materials supplied by an editor. In short, each student will be responsible for transcribing one page of text. My plan is then to have students create annotations for the text either individually or collaboratively. I’d also like students to work collaboratively on a mapping project using Google Maps that highlights locations mentioned in the Narrative. I am also hopeful that students can create mini-essays on certain facets of Harbison’s Narrative.

Things are still in the planning stage, but I am committed to at least having the students create a transcribed version of the Narrative that includes brief annotations. Ideally we get the annotations online this semester. However, I am not sure what I site I should use to make this project happen. A straight-up transcription of the text would be easy to put up on a WordPress site. Omeka, though not ideal of large bodies of text, could also be a potential way to get this text online. I’ve not used it before, but I know Scalar could be an option. [Just poking around with Scalar and that does seem like an option that could work!]

I’m calling on the hivemind to offer suggestions that will allow for easy annotations of the text. I’m not sure what to use or how to go about doing it. I’d like something that allows for the easy showcasing of annotations for users. Ideally it would be something that would be appropriate for first year students to master. I’m happy with something that relies on hyperlinked pieces of text or as bubbles that users could hover their cursor over as they read the text.

I’ll be working with the Heinz History Center on this project. I know that easily accessible online version of the Harbison Narrative is something the folks at the Fort Pitt Museum have been interested in seeing happen. I’m excited about this opportunity. I’ll have a few repeat students from the fall term and I hope they look forward to our continuing work with the Heinz History Center.


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Wigging Out in Class

The semester is drawing to a close. And as it closes, I think about the revising and revamping my courses and the day to day workings of the classroom.

One thing I am working on is trying to make the most of class time, especially when my big plans take less time (for whatever reasons). To this end, I am focusing on developing a stable of activities to use in class when there is still time after whatever major goal is accomplished.

Cue the appropriate mood music

On Thursday the morning class had some extra time. I asked them to use that time to create some wigs using the Design a Wig site from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Now, I didn’t do this just for the sake of fun. It fit in the class. We’ve read some 18C novels. The students have been working on their longer argumentative research papers and are gaining a more nuanced understanding of the time period. Right now- we are reading Royall Tyler’s The Contrast. The edition that I am using features primary materials that deal with fashion and include some cartoons featuring insanely preposterous wigs.

My Wig

Behold: A wig I made

On Thursday morning I asked students to take a look at the wigs featured in the primary sources of our textbook. Then I asked students to visit the Design a Wig site and create their own wigs by collaborating in groups. They were already in groups- so that made sense. The Design a Wig site is fun. It is also educational. It does provide a few snippets of historical information as it walks users through the tutorial for using the site features. Well, if that doesn’t sound like the  kind of video game tutorial that makes a pedagogy of video games appealing to many people?

On the spur of the moment this worked well. If I planned this out I’d make a few changes. Perhaps have students explore a larger sample size of wigs, design a wig, then ask students to write a collaborative group reflection paper. However, there is something to be said against making something fun and creative become an extra piece of work for the students and the instructor.

Just one more thing. This wasn’t completely out of the blue. I knew I wanted to use this site at some point. It had received a lot of attention over the past few months. I also knew that I’d use it with The Contrast because of the primary source materials. I just hadn’t thought of the actual implementation of using the site in class.

I leave you with the wigs from Thursday.





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Reading and Rereading Charlotte Temple

Looking back there are only a few very vivid times that I can remember starting or ending a book. I remember during one Christmas break, after a very trying time as a sophomore, picking up On the Road and starting to read it in the den of the family manse. I tried to read On the Road during high school, but it really wasn’t my thing. This time, however, was very different.

I remember during my junior year of college the moment that I finished reading Charlotte Temple. It was assigned out of the Norton Anthology. That was no small feat reading such a tiny book out of a massive anthology.

But read Charlotte Temple I did.

Wow, did I hate reading Charlotte Temple. All that damn crying. And Charlotte certainly did nothing to help herself out of the situations that she found herself confronting.

I was a good student, not great, but I did my reading and generally I read ahead when I could. I knew that Charlotte Temple was a longish work compared to what we had read so far that semester. I started to read it and I finished it in the early evening.


Title page from an 1814 printing of Charlotte Temple, by Susanna Rowson. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons


When I finished reading Charlotte Temple, the phone rang. A family friend was calling to suggest that I come home because my mom wasn’t feeling great. So I did. My new school was not far from home. It wouldn’t be trouble to come home for the evening and the next day.

Over the next few days my mom’s condition worsened. She was taken to the hospital. She was in septic shock due to an infection in her hip. She was in grave condition and needed immediate emergency surgery. Everything eventually turned out fine. The surgery was successful. She convalesced in the hospital and was eventually moved to a short-term care facility and made a full recovery after many months.

At some point I must have emailed my professors early on during this experience. I was an okay student, like I said. I was probably home for a week or more. Given the circumstances, I didn’t keep up with email, not there was any, and I didn’t keep up with my reading.

Good thing I read Charlotte Temple, right? I would have less reading to catch up with when I returned to school.

When I returned to class I complained to a friend about the injustice of reading Charlotte Temple and missing the class periods devoted to such a wretched book.

It was then, in those moments before class, that I learned my reading Charlotte Temple was all for naught. Alas, poor, Charlotte, was cut from the readings. The announcement was made in class during the early part of my absence.

The first time I read Charlotte Temple, gentle reader, and it turns out that I wasn’t required to read Charlotte Temple.

Six years would pass until a moment arrived when I actually needed to read Charlotte Temple. It was for a book history seminar in early American literature. I knew a lot more about sentimentality and early American literature when I read Charlotte Temple for the second time. It was, of course, a different reading experience.

I thought a lot about Charlotte Temple in the years between my first and second reading of the novel. I do not have anything profound to say about the years between my readings of Charlotte Temple. No deep thoughts in the style of an Umberto Eco or an Alberto Manguel. I cannot say my reading of Charlotte Temple was the germ of what became my interest in American women writers. Charlotte Temple was the bad book I read, but ended up not having to read.

However, I was excited to see an early edition of Charlotte Temple at some point during the semester in which I reread the novel. It was such a tiny thing. It seemed even smaller than the Oxford Press edition we used in class. Of course, that first edition was smaller than the anthology version that I motored through as an undergraduate. It was odd to me that something so tiny took up so much of my thoughts for many years.

I remember vividly another moment of reading Charlotte Temple. I was on the couch in my partner’s apartment. I was, again, rereading Charlotte Temple, but this time it was for my first literature class. Yes, Charlotte Temple was the first novel I assigned in my very first literature class. While I was sitting on the couch, I was trying to figure out the number of times that I read Charlotte Temple. It would be my third reading of the novel. Granted, Charlotte Temple is short, and lends itself to multiple readings, but for someone that really never reread novels, this was a big deal.

Charlotte Temple remains the novel I’ve read the most. I think I’ve read it five or six times now. I will be reading Charlotte Temple again since I’ve assigned the novel for the spring semester.


Susanna Rowson. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have anything profound to say about my experience with Charlotte Temple. Maybe my early and longstanding disdain of the novel makes me better prepared to teach it. I am tuned into the challenges students will face and can be prepared to guide them through it. That, on the surface, seems a positive takeaway, but it is actually negative. It assumes that students will not like it.

I would prefer to believe students have the opportunity, not to be shepherded through a book, but to be challenged and even surprised. Perhaps it will occur over the course of the semester, but maybe it will be delayed, like in my case, for a few years.

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A Novel Approach to Marginal Notes

As an undergraduate when I was given a free choice to write about a work I often wrote about poetry. Writing about poetry was an easy thing because in a time-crunched-world poetry’s brevity allowed for rereading. When it came to novels I often felt I didn’t notice patterns until well into a book and I wasn’t about to reread an entire novel for a five page paper.

I’ve become a better reader over the years. I’ve also figured out my interests and those interests pop a lot more when I read. The rise of searchable online texts also makes the search for evidence a lot easier. What a time to be alive!

While in graduate school I developed a model of reading and note taking that relied heavily on a system of abbreviated tagging. This was a response to the time crunch, reading for specific class themes, reading for comps, and reading for teaching. I eventually codified many of my abbreviations into a handy chart. As my classes changed each semester and my research interests evolved, so too would the chart evolve.

Abbr Chart Sample

Behold! The Chart! Well, one version of the chart from many years ago.

As you can see, it is made up of a lot of scholarly buzzwords and an abbreviation for the words. As I read, I tagged things I see in the text with an abbreviation in the margins. If what I read in the text was an outstanding example, bizarre, or noteworthy in some other way, then I also tagged it with an exclamation point. Regarding characters or plot, I used the blank space on my chart to record page numbers of note corresponding to those folks and/or plot points. If I was inspired to add additional tag to the chart, then I’d also record that, too.


After I was done reading, or as a break from

Portion of the chart filled out

A filled out version of the chart.

reading, I’d go through my book’s tags and fill out the chart with the corresponding page numbers. I recommend filling in the chart as you go and not waiting to do an entire novel!

I can see the time crunch and exhaustion of the spring coming down the pike. My thoughts turn to my chart. I’m not one to meticulously plan out every detail of my classes, which are discussion based since I try to keep lecture to a minimum. The chart helps as a reference point in class when it comes to discussing specific topics. If I want an example, then I consult my chart, and refer to the tagged section of the book. No searching through minuscule notes or bookmarks. It saves time in the classroom.

One positive about the chart is that it allows for a safety net when students want to lead discussion to unlikely directions. Like I said, I don’t like planning out my classes in excruciating detail. I’ve had far too many experiences where students became animated about an aspect of the text and want to go in a different direction. The notetaking system I’ve developed, in most cases, allows me to follow my students and have a stable of examples or instances from the text that fit their thrust of discussion.

One notable abbreviation is the “T.” That stands for teaching. Those include passages that offer significant opportunities for the classroom. Those might be substantial moments in the text. They might be unusual. They might fit with the theme. You know these moments when you see them. The nice thing about the chart is that the “T” moments can be easily cross-referenced with other parts of the list since everything is recorded in numerical order.

2015-12-08 09.13.58

Sample pages with abbreviated notes.

Using abbreviations in my reading has many practical aspects beyond the ease of notetaking. First, my handwriting is not very good. It is large and sloppy. The abbreviations can be small and neat. The ease of writing helps with the arthritis in my hands. Additionally, when we read we often read through a particular lens geared towards our class or research interests. The abbreviated note taking allows for a marking of the text that isn’t obtrusive. Because the notes are scant there will be plenty of space remaining for future rereading from different perspectives that geared towards other themes.

Over my scant semester break I’m planning to reread the texts for my classes. I’ll be breaking in new versions of texts I’ve read before for other classes. I want to have good notes and references on these works. This model of note taking may not work for you, but I wanted to offer it since many of us will be pressed for time and will reread works over the break—works we might not get to teach until well into the spring semester. Over the break, I’ll be using my chart to take and organize my notes. I’ll also try working with my phone’s native dictation feature to save some time on notetaking. For a more traditional take on notetaking, but with a technological twist, I recommend reading about the dictation/research/notetaking approach used by Kevin Gannon.

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So Much Done; Nothing Finished

It is the end of June and I feel like I’ve done nothing. I’m looking at the start of July and behind it looms August. I feel like I’ve done nothing since the end of the spring semester.

I know that is not true, but it is hard to think otherwise. So few projects in academic life can be measured in easily checkmark-able lists of completion; frustration becomes an easy feeling to encounter.

I’ve been to 2 conferences and cobbled together the associated papers for each. I wrote a proposal for a third, doing the required research to cobble that together.

I revamped my CV. I rewrote one version of my job letter, a work in progress, but I’ve used it once already. I applied for a few other jobs and some adjunct work. I applied for two Alt Ac jobs, one of them at a zoo! I wrote new cover letters for those positions and reworked my CV into something that looks sort of like a resume. FYI: Applying to a zoo makes for a wonderful icebreaker at a conference. I’ve revamped my auto-generated emails about jobs from some of the academic job websites.

I revised an article that I’m working on. Revised and revised. Sent it to some peers. I need to keep revising. I’ve tinkered with a second article for revision.

I read a book cover to cover. I’m almost done with another book. I feel like I’ve not really read in a long time. I think I read some journal articles, but I can’t remember. I’ve printed out articles to read. And I will read them.

I spent a day at the Moravian Archives. I spent some time downloading various programs and fiddling with learning code. I’ve fiddled with learning German and trying to figure out how to read gothic German script.

I’ve looked at databases. I’ve figured out how to access databases on the sly. I’ve tweeted and written blog posts.

I’ve thought about what I’ll do in my class this fall. Just one. At the moment. I’m not going to plan it out until I know that I’m actually going to do it.

I’ve networked. And as a result of such networking, I’ve brainstormed a Twitter project on Harriet Beecher Stowe and started a soft rolling out of it. I inquired about the need for a new Stowe bibliography.

I’ve corresponded with a friend about staring an American lit pedagogy blog.

I’ve thought about the fact I’m not being paid to do any of the things listed above.

I’ve worked outside. I’ve planted many, many rose bushes and other plants. Busted sod. Pulled weeds. Cleared brush. A lot of brush. I’m not done with the weeding and brush clearing. I’ll likely never be done with it. However, unlike everything listed above, I can sit back and look at that unfinished brush clearing and think, “I’ve got a lot done!”

Rationally, having listed the above academic work out, I feel a little bit better. Not really. I wish the work we did provided more ocular proof of a path to completion. I wish there was a greater sense of working to a goal being apparent. I wish academic work was like clearing brush.

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Caroline M. Congdon’s portrait and The Guardian Angel

Congdon Portrait

Caroline M. Congdon’s portrait from The Guardian Angel.

A few years ago, I happened upon this image of Caroline M. Congdon on the wonderful “Portraits of American Women Writers That Appeared in Print Before 1861” website curated by The Library Company of Philadelphia. At the time, I was looking for a potential seminar paper topic for a course on Nineteenth Century American Women Poets. The Library Company site includes portraits of various women authors. It is a wonderful site and I encourage you to visit. Congdon was from New York state and wrote one book of published poems, The Guardian Angel (1856). Congdon died in her late teens in 1860.

[In the end I did not write about Congdon. I wrote a seminar paper about scrapbooks, poetry, and the potential of digitizing the archive and moving beyond the limitations of the traditional anthology. I should really return to that topic someday.]

Several years have passed, but I have remained fascinated by Congdon’s image. Now, and at that time, I found Congdon’s portrait incredibly intriguing because it is different from many author portraits. It is intimate. It is inviting. It is sensual. It invokes a tension between the public and the private. The image promotes a guilty feeling of voyeurism. It was an image that I was curious to know more about.

There wasn’t much to find on Congdon online and through databases—at that time (around 2009) and now. The most interesting source of information was WordCat which revealed a curious pattern of distribution of Congdon’s work in various libraries. A search for The Guardian Angel results in around 75 search hits. Copies of The Guardian Angel exist in libraries throughout the world. Yes, the world. One can find copies of Congdon’s work in one library in Australia and another in the United Kingdom. Understandably, there is a significant representation of her books in New York, which makes sense since she was a native of the state of New York. For a book of poetry with abolitionist themes, Congdon’s book of poetry is strongly represented in the American south, too. I’m not suggesting that those books arrived in these southern locations prior to the Civil War, but I am curious about how they arrived there.

One of the interesting aspects of the descriptions of Congdon’s books on WorldCat was the lack of her portrait being mentioned. Very few libraries included documentation about the author’s portrait fronting the title page. The absence of notation about the author portrait is striking because many of the entries for The Guardian Angel note the fact that the book includes errors in the pagination.

Intrigued by what WorldCat told me about the availability of Congdon’s book, I went on ABE Books and began searching for copies of Congdon’s work. I did find copies available through several booksellers on ABE Books. Concerned about the availability of intact versions of Congdon’s book, I started calling booksellers that offered the book. My initial queries were frustrating. A pattern began to emerge: it was difficult to find intact copies of The Guardian Angel. Aside from the usual wear of age, many of these books were in good condition, but they did not include the image of Congdon. One interesting note: a bookseller I called had two copies of The Guardian Angel, but both copies were missing Congdon’s portrait. Eventually, I found sellers with complete versions of Congdon’s book. In fact, I found two from different sellers and ordered both copies.

Congdon Front Cover Congdon Portrait Book Detail

Left: The cover of The Guardian Angel; Right: Detail of Congdon’s portrait showing The Guardian Angel.

One of the most surprising things that I discovered when I received my first copy of Congdon’s book was that The Guardian Angel (the book) was depicted in the portrait of Congdon. The viewer can see the book propped up against the apparatus that Congdon uses to facilitate her writing. The attention of the reader / viewer is centered on the book because of the proximity of the book to Congdon’s face. The book is not only in close proximity to Congdon’s head, but also her heart. The placement of the book near Congdon’s head and heart suggests a melding of those two ideas: the head and the heart are intimately connected together in the production of Congdon’s creative output. The portrait, with its emphasis on the head and the heart, foreshadows many of the themes Congdon writes about in her poetry.

Congdon Portrait Detail

Detail of Congdon’s portrait from The Guardian Angel.

Congdon’s portrait is intimate and invokes a sense of invading her privacy, but the image still invites a viewer/reader into the scene. Our first reaction is to view the portrait of Congdon as intensely private because of the author portrait conventions it rejects. Congdon’s image is not a replication of a daguerreotype produced in the confines of a parlor-like studio. The bed Condgon rests upon, her writing desk apparatus and the long feather fan all suggest that the scene depicted is Condgon’s personal and private space, her usual space of creation. The image, with Congdon’s welcoming outward gaze, invites the reader into the image and into the world of her collection of poems. A book and a scattering of papers lay haphazardly about her. But the space depicted isn’t only Congdon’s space, it is ours as her welcoming gaze outwards towards the reader/viewer invites are attention and interaction. The portrait suggests the impromptu; the reader/viewer comes upon Congdon in the process of writing. The moment seems unmediated, though surely it is one structured to portray Congdon working diligently. The image is visual proof of Congdon’s condition, the situation in which she writes, and it serves to convey the remarkable circumstances that color her moment of creativity. The presence of the book that she wrote, depicted in the image, conveys the fact that this is where this book was made, created, and produced. These were the circumstances of its production.

In addition to the composition of the image which beckons the reader / viewer, the inclusion of an inscription by Congdon provides another level of invitation to the reader / viewer. Congdon’s inscription reads “Yours most truly / Connie M Congdon.” Congdon’s inscription, like the close of a warm letter, is personal. The reader / viewer is treated as a friend of Congdon, one that is invited into her intimate moment of writing. Congdon’s use of “Yours” is personal, warm, and welcoming. Additionally, Congdon doesn’t sign her name with the more formal Caroline, but signs as “Connie,” introducing an additional level of personal connection with the reader / viewer.

The level of detail of The Guardian Angel rendered in the image raises questions. It isn’t that just the gilded image of the book is replicated in the portrait, but the embossed design of the book cover is also clearly discernable, too. Thinking about the placement of the book in the portrait of Congdon raises interesting questions. How involved was Congdon in the design of her book? Was the cover design a stock image used by the publisher, William J. Moses? When in the production of the book was Congdon’s portrait created?

Congdon is buried in New York, and you can visit her grave virtually thanks to a database entry on Find A Grave.

Note: All images included in post are of one of my two personal copies of The Guardian Angel.

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