Print Friendly

Singer, Kate, Mount Holyoke College, USA,

If we take seriously Stephen Ramsey’s call to arms at the 2010 MLA that Digital Humanities means making something, then it behooves us to teach coding – or other ‘back end’ digital skills – early and often. While many practitioners are focused on creating new courses teaching coding and theory, another important pedagogical approach is to consider how digital ‘poesis’, or making, might change the standard classroom experience. This poster presents some experiments with teaching TEI encoding to upper-level undergraduates at a liberal arts college, specifically in a seminar on women’s poetics in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. As part of an upper-level undergraduate seminar at Mount Holyoke College, my students set about building a TEI digital edition of Melesina Trench’s long poem ‘Laura’s Dream; or the Moonlanders,’ perhaps the first science fiction text written by a woman in Britain. Since so much of the republication and dissemination of women’s texts from this period occurred through electronic editions and digital scholarship, it seems only right to discuss the ‘radiant textuality’ of these materials.1 One can only properly historicize the last thirty years of research in this field by discussing the ways in which digital encoding has aided and abetted our current thinking about the history and materiality of women’s poetics. While many digital sites were originally built for scholars, it seemed time to consider what kinds of coding and interfaces might work best for students. Most importantly, in a course designed to think carefully about poetic literary terms, TEI seemed like a wonderful way to teach hands-on close reading. Perhaps one of the most interesting and important skills TEI can teach is to help our students become reflective about the various kinds of vocabularies they use to describe texts.

After spending the first few weeks discussing the benefits and problems of several digital editions of women writers, students were taught a series of exercises to learn the basics of encoding. During a two-hour workshop, they were introduced to TEI, especially the difference between html as a formatting language and XML as a descriptive or analytical one. Rather than starting students with the document’s header, they were given a guided tour through it, but spent their time learning the grammar and syntax of line groups and lines, persons and places, figurative strings, and the elements of CSS stylesheets. Students placed in small groups then had a month to tag fifty lines, with the help of a student mentor during lab hours. They were encouraged to use creativity by picking out three or four tropes (figures that repeated throughout the passage). They coded these using seg@ana – the segment element for isolating an arbitrary segment of test of their choice and the @ana type to signal an analytical interpretation of their choice. Finally, students color-coded their mark-up using a CSS stylesheet to visualize their own encoding trends. Two groups of students doubled up on each section of the poem, so that the class could compare two different methods of markup.

In a reflection submitted along with their XML documents, they were asked to describe any especially noteworthy analytical experiences from tagging, any limitations (or frustrations) encountered, and asked to propose possible additions to our tag set. While students readily understood tagging hierarchies, they had a difficult time distinguishing between those proper nouns reserved for <persName> and <placeName> and more generic or figurative people and places, including personifications (e.g., Terror or the Moon). This became an excellent topic for discussion, particularly of Romantic-era poems where real and illusive places tend to intermix. The ambiguity of the seg@ana tagging was likewise initially nebulous to students, but it eventually encouraged them to define what types of repeated figurative language spoke to them, labeling the @ana field (<seg ana=“??”>) with a signifier of their choosing. For example, one group summarized their process this way: ‘The first theme we chose was “decay,” but we had difficulty deciding if that also meant “dirt-related” imagery. We were unable to include as many words as we had initially wanted, so we revised our choices for tags. “Decay” became “morbidity” […] “dirty” became its own tag, and evolved first to “earthy” and then to “earth” so we could include all organic imagery.’ There were also some interesting pleas for more refined tags. One group desired an element for inanimate objects, to parallel the tags for places and people, but almost all groups wanted more granular tags for implied meanings of metaphors and for controversial and debatable topics.

At least three interlocking outcomes suggest how helpful teaching TEI to upper-level undergraduates might be – despite the time-intensive nature of including such a technology in an English seminar. Students not only produced multi-layered, associated observations based on multiple tropes color-coded through a single passage, but they were also quite reflective about the relationship between various elements and figurative trends. In one group’s reflection, for example, the trope of ‘religion is always within a line that is also tagged for emotion or male dominance.’ In larger discussion of this observation, two groups of students had a particularly important debate about the gender differences between ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ within a lunar voyage poem, where the main female character Laura dreams that she goes to the moon and falls in love with one of its inhabitants. (See Figures 1 and 2 below.)

Second, and perhaps more important, TEI enabled students to undermine and find vocabularies for formal elements employed by women writers other than the classical rhetoric of figures of speech and figures of thought that still dominate poetic vocabulary in the academy today. Since even the most virtuosic women poets were autodidacts and not classically trained in English public schools, it remains to be seen how some of their more complex formal experimentation can be satisfactorily categorized by such rhetorical figures and forms. TEI – with its ambiguous and flexible vocabulary for poetry – actually allowed students to find larger, more amorphous terms for more organic formal choices in Trench’s poem. By codifying their own vocabularies to isolate and name tropes, students began to consider terminology as descriptive and case-based rather than prescriptive and universal. For example, students decided that the long, multi-lined blocks Trench used in her poems were neither stichic or strophic in quality, but either both or neither. They tended either to decide that the term ‘line group’ gave them more leeway to describe how her units of verse operated or to suggest they needed a new term. This kind of interpretive creativity would not have occurred to them without the problem of trying to figure out TEI’s standards.

Third, the limitations and possibilities of both classical terminology and TEI raised questions about the politics or the ideological traces in both types of categorical vocabularies. Having ‘rediscovered’ women writers in the past twenty years, many Romanticists and Victorianists are now beginning to more closely assess women’s formal experimentation, considering how genre and forms carry with them histories and ideologies.2 While TEI provides both the allure of extensibility, it also provoked particular kinds of observations based on its categories. For example, when discussing the <persName> and <placeName> elements, students felt pressured to locate nameable people and places within the poem and within Trench’s prose writings that we read. They wondered whether the emphasis on person- and place-ographies place a premium on women’s connections to other famous figures and places (such as London or Bath), occluding Trench’s poetic tactics of omitting concrete places while forging intersubjectivities between the ‘moonlanders’ and Laura. They worried that the emphasis on people and places – even imaginary – already framed their ways of looking at a poem for its connections to notable, concrete, and often masculine realities.

These are just a few of the ways in which the TEI terms, culled from many different disciplines, aided a reflective study of poetics and categorical language for younger learners. It likewise provided them with the opportunity to think about creating a scholarly edition by students and for students based on their reading and interpretive inquiries.

Figures 1 and 2

Figures 1 and 2: Two groups’ TEI-encoded markups of the same two stanzas, with figurative tropes and place names

Figure 3

Figure 3: The browser view of figures 1 (left) and 2 (right), using CSS stylesheets. In the left-hand column, green=place; mint green=place with a proper name (<placeName>); red=”ascension”; pink=”spherical”; light blue=”spiritual”; purple=”vision.” In the right-hand column, the color-coding is as follows: green=place; yellow=”male dominance”; lavender=”religion”; plum=”feeling”


Blackwell, Ch., and Th. R. Martin (2009). Technology, Collaboration, and Undergraduate Research. Digital Humanities Quarterly 3(1). Accessed February 27, 2011.

Buzzetti, D., and J. McGann (2006). Critical Editing in a Digital Horizon. In L. Burnard, K. O’Brien O’Keeffe, and J. Unsworth (2006). Electronic Textual Editing. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, pp. 53-73.

Curran, St. (2010). Women Readers, Women Writers. The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge UP.

Digital Humanities Questions and Answers. ‘Can you do TEI with students, for close reading?’ Association for Computing in the Humanities. Accessed February 27, 2011.

Fairer, D. (2009). Organising Poetry: The Coleridge Circle, 1790-1798. New York: Oxford UP.

Flanders, J. (2006). The Women Writers Project: A Digital Anthology. In L. Burnard, K. O’Brien O’Keeffe, and J. Unsworth. Electronic Textual Editing. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, pp. 138-149.

Fraistat, N., and St. Jones (2006). The Poem and the Network: Editing Poetry Electronically. In L. Burnard, K. O’Brien O’Keeffe, and J. Unsworth (2006). Electronic Textual Editing. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, pp. 105-121.

McGann, J. (2004). Marking Texts in Many Dimensions. A Companion to Digital Humanities. Eds. R. Siemens, S. Schreibman, and J. Unsworth. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Accessed February 28, 2011.

Piez, W. (2010). Towards Hermeneutic Markup. Digital Humanities 2010 Conference, King’s College London. Accessed February 28, 2011.

Project Tango. University of Virginia. Accessed February 26, 2011.

Rudy, J. (2009). Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics. Athens, Ohio: Ohio State UP.


1.See, for example, Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality and Julia Flander’s comments on assembling an archive of women’s writing in ‘The Women Writers Project: A Digital Anthology.’

2.This so-called ‘new formalism’ can be seen in monographs on poetry including, to name just a few, Jason Rudy’s Electric Measures, David Fairer’s Organising Poetry or the recent British Women’s Writing Conference panel on ‘Formal Curiosities.’