Computational English Studies: A Roundtable

Clare Lees 3MMUe

The various activities grouped under the ‘digital humanities’ umbrella have led to a proliferation of impressive digitisation efforts, new projects, media attention, and timely questions about the nature of research and teaching methods in English literature. However, computational training is still sparse and rarely mandatory in English Studies curricula, and it is still rare for English researchers to primarily produce digital outputs for REF submissions and promotion dossiers. At a time when English is facing dwindling enrollment numbers and resources, could digital methods offer further strings to our collective bow, not to challenge but to complement the traditional approaches of the discipline? Debates about the ‘value’ of English have grappled with digital tools and methods in a technocratic age that dismisses the arts and humanities and expects ‘value for money’ in digital projects. The recent attention toward so-called ‘distant reading’ has also led to several criticisms from within English, including Nan Z. Da’s recent article, which claimed that computational literary studies is neoliberal, overly hyped, not verifiable, and unable to clearly elucidate the significance of its findings (‘The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Studies’, Critical Inquiry 45 [Spring 2019]). While worth attending to, such criticisms nevertheless tend to reflect a misunderstanding of the landscape of digital research in English, particularly that it covers a wide range of methodologies and outputs, but also that it is inherently experimental and interdisciplinary.

This symposium-style roundtable panel will feature brief statements about the gains and losses of computational approaches to English by four leading academics working at the intersection of English Studies and digital humanities, followed by a lengthy discussion guided by pointed questions and provocations. Among the various topics that speakers will address are: the effects of digital media on publishing, scholarly editing, archives and book history; new modes of reading, interpretation, and scale (namely, how to reconcile close reading, distant reading, computer-assisted close reading); pedagogical questions about the best ways to train humanists in digital skills; and institutional questions of prestige, REF, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary work.

Chair: Dr Christopher Ohge (Lecturer in Digital Approaches to Literature, Institute of English Studies)

Christopher Ohge is Lecturer in Digital Approaches to Literature at the Institute of English Studies, University of London School of Advanced Study. He also serves as an Associate Director of the Melville Electronic Library. His research interests are nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, scholarly editing, text encoding, text analysis, and applying data science principles to reading and stylistics. Previously he served as an Associate Editor on the Mark Twain Papers and Project, where his editorial credits included the third volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain (2015), Mark Twain: April Fool, 1884 (2017), and the forthcoming Innocents Abroad. Since 2018, he has convened the Digital Scholarly Editing courses at the London Rare Books School. 


Dr Francesca Benatti (Open University)

Francesca Benatti is Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at the Open University. In her role she develops research in Digital Humanities and promotes collaboration and networking between Digital Humanities researchers and other parts of the University. She is also a member of the READ-IT project and the Reading Experience Database. Her research interests are digital scholarly editions, text encoding, stylometry, the writings of Thomas Moore (1779-1852), and book history, with a focus on the role of Irish periodicals and newspapers in nineteenth-century Irish cultural nationalism.

Dr James Cummings (Newcastle University)

James Cummings is Senior Lecturer in Late Medieval Literature (c. 1350-1510) and Digital Humanities at the School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics of Newcastle University. He works on the use of digital technology, primarily for digital editing, and late medieval drama. Since 2005 he has been an elected member of the Text Encoding Initiative Consortium's Technical Council, and was previously its Chair. Part of his time is also spent on the Animating Texts Newcastle (ATNU) project, which explores new frontiers at the cross-roads between traditional scholarly textual editing, digital editing, digital humanities, and computer science.

Dr Elizabeth Williamson (University of Exeter)

Elizabeth Williamson is Research Fellow in Digital Humanities and English at the University of Exeter. Her research sits at the intersection between Renaissance literature, historical enquiry, archival studies and the digital humanities. Her interests include early modern archives and epistolary culture, especially in a diplomatic and governmental context; the practical and theoretical concerns of the Digital Humanities; and textual scholarship and digital publication. Before joining Exeter she co-edited documentary editions of thirty plays by authors other than Shakespeare for A Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Sat 2:15 pm - 3:30 pm