Revealing Women: Women in the Archive

March 22, 2008

In the last twenty years there have been slow but important changes in the academy's understanding of the digital medium, in professional expectations of how texts should be represented and edited, and in approaches to the study of women's writing. With this anniversary year the WWP wants to look both backward and forward: backward to learn what we can about how this field has been formed, and forward to set an agenda for the WWP's future work.

To launch this consideration of digital representation of early women's writing we sponsored a day-long colloquium entitled “Revealing Women: Women in the Archive,” with support from the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and the Cogut Center for the Humanities. The colloquium brought together 20 scholars from the humanities and social sciences disciplines to consider the role that archival documents have played in scholarship and the relationship of those sources to digital media.

Historian Tara Nummedal offered the opening plenary “The Work of Gender and the Gender of Work in Early Modern Alchemy,” which detailed the trail of unique archival sources used by Nummedal to reconstruct the fascinating story of 16th century alchemist Anna Zieglerin. Nummedal drew our attention to the ways in which historians use unique manuscript and court documents to trace the work of a woman whose writing was never published, her intended audience consisting only of her royal patron. Despite Zieglerin’s circulation in a private textual economy, understanding her history and the ways in which she was able to appropriate conventional male alchemical tropes to position herself at court offers scholars new insight into the ways in which women were able to practice alchemy for social and personal gain. Nummedal’s talk highlighted the ways in which a short autograph manuscript may require significant contextual material in the form of second hand testimony, court report, and tortured confession, and the ways in which this secondary material is critical, despite its uncertain status, for a full history of this woman’s work.

In the morning roundtable discussion, “Researching Women in the Archives,” presenters Ilona Bell (Williams College), Noelle Baker (independent scholar), and Jaime Goodrich (Boston College), all drew our attention to particular preservational roles that digital media can fulfill. Their presentations showed how the study of unique texts can expand our understanding of editorial restriction of women’s texts, non-canonical forms, and networks of textual production amongst women. Bell’s presentation on "Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus" focused on the elision of certain poems in the authorized print edition of this texts, the politics of those elisions, and the consequences they have had for critical assessment of Wroth’s poetic talent. In her presentation “Mary Moody Emerson, the Archives, and Public Spaces," Baker drew our attention to the manifold structure, both physical and generic, of Mary Moody Emerson’s “almanac/commonplace book,” as well as to the barriers to working on this text due to its physical dispersion and problems created by varied metadata. Goodrich’s presentation ("Entering the Cloister: Researching in Monastic Archives") demonstrated the many difficulties imposed on the scholar studying religious women’s writing by varied cataloguing, preservation, and storage practices. Each of these presentations also reminded us of the contingencies to which texts in small repositories or texts of a composite nature may be subject, emphasizing the problem of the ‘disappearing text.’

The afternoon discussion on “Teaching with the Digital Archive” offered three reflections on the use of digital editions of print sources in the classroom from presenters Hillary Nunn (University of Akron), Gail Cohee (Brown University) and Jacqueline Wernimont (Brown University). Hillary Nunn’s paper "Digital Backlash? : Computers in the Early Modern Survey Course" described her encounters with students whose resistance to digital texts raises issues concerning editorial and textual authority. In cases where the digital text is deliberately positioned as unedited, is that an advantage? If so, why, and what is the critique of editing being presented? Gail Cohee, in "Teaching Women Writers without Gloss" addressed these issues from another direction, describing the role that student research can play in courses where they are invited to edit or gloss unedited texts. Her experience suggests that students may be more critically engaged when they feel they are participating directly in the activities of scholarship. Jacqueline Wernimont’s presentation on "Context and Limit: Early Modern texts in the Classroom" used a case study to discuss the need for due diligence on the part of faculty when assigning digital texts, for explicit education in ‘internet reading,’ and to suggest that students fare better when a contextual environment for digital texts is developed.

During our closing agenda-setting discussion several themes emerged. There was a clear sense that the archive of the historian is a different conceptual space from the print archive used by many literary scholars in the classroom. While print materials such as ballads, broadsides, rare books, and pamphlets are a central part of the textual domain of literary scholars, the demands for the completely unique text are not as strong as in historiographic projects. That said, it is clear that the unique manuscript, like the Wroth autograph manuscript and the Emerson commonplace/almanac, are important for our understanding not only of the historical development of the print canon, but also for a history of women’s writing practice and social networking. This recognition led us to consider the place of the manuscript text in a collection like the WWO. We discussed the pragmatic issues surrounding manuscript encoding, including the need to work collaboratively with scholars who are familiar with encoding methods. We also noted the various constraints that might operate in choosing texts for inclusion: the need to avoid creating a de facto canon, or positioning the manuscript as a print supplement by only including texts already represented in the WWO print collection.

There was also some discussion of how best to represent texts in digital form for scholarly and pedagogical use, and what kinds of interface tools and supplemental information would be most valuable. The colloquium members generally agreed that contextual materials produced by scholars are valuable resources when teaching with WWO, and that alternative exploratory tools like mapping visualizations and word clouds might also be useful in the classroom. We also noted that while archival materials pose challenges to our ideas of genre and discipline, in a pedagogical context such interpretive frameworks are still very useful for orienting students, and shouldn’t be discarded too readily. We may instead be able to find ways for these frameworks to sit more lightly and flexibly on our collections, and give teachers the opportunity to push against them in the classroom.

While there was a general sense that many of the problems raised in the presentations could be addressed through digital preservation of texts, it was clear that the mandate for this preservation did not necessarily belong to the WWP. We discussed openly the need to continue to make the case for funding of such projects and the need for scholars to work collaboratively with libraries and other repositories in order to regularize citation, organization, and access. Issues of access, both to physical repositories and to digital resources and tools, was another thread that ran through many of our discussions during the day. It remains the case that access of both sorts is uneven across institutions and geographic locations. There was also a general consensus regarding the need to continue to push for the support of digitization, digital text research, and the development of secondary and support tools as important scholarly products. Despite the MLA’s recommendation that digital forms of scholarship be taken seriously for tenure and promotion, it was clear to participants that this change has not yet taken hold in our institutions. Such work receives professional credit chiefly in connection with teaching and pedagogical development.

Presented Papers

Tara Nummedal, Brown University, "The Work of Gender and the Gender of Work in Early Modern Alchemy"

Noelle A. Baker, Independent Scholar, "Mary Moody Emerson, the Archives, and Public Spaces"

Jaime Goodrich, Wayne State "Entering the Cloister: Researching in Monastic Archives"

Ilona Bell, Williams College, "Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus"

Hillary Nunn, University of Akron, "Digital Backlash? : Computers in the Early Modern Survey Course"

Gail Cohee, Brown University, "Teaching Women Writers without Gloss"

Jacqueline Wernimont, Brown University, "Context and limit: Early Modern texts in the classroom"