Learning to Read A-New: Essays for Thinking about Interactions with Texts, Others, the Other, and More Texts


Introduction of the current issue


introduction, acknowledgements

How to Cite

Cunningham, R. (2011). Learning to Read A-New: Essays for Thinking about Interactions with Texts, Others, the Other, and More Texts. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, 2(2). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/dscn.78


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Introduction of Volume 2, Issue 2

I am going to start this introduction of Volume 2, Issue 2 of Digital Studies / Le champ numérique with a bold claim: Herein lies brilliance. Not in this introduction, but in the articles found afterward. As I read each essay to prepare this introduction, I annotated in one form or another some piece of each I found to be either metonymic of its message, or an important piece of information in its own right. When I re-read each essay, I found myself repeating the process, often in new places, often in an overlay to what I had annotated previously. I recognized a pattern I have seen before in important, and oft-re-read, scholarship: when, after a period of time—during which, for example, I have not taught a text reasonably familiar to me—I return to the scholarship about that text, I initially rely on my own marginalia to remind me why this is a piece of work that deserves more attention than do others to which I might have turned. The marginalia reminds me of how good the article is, and this in turn causes me to move past my own marginal glosses, and to re-read the article itself. In doing so, I find myself not so much re-reading, but reading a-new, with the fresh eyes of one who encounters the work for the very first time: "This is important," I think. "I need to bring that to the attention of others." After a few such lapses in time and returns to exemplary articles of this sort, the marginal spaces of printed texts I own become so full I have eventually needed to add more space to the page through the use of Post-it© notes or even full pages of my own commentary slipped between the leaves of the book, photocopy, or pdf of the primary text. Thankfully, the medium in which DS/CN is offered does not limit readers only to the space available in the margins of the printed page; instead, hyperlinking or reading within programs such as iAnnotate©, GoodReader©, or Adobe's Acrobat Pro© allows readers to annotate endlessly. This is a happy state of affairs particularly for readers of the articles that follow because, I predict, you will find yourself returning to these articles again and again, and each time adding to your own thinking on the ideas presented herein.

This short collection begins with Christian Vandendorpe's masterful offering, "Some Considerations about the Future of Reading." Vandendorpe argues that our culture is "engaged in a global shift from immersive to ergative reading." He reminds us, as has Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid, that reading is in fact an unnatural activity despite the fact that our culture has naturalized it to the extent that we no longer consciously recognize its unnaturalness. Vandendorpe further reminds us that reading has evolved as continuously as has our culture and the media through which we encounter texts, as he shifts his emphasis from culturally to individually specific aspects of reading. This article should be a "must read" for all students of book history, print culture history, and reading history. When I say it lacks the specificity of Peter Stallybrass's similarly inclined essay "Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible," my intention is not to criticize Vandendorpe; rather, my intention is to give you a sense of the company this article should keep. Vandendorpe set out to do something different than what Stallybrass set out to do, and so a different path had to be taken. The path is broken successfully: it now remains only for readers to follow it. Although Vandendorpe argues that we are currently engaged in a shift from immersive reading, the kind experienced when reading a novel, for example, to ergative—i.e. purposeful or goal-driven—reading, he traces ergative practices back to the library of Alexandria. According to Vandendorpe, "attention is at its best when readers do not content themselves with understanding the text but also evaluate the quality and relevance of what they are reading," and because "ergative reading is entirely driven by the interests of the [reader]" it follows that, where others see reading as a dying art because of the cultural shift from the page to the screen, Vandendorpe's prognostication for the future of reading can be altogether more positive and more hopeful.

The second article in this issue, "'More Minds are Brought to Bear on a Problem': Methods of Interaction and Collaboration within Digital Humanities Research Teams," is authored by Lynne Siemens, Richard Cunningham, Claire Warwick, and Wendy Duff, an inter-institutional and international team researching Digital Humanities and Digital Libraries teams of various sizes. The article might remind a reader of Alan Liu's book The Laws of Cool because of Liu's discussion of the evolution of teamwork in postmodern society (Liu 35-73). While Liu's interest lies in critiquing, as his sub-title "Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information"asserts, Siemens et al.'s interests lie in helping readers navigate the waters of what is still a relatively novel approach to academic labour on the humanities' side of campus: collaboration. As noted by the authors, "individuals involved in [the teamwork necessitated by] digital projects have, for the most part, learned" to work in teams by doing so. They have acquired the "associated skills" through "trial and error" rather than through the kind of course- or thesis-work by which they acquired the subject knowledge that forms the base of their expertise. As this article makes clear, there is a body of work to which people might turn, but as the study described herein explains, "too little is [yet] known about how these teams work or the supports they need to be successful." The authors of this study collected their data by interviewing and surveying people working on DH or DL projects, as they describe in their Methods section. That part of the article is likely to be of general interest to all and of particular interest to anyone planning a similar study of teamwork within or across their own field. But of greater moment to more readers will be the Results and Discussion sections. The former section will prove to be useful to everyone working in the digital humanities or digital libraries communities. I would especially encourage all who are currently in the planning stages of collaborative work to attend to the results this work offers. For example, along with the unsurprising finding that "project success [becomes] more likely when every member of the team has a stake in the project," we learn that the stake does not have to be the equal, or even the same, among all members. Equally as important for those planning new projects, the experiences of those investigated for this study seem universally to point to the necessity of face-to-face communication, and the building up, through unmediated personal contact, of trust between individual team members. Perhaps the most important finding of this study is an affirmation of a finding documented elsewhere in the literature: "Collaboration enhances the project work by increasing the quality, depth, and scope of the scholarly work." In other words, while the institutional emphasis on teamwork might be an effect of a larger postmodern condition, the individual's decision to work as part of a team can be as rewarding as—and more productive than—working alone.

In "'Testing the Limits': What Happens When Digital Humanities Meets Alternative Worldviews," Jodey Castricano calls to our attention how deeply run the roots of the oft-told tale of western, Cartesian "reality" in all areas of our thinking and our work. Her thesis is more pointed than that, of course; in her essay she works to deconstruct, demystify, and denaturalize "the framework of the Cartesian x, y, z-axes as it underpins theories of the interface." More precisely, her purpose is to "challenge the primacy of the underlying structure of traditional HCI theory by bringing into proximity alternatives to the Cartesian space-time paradigm that is implicated in the history and theories of subjective experience." Because Castricano comes at human-computer interaction from the perspective of a postcolonialist, readers may anticipate her use of non-European, indigenous alternatives to provide detail and counter-argument in her challenge of (to borrow a concept from Pierre Bourdieu) the doxa[1] upon which are based Western "metaphysics," "Western classical science," and "the study of representation, subjectivity, imagination, perception and embodiment." What readers will not anticipate is Castricano's "admixture of indigenous philosophy and quantum theory, [. . .] to modify HCI theory." Castricano's is a theoretically sophisticated and important piece of work that is sure to prompt new thinking about immersive technologies, virtual reality, and human-computer interaction. Indeed, this article more than any other I can recall prompts the reader to understand HCI with the emphasis on the first rather than the middle term. This article reminds us that the foundation upon which we have built our knowledge of "reality" is just that—a foundation—and not, as our behavior suggests, the ground of reality itself. By calling to our attention our sub-conscious naturalizing of the Cartesian Euro-view, Castricano enables us to imagine the possibility of alternatives. Having opened this door, she then guides us through it to consider extant alternative "interactive realities." The ultimate goal of her argument is to encourage the adoption of "a more holistic" worldview, but even if individual readers are not moved to such an ambitious re-positioning of themselves, they will surely understand immersive technologies in a more sophisticated and theoretically informed way. They will be able to recognize themselves in their creations, and to appreciate more fully the influence that unarticulated and culturally constructed notions of time and space have on those creations.

Finally, "Prototyping the Renaissance English Knowledgebase (REKn) and Professional Reading Environment (PReE), Past, Present, and Future Concerns: A Digital Humanities Project Narrative," by Ray Siemens, members of the Electronic Textual Culture Lab, and the Implementing New Knowledge Environments team, offers a conceptual context for the development of REKn and PReE, a thorough description of REKn and PReE, acknowledgement of work yet to be done, and some discussion of lessons learned through the development of this knowledgebase and reading environment. It is an ironic truth that, as noted in this article, "the electronic medium has brought us closer to the textual objects of our contemplation." "The book" was an uncomplicated and subconsciously naturalized object 40 or 50 years ago. Building on and expanding beyond the efforts of pioneers in computational methods of analysis and textual delivery from about 40 to 20 years ago, in the past 20 years study of "the book" as object and as textual repository has expanded almost exponentially in comparison to the contraction that hit so many other humanities fields. The work described herein by Siemens and his collaborators takes study of the book one step further. While it is not on the scale of the Google©-inspired question of "What to Do with a Million Books?" it does address many of the questions pertinent to an individual scholar's reading practices in an age when Ramelli's book wheel[2] has become a workplace reality, even if still only metaphorical in its physicality. Work remains to be done in developing a best reading environment, or, more likely, a set of best environments for the humanist reader. However, the work described in the fourth and final essay of this issue lays a solid foundation for developing such environments, and equally as important for thinking about our reading practices as we move, in Vandendorpe's terms, from immersive to ergative reading, wherein we "do not content [our]selves with understanding the text but also evaluate the quality and relevance of what [we] are reading"; wherein the sheer volume of material available to us threatens to overwhelm us; wherein we recognize the need to join teams of likeminded readers in order to legitimately research a topic, and; wherein we allow the foundations on which our understanding has traditionally been built to be challenged, shaken, and sometimes replaced through encounters of our own with alternative worldviews, or encounters with an HCI developed by someone whose traditions are not our own.

Earlier, I wrote that returning to particularly valuable works of scholarship typically leads to situations in which I need to add, to the margins of the printed page, sticky notes that allow me to add complementary, supplementary, and new annotations for the new insights that accompany each new reading. Fortunately, digital works imply digital annotation, which in turn implies a practically infinite canvas for commentary and annotation. For my part, the articles of this issue contain a wealth of valuable new scholarship that makes me very glad I have infinite space in which to record and advance my own thinking, sparked by the scholarship of Vandendorpe, L. Siemens et al., Castricano, and R. Siemens et al. I am confident that the reader who engages with what follows will make similar use of the digital annotation tools currently available, and the vast expanse of digital space.


[1] "What goes without saying and what cannot be said for lack of an available discourse, [doxa] represents the dividing-line between the most radical form of misrecognition and the awakening of political consciousness" (Bourdieu 170).

[2] Agostino Ramelli's Le diverse et artifiose machine, 1588. An image of the bookwheel can be seen at http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/79926/view. No evidence exists of the bookwheel having been built by Ramelli or any contemporary. An image of Anthony Grafton alongside one he had built much more recently can be seen at http://www.princeton.edu/~paw/archive_new/PAW06-07/11-0404/features_grafton.html.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977. Print.

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004. Print.

Stallybrass, Peter. "Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible." Books and Readers in Early Modern England. Eds. Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. Web. 17 Aug. 2011. Google Books.

"What to Do with a Million Books?" Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science, Nov. 5 – 6, 2006, http://dhcs2006.uchicago.edu/program.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

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