Jones, "The Romantic Circles Project and Emergent Forms of Scholarly Production on the Web"

NASSR '96 Seminar on Electronic Texts and Textuality

The Romantic Circles Project and Emergent Forms of Scholarly Production on the Web

Steven Jones, Loyola University Chicago

As I write this (9.23.96), I have multiple windows open. I know many of you do too. In my case, it's so I can toggle among this editor, Netscape, and a Unix window, in order to keep at least one eye on the new collaborative project called Romantic Circles, a research Website for the study of younger generation Romantic-period literature and culture. This is the work of dozens of people so far--and there are more preparing contributions I have yet to see. By the time we meet in Boston, it should have a number of features now only planned or still under construction, on other people's hard drives, worlds away. That's a point worth making: there is very little precedent in our profession (and especially in our discipline) for a project this radically distributed, so much the work of diverse hands in far-flung places. Conducting our experiment "live," as it were, on the Web, raises the stakes, increases the risks, and, we think, offers some significant rewards. But it also raises a number of questions that continue to concern us as we construct Romantic Circles. Many of you are grappling with similar questions in your own work.

  • In terms of identity, will we be able to produce a common site from so many "distributed products"? Can we impose common standards and some degree of editorial control, assuring the quality of texts and other sources at the site, without becoming too controlling? How do we vet submitted ideas and projects, and is it possible to do so in a way that is recognized and rewarded by our print-based and individualistic profession?

  • What effect might a site like ours have on the already-changing canon (or shifts in cultural capital associated with certain works and authors)? Will the structure of the site merely reinforce current hierarchies and canons?

  • Contrary to the cypherpunk motto ("information wants to be free"), in capitalist society information more often "wants to be" a commodity. What is our role in relation to this fact? To put it more directly: do pay features belong on our site? How should they relate to the free features? What role should university presses, for example, some of which are moving quickly into this medium, play on a site like ours?

  • In terms of "high" and "low" cultural productions (and still tied to questions of commerce), can we successfully negotiate being a scholarly exchange in what is increasingly figured as a nascent mass medium? What happens when our Romantic works and academic criticism are only a click away from all the Internet's quotidian noise? How might our design and textual mark-up decisions, for example, subtly effect our position in this regard?

I won't be able to address all of these questions in this space, but let me begin with the specific topic of our seminar, and look at the role of electronic texts at our site. We realize that some of the fundamental theoretical questions of traditional textual criticism, questions of copy-text, manuscripts, recension, eclectic versus "diplomatic" versus "genetic" editions, authors' intentions, publication and reception histories, printing practices, are rendered more complicated (and, sometimes, some would argue, rendered moot) in the case of the growing digital archive. Pioneers at the Brown Women Writers Project, Virginia's ETC and IATH, the Princeton-Rutgers CETH, Michigan's HTI, to name a few of the most important, have helped established a consensus in the humanities on encoding and archiving texts for serious scholarly research, all converging on the international standard of the TEI. These massive projects support various kinds of research and pedagogical activities. All of them have a kind of tip-of-the-iceberg presence on the Web, where most make HTML texts available to the general online public while building up the SGML archive for scholars--and for the ages (or at least until good SGML browsers are widely available).

We at Romantic Circles are eager and admiring students of these projects and fully share their fundamental goals and textual standards, but for the sake of clarity it should be noted that our site has developed differently--in reverse order, really. Like Alan Liu's incomparable metapage, The Voice of the Shuttle, or Laura Mandell and Liu's Romantic Chronology (to name two examples), Romantic Circles was planned from the beginning for the Web. Electronic texts of various kinds are an important but not the only reason for the site's existence. We are committed to a wide variety of (inter)networked applications, including especially various forms of online interaction, communication, and collaborative production among professional scholars--and others--interested in Romantic literature and culture.

To be a Website right now means, of course, making pragmatic use of the HTML DTD, while projecting for the future fully TEI-compliant SGML versions of the texts we are mounting. We have begun and will continue to discuss mark-up schemes and other standards with our editors and advisory board, even, it should be noted, as the relationship of SGML to the HTML DTD (within the larger set that is SGML) continues to evolve. The future is uncertain, but our working policy at present is to experiment with a flexible combination of "front-end" HTML (and ASCII) texts based on the foundation of an SGML archive (probably employing the TEI Lite DTD). Of course every text must fulfill basic scholarly standards, quite apart from its encoding.

We have made a conscious decision to build a Website that includes texts (rather than an archive of texts with a Website "on top of it"), one reason being our desire to experiment with collaborative and distributed production and exchange, to contribute to the invention of new, collective and interactive, forms of scholarship in our discipline. Nonetheless, we recognize, with Amiran, et al., that

the adoption of new practices in scholarly publishing--however, feasible, logical, and attractive those practices may be--depends in part on habits, and in particular on the institutional rewards and constraints which perpetuate those habits, more than it depends on technological factors.[1]
Unlike many scientists, knowledge workers in the humanities are still rewarded for private, isolated production--under what we might think of as the Victor Frankenstein model--rather than for more collaborative efforts. In order to change this, we need to encourage good work of the latter kind by combining recognizable means of vetting scholarly work--namely peer review and editorial control--with experimental, collaborative and distributed modes of working. We need to continue to reconsider our systems of institutional rewards and the (dis)incentives attached to such experiments, to "invent new ways of acknowledging and evaluating more complex--and sometimes more informal--modes of authorship," but right now the best solution seems to be an eclectic and provisional combination of traditional evaluations for newly emerging modes of production.[2] A Website is the ideal place to begin to try this out.

Romantic Circles is a decentralized site of sites--even more so than the consistent graphical environment might suggest to a casual user--a crossroads shared by what we expect will be a great many users, authors, and readers. Technically, it amounts to a switching system or series of gateways for a number of separate sections and their pages, many edited by different scholars and sometimes housed on their home servers; but, and this is the key point, the component pages are part of a collective endeavor with a shared, corporate identity. Especially given the slipshod quality of much do-it-yourself "publishing" on the Web, it seems absolutely essential that users know that all texts and research tools at our site have been produced under careful editorial control. Local Area Editors are responsible for guiding and vetting the production of texts and resources in their sections, and the General Editors have similar responsibility for the site as a whole. Area Editors, along with the General Editors and the long list of prominent Advisors, form the kind of Editorial Board that is recognized by the discipline--though here it will function to evaluate and sometimes indirectly to legitimate experiments, including various kinds of professional exchange, in networked-electronic rather than traditional print media. We hope in this way to help transform the way Romanticists conduct their business, both in the classroom and in their work as critics and scholars.

Let me cite just a few particular examples of what we have in mind, starting with our Scholarly Resources pages. This section will include a number of localized chronologies that will be of special interest to students, searchable archives from the NASSR-L discussion list, "Notes & Queries" sections for research postings, indices, bibliographies, authors' reading lists, hypertext collections of marginalia, and at least one important world-wide census of rare editions, as well as various pedagogical and course materials.

In the Central Exchange section, users will find conference information and "virtual events" tied to conferences--like those that follow this year's meeting in Boston and the Web pages you are reading now--schedules and calls for papers, job listings, publishers' information, guest "lectures" (or online performances), brief book reviews and interactive discussion threads, open to any user but moderated by section editors, on everything from key books in the field to theoretical questions and critical debates. An Area Editor might stage a forum on a topic or a two-way e-mail exchange, then post the results for users to respond to in turn; any of these features could be connected to discussions in the Villa Diodati MOO. For instance, a discussion thread on a series of pedagogical issues, carried on by teachers and their students in two distant cities, could culminate in shared seminar papers and a combined virtual class meeting in the MOO. Students from Chicago and from Boston, let us say, could log-in at a scheduled time to a shared virtual space, to "hear" presentations and engage in a group discussion.

But to return to Electronic Editions per se: our pilot projects, Donald Reiman's and Neil Fraistat's edition of Shelley's The Devil's Walk and my edition of Mary Shelley's The Last Man, use hypertext to enmesh primary works in webs of various historical and critical documents.[3] Future editions could well be constructed "onsite" as it were, literally built on what has come before. Collaborating teams of editors, in part through online exchanges, might use documents and texts already online for emendations, witnesses, versions, or hyperlinks for new editions. In this way our individual texts, like the site as a whole, are meant to be "porous" and "open-ended."

Meanwhile, all of our electronic texts are on the Web as a whole, as well as being parts of the complex site I've been summarizing. At least in their HTML versions, these texts can theoretically include links to other materials on the Web, though editors will have to weigh the gains against the ephemeral status of any given URL. And it goes without saying that in most cases they may be linked to, as well, for any number of imaginable purposes. Any scholarly hypertext edition in our archive is infinitely and (the term is in this case literal) automatically citable. The possibility of grafting textual citations on to other Web pages is matched by the same citability on our own pages. Any text in our collection (even more readily than others on the Web) can be called up in conversations, lectures, new hypertexts, or free-form, moderated or unmoderated chat in any section of Romantic Circles. This becomes an especially interesting possibility in the MOO environment. Because the MOO will be linked directly to a our archive of electronic texts, as well as the archive of URLs on the Web as a whole, discussions in the space can call up any of these texts as roughly or potentially equivalent examples, authorities, proof texts, material for argument, or occasions for shared edification and pleasure. Any electronic text on the Web is perforce part of the amorphous, changing (hyper/)intertext, that larger and less predictable thing, electronic textuality, in which the Web itself and Websites like Romantic Circles participate, but which they cannot circumscribe.

1. Eyal Amiran, John Unsworth, Carole Chaski, "Networked Academic Publishing and the Rhetorics of Its Reception," Centennial Review 36:1 (Winter 1992) [full text]. return

2. Amiran et al. hopefully assert what projects like ours, as well as online journals, can test: that "The legitimacy of scholarly publishing is a matter of the peer-review process and not a function of the medium in which peer-reviewed work is distributed." return

3. These editions essay to practice a kind of "publishing history . . . as hypertext," in the words of John O. Jordan and Robert L. Patten, including "conceptions of the activity of producing and consuming books that decenter the principal elements and make them interactive and interdependent . . . ." (Introduction to Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British publishing and reading practices [Cambridge, 1995], p. 11.)