Yesterday I attended the Institute for the Humanities and the Institute for Research on Women & Gender at the U. of Michigan’s one-day conference on “The Data of Life Writing: Gender, Race, and the Digital.” The conference was part of an on-going series at UM on Digital Currents (#digitalcurrents).
To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with life writing as an academic field before yesterday. I’m not sure if this was just a personal lack of familiarity (likely), or if this is one of those interdisciplinary parties that historians show up late to, but it turns out that the study of auto/biographies,etc., is, you know, kind of relevant to historical work.
What I learned!
The first presentation was from Alison Booth, from the English Dept. at U. Virginia, on “Crowding Attention: Prosopography, Women, and Nationality” (prosopography is collective biographical histories, which was probably the first thing I learned yesterday). Booth spoke about the beauty and insights of patterns, and the aesthetics and ethics of representation (those are more or less direct quotations, actually) before getting into her project, Collective Biographies of Women. The project, in its own words, is “The core of the Collective Biographies of Women project, from the beginning, has been the annotated bibliography of English-language books that collect three or more short biographies of women only: a forgotten British and American publishing tradition that provided a surprisingly ample and wide-ranging biographical history of women.” (from http://womensbios.lib.virginia.edu/about)
The project uses Oxygen XML Editor, the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), and controlled values for team editing (I’m including these details as I’m currently involved in a project including group editing of data, and it can be overwhelming if you’re not sure where to begin or how to go about it).
Of particular interest was the identification of individuals who go under several names, or whose nationality, birthdates, even gender are unknown or change. This identities that we can easily take for granted are historically modern, and can fall apart in the historical archive. Booth brought up the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF) and Encoded Archival Context-Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) as solutions to these challenges. She also showed us some cool r-graphs of the networks between women included in biographies.
Finally, Booth reminded us that life histories are immersed in social networks, and that individuals are also corporate beings.
Before lunch, there were lightning talks on life writing by five UM grad students. I can’t give each presenter proper justice here, but all the projects were fascinating.
The second presentation was by Aimée Morrison, from the English Dept. at U. Waterloo, on “Mashup, Remix, Rewrite: New Media Studies and Auto/biography Theory and Practice.” Morrison, incidentally, simultaneously slung jokes while laying out some serious theory in such a way that I can only imagine her students look forward to going to class. While Morrison spoke on “deciphering digital life writing,” and touched on Facebook status updates, blogging, and selfies, I found myself reflecting on how her points would relate to, say, oral history interviews, or other historical documents which draw on individuals reflecting on their own experiences. Morrison, for example, talked about how certain interfaces “coax” certain self-revelations (or, as the case may be, prevent certain self-revelations).
Another element of Morrison’s talk was her argument in favor of partial scholarship rather than impartial scholarship. Drawing on concepts of participant observation/ethnography, Morrison argued that scholars can acknowledge their investment in their topics without losing validity. So, for instance, Morrison referred to her work on the mommy blogging community – a community that she is also a part of. This seems particularly important for scholars working in digital environments, where the sheer number of activities and data can easily render attempts at objectivity useless or even irrelevant. In other words, if you’re going to work on a small, self-selecting community, random sampling just won’t work.
The conference ended with a discussion wrap-up that touched on different elements of online/digital lives. The theme that stuck out for me, from the wrap-up as well as personal conversations after the conference, is how much of digital scholarship is collaborative. In the discipline of history, however, it seems the excitement around collaborative and digital scholarship is matched by an academic structure that is unsure how to incorporate either.