This past spring, I participated in a Textual Editing and Criticism course, in which students worked collaboratively to edit the unattributed print texts Hell Upon Earth (1703) and The Memoirs of John Hall (available in two variants from 1708 and a 1714 version), creating a hybrid of the two. As a result of that hands-on project, two major issues arose. First, we confronted the value of open access and collaboration. If we open a text to amateurs (in our case, students learning the proverbial “ropes”), how do we guarantee quality? If we use “expert” editors after receiving amateur input, how do we preserve the collaborative nature of the project? Second, we examined the changing role of the editor as a content producer, who must now consider coding and visual rhetorics to use digital spaces effectively. Is developing such a wide-ranging skill set worthwhile when crowd-sourced editing is an option?
As novice editors grafting editing theories and strategies onto a new medium, our project undermined assumptions regarding the “ease” of digital publication. Students edited in pairs, dividing the texts into sections; after transcribing and collating sections, the groups combined their work, reflecting the hybrid nature of the text through a complex structure. In a short time, the class produced a multi-faceted document with a wealth of contextual information and publication details; in some ways, it suffered from information overload. Initially, the new text would not have eased the reading process (a common goal); it was difficult to recognize the combined text as a uniform, critical edition. The final solution was old-fashioned: a few dedicated editors combed through the document, standardizing the structure, footnotes and so on, when possible.
The situation gave rise to a series of questions. If the digital space allows for a democratization of the editing process, inviting “non-expert” participants, who may not be editors but may have (or might not have) expertise in content, to work alongside expert editors, is the product still a critical edition? Does such a product serve the same purposes as the traditional critical edition and have the same ethos (perhaps it has more)? If experts are needed to “clean up” the text, is it possible, or even desirable, to preserve the collaborative nature of the project?
In addition to decisions regarding the critical apparatus, levels of editorial intervention, and the organization of the combined primary material, participants considered the affordances and constraints of publishing online. For instance, if one employs a hyperlinking structure, how does this influence the ever sticky issue of authorial intent, regarding the way the text “should” be read (complicated in our case by the lack of a clearly identified author)? Does this approach undermine the critical choices made by editors by encouraging the reader to act as a sort of individual editor, piecing together meaning? Or conversely, do those hyperlinks control the reader’s experience in undesirable ways?
In the end, our edited text mimics its print counterparts in most ways, as the class choose to create a pdf. with footnotes that hyperlinked to the appropriate appendix when necessary. Anything more would require a level of coding knowledge and document design for digital spaces that none of the participants possessed, as well as time beyond the constraint of a semester. The complicated publication history of Hell Upon Earth and The Memoirs of John Hall continues to evolve, from four related textual witnesses of unclear origins to an eclectic text, produced by several editors and published in digital form. The completed edition will be published, for free, on the ODU English PhD page in the near future; it is informative and well worth the read.
With that being said, I now need to turn this article over to my editor, for her approval.
Megan, I like how your piece got me thinking. I'm wondering if your concern is overridden by the concern for modernist conceptions of author and editor, even singular meaning of the text. I know that your reflection obviously demonstrates you are not locked into those perspectives; however, I wonder if your angst is because culturally, even individually (I want single meaning!) we want singular authorial intent and singular meaning.
All that to say...can we embrace layers of content and meaning and chaos of context & meaning? I think your final comment about needing to know/understand the technological possibilities to construct environments that can filter different perspectives, layers of meaning and annotation, etc. is important (obviously we can't make the space without knowing how to do so).
But that does bring us back to the reader; who wants to work that hard for meaning? It takes a lot more intellectual work (I'm channeling Moberly here) to negotiate the more chaotic, layered texts that could juggle all of the complexity you discuss. But isn't that type of work the point/purpose of why people read "critical" editions?
Again, thanks for the opportunity to think through/ramble on the topic/issue.
Meaning, Authority and Usability : Reply to Megan and Shelley
Megan and Shelley-
In reading this thread I'm struck by the sense that we are discussing 3 different issues: meaning, authority and usabilty.
First meaning- when I consider of the purpose of a critical edition of any text produced outside of this historical moment I question the sense that the editor's job is to help me find a singular meaning. In other words, trying to capture a reader's "original experience" (or experiences) is still often a layered and even conflicted project. When Shelley asks "isn't that intellectual work the point?" I would agree wholeheartedly. The editor's job is to give me the tools to understand these layers and see these contradictions through various annotations, supplementary materials and notes about emendations. I think the angst we are then addressing in the context of an online multi-participant editing project has more to do with whether a document produced in such a way affords the same authority in providing that reliable content.
So secondly-authority, credibility or ethos-- whatever we call it--Megan writes, " If the digital space allows for a democratization of the editing process, inviting “non-expert” participants, who may not be editors but may have (or might not have) expertise in content, to work alongside expert editors, is the product still a critical edition?" It seems to me we debate this question in a multitude of contexts and the question is ultimately not that different from debating the reliability of cites like Wikipedia. The tension between collective knowledge and expert knowledge in digital formats is not going away anytime soon. Personally, I do think that collective knowledge produced by such a project as Megan describes has the potential to generate a great deal of knowledge, not to mention resources for scholars who want access to lesser known texts that book publishers would be leery to take on the financial burden of producing. Perhaps the answer here can be found in the same place academics have always turned--peer review. Does such vetting erase the collaborative process? I doubt it. Even in the case Megan describes, the "non-experts" were supervised by an expert professor, thus providing a certain amount of credibility by default. But more to the point, how do we even define "expert"? Certainly all the students involved in this project invested time and labor that the vast majority of us have not. In this sense they are all experts and have every right to present your work as such.
Finally usability- in addressing the question "who wants to work that hard?" that depends on the kind of work we are talking about. If it's the intellectual work mentioned above, we all should. But navigating a high volume of information requires a certain amount of design to make the exercise tolerable. Megan writes, "In a short time, the class produced a multi-faceted document with a wealth of contextual information and publication details; in some ways, it suffered from information overload." Ultimately any text will need some amount of uniformity to is organization to make sense and be usable to its audience. But in my view to do so does not erase the collaborative effort of the work, it simply makes it accessible and useful. In the end, isn't that the whole point?
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