Rilke, or: ice-bucketting my digital edition class

This week and next week, I am undertaking the final trips to the University where I held my locum professorship this past term (I shouldn’t write “past” considering the amount of grading I still have ahead of me until the 31st). Today, I gave a presentation together with two students, based on what was done in one class; tomorrow, two students from another class will present their results to me and next week, I will present even more results from this class at a workshop. In the meantime, my other students are finishing their last term papers in the form of blog posts (see here).

In other words: even if I did not want to draw a balance from this term, I would not be able to escape it.

Today’s presentation was a risky undertaking. In that class (boy, did I regret not having more hours for that class!), the aim was to build up a small digital edition based on manuscripts. At first, it seemed totally feasible. I was looking forward to the students developing their own ontology. But although the students worked hard and I had inherited a solid basis for the class script from Sabine, we barely got to the point where the students actually developed a thought-through tagging. So yes, I was pretty worried that today’s presentation would fall flat. But it turned out that even if we have not gone as far as I had hoped, at least we have gone somewhere.

When I developed the concept behind this class, I was thrilled at the idea that I would be able to work together with the German Literature Archive in Marbach, an institution with which the university works in close cooperation. Since it was to be expected that the students would not know much about archive material and paleography, I came (after talking to connoisseurs of the archive as well as of the local students) to the conclusion that manuscripts by Rainer Maria Rilke would be a good choice. Rilke is the kind of author whom you can suppose that everyone who graduated high school to study literature has read something from (or so I thought, but I don’t want to open up a debate about the kind of authors you can consider as known by literature students, since my last discussion on that topic lead to the conclusion that the only author you can assume to be known is Goethe). Rilke has a nice handwriting (but one in Old German Script). Rilke has written  huge amounts of letters and letters are adequate units for a small editorial assignment. Plus, literary letters are one of the most beautiful things there is in the world. And Rilke’s prose is just magnificent.

The ice bucket emptied itself gradually on me during the first class,when I realized that these were B.A. students who knew very little about Rilke, about writing letters, about editions, and even less about all of that in a digital form. This is the point where I wished I had twice as many hours as I actually had. There were 3 fronts on which I had to move on quickly in parallel: the context (Rilke, letters), editorial culture (what is at stake in an edition) and saying goodbye to WYSIWYG. At the same time, the students had to cope with not really being able to read the handwriting so well, while insisting on wanting to edit something that had not been edited so far.

We settled on a series of 7 letters from Rilke to one of his patrons, which were still unedited and what is more offered the advantage that each one of the 7 students could transcribe, encode and comment one of them. All through November, the sessions were divided into 2/3 of transcribing time, 1/3 of encoding. Around Christmas I tried to move to 50-50 or revert the 2/3/1/3 proportion, but we still spent what felt like an eternity on the metadata. The research environment I had chosen kept sending failure messages, it took several weeks before everyone had managed to access it and to save their XML-files there. Finally, we had to pack in the 2 last sessions all that I had imagined we would spend half of the term doing: searching the TEI-P5 for features corresponding to what they wanted to encode; thinking about the features of the html output; refining the content of the index (index of persons and index of places).

In spite of my general feeling of having achieved little, the papers prepared by the students for today’s presentation at the archive showed a sense for the significance of these letters and for the editorial issues at stake. One student explained in 30 seconds what XML/TEI is about in such a way that the public(who was for the larger part unfamiliar with it) would immediately get it. She showed the manuscript bits and the corresponding encoding together, retracing the several layers of information encoded in the text.1 Angle brackets always have their first little “let me scare you off”-moment, but the parallel between the manuscript and the encoding was done so clearly that one could perfectly well follow the different elements. The two students who did the presentation with me did a magnificent job.

As for me, I could rely on the work of Melanie and Sophia to present the workflow, the output and the research perspectives which are made possible by scholarly digital editions of letters.

It is the questions that showed me that the introduction to XML/TEI included in the middle part of the presentation (by one of the students) was perfectly well calibrated. The questions showed that the basic structure was clear to the public’s mind. I could explain how taking encoding decisions work or what the documentation of encoding guidelines should contain. I answered a question regarding the encoding of events and talked about the limit between objective information and interpretation, and how to develop a workflow that is viable for an editorial team and does not require too much individual interpretation. I was asked how long it takes to learn how to encode one letter and could let the students answer (and conclude myself: The first letter is the one that takes the most time, the following ones go faster).

For my next digital edition class (whenever I give one), I will certainly use the DARIAH TEI-tutorial that was put online a few weeks ago. But I will never forget the challenges of this class, and their unexpectedly fulfilling outcome on a sunny March afternoon on the top of the Schiller hill in Marbach am Neckar.

  1. Because they contain so many pictures of the manuscripts, which I am not authorized to publish, I can’t display the slides here. []

Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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