Encoding time depends on…

Yesterday was a big pedagogical day. Around noon, Selma and I coached a group of soon-to be teachers in the subtleties of salon culture and women writing habits in Prussia around 1800. In the evening, Toni Bernhart and I had the pleasure to be hosted by Jutta Weber to present our work on archival material to our colleagues from Berlin der Begegnung in the Prussian State Library.

In both cases, I got asked the exact same question: how much time does it take to encode, say, one letter? The answer was obvious and unsatisfactory: it depends. It depends on how long the letter is, on how hard/easy it is to read. But it depends mostly whether you are at the beginning or in the middle of a corpus. My experience is that, when encoding the first 2-3 letters of a correspondence, you feel like you will be dead before reaching the next letter. But once the people and the books the two correspondents are talking about have an ID, once you have the general idea of the writing habits you have to deal with (and once you have developed a strategy to deal with them:  Tieck’s incessant switching between Latin and German handwriting, mixed with a maniac underlining of every other word, has been driving me crazy for a while), you can easily encode up to 3 letters a day. But really: who gets the chance to just encode one day long? Certainly not me. Encoding time depends mostly on time being what it is, that is shared between so many things – you don’t want to know how many, really, especially since I have been dealing with new people coming to the group and funding renewal during the past months. An administrative hell – not over yet, alas.

I thought about the representation which those people that are not in our field, but still able to get what we do, have of our daily work. The contrast with what it really is is striking. I have come to the point where I mostly envy my PhD candidates for having the possibility to spend days on one thing and get to the bottom of it. The sad part is, of course, that they certainly can’t imagine that this situation could in any way be desirable. I remember, back in the time – 15 years or so ago – arriving at the library at 9AM and leaving it at 6PM and wondering what had happened to that day, which was, all of a sudden, just gone, and yet do the exact same the next day, and so forth.

The reason why I really want to write the second book is that the academic situation I have acquired allows me to understand, and more importantly, to savor more, the moments of sheer learnedness when they happen: sitting in the library, gathering and arranging ideas. Those moments now have a sweetness I had never before suspected they could have. A sweetness which is, inevitably, tempered by the bitterness of the struggle to conquer them – or increased by it?

Concentrated time to think comes in unexpected shapes. One thing I like about spring is rediscovering what thinking time is while sitting on the playground an hour and half on a Friday afternoon watching the kids ride their bikes, cover the sidewalk with chalk drawings, get mad at each other for nothing, meet a friend, get a toy entangled in the bushes, grab it back, hop on further, and laugh in the sun. So do my ideas in the meantime.

And then I enjoy putting the hand on a serious book in the evening, too (been reading Herméneutique critique lately).

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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