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Jenny Bergenmar, Lucyna Marzec, Amelia Sanz

Learning to hack the Literary History – teaching Transnational Women’s Writing Digitally


The importance of a transnational perspective in order to renew the understanding and writing of literary history, has most influentially been propagated by Linda Hutcheon and Mario Valdés (2002), and the series A Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages exhibits impressive attempts of translating theory into practice. In writing what Valdés labels ‘effective’ and ‘open’ literary history, collaborative work of researchers is paramount, as well as the combination with different social sciences. Franco Moretti (2005) more radically argues for a need for literary history to shift from readings of individual works to mapping and charting large scale material in different ways, as a means to access “a specific form of knowledge”. No longer focusing on national and canonized literature, he relies instead upon a large amount and variety of empirical material to outline more broad developments. This approach ideally uses full texts in order to be elaborated and refined.

While the interpretative basis of the maps, graphs and trees presented in Moretti’s studies may be questioned, as for example Gayatri Spivak and Rachel Serlen have (Spivak 2003, Serlen 2010), the important point is that this kind of approach cannot be further developed in any fundamental way without a digital infrastructure and digital tools for accessing new empirical data. Without access to digital resources, it is not feasible to compare the reception of digital authors in different countries. But, as Julia Flanders and Jacqueline Wernimont have asked: “Is there a gap – professional, disciplinary, epistemological – between the literary scholar or historian who uses a digital archive [--] and the digital humanist who produces and theorizes that archive?” (Wernimont & Flanders 2010).

In this paper we argue that the digital competence of humanists must be developed in several steps, which are also important to convey to students. The first is getting an overview of resources – a task less simple than could be expected, since in many European countries, there is no coordination or national digitization plan. The second is acquiring methods of using these resources to answer research questions. A third is collaborating and contributing to the digital resources. “An indicator of collaboration in the digital humanities community is the shift over the last two decades from a focus on the audience — those who might learn or appreciate the cultural content presented — to a focus on participation, in which scholars, students, and the public can contribute content or conduct their own investigations” (Borgman). Training students for this task is a way of bridging the gap between the literary scholar and the digital humanist.

In this paper we will discuss experiences of using digital sources in teaching literary history from a reception point of view in Spain (Hemeroteca Digital and the Virtual Library of Historical Newspapers), Sweden (Swedish digitized newspapers (National Library of Sweden) and Swedish digitized women’s journals (KvinnSam)) and Poland (National Digital Library; Digital Libraries Federation). The aim is, on the one hand, to offer a comprehensive survey on newspapers digitization processes in our countries, and, on the other hand, to compare tools for the assignments and presentations of results (wikis, blogs and online exhibitions on different levels, from padlet to omeka to project websites constructed from scratch. Blogs and wikis can both be used as a means to document work-in-process and to present results, the former open for, and the latter requiring, collaborative efforts (Bouwma-Gearhart&Bess).

When focusing not only on developing students’ e-skills, but actually making them contribute to digital resources online, we can increase the knowledge of and the information about female writers, which are underrepresented when it comes to digital scholarly editions, collections and archives.

Hacking is the practice of modifying a system in order to accomplish a goal outside of the creator's original purpose. Digital tools and digital resources offer the opportunity to hack the literary history and to modify our understanding of women writers’ place in it. In order to do this, students in gender studies or in comparative literature must both be able to use resources creatively, problematize and evaluate the results of textual analysis with digital tools, and, most importantly, to contribute to the field.

SvD, 26 May 2013

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