Humans in Digital Humanities

Stephen Railton

A series of interviews with faculty, staff, and students working in the digital humanities at the University of Virginia. The series spends time with the fascinating and talented people who are fortunate enough to work at the exasperating, unpredictable, and deeply interesting juxtaposition of humanities and digital technology. The interviews are edited for clarity.

Stephen Railton is a Professor in English at the University of Virginia. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1975, and has been teaching UVA since 1974. He has been creating major digital scholarly resources since the mid-1990s, including Mark Twain In His Times and his first IATH collaboration, Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture. His research and teaching focuses on American Literature, including books and articles on Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He is currently working with IATH on Digital Yoknapatawpha, a collaboration among Faulkner scholars to visualize Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County throughout his novels and stories.

Stephen Railton
IATH Fellow

How did you end up becoming a specialist in American literature?

It was 1970, and I was taking a seminar my first year in graduate school on Thoreau and transcendentalism. I went to graduate school to do modernism: I wanted to spend the rest of my life thinking about James Joyce and Yeats and D.H. Lawrence. I discovered that the real questions that I needed to answer, at that point in my life, were questions like, what is it supposed to mean to be an American? The whole idea of America had become so confused, between the great things that America had achieved and the terrible thing that were being done in its name. It came as a surprise to me that I was so interested in the questions that Thoreau enabled me to try to work out my own answers to. Not just, what did Thoreau mean when he talked about the only true America in Walden, but what did I think that should be?

You have a great interest in pedagogy. Do you think of yourself as a teacher first and researcher second, or do the two support each other?

No, they support each other, although I certainly never would have spent my life in this field if I couldn't work with students. If I were only talking to other academics and doing the work that I do just for other academics, rather than for young people, I couldn't have done it for this long. I love the classroom and I love the idea of making some kind of difference—I'm never sure what kind of difference—in the lives of all these bright young people.

Why did you turn to digital humanities for your research & teaching?

I ask myself that question all the time, especially when I'm in the middle of one of these projects that cannot be brought to a conclusion, not because you're not getting a lot of work done, but because there is no theoretical limit to what you can do and it starts to feed off itself.

Why did I turn to it? I think that it was my kids. My kids started being introduced to all that stuff—a computer lab in elementary school or the Charlottesville library—and I would sit there and watch them play a game, like Oregon Trail. Two things were obvious to me. One was how deeply that it appealed to the way that they thought, to the kind of things that they liked to do—the interactivity, the nonlinear aspect. The other thing that was clear right away was that young people were going to connect with it. What an amazing tool it was for doing all kinds of things! I love print. I have never stopped reading, but there is such a big world—the audio world, the visual world—that print leaves out and that the technology of digital humanities allows us to include in the story that we're trying to tell.

You built Mark Twain in His Times in 1996—

Started it in '96. I was working on it yesterday.

So you were an early adopter.

That was because UVA had this incredible group of people, like Ed Ayers and his projects. Alan Howard and Dug Duggan were the first people in the English Department that I was aware of. There were people in other departments and we had a library that was a very early adopter. I don't know exactly when the Electronic Text Center opened, but it was before '96. I came in the door one day, and told the director, David Seaman, that I wanted to do a project. If it hadn't been for the environment that UVA provided, there was no way that I could have gotten into digital humanities so quickly or have spent the next almost-20 years continually in it. It takes a village: it's a different village than what Jefferson had in his mind when he talked about the academical village. But it's the same idea.

Do you think that using digital tools has improved your teaching and scholarship? Has it taken you in directions that you might not have expected?

To me it's all an experiment. We're at this point where we're constantly trying things that we couldn't try two years ago. But, are any or all of them are going to make a real difference in terms of our mission as educators and critics? We don't have the results of the experiment yet. I know that my students, when they evaluate the role that I try to use technology to play in my classes, always say very positive things about it. Is their work any better? Is the quality of their thinking any better? That's a harder thing to prove.

When you make it possible for them to search texts electronically, you can take a 400-page novel and a student who wants to write on the role that clothes play in that novel, and you can say, well, why don't you search it for “hue” and “dresses” and “hats”? They can use the technology to help them find, not what they're going to say in their paper, but the kind of examples that they should consider looking at in order to figure out what they want to say. When students can have access to the text in that way, their papers are much more textually dense and rich. I can document that to anybody's satisfaction. But does that mean that the paper is then more interesting or that the conclusion is somehow more profound than the papers that were written five or twenty years earlier?

Technology has a lot to answer for: kids can't read a 400-page novel any more, because they are unable to sit while the text goes from top to bottom, left to right, page after page. Their synaptic system has been reorganized by the beeps on their phones and clicks that they can make. Whether the technology is ultimately going to take us further, if we're going to go deeper into the stories that we're trying to tell or whether we're going to be shallow—I don't think that we know yet.

I still believe that this is God's work that we're doing. Ultimately, when you make it possible to study American culture so that you can hear its sound track or see its iconographic images while you're studying the great works of its literature, something will come out of it that we couldn't have imagined before. But, it's possible that they'll just have a bunch of tunes that they can sing now, rather than any deeper understanding of the world that they live in. I do tell students—and this is a funny thing for a guy who spends much of his own life in virtual reality—when you read this book, you put your phone down and turn it off. I try to get them to turn off all social media while they're reading the things that I've assigned in class, because you can multitask while you're on Facebook. When you're inside Faulkner's fiction, I want you to be inside Faulkner's fiction.

Your digital work on Faulkner goes back to at least 2003, when you and Will Rourk built the Absalom, Absalom! Chronology. In between that and Digital Yoknapatawpha, you spent several years working on Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture and Mark Twain in His Times. Faulkner has a very different approach to narrative and to American culture than Stowe or Twain, but all three of these authors have common concerns.

Race. That's a big one.

Race, place, gender, family... But Twain and Stowe are closer chronologically.

Chronologically, Twain is a generation after Stowe. Faulkner is about two generations after Twain. Stowe is, of course, a great New England writer. Twain, I think people would associate with the Midwest more than anything else. And Faulkner is Southern. I haven't been trying to do this as a cumulative thing: I started with Twain because we have such wonderful materials on Twain in our Special Collections Library. I would always want my students to go down and get into that material when I was teaching Twain. They were very reluctant to make their way underground to where the rare book library is. So I said, OK, we can use the digital technology to scan things like Twain manuscripts to bring that material to the place where the students already are. That's how I started. I was fascinated by Twain, but the specific thing was that we were so strong in Twain raw materials that I just thought of this as a great communications device.

After doing that for a couple of years, John Unsworth [then IATH's director] asked me to apply to be an IATH fellow. He was assuming that I'd want to take the Twain project next door, from the E-Text Center to IATH. I said no, if I'm going to do this, with this whole new support system that an IATH fellowship represents, I want to step back and see if Twain makes the most sense. So I asked myself: of all the American texts and literary issues that I teach or am familiar with, which one would profit the most, which one offers the most opportunities to be exposed through the kind of multi-media capabilies of electronic technology? And I kept trying to think of something besides Uncle Tom's Cabin, because I'm not crazy about it. But I couldn't think of anything better, because it wasn't just a novel or the most popular and widely performed play over three-quarters of a century or the most frequently filmed American text, but it was advertising and product spin-offs, and hugely controversial. It generates all this newsprint and competing novels, because it exists in so many forms besides the literary and because it pervades the culture so powerfully. I decided to do Uncle Tom's Cabin not because it made sense after Twain, but because it seemed to me the best thing to do in order to see what you could do with this technology, what the tools could open up.

The way that Faulkner writes his texts does not make it easy for the reader.

He writes in a lot of different ways and that makes it possible to spend time in the world that Faulkner created. It's not repetitious: he hardly ever writes the same book twice. So you're thinking of things like As I Lay Dying probably, where you have all those interior monologues, and The Sound and the Fury. That is the Falkner that pops into most people's heads. But in general, you're right, even when it's not that kind of text. Until very late in his career, you can characterize his work as making very large demands on readers. The reader has to do an awful lot of the work of making sense of interpretation.

One of the things that we are anxious about, as a collaborative project: we don't want Digital Yoknapatawpha to replace, in anybody's mind, the experience of reading Faulkner. And that's another part of the experiment. In all the digital work that I've done, even the little projects for my classes, the goal is always to lead the students back to the text in a position where they can read it in more complicated ways and appreciate it in more sophisticated ways, but never to substitute for the reading experience or to tell them how to read. I want people to have that experience themselves. The ideal way to experience Faulkner is to read Faulkner.

Faulkner has been called one of the U.S.'s most influential authors and is studied in multiple languages.

And multiple national literatures acknowledge his influence.

Why do you think that is so? Is that because of his subject matter, his style of writing, or a combination of factors?

Multiple things. I'm sure that it you were to ask that question to the Latin American novelist who learned some part of his craft from Faulkner, he would say one thing, and then to the African American novelist who learned part of her craft from Faulkner, she would say something else. Part of it is that he never writes the same book twice. The standard that he sets as somebody who is constantly experimenting with ways of constructing narrative and ways of bringing characters to life, is something that every writer has to respond to. That sense of the possible: whether it's going to work or not, he's going to try.

But then, so many of things that are in there, especially things like time and memory and history and culture, are the themes that 20th and 21st century writers have been preoccupied with. I suspect that there's something, too, about the Southern-ness of it. Here's this defeated culture inside a larger culture. Faulkner's world is not quite post-colonial, but it has a sort of parallel to that post-colonial sense. They were invaded, they were occupied, in their own mind.

There is no short answer to that question.

You like American literature because it asks what it means to be American. How does Faulkner fall into that conversation?

It's interesting, because Stowe is clearly somebody, as a white woman writing about the injustices perpetrated on this black man named Uncle Tom... her politics are very complicated. I don't want to oversimplify—there are an awful lot of African American writers who don't forgive her for trying to co-opt the African American male's story—but her politics are clearly radical. Twain's politics are much harder to identify, but as somebody who created Huck Finn and made him feel like he was going to go to hell for helping a slave escape, his politics are clearly progressive in ways that Faulkner's are not. Faulkner's politics are reactionary, conservative. He begins his careeer with an unreconstructed Southern attitude towards his African American characters. He more or less takes them for granted. And then I think that it was his own imagination that led him to start opening up the question of, what would it be like to be black in the Jim Crow segregated South? What story gets elided when you tell the story of the displaced plantation class, like the Compsons and the Sartoris, the rich white people who lost everything in the Civil War or feel left out of modernity? That was clearly what he identified with in the beginning, but his imagination, as he wrote deeper into Yoknapatawpha, led him to start opening up the question. What's that other story? So he becomes much more complicated in his representation of race, but I don't think that anybody would ever argue that he's a radical or even progressive. Even when he's here [at UVA] in the late 1950s and he's expressing his belief that the Southern segregation system is intolerable and can not be continued, he can't imagine a fully integrated world. He says that he's quite sure that if we took down all the barriers, black people wouldn't want to be around white people, any more than white people would want to be around black people

But to be American means all those things, right? It means to be radical and to want to burn this building down, and it means to be reactionary and to want to reconstruct the old ways, to want to hang on to something that's gone. It isn't because of anyone's answer: I don't go looking to an author to give me the answers to that question of what it means to be an American, or not my answer, want I want that to mean. I go looking to these guys to see what the questions are that we need to ask.

I do hope that we can use Digital Yoknapatawpha as a progressive tool, that it can call attention, for example, to the extraordinary number of African American characters in Faulkner's fiction who don't ever make it into the typical guide to Faulkner's characters. You know that there are probably a dozen print guides to characters in Faulkner's fiction, but they all work with names. If Faulkner gave a character a name, it can make it into those guides. It's extraordinary how many of his African American characters never get named. They're invisibile in all those print guides, but if you now click on any one of the texts in our database and you ask to see all of the characters, all the black characters come up, whether they have a name or not. That's what digital humanities can do: they can find ways to organize this much more ambiguous material in some fashion that can make it searchable and visible.

Why do you think that it's important for students to engage with Faulkner?

One of the things that I tell students is that if they can learn to read Faulkner, they can read just about anything. It's like when you go to the gym and you want to get stronger: you put five pounds on the each end of the bar when you start, then ten, then twenty, then fifty. You know you're making progress. Well, Absalom Absalom is about the heaviest lifting of American literature. If you can lift Absalom Absalom, you're reading to leave the gym and get out into the world. You can take on just about any interpretive task.

The response to the project in the larger Faulkner community has been positive.

It has been, so far, very positive! We take it to the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha conference and show the audience there how it's been expanded and improved since the last time we were there. It has always generated a lot of excitement.

Digital humanities involves intellectual collaboration as well as technical. There's a certain level of scholarly collaboration, not just with other scholars and students but with the technical staff. That's not something that is necessarily encouraged or taught in the humanities at the graduate school level, and it can sometimes be very difficult to relinquish sole control over your work. Have you found that to be an issue?

Oh yes. One of my favorite things about teaching as a profession and scholarship is that when it's your classroom, you can close the door. You're at the head of it and you can decide what happens in that room. When it's your scholarship, you're alone with a piece of a paper or blinking cursor. But you cannot build these projects without a team. It is very collaborative. Ideally, it's a good collaboration—all of the people involved are willing to listen hard to each other and work together for the good of the project rather than just some private agenda or personal sense of, “this is what's the best.”

IATH has been teaching me, starting with Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Digital Media Lab gets some props, too. The Absalom, Absalom thing was done there and the whole Faulkner at Virginia Archive was Scholars' Lab. So I've collaborated with a great many technologists, all of whom, I'm sure, hate to see me coming through the door. I think two things: one, it's important in all these situations to be open to everybody's ideas. But, the other is that whoever is the director of a digital project has to have a vision of what the whole thing is and should never sacrifice that. That doesn't mean it can't be infinititely enriched by other people's ideas and revisions, but somebody's got to see it all. It's not unlike other things, like theater or film or opera, where the director is ultimately the one who has to make sure that when the curtain goes up, one thing happens and not thirty different things. And that's tough. I know that I've offended people by saying no, that might be a good idea but it is wrong for this project. I've also been willing, when I can see how it improves a project, to learn from other people. Because, a lot of what's in Digital Yoknapatawpha was the technologists showing me an idea. I'd assume that we were trying to go this way to get there, but they'd say, if we went that way, it's going to be a lot better. My first reaction was always, I want to go this way, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me. But it's tricky. There has to be that ultimate sense of a center and somebody who will take responsibility if it's a disaster. But it is a very collaborative business.

When you are working with digital content, at the most basic level there is a yes and no: sooner or later this particular bit of information falls into this bucket or that bucket. But, when you are dealign with a complex literary text there's a leve of judgment and finess, particularly texts that touch on racially, socially, and historically charged issues and events. And in the case of DY, you are also working with a large set of scholarly collaborators. Do you think that there is a particular tension in using digital tools that are essentially on/off, black/white, for literary studies, or do you think these are just new tools tackling the same issues that previous generations of scholars have faced?

Those are two different questions. One is, what is the relationship between a sophistocated literary text, where things like ambiguity and multiple meanings and uncertainty are valuable and at the heart of the experience of that text, where art can be about incredibly ambiguous but powerful things—what's the white whale, what does the white mean—and the way that a computer program requires you to make a series of discrete choices, where it can't be “A” and “Not A” at the same time. I'll tell you, with Faulkner, that has been a real challenge, because so much of what he's interested in are the places where certainty evaporates: the death of God, he that was once living is now dead, the hole in the universe that the modern artist is trying to use art to represent. One of his best novels is about a guy who doesn't know whether he's white or black, and he lives in a culture where you are either white or black so there is absolutely no tolerance for uncertainly on that question. We do have “indeterminate” as a category, and that's one way to solve the problem. You just keep adding new categories to include the unknowable or the uncertain as a category. OK, so you find a way to get everything into one box or another, but what violence are you then doing to the character and the meaning of the text? We'll see about that: it's a really good question.

My own conviction so far is that Digital Yoknapatawpha will enable people to ask questions about Faulkner's world. They'll be able to ask old questions and answer them in new ways. We can put all of the Yoknapatawpha fictions—50-something short stories and 15 novels—into one database and make it instantly searchable. I think that in the long run there will be new questions that we didn't know how to ask before. One of the things that we're doing is working towards a book of essays on digitizing Faulkner, which will be an attempt to answer questions like that: so what? So what violence have you done to a literary text to make it presentable digitally? What's been lost? How do we compensate for what has been lost, or do we just have to acknowledge it? What has been gained?