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Dispatch from the West Coast, or EMDA: A Retrospective

A few weeks after returning from the Early Modern Digital Agendas Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I feel like I’ve settled back into my routine: get up, bus to campus, work on dissertation prospectus, take a walk at lunch, work some more. Repeat. What returning to this normal process has really underscored for me is how very different the EMDA experience was from my normal professional life.

As a doctoral student, I spend my time doing doctoral student things: reading, writing, emailing (my god, the emailing), applying to conferences, grants, etc. As a research assistant at the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria, I spend my hours emailing, building digital projects, writing (different) grants, writing (different) conference papers, etc. As President of the English Graduate Students Society at UVic, I keep track of TAs, help to plan social events, keep our department as honest as possible, and so on. At EMDA, I sat in a seminar room for eight hours a day, five days a week, discussing digital tools, early modern studies, cyberinfrastructure, graduate training, and Shakespeare. Lots of Shakespeare.  My daily routine in DC was metro, Folger, walk to Penn for lunch, Folger, metro home (or drinks :). All of which is to say that my experience at the Folger was a strangely wonderful alternate reality close to what I assumed (as a freshman in college) graduate school and the professoriate would be like. That’s not to insult my grad experience, which has been more or less great, but to underscore the very strange pocket universe Folger institutes seem to operate in. So it’s taken awhile to get my thoughts together

Those thoughts are, in list form:

Surprise I was even there.

  • Gratitude to the Folger and Institute crew for putting the whole thing on.
  • Perpetual recognition of how intelligent and knowledgeable literally everyone in the room was about something we were discussing.
  • A newfound focus on the media archaeology of early modern studies.
  • An interest in how linguistics (especially corpus linguistics) can prompt and/or support ‘traditional’ literary & cultural analysis.
  • The extent to which technological infrastructure (from the Renaissance to present) influences how we think of our disciplinary concerns.
  • An appreciate at the sheer number of article ideas, dissertation components, disciplinary concerns, and large scale project ideas that emerged from EMDA.
  • Mild surprise at how much professional networking, project genesis, and the like take place over alcohol. While this doesn’t bother me per se, the unofficial importance it seems to have in career development gives me pause.

I mean, I am a doctoral student just entering my third year. To be in a room with folks like Joe Loewenstein, Lynne Magnusson, Jacqueline Wernimont, Brett Hirsch and pretty much every other participant was humbling. I’m not being falsely modest when I say that these folks were regularly throwing out authors, plays, poetry, and entire cultural movements in literature that I had never even heard of. At the same time, I (think) I brought a rather more hardcore digital humanities and media studies vantage point to the group. Next to that, folks like Dan Shore  often gave me, and the group, pause by dropping what I liked to think of as “philosophy bombs” into the middle of our discussions. Jacob Heil seemed to always base his contributions in his very real, and current, large digital project management experience. I could write a sentence like that for every person at EMDA (and said most of them out loud during our final night of banqueting & drinks until I wandered home with friends and partner along the Mall).

Overall, the most valuable takeaway for me personally is a new sense of community, one centred on a group of early modern digital humanities all explicitly concerned with asking the types of question and pursuing the types of projects I’ve come to think of as ‘my type’ of research. Which is of course nonsense, since it is obviously *our* type of research. And that’s no small thing.


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