Escritura avanzada a lo digital: New beginnings

Tomorrow is my first meeting for Spanish 413: Escritura Avanzada. I’ve taught this course probably 15 times here at Mary Washington and I’ve developed quite a love-hate relationship with it. It is so difficult to help students become really good writers, in any language. Add to this the fact that very few of them are actually writing in their native language–even the heritage speakers of Spanish are more comfortable writing in English than Spanish–and you can imagine how difficult a task this is. Several years back I started having students develop their projects on a blog, the theory being that if they were writing for an audience larger than just their professor and a couple of their peers, then they’d take better care with what and how they wrote. But my thinking has really evolved to see learning to write “a lo digital” as an important skill for my students to develop and that connecting them to the digital world in Spanish was far more useful to them than another 15 page term paper in which they use the subjunctive flawlessly.

Now in Spanish 413, we spend the first half of the semester learning about different kinds or writing, reviewing some of the finer points of grammar and Spanish lexicon, and putting these into practice through weekly blog posts. The second half of the semester we spend developing a digital project in which students explore any topic of interest in a blog of their own design. Here is my course description from the syllabus:

Español 413 es un curso de escritura avanzada para los que han completado Español 317 y 318 o su equivalente.   Mi meta para la clase este semestre es mejorar la manera de escribir de cada individuo de la clase, animándole a aumentar la sofisticación de su estilo, emplear una variedad de estructuras gramaticales correctamente, y buscar un léxico más profundo y especializado.  Sin embargo, también quiero apoyarles en sus metas individuales, sean personales o profesionales, y por lo tanto cada alumno/a tendrá la oportunidad de desarrollar su escritura en un proyecto escrito sobre un tema de interés.  Para poder realizar estas metas individuales, tenemos que repasar como clase los puntos más difíciles de la gramática, el léxico, la puntuación y las técnicas de la buena escritura.  Pondremos en acción nuestro estudio del idioma en la composición de un proyecto digital individual  donde se espera que el/la estudiante experimente con lo que estamos estudiando y que explore creativamente y profundamente un tema de elección personal.

Los objetivos del curso incluyen:

  • Desarrollo de destrezas de la comunicación escrita en español al nivel avanzado
  • Exploración de los métodos de planificación, composición  y revisión de un proyecto escrito grande como un proceso creativo
  • uso correcto y sofisticado de construcciones gramaticales y de un vocabulario variado y especializado
  • desarrollo de destrezas en el diseño y construcción de un proyecto digital que se aproveche de las capacidades del  medio electrónico.
  • conocimiento de herramientas y recursos digitales para investigar y analizar información, y para facilitar la expresión creativa y la evaluación crítica
  • conocimiento de los temas históricos, sociales, filosóficos, éticos y culturales asociados con la tecnología, especialmente en el contexto español y latinoamericano

It’s a pretty tall order, and not every student gets there. But I can say that every student who puts in the effort moves his/her writing towards these goals–notice I say “desarrollo” and “conocimiento” not “maestría.” My students are on a lifelong journey with their love of the Spanish language and the cultures that go along with it–their four years with us merely an early stage on this viaje de la vida. Long after the final project for 413 is turned in and graded, I hope they will all continue improving, learning new vocabulary, experimenting, and mostly finding joy in expressing themselves in Spanish, as I have and still do. During this coming semester, as they have blog essays due, I will blog alongside them, ¡en español, claro!

. .



Is this the “future of the book”?

This blog post is about a particularly alarming situation in my university’s library, my reaction to it, some musings about what it might mean for my institution and others like it, and also what it might mean for us as educators and readers. I am not intending in this blog to disparage anyone, most especially the librarians at my university, whom I’ve experienced as always supportive of my work as a researcher and educator. Mostly I hope to spark some conversation among faculty and librarians—at UMW and elsewhere–about what this means for us, and our students. I begin with a picture, probably worth the roughly thousand words of this post, but also, in this case, worth a thousand books…

library 1This picture is representative of the hundreds of books flagged (with the little white and purple slips of paper) for removal from my university’s library. These books were chosen for the most part because they had not been checked out of the library in over 15 years. These are the PQ shelves corresponding  literary works in Spanish, and works of literary history and criticism about them. In this picture, the tail end of a long row of books in Spanish, I estimate about 250-300 books are tagged. And these are just a sample. There are many more flagged, more in peninsular Spanish than in Latin American. All of the books in Portuguese are tagged. Most of the books in Italian. I didn’t even get to the books in French and German, although I know my colleagues in those languages have been through the collection and were stunned at the number tagged, as I was. Most of these books are classics in the field: some are canonical works by important authors and thinkers, others are important historical literary histories or seminal studies in their field.

Galdos’ Episodios nacionales

Galdos’ Episodios nacionales

Early 20th-Century Philosopher Ortega y Gasset

Early 20th-Century Philosopher Ortega y Gasset

Miguel de Unamuno

Miguel de Unamuno

We were warned that this was coming, and invited to look through the books flagged for removal, with a chance to save the ones we wanted to keep. Early last month I had some extra time after spending the morning working on P&T files downstairs in the library and thought I’d go through the PQ stacks, expecting to find a few dozen tagged. When I came upon this I was completely overwhelmed! I saved what I could in the thirty minutes or so that I had to work on it, feeling sort of like the old beachcomber in that over-used story of the starfish: the one who comes upon hundreds of stranded starfish and begins throwing them back in the sea, even though there is no way he can save them all before they die in the hot sun. I saved what I could, mostly important literary histories, which I had come to first. But I only got to a few of the shelves, and there were literally hundreds more books that I couldn’t go through. When I spoke to our humanities librarian, who in turn spoke with the head librarian, we were given more time to be able to go through the stacks. I intended to get back, but it has been an incredibly busy semester, so yesterday was the first time I’ve been able to return. I was overwhelmed by the rows and rows of books with little slips of paper flagging them for removal. The sight of them inspired a feeling of panic, of helplessness, of incredulity. The only thing I could do was to start snapping pictures, to try to convey that feeling to others, and to ask some important questions of myself, and of our collective commitment to (paraphrasing Robert Darnton and others) the “future of books.”

Some of my reaction to this purging is connected to my own nostalgic connection to the materiality of books, and of libraries as spaces. I have extremely fond memories of graduate school, navegating the labyrinthine stacks of Alderman library at the University of Virginia, perusing the stacks for books, reading their spines, opening their covers,leafing through their contents, and finding gems I hadn’t expected.

Alderman Stacks 1993, photo by  Elfpvke;

Alderman Stacks 1993, photo by Elfpvke;

It wasn’t unlike the experience Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “La Biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel), in which a library of endlessly connected hexagonal rooms filled with shelves of books, contains infinite knowledge:

“When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves possessors on an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in the hexagon. The universe was justified; the universe became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind’s hope.” (115)

Yet Borges’ library held many contradictions and problems. The allusion to the Biblical tower of Babel is underscored in the problem of unknown languages in the library, in the “impenetrable books…in ancient or far distant languages” (114). There also exists in Borges’ library an impulse to purge the unwanted, unused, unneeded, imperfect books::

Others, going about it in the opposite way, thought the first thing to do was to eliminate all the worthless books. They would invade all the hexagons, show credentials that were not always false, leaf disgustedly through a volume, and condemn entire walls of books. (116)

I’ve been a great advocate of new technologies in recent years. I firmly believe that endeavors like Google Books, Hathitrust, the Digital Public Libarary of AmericaCervantes Virtual, and other virtual library collections have had the net effect of democratizing knowledge—of making information widely available to people all over the world who otherwise would not have had access to that information. In the words of Robert Darnton:

“Yes, we must digitize. But more important, we must democratize. We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning (“Google and the Future of Books,” New York Review of Books, Feb 12, 2009)

As a faculty member in a small public liberal arts university with a relatively small library and travel budget, I’ve benefitted from access to these digital collections in my own research and teaching. But I never dreamed that easy access to digitized material might mean that the printed material we already own would disappear from my university library’s shelves. The fact that these important books haven’t been checked out in years I think is reflective of two things: 1) easy access to some of the same materials in digitized format, and 2) curricular changes–for example we no longer teach Portuguese, and there has been a change in focus in my department’s course offerings away from Spanish peninsular literature toward Latin American literature. As a result of both factors, there is less (or even no) interest or practical use for many of these books. To be honest, when writing this blog post, I myself did not march to the library to peruse the shelves. Instead, I consulted, from the convenience of my own living room late at night, the internet. I too am part of the problem.

But still, I can’t sit on the sidelines and let all those books disappear from my university’s library without making an argument for their importance–not only to me, but to our students and our institution. In Borges, the library is a symbol of his conception of the universe and of all human knowledge. Our library is both a practical space where students and faculty research and study, but just as important to me, it is also a symbol of the broad knowledge we seek for ourselves and our students as an institution of liberal learning.  Purging the shelves of those books may make room for other things (and I am unclear what will replace these missing volumes), but will the future of our library collections at institutions like mine, symbolize a conception of the liberal arts is not very liberal at all?

I can’t finish this essay without a reference to Don Quixote, coincidentally also flagged for removal from my library’s shelves. In chapters six and seven of the first volume, Don Quixote has come home from his first set of adventures, injured and delirious. As he sleeps, his friends decide the best thing for him would be to get rid of his collection of books of chivalry. After some deliberations, they burn all the books and wall up the entrance to his library. When Don Quixote awakes, the first thing he does is to look for his books:

the first thing he did was to go and look at his books, and not finding the room where he had left it, he wandered from side to side looking for it. He came to the place where the door used to be, and tried it with his hands, and turned and twisted his eyes in every direction without saying a word; but after a good while he asked his housekeeper whereabouts was the room that held his books.

The housekeeper, who had been already well instructed in what she was to answer, said, “What room or what nothing is it that your worship is looking for? There are neither room nor books in this house now, for the devil himself has carried all away.” (Chapter VI)

Will we, as professors, scholars, readers, find ourselves also wondering what happened to our beloved books and library??

Illustration by Gustave Doré in John Ormsby translation of Don Quixote, republished by University of Adelaide

Illustration by Gustave Doré, from Chapter VI o Don Quixote, translated by John Ormsby and republished by University of Adelaide

Works Cited:

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel.” Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1998. 112-118.

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Trans. John Ormsby. University of Adelaide, 2013. ebooks@adelaide. Accessed November 14, 2013.

Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books. New York: Public Affairs, 2009.

—. “Google and the Future of Books,” New York Review of Books, Feb 12, 2009. Accessed November 14, 2013.

Elfpvke ( user). Photograph of Alderman Stacks,1993. Accessed November 14, 2013.

Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad (1870-1884) Through the Lens of a Database?

This is the paper I recently delivered to the Asociación Internacional de Literatura y Cultura Femenina Hispánica XXIII Congreso Annual, held at The Claremont Colleges, October 10, 2013 (by the way, a lovely setting and very wonderful conference!!) It details some of the work I’ve done with my undergraduate research teams on a database of a nineteenth-century publication on charity. We hope to make the database (along with the entire website it lives on) live by the end of this year, but for now, here’s a “sneak peak” into our work!

Arenal Slide 1

I know it is cliché to begin a conference paper with “this paper is a work in progress”. Of course it is, you might be saying, that’s what conference presentations often are!  But perhaps I am justified in making this statement not as a disclaimer, but rather as a focus of the talk itself. Today I will detail the ongoing progress that I and three undergraduate research teams have made on a Digital Humanities project on the subject of women’s charity in Spain. In particular I will be highlighting our work on a database cataloging Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad. I’ll finish with some preliminary findings that I think will begin to reveal a fuller picture of Arenal’s work as a journalist and social activist.

Arenal Slide 2

In Fall 2010 I decided that I wanted to involve undergraduates in my research on women and charity in Spain. Undergraduate research has been a big topic at my university—a small public liberal arts institution in Fredericksburg, Virginia—as indeed it has become a trend across the country.  We had recently added experiential learning as a general education requirement, and created a topics course number URES 197, which was intended to involve first or second-year students in the research of a professor.  Of course it was mostly students from the natural and social sciences who enrolled in this course at the beginning. But a few of my colleagues in the humanities had begun to work with research students and I was inspired to take the plunge and involve students in my own work on women and charity in Spain. In spring 2011 I gathered my first group of 4 sophomore students. We worked as a group during the semester to prepare us for a 10-day trip to Madrid in May, to collect data in the Biblioteca Nacional. That group continued its work the next fall beginning the database in question today.  The next year I continued work on the project with another group of two freshman and two sophomores from spring 2012 through fall 2013, with another trip to Madrid in between.   I am now leading what I think will be my last team, which is editing and putting the finishing touches on our work.

Arenal Slide 3

Women and Charity in Spain 1787-1941, is a Digital Humanities project that traces the evolution of the concept of Spanish women’s charity to reveal the ways that women, beginning with the late Enlightenment period and extending through the post-civil war era, utilized the idea of feminine charity in their actions and words to assert themselves politically, economically and socially.  Our thesis is that beginning with the Enlightenment, both conservative and progressive women saw charity (and the related issues of benevolence, beneficence, philanthropy and social action) as an area where women could contribute meaningfully to society, the economy, and the political direction of Spain. It is a Digital Humanities project (DH), which is more than a website, although that is part of it. Digital Humanities, which began as “Humanities Computing” until the NEH settled on Digital Humanities as the name for its office supporting such projects, is a branch of the humanities that uses digital tools to advance humanistic study in new ways. This includes collecting and archiving images and texts of cultural and historical significance, as well as creating and mining data sets related to humanistic study.[1] Our project is primarily an exhibition of digitized objects and organized in a way so as to show the connections, divergences, and evolution of ideas in various expressions of women’s charity—from the 18th century’s Junta de Damas of the Royal Economic Society of Madrid who emphasized education and economic development, to the 19th-century’s Concepción Arenal for whom charity was synonymous with social justice, and ending with the Sección Femenina de la Falange, whose conception of charity advanced Franco’s nationalistic agenda.  Among these objects are several periodical publications that had not been previously digitized, but whose complete digitization would have been too large an undertaking for our small team and my practically non-existent budget.  We decided, however, that since there was also not a detailed table of contents available for these journals, we would try to catalog the issues, in an attempt to see what was there, and to provide that information for others.

Arenal Slide 4

We began with Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad published in Madrid from 1870-1884. Arenal is well known among US scholars as an early Spanish feminist. Her books La mujer del porvenir (1869) and La mujer en su casa (1883) set out her ideas about women’s education and women’s ability to work. Roberta Johnson called Arenal’s Mujer del porvenir a book with “a sustained resonance in the growth of consciousness about women’s condition in Spain” (18).and Lou Charnon Deustch finds that her lasting influence is in “ her general call for women to demand a better education and assume a greater role in solving social problems “(214). In Spain she is especially remembered for her work as a social activist. María Telo Nuñez says of Arenal “Iluminó los más oscuros rincones donde solapadamente se escondían la injusticia, la pobreza, la violencia, la tiranía, la discriminación, los privilegios de clase y de género, denunciando muy especialmente la inhumana situación de los presos” (“Illuminated the darkest corners where poverty, violence, tyranny, discrimination, and the priviledges of class and gender were insidiously hidden, especially denouncing the inhumane situation of prisoners” 12), These were qualities especially admired by feminist leaders of the Spain’s progressive Segunda República such as Victoria Kent[2]. Arenal’s life’s work was dedicated to speaking out in print and in action against injustices she saw on the streets, in the poor houses, in the classroom, in prisons, and on the battlefield. She famously dressed as a man in attempt to gain a university education, and later married a like-minded journalist, Fernando García Carrasco, who died in 1857. Her first publication was a long treatise “La Beneficencia, la filantropia y la caridad.” It had been submitted to the Academia de Ciencias Morales y Políticas under her young son’s name in 1860, and was awarded the prize for best essay and subsequently published under her own name in 1861. She held various government and organizational positions, including visitadora and inspectora of women’s prisons (1865, 1868), and Secretary General of the Spanish Red Cross (1871) [3]. So when she began her collaboration with La Voz de la Caridad in 1870, her career as an author and activist was well established.

Arenal Slide 5

La Voz de la Caridad  began with its first issue on March 15, 1870. It was published bi-monthly and continuously through February 1884. The only copies of the journal catalogued in World Cat are held by the Universitat de Barcelona, the Biblioteca de Catalunya, the Universidad de Salamanca, the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, and the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. The latter has the most complete set, with all issues from its first through the June 15, 1883 issue.  Knowing this, our group set out for 10 days in Madrid, supported in part with funds from our dean, to see how much of it we could cover.

Arenal Slide 6

We started very low tech with pen and paper. We were able to be seated together in the large reader’s room in the Sala de Prensas y Revistas. A bound paper copy was available for consultation and so each of the four students and I checked out a volume of issues at a time, and began copying everything down—title, author, page numbers, issue, date, and some keywords identifying the topic and nature of the items. Our work was interesting and we learned so much about the issues and influential events and people of the times. We even found some things we were not expecting—which is what makes research so exciting! In the first volume we consulted, we found our own town–Fredericksburg, Virginia–mentioned by Concepción Arenal in an article on “Caridad en la Guerra,” (“Charity in War”) in which she advocates for the Red Cross and better care of the wounded in the Franco-Prussian war, reporting on the success of efforts in the US Civil War seven years earlier (making us wonder if the story had been reported accurately or if things were even worse on European battlefields, knowing the rough conditions for the wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg!). In a week of hard work, we were able to get through all the volumes of issues held by the Biblioteca Nacional except the last, and returned to Fredericksburg in the fall to figure out what to do with all this information. We started by entering in all our hand written notes into a Google Docs spreadsheet.

Arenal Slide 7

Our technology specialists Tim Owens and Martha Burtis at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies were able to download the data from our spreadsheet into WordPress and create what was essentially a post for all the 1300 + entries, linking them together so that they could be searchable by the title, the genre (poem, essay, etc), the database tags we assigned to each item, or the author. I was able to finish collecting information on the last volume of issues held at the BNE the next year during the team’s second trip to Madrid.

 Arenal Slide 8

In all we collected 1372 entries, which represented the work of 143 separate authors, in ten different genres (e.g. letters, poems, essays, news articles), and identified by 281 keywords or tags.  Concepción Arenal’s contribution to this journal certainly looms large in any assessment of it. She was one of its founders, and its editor and director for part of its existence. She was its single largest contributor throughout the 14 years of publication, and she was also one of many, collaborating in a journalistic endeavor that sought to bring news, information, opinion, and creative pieces together, united by the topic of charity and benevolence.  In the remaining few slides I’d like share a few things we’ve learned from the data we collected about Arenal and her contributions to La Voz de la Caridad.

Arenal Slide 9

A look at the numbers of contributions by author shows that Concepción Arenal is by far the most frequent contributor, followed by her co-editor in the early years of the magazine, Antonio Guerola. “No author”—a designation given to such items as announcements, subscription and donation lists , and news reported from other sources—is third.. An author referred to as Fausto was the fourth largest contributor, publishing various essays in the early 1880s.

Arenal Slide 10

Still, viewed in the larger context of all contributions, Arenal’s was about 20% of all the contents of the journal’s 14 year history.

Arenal Slide 11

Another interesting view of the journal is the number of women who contributed their voices. Again, Concepción Arenal, with her 277 entries, far outpaced the rest, with only 36 items designated to other women authors. Together they made up about 23% of all contributions—far from an equal representation, but hardly token participants either.

Arenal Slide 12

Arenal’s contributions represented 77% of women’s participation. The second most published woman was Emilia Mijares, a poet from Oviedo who published her work in La Voz de la Caridad, as well as in Revista de Asturias, and La Ilustración Gallega y Asturiana (Enciclopedia de Oviedo). She was followed by Micaela de Silva y Collás, another Asturian writer who contributed various essays, many religious in nature. Among the more famous women contributors were Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who wrote a letter to the editors in 1871, and Fernán Caballero (pen name for Cecilia Bohl de Faber), who contributed a piece in 1875 called “Los tres amigos” (“Three Friends”).

Arenal Slide 13

The last graph traces Concepción Arenal’s participation over the 13 years for which I have data. Her highest number of contributions were in the early years, peaking in 1873 with 51 contributions, while she did not contribute at all in 1877 and only once in 1879. These low points coincided with illness, and with periods that she was living in Gijón in the northern province of Asturias. However, although editorial duties passed on to others, she continued to be a regular contributor throughout the journal’s existence.

While there is much left to learn about La Voz de la Caridad and Concepción Arenal’s participation in it, a brief look at the contents in our database reveals a new perspective on Arenal as a journalist, collaborator, and leader in a periodical that sought to enrich and inform its readers about charity in all its social and humanitarian implications. La Voz de la Caridad is yet further proof of Concepción Arenal as exceptional thinker and leader of her time, and is one of the many reasons she has been remembered and honored by the generations that followed.


[1] The collection of essays Debates in the Digital Humanities (Ed. Matthew Gold) detail the history of DH and current issues around its practice.

[2] See Telo Nuñez on Arenal’s influence in Kent.

[3] See María Campo Alange’s chronology of Arenal’s life and works, pp375-393.


Campos Alange, María. Concepción Arenal (1820-1893). Estudio biográfico documental. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1973.

Charnon-Deutsch, Lou. “Concepción Arenal and the Nineteenth-Century Debates about Women’s Sphere and Education.” Recovering Spain’s Feminist Tradition. Ed. Lisa Vollendorf. New York: Modern Language Association, 2001. 198-216.

Johnson, Roberta. Gender and Nation in the Spanish Realist Novel. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2003.

Enciclopedia de Oviedo “Emilia Mijares del Real. http://el.tesorodeoviedo.es . Consulted Oct 9. 2013.

Gold, Matthew K, Ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2012.

Mujeres asturianas destacadas, Base de datos. “ Micaela de Silva y Collás.” Oviedo: Instituto Asturiano de la Mujer.  Consulted Oct 9, 2013.

Telo Nuñez, María. Concepción Arenal y Victoria Kent: Las Prisiones: Vida y Obra. Madrid: Instituto de la Mujer, 1995.


Logo Google cervantes Don quijote

“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…”
Those are probably THE most memorable words ever written in Spanish–the beginning, of course, to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha. It captures all the irony and ambiguity that will characterize this long novel, written in two volumes and published 10 years apart–the first in 1605 and the second in 1615. It is a book that has fascinated readers for 4 centuries, and inspired numerous other books, plays, works of art, music, films, t-shirts, even a chain of Japanese thrift stores!

Don Quijote, Honolulu, Hawaii

I’ve recenty finished reading the novel in English, more than 20 years after I first read it in Spanish in a graduate class with the great Javier Herrero. Lately,  I’ve had the crazy, quixotic you might say, idea to teach two seminars on the Quijote this coming spring semester: a senior-level seminar in Spanish which I hope to title “Don Quijote 21” and a first-year seminar I plan to call “Digital Don Quijote”. I say quixotic because I’m not a Cervantes specialist, and I have my doubts about how I’ll be able to guide and inspire students not only to understand this extremely long and difficult novel, but to love it as so many generations have. Certainly there were times during my re-reading of the book this summer when  I distinctly did not love this book.

Over the past twenty years I’ve re-read parts of the novel, usually the best, most iconic moments: the wonderful first chapter where Don Alonso Quijano creates his persona Don Quijote and sets about inventing an entire world for the knight errant; Don Quijote’s first failed adventure; the burning of his collection of books of chivalry; his selection of Sancho Panza as his squire and companion; his infamous battle with the windmills, and the interrupted battle with the vizcaino followed by the introduction of the historian/author Sidi Hamid Benengeli; the freeing of the galley slaves; the visions Don Quijote claimed to have in the cave of Montesinos; the adventures on the wooden horse Clavileño at the Duke’s palace; Sancho’s time as “governor” of his own island; and finally Don Quijote’s tragic death. I’ve taught various of these chapters as part of our survey of Spanish literature, and usually students enjoy the selections, which give them a small taste of the genious of this text. But I’ve always felt I was cheating them by giving them so little of such a vast and hugely important book. So I wanted to face the challenge of my own adventure, and teach not one, but TWO classes on the Quijote. The first, in Spanish, would be a more traditional look at the novel as an important piece of literature and its enormous influence on Spanish culture even today. The second a related, yet somewhat different first-year seminar in English using the novel as a way to approach digital studies and digital humanities. We would read select chapters of the novel and relate them to various topics of digital study–the questions of authorship, fair use, and copyright laws; the future of the library; DQ and gaming, digital humanities projects on DQ, DQ as a MOOC, DQ in social media, etc.

However, as I waded through the first volume, with its numerous intercalated stories that often seem rather loosely connected to the main story, I started to doubt my plans. The first idea to go to the wayside was that I could inspire first-year students to read the entire book, and simultaneously include the digital topics I was interested in. But also I began to question my plans for the advanced students. Not only is the book long (some editions are well over a thousand pages), the Spanish (and the faithful English translation by Burton Raffel) can be insanely archaic in the case of Don Quijote, and ridiculously strewn with popular sayings and proverbs in the case of Sancho Panza. Fascinating philosophical questions aside about what (or who) is an author and what is his relation with his readers and his characters, or about what divides fantasy from reality, I began to question  my long-held acceptance of Don Quijote as the first modern novel, not only in Spanish but in any language…Really?? Modern?? I said as much to my husband one night as we were both reading before bed. I had just finished the episode in the cave of Montesinos and was entering into the long episode at the Duke’s palace. I remembered these episodes to be entertaining the first time I read them, but this time around they seemed to be too drawn out, too detailed, with too many digressions. Both the structure of the entire novel–especially the first volume–and Cervantes’ often purposefully difficult language, didn’t seem modern at all to me. In fact, the novel seemed distinctly Baroque. Now, before the Cervantista’s out there start trying to correct my ignorance on the art of Cervantes (which I do not deny), Miguel himself anticipated my misgivings just a few chapters later when his historian pseudo-author character Sidi Hamid Benengeli answered my complaints with a complaint of his own:

“It is said that, in the true original of this chapter, one can read how, when Sidi Hamid came to write this chapter (which his translator only partially rendered into Spanish), the Moor penned a kind of complaint against himself, for having undertaken such a dry and narrow history as Don Quijote’s…” (Volume 2, chapter 44, 586)

Benengeli knows exactly what I was thinking as I read volume one, and he anticipates–even condones–what I am sure my students will be doing next spring::

It also seemed to him, he said, that there would be a lot of people so totally absorbed in Don Quijote’s doings that, finding these other stories of little interest, they would simply skip over or just skim rapidly through them or, if they did read them, would do so only grudgingly…

Cervantes/Benengeli  then sum it all up for me–

he concludes his complaint by asking his readers not to look down on what he has here accomplished, and to praise him, not so much for what he has written, as for what he has refrained from writing. 

When I read this paragraph I was in awe of the genius of Cervantes. Here he was, anticipating MY criticism, answering ME directly, explaining ever so patiently why this book is modern, why it is like no other, why it is still relevant, and why I ought to continue my own crazy quest to bring it to another generation of readers!

Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quijote. Trans. Burton Raffel. Ed. Diana de Armas Wilson. New York: WW Norton, 1999.

El siglo 18 @ el 21 ASECS Cleveland 2013

Abajo hay una versión de la intervención que he preparado para la mesa redonda “Enriching Ibero-Amercan Studies in Times of Austerty” en la reunión de la American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Cleveland, el 5 de abril de 2013.

 El Siglo 18 @ el 21: Inseguridades, desafíos y oportunidades

 Nosotros, como investigadores y profesores del siglo 21, estamos presentados con las oportunidades y los desafíos de un mundo cada vez más globalizado, más interconectado, pero con cada vez menos fondos para el avance del conocimiento, especialmente en las humanidades.  En mi breve intervención hoy, quiero demostrar algunos puntos de contacto entre nuestra edad y la de nuestros queridos hombres y mujeres ilustrados.  Luego, voy a examinar algunos cambios tecnológicos en las bibliotecas y colecciones digitales, y cómo nos han afectado (por bien y por mal) en los estudios iberoamericanos, y por último quisiera sugerir un camino hacia más cooperación y más colaboración en el futuro.

En una sesión  sobre las humanidades digitales en la reunión de ASECS en Vancouver en 2011, comparé los “avances” de nuestra época tecnológica a los del dieciocho. Por ejemplo, ¿no es fácil ver a Jovellanos, con su gran correspondencia y su frecuente publicación de artículos de prensa, como bloguista?

Jovellanos bloguista

¿Habría participado Feijoo en Wikipedia?

Feijoo wikipedia

¿O Goya, con sus enigmáticos caprichos en los que juega con la imagen y la palabra, en Twitter, donde en 140 caracteres podría inspirarnos a cuestionar nuestra sociedad moderna?

Goya Twitter

Tal vez estas asociaciones entre nuestros admirados ilustrados y las nuevas formas de “medios sociales” nos parezcan absurdas, pero mi punto es que nosotros, como los pensadores del 18, estamos ante un mundo de mucha promesa y de algunos peligros.  Los avances tecnológicos han creado un nuevo, y muchas veces emocionante, ambiente para nuestro estudio del 18, pero no sin sus problemas.  En su libro de 2011, The Googlization of Everything and Why We Should Worry (U California Press), Siva Vaidhyanathan nos precauciona sobre los riesgos para el futuro del conocimiento humano de una fe ciega en las compañías privadas como Google. Vaidhyanathan habla del impacto del inmenso proyecto de Google Books, y de como muchos lo han aceptado porque creen en “the potential of digital culture—when properly supported by a benevolent force such as Google—to transform, extend, and democratize knowledge” (152). Vaidhyanathan apunta todas las implicaciones, buenas y malas, del proyecto de Google Books, que no puedo desarrollar aquí.

Tengo que confesar que Google Books ha sido revolucionario en mi propio trabajo—textos que antes solo pude acceder con un viaje a España, ahora puedo ver desde mi despacho en Virginia.  Google ha participado con dos bibliotecas en España—la Complutense en Madrid (que tiene la segunda colección de libros en España, detrás de la Biblioteca Nacional), y la Biblioteca de Catalunya.  No hay ninguna biblioteca latinoamericana representada en su lista de 21 bibliotecas, que son principalmente de universidades estadounidenses, con algunas de Europa, y una en Japón. Pero Google no es la única compañía privada que ha digitalizado las colecciones de importantes bibliotecas. Gale con sus varias colecciones digitales impresionantes, ofrece suscripciones a sus colecciones de textos extraídos de la British Library,  Library of Congress,  National Archives, Harvard, Oxford y Yale.  Sin embargo, el precio de suscripción es altísimo, e imposible para una institución pequeña, o para un individuo, y aunque las colecciones tienen algunos textos de España y Latinoamérica, principalmente tiene textos en inglés.  En España hay varias otras colecciones digitales—notablemente gratis y abiertas a todos, como la Biblioteca Digital Hispánica y la Hemeroteca Digital de la Biblioteca Nacional, y la ya mencionada Biblioteca Virtual Cervantes (creada por la Universidad de Alicante). Estas colecciones en España fueron creadas con fondos públicos que ya casi no existen, y el futuro de ellas es inseguro, por lo menos.

Si al nivel institucional el futuro del avance de las humanidades está en duda, ¿hay algo que podemos, que debemos hacer nosotros como académicos para avanzar, para “enriquecer” los estudios del dieciocho en este mundo inestable, de presupuestos cada vez más pequeños, de recortes y aun eliminación de programas que antes apoyaban nuestro trabajo?  Para los especialistas en Gran Bretaña y Estados Unidos, hay grupos como Eighteenth Century Connect, que reúne varios proyectos digitales de universidades e individuos, y que está dedicado al acceso abierto y gratis.  Mi universidad, una pequeña institución pública de artes liberales, ha inaugurado una nueva iniciativa—UMW Domains. Hemos formado grupos de profesores para explorar  los desafíos y posibilidades de ser un académico “digital”, y algunos de nosotros nos hemos comprometido a cultivar nuestra participación profesional en los medios sociales.   El libro que nos ha guiado en nuestra exploración The Digital Scholar por Martin Weller (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011) describe un nuevo tipo de académico que es abierto, conectado, y colaborativo. Y son estas cualidades las que yo quiero cultivar en mi propio trabajo.  Actualmente estoy trabajando en un proyecto digital, una exhibición de textos e imágenes que traza la caridad femenina en España desde la Junta de Damas hasta la Sección femenina de la falange. Estoy compilando y organizando el material del proyecto con la ayuda de un “equipo” de alumnos subgraduados, que es una énfasis especial en mi institución. Una cosa que hemos hecho, en el contexto del 19, pero que creo que se podría repetir con textos semejantes en el siglo XVIII, es crear una base de datos catalogando los artículos publicados en la revista bisemanal La Voz de la Caridad de Concepción Arenal.  ¿No sería útil tener una base de datos del contenido del Memorial literario, por ejemplo, asequible en Google books, pero sin organización ninguna?

Los hombres y mujeres del siglo XVIII enfrentaron muchos desafíos y cambios, igual que nosotros, y aprovecharon las nuevas tecnologías con optimismo y fervor.  Es mi esperanza que hagamos lo mismo nosotros, y que seamos todos más abiertos, conectados y colaborativos para confrontar juntos los obstáculos que nos presentan hoy, para poder enriquecer nuestro trabajo colectivo en el futuro.

Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative

I wanted to write a final blog expressing how much fun, and how informative, this faculty initiative of #umwdomains was for me. I found the topics in Weller’s book to be provocative and the discussions in my cohort to be stimulating. I always left with lots to think about, and some new ideas I wanted to try out in my own teaching and research, and on my new domain. It also got me thinking about my own engagement with technology up to this point. I’m in an in-between generation as technology goes. I remember the days before cell phones, email, and the internet, and yet technology entered my life  young enough that it’s been part of my coming-of-age. Here’s a picture of me and my little brother (also a college professor now!) with our (really his) first gaming system Christmas 1979. I thought it was an Atari, but my brother tells me it was an Odyssey system, because our dad, also sort of a techno geek before his time, thought it might be more educational for us. I was a freshman in high school here, my brother in third grade.
Christmas 1979


We had a pc at home pretty early. Later in college I actully took a Basic programming course and learned to program the computer to print out my name (it was “Basic” after all). In 1992, as I was finishing my PhD, I received a book as a gift for joining the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology by George Landow (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992)–a sort of ironic welcome to a very luddite organization, but its membership is managed by Johns Hopkins, so I guess there was a connection. Reading this book, with a graduate student’s knowledge of post-structuralism and no knowledge  or experience whatsoever of the internet, Landow’s analysis of this new medium blew my mind:

Hypertext, as the term is used in this work, denotes text composed of blocks of text — what Barthes terms a lexia — and the electronic links that join them. Hypermedia simply extends the notion of the text in hypertext by including visual information, sound, animation, and other forms of data. Since hypertext, which links one passage of verbal discourse to images, maps, diagrams, and sound as easily as to another verbal passage, expands the notion of text beyond the solely verbal, I do not distinguish between hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext denotes an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information (Landow, 4, and here’s a hyperlink to a digital copy the author has provided.)

About the same time, a friend named David Gardner decided to stop publishing a small print newletter called the Motley Fool,  to which my husband and I subscribed (out of friendship more than interest in investing, since we were newly weds hunting “real” jobs, and with student loans to repay!). He told us he was putting it on something called AOL.  So we joined AOL. Flash forward 20 years, and Landow finally makes sense to me!

The conversations we had, and the issues we debated through UMW domains, have in a way connected the dots to my own experiences with technology, and helped me see a little more clearly how I want to engage technology professionally with my students, my colleagues and my research.

A Tale of Three Books

The last chapters of Weller for this last week of our #umwdomains faculty initiative had me thinking about my own experiences with traditional research, peer-review and publishing, and my recent attempts to become an open digital scholar.

My first book was originally my dissertation, that I revised based on comments from my dissertation committee. I got it all ready, at least I so thought, and sent out a prospectus to various university presses. One expressed interest quickly, and made me sign an agreement that while reviewing it, they had exclusive rights to it. A year later I received a scathing report from the anonymous reviewer–not a kind rejection with constructive criticism, but a crushing review that made me, for a moment, question my whole career. But I picked myself up, tried to work on the manuscript a little more, and sent out more inquiries. Another university press expressed interest, made me sign over the rights, and a year later sent me back a letter that their Board of Directors didn’t think it was appropriate for their press–no review, just “no thanks” A YEAR LATER! I was completely at a loss of what to do. But then, Rebecca Haidt, a wonderful colleague at Ohio State University whose work I admired, offered to read my manuscript and give me some comments. She suggested that I re-focus the book and gave me some very helpful insight about how I might go about this. So I did, and I also sought help from my colleague here at Mary Washington, Allyson Poska, who also gave me some great advice and suggested I submit the book to a private scholarly press. Eventually the book was re-written and published with Ashgate. Before publication, it was anonymously peer-reviewed–this time with very constructive comments–and re-worked again. I paid a nominal fee to have the book professionally indexed, which they would take out of my royalties. The press did not provide professional editing, so I hired Jane Gatewood of our Writing Center to edit the book for me. The press marketed the book in their print and on-line catalogues, and at booths in important national and international conferences. In the end I was quite happy with the results and judged by reviews and contacts I’ve had since then, I think my book has made a small contribution to my field. Each year for about 4 years after publication, I received a small royalty check from Ashgate–enough to go out to a nice dinner with my husband and feel good about the whole thing.

My second book was a co-edited collection of essays that I did with my colleague Cathy Jaffe from Texas State University. We put out a call for papers, received contributions, chose the articles, and prepared a manuscript to send out to presses. We received interest from a university press (LSU), signed over our rights and a year later received a positive review, but with suggestions for revisions. We (and our authors) did the revisions and resubmitted. A year later a different reviewer suggested a whole different set of revisions (some of them contradicting the original reviewer). Luckily we were able to negotiate with the press about what revisions we were willing to do, and the ones we weren’t. The press used a professional editor, who was brutal but very good. It also marketed the book in all the usual ways, and this book too has made a positive impact in our field of eighteenth-century Ibero-American studies. Each year since it came out in 2009, I get an invoice, showing how despite selling books, I won’t get any royalties. I just received one of these yesterday. No dinner out, but that’s not why we did the book anyway.

The third book has never happened, at least not in they way I orginally conceived it. For the past 5 or 6 years I have become increasingly interested in digital pedagogy and scholarship. This coincided with a new avenue of research on the evolution of women’s charity in Spain. I researched, I blogged, I made new contacts in Spain, I published a few articles in traditional print journals and collections, I began to involve my students and undergraduate research in my work, and I applied for a NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant with the idea of creating a hybrid digital book-exhibition with my students. I didn’t get the grant, which actually I don’t think I deserved. The reviews of my grant application were generally positive and constructive, but found the “humanities” part of the proposal stronger than the “digital innovation” part. Since then I’ve attended workshops on DH, sought advice from colleagues I trust and admire, continued work with my students, given up the idea of the hybrid model, and have focused on creating the digital exhibition of our work. It’s almost ready for prime-time but there are several more steps I need to take–I need permissions to publicly display some of the images from the Biblioteca Nacional, I need to do some heavy editing, and I need some sort of peer review of the project.

What do these three tales have in common? They all had their share of obstacles, delays, re-workings and frustrations. In all I have benefitted from constructive criticism, both from anonymous reviewers and from colleagues. I found the private press to be a more pleasant publishing experience than the university press, and the dissemination of the books to be about the same. Still, going it on my own in an open digital format is not any easier. There are no built-in mechanisms for peer-review, for editing, or for dissemination–that would be all up to me. So I’m still feeling my way through this, but as with the other two projects–I don’t give up easily!

What’s the point (of research)?

#umwdomains. Weller, in his chapters on research and the idea of digital research (4-5), tries to define just what constitutes research. But I find myself not asking “what is research”? but rather “why research”? What’s the point? The answer to that question has a very different answer for different people depending on where they work, what they research, what stage they are in their careers. For me, when I first started down the path to becoming a professor of Spanish, I did research to please others–first my professors, then my dissertation committee, then the readers at various journals to, in turn, please potential employers, then to please my supervisors and senior colleagues.  Not that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, but personall fulfillment wasn’t my main objective. Then when I came to Mary Washington, I actually felt a freedom I hadn’t felt before in my research. Proving a “pattern of professional activity” for tenure and promotion was not a very big hurdle for me, which then allowed me not to worry so much about a certain number of articles, or publishing in certain places, or getting that book by a certain point. It allowed me to pursue my interests in research. I went after publishing a book, which took time with my heavy teaching load, but research began to provide real personal and professional rewards to me. I began to see how my research and writing spilled over into the classroom and vice versa. Still, I didn’t really see myself as part of a larger researching community. Sure, I went to conferences and I read others’ articles, but it wasn’t until I started keeping a blog, briefly, in 2006-2007, as I started a new research project that I understood my research as part of something much larger. I started the blog for my students–to include them in on my research and writing process. But then I got a comment from a doctoral student from Madrid who was researching a similar topic. That initial contact led to wonderful and very fruitful professional relationship that then led me (and my new colleague in Spain) to other connections.  Since then I have come to see my work not in isolataion–not as something that I do for others, or even for myself, but rather that I do in dialogue, and as a small part of a much larger process of knowledge creation. Last week, Cervantes Virtual–an important digital library in Spain–announced its new page on María Rosa Gálvez, a late-Enlightenment playwright who was one of the women I wrote my dissertation on (and eventually a number of articles and a chapter in my book)back when only a handful of people even cared about her work. Another wonderful colleague at the University of Alicante, Helena Establier (whom I’ve never met in person actually!), coordinated this effort, which brings together research from many different scholars, including me! I think it represents a little of what Weller was getting at in his chapters about a new way of thinking about scholarship. Certainly my thinking about research has evolved.



Open or Closed?

Below are some questions and thoughts I think I’ll raise with my cohorts that were sparked by the Weller reading this week, all related to the idea of open education/open access:

How do we deal with the ever-present tensions between open and closed access? Between exclusivity and inclusivity? I see this tension in so many ways in my life as an academic. On the one hand, there is so much more information available to me as a researcher than before. When I was writing my dissertation in the 90’s, only those who had the money to travel and spend months in the libraries and archives of Madrid had access to many of the texts that today are freely  available on Google Books. However, an exclusive private enterprise like Gale-Cengage can also sell digital access to the collections of the British  Library at a price only wealthy institutions can pay, thus excluding small public institutions like our own. MOOCS offer free and open access to the masses (for now) to professors and courses that previously only the most elite could come in contact with, but is it really open education and is it access at all? The digitally native teenagers referenced as part of the net generation represent only one demographic–those wealthy enough to actually be consumers (and sometimes producers) of technology. What about the rest of them–for most of whom their only real engagement with technology is through their phone? I’m guessing some of our students fall in that category when they come to us.