I decided to encode for the Shelley-Godwin archive because I didn’t know XML. I had never encoded anything in any language. I thought it was time for that to change. I certainly learned how XML works. I learned to use Oxygen. I now have a GitHub account. But I also joined the project because I thought I would discover something about Frankenstein, and that I think I did not do.
Learning XML was an enlightening experience all on its own. For the first time, I understood why these are called languages. I felt myself translating from English to XML. “This goes up here” became <add place=superlinear>this bit</add>, and I felt suddenly powerful. But this learning experience prevented me from seeing what I was encoding. I have heard it said that for coding is an act of interpretation, and it absolutely is—but I thought that I would leave with a new perspective on Frankenstein, and I didn’t. I was so busy learning the code that I didn’t have much attention left to reflect on what I was interpreting. I fear I didn’t give Frankenstein the attention and focus it deserved. I was, of course, working from wonderful, pre-existing resources—an image of the manuscript, and a transcription that was praised to the skies by everyone who knew more about Shelley than I did. That gave me an excuse to focus less on the words and more on the translation: I couldn’t screw it up, as long as I listened to Charles Robinson, right? I don’t think I made any blatant mistakes, but neither did I gain any insight into what I was encoding. If I had continued in the same style, would I have reached a point where I would have made a mistake, simply because I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the content? Or would I have learned XML well enough to stop thinking about grammar and resume thinking about content? Encoding is an act of interpretation, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a new overall interpretation—and I can imagine that becoming a problem.
However, perhaps there is a new interpretation created that the low-level encoder doesn’t get to see. What was happening as the schema for this project was built and altered? I had no input on that discussion, of course; I barely knew it was going on, and I didn’t get to listen to it. But I am sure that is the level where interpretation happens. I’m curious about it. For me, however, encoding was simply an act of word-to-word translation. Not much thought was required. It was the first time I used XML; it was a learning experience; that’s ok. But isn’t every new project is a learning experience? Perhaps I should have learned more—but there’s only so much you can learn when you are only supposed to encode two pages. There was a sharp limit to this learning opportunity.
This project was also supposed to be an exercise in collaboration. Thank goodness: I might have managed to teach myself some XML, but I never would have managed to teach my self GitHub. I still don’t understand GitHub—which tells you exactly how much attention I was paying. I found myself relying heavily on other people’s expertise, which is unfortunately easy to do in a group project when one isn’t the leader—and even easier when one has no experience in this sort of project. Others on my team had used XML before; I took them all my questions, but since I was so new to this work, all my questions were elementary. We never reached a level where we could ask deeper, more important questions about our work.
I benefitted from their expertise, but that’s a nice way of saying I mooched. The proof of that is that, while my group leader knows how to push a page on GitHub, I still don’t remember what “push” means. It’s easy for me to excuse myself: I was starting from absolute zero. But I’m still trying to determine whether mooching counts as collaboration. I certainly learned from my peers. I learned everything from my peers! If I had tried to encode a page or two alone in my room, I would have given up after I had to get into Terminal (which is a surprisingly heady experience). It is also true that encoding in groups was fun! At first I didn’t see the point of sitting with a group of people, looking at computers, and not talking. But then I found I had questions, and I immediately had people to answer my questions, or laugh at my questions, or both. I have always been a loner when it comes to work, but this changed my mind for at least some projects.
So what is collaboration, in the end? Does collaboration mean working together from start to finish on a project? Were the collaborators the people who were developing the schema? (It seems to be that that would be the most interpretive role to take for any project: that is the director of the play, while a simple encoder has less control than the props manager.) Were the collaborators the team leaders, who made sure that everyone else in the project communicated and received communications, who mastered every aspect of the project so they could teach it to me and the other clueless encoders? Or were we all collaborating, even if we contributed vastly different things? After all, even though I had no impact on the course of the project, I still encoded two pages all by myself; and perhaps if I had encoded five, I would have discovered something with broader implications and I would have asked larger questions.
In the end, I haven’t made up my mind. Did I accomplish something large that will advance scholarship? Not me personally, certainly—but what if I encoded two pages of an archive? I had a hand in something that will advance scholarship, even if it’s a tiny hand. That’s not much. It’s not enough to get credit for, and it’s not enough to make me feel good about myself; but it is enough to say that I have experience with XML now. This project was the start of something new. Now I have a skill to contribute to my next project.
Perhaps collaboration is different for every person in every project. Not everyone needs to contribute the same amount of intellectual effort or time or responsibility; but everyone puts something in, and everyone takes a little something away. It does, of course, make assigning credit a hassle. But I’m glad that opportunities like this exist, because no one had to sit in a corner being the XML kid. Opportunities to collaborate even briefly on all sorts of different projects lets us learn new skills while we contribute to the world of scholarship, and I think these opportunities could create a generation of extraordinarily well-rounded scholars. Now that I have worked on this archive, I can’t say: “Look what I have done!”—because I didn’t do very much. But I can say: “Look what I can do!”