Meet Ashley Reed, CDHI Postdoctoral Fellow

Ashley Reed joined the CDHI as a Postdoctoral Fellow in English and Online Learning on July 1. As part of this two-year position, Reed holds an appointment in the Department of English. She is also affiliated with the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education, where she will teach online digital humanities courses.

Reed received her PhD in English and Comparative Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was the long-time project manager for the William Blake Archive. Her dissertation examines the relationship between belief and agency in nineteenth-century literature by women and African Americans, including Catharine Maria Sedgwick, William Wells Brown, Susan Warner, Augusta Jane Evans, and Elizabeth Stoddard. More broadly, her interests include American literature and culture to 1900, American Studies, religion, gender studies, and digital humanities.

What first brought you to the digital humanities, and how has it influenced your research and teaching?

When I started grad school at UNC I was offered a position as Joseph Viscomi’s research assistant and he put me to work on the William Blake Archive. A few years later I became Project Manager of the Blake Archive, and it was through that experience that I gained a pretty solid education in the history and practices of DH. But it wasn’t until I began using digital platforms and tools in my teaching that I really began to think of myself as a digital humanist. Adopting even straightforward digital tools like WordPress can make your classroom so much more dynamic, and technological literacy is a very concrete skill students can take away from a literature class even when they think they’re just there to fulfill a graduation requirement. So I’m very much an evangelist for using technology thoughtfully in the classroom. Once I saw how particular technologies could enrich my teaching when employed intelligently and strategically, I started thinking about whether the same might be true of my scholarship. Sometimes the answer is no; sometimes the best way to answer a particular research question is to sit in the library and read about it, and then write a scholarly article. But there’s no reason to limit oneself to just that one methodology.

Tell us more about the DH course you plan to teach in the spring. What are you most excited to share with your students?

I’m very excited about the course I’ll be teaching in the spring, Introduction to Digital Humanities Materials and Methodologies, because it’s an online graduate-level course offered through UNC’s Friday Center for Continuing Education and I can’t wait to see who registers for it. DH has so much potential to reach beyond academic audiences, and I’m envisioning a course that will appeal to current graduate students but also to librarians, museum curators, teachers, university administrators, professors at other institutions, and anyone else who wants to explore how digital approaches can transform the way scholars and the public interact with cultural materials.

It’s daunting to design a course with such a wide range of possible audiences, but I think it’s safe to assume that many of the people who register will have an interest in but not much familiarity with the digital humanities. So I plan to offer a solid grounding in the history and development of the field (from Father Busa and the Index Thomisticus to Franco Moretti and distant reading) while also walking students through really practical topics like planning and managing a project, securing funding, and collaborating productively with colleagues.

What DH-related projects are you currently working on? Were there any important DH lessons you learned while working at the Blake Archive that you’ll carry into your future work?

I’m currently in the process of exploring how my dissertation—which was a traditional read-books-and-write-another-book-about-them affair—can be enriched and expanded using digital methodologies. My research is on women and African-American writers of the nineteenth-century U.S. and how they used fiction to imagine new forms of agency based on particular Protestant theological concepts. As I pursue that theme I’m building a digital project around the life and work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an important nineteenth-century African-American poet who was involved with the Underground Railroad, the women’s suffrage movement, the Temperance crusade, and almost every other important nineteenth-century social movement. I’m interested in building a digital scholarly archive to make her literary work more visible and accessible to contemporary scholars and students, but I’d also like to investigate her networks of correspondence and her physical movements around the country. She made near-constant lecture tours, including a couple of fairly dangerous trips through the South during Reconstruction. I think modeling her movements as a free woman of color could tell historians and cultural critics a lot about race, gender, and the regulation of public space in the nineteenth century.

Now that I’ve joined the CDHI I’ve begun overseeing a project we’re calling the Year of the Newspaper, which will center on finding research and pedagogy applications for the 3 million pages of pre-1923 North Carolina newspapers on microfilm that have been digitized and made available through a partnership between the CDHI, the UNC Libraries, and Newspapers.com. It’s an incredible collection of materials, and we want as many scholars and students as possible to make use of them. So we’re planning a fall launch event to introduce this resource to the campus community, and then we’re going to form a working group of interested faculty and grad students who want to really delve into the data. Personally I’m interested in using the collection to map the spread of the Spiritualist movement in North Carolina.

I’ve also got some intriguing pedagogical projects happening. In addition to the online grad course I’ll be teaching in the spring I’m leading a face-to-face class in the English Department called Literature and Media this fall. It’s going to be a “Technology and American Culture” course themed around technologies of communication, of profit, of war, and so on. But because I want students to engage with technology rather than just reading about it, I’m going to ask them to experiment with digital tools for annotation, visualization, and analysis (like Szoter, VoiceThread, and Twine) and then to evaluate those tools using the critical terms they’ve learned from their reading. I also began a project with a literature course last spring in which students used the Scalar online publishing platform to create an annotated digital edition of a nineteenth-century scrapbook from UNC’s Rare Books collection. The project got hung up because of technical troubles at Scalar’s end, so I’m thinking of leading an independent study with a few students from the class to continue and complete the edition.

As for what I learned at the William Blake Archive, it’s hard to know where to even begin. I came to the Archive with a few years’ experience in media production and project management, but it was at the Archive that I learned to apply those skills in an academic setting, one where scholarly excellence rather than profit is the end goal. It’s also the place where I learned how many different ways there are to be a successful academic—that while monographs are great, there are lots of other forms in which to produce and share knowledge. I don’t tend to speak of my work with the Archive in the past tense, though, since I don’t expect to ever really leave it. I’m still consulting on the project: working on grant applications, listening in on the listserv, answering questions from the editors and staff, and so on. When you’ve been with a project (and the people who work on it) for nine years it just grows into you.

What is a day of DH like for you?

Since I just started this post-doc on July 1st, I’m still figuring out what a typical day looks like, but so far it goes something like this: In the morning I meet a few friends at Davis Library to write. We all work independently on our separate projects, but we meet so we can keep each other accountable. (Since I received my PhD from UNC, I already have this supportive community to draw on. I consider myself very lucky.) Right now I’m drafting the introduction to a special issue of the journal Literature and Medicine that I’m co-editing with a friend. I write until lunchtime, and then the afternoons are a little more varied. Some days I return to the library and work on the Harper project; others I head up to the DIL, where the top priority right now is the launch event for the Year of the Newspaper. Or I’ll spend the afternoon developing the two courses I’m teaching this year. One day a week I put in an appearance at the Blake Archive. And of course there’s the round of meetings and answering email that all academics (and all professionals, really) deal with.

Do you have a favorite DH project or two? Tell us about them, and why they appeal to you.

I understandably have a soft spot for digital archives, and my favorite one right now is the Van Gogh Letters Project. I really like the clean, quick-loading interface and the way it allows users to choose and arrange the content (digital image, transcription, translation, editors’ notes) they’re most interested in. It’s also just enchanting to see the little sketches Van Gogh made in his letters and to compare them to the finished paintings; it offers so much insight into his creative process.

And as a nineteenth-century Americanist I’m keeping a close eye on the Viral Texts project up at Northeastern University, not least because I think it will provide some wonderful models for the kind of work we want to do with the North Carolina newspapers.

American Studies

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