Monday, December 21, 2015

Digital Teaching Notes: The "Harlem Shadows" Collaborative Project

This fall, students in the Intro to DH class that Ed Whitley and I co-taught produced a pretty wonderful collaborative digital project they decided to call “Harlem Echoes,” a version of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows oriented to a broad, public readership. This project was produced in response to an assignment that I generated for them with help and feedback from Chris Forster and Roopika Risam along the way. The students had some technical help from staff members in Lehigh’s Center for Digital Scholarship. 

This is the project the students in the class produced:

Major features of the site include:

--Two presentations of the poems in Harlem Shadows, one version that corresponds to the poems in the order in which they were originally printed, and another version that presents the poems thematically.

--All of the poems are thematically tagged based on a set of tags agreed upon collaboratively by students in the class. The site includes a clickable “Wordcloud” of student-generated tags that leads users to lists of poems oriented around specific tags.

--A substantial number of contextual and biographical essays that help bring the poems in Harlem Shadows to life for today’s readers. 

--Students built the site themselves, including menus, graphics, and text. I directed them to use a public domain, “dirty OCR” version of Harlem Shadows derived from the Internet Archive. They proofread and corrected the OCR and produced unique pages for each poem in Harlem Shadows.

Digital Humanities and Social Justice; DH Projects and their Audience

Why Harlem Shadows? 

I am relatively new to formal involvement with Digital Humanities as a field, though I have been floating around the edges of Digital scholarship for many years. As I’ve been studying DH more intensively in recent months I’ve had two distinct observations about the field that I wanted this assignment to speak to:
1) While there is quite a bit of scholarship in Digital Humanities that does deal with social justice oriented themes, in its early period the field seemed to be largely oriented towards digitization and analysis of canonical, Anglo-American texts (see my essay from earlier in the fall on “The Archive Gap”). Scholars like Alan Liu have pointed out the strangeness of the fact that while DH ideas and tools were being pioneered in the 1990s, many important scholars in the field seemed not to be very engaged in the intense conversations about gender, race, and sexuality (queer theory, postcolonial theory, and critical race theory) that were also occurring in parallel during that same period of time. 
As a result of my own training and orientation as a scholar, I wanted this assignment to explicitly speak to social justice issues in some way. I believe that minority authors in the Anglo-American tradition as well as non-western authors are underrepresented or overlooked in prominent digital archives, so I had a strong interest in asking students to do a digitization project with an author in that category.

2) It’s been noted that many digital archives and digital thematic collections that tend to be posted online can have very small readerships. Is that because the texts being digitized are too obscure (I doubt it), or is it rather because we haven’t been thinking enough about issues of access and audience in designing our digital projects? What is it that the average web user might be looking for when searching online for particular texts?

My hunch is that the average reader isn’t that preoccupied with a precise digital recreation of the original printed texts they are encountering online. Rather, the interest is much more likely to be thematic (“poems about the resistance to racism”), contextual (“early black poets”), and presentist (“how does this matter today?”). In designing this assignment, I nudged students to consider these issues and build a site that might have an expansive and somewhat revisionist approach to the original material. In our DH class, we did present students with examples of digital archives that were invested in a textualist methodology (foremost being the Whitman Archive), but I at least made it a point to suggest that there might be other models for presenting digital collections to consider.

My Background

I should start by saying that I’m not an expert on the Harlem Renaissance, and indeed for most of my career teaching modernism I have focused on British and Irish modernists rather than American modernism (in my department the teaching of American materials has generally been the province of my colleague Seth Moglen). However, in recent years I have grown more interested in the transatlantic contexts of the early modernist movement (1910-1925), and one especially interesting site along those lines is the Harlem Renaissance – many of whose most important figures spent significant amounts of time abroad.

One upshot of my relative newness to these materials is that I don’t have a ‘set’ approach to teaching Harlem Renaissance literature. Indeed, this assignment emerged out of a process of exploration that I’ll briefly describe before going deeper into the assignment itself.


The genesis for this project was my first experience teaching Claude McKay’s poetry in the spring of 2014 in an undergraduate seminar on Transatlantic Modernism. In addition to McKay, in that class I assigned Nella Larsen’s Quicksand for its depiction of Harlem cultural life in a transatlantic context (the biracial protagonist of Quicksand travels to Denmark in the middle of the novel and returns to Harlem with a clearer idea of what her black identity means to her, but without clear answers to the central quandary facing her regarding her love life and career).

As an accompaniment to Quicksand, I had initially assigned McKay’s novel Home to Harlem (1928), only to decide that emphasizing that novel was somewhat of a mistake in this class setting, for two reasons. One problem is that the novel really isn’t “transatlantic.” It does give us an example of a Caribbean intellectual and activist figure who emerges once the novel is well underway, but the novel’s primary protagonist is actually a “street” character rather unlike McKay himself. Secondly, Home to Harlem’s emphasis on street culture, slang, and nightlife could be seen as opportunistic and salacious rather than documentary. I should also add that the novel isn’t exactly a page-turner; it begins to drag around the mid-point, though the depictions of African American porters working on a railroad are interesting in part because we can assume they are derived from McKay’s own time exploring different American cities while working on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1910s. Some of McKay’s peers wondered at the time about whether the novel helped or hurt the cause of black literature, and we still need to raise those questions today.

A better bet seemed to be McKay’s rarely-read books of poetry, Harlem Shadows (70 poems; published in New York in 1922) and its shorter predecessor text, Spring in New Hampshire (31 poems; published in London in 1921). We did spend a session in that class looking at some of the poems from Harlem Shadows, and I was struck by both their quality and their potential relevance to a course on transatlantic modernism. Going forward, I expect that I will probably always assign these poems in future versions of Transatlantic Modernism classes I teach, rather than Home to Harlem.

The Assignment in the Context of an “Introduction To Digital Humanities” Course

Ed Whitley and I began planning the department’s first graduate level introduction to Digital Humanities in spring of 2015, and we worked on it much more intensively during the summer.

We knew that we wanted to do a unit on digital archives and thematic collections, and we also knew that this unit should have a hands-on component – a project that involved the students either contributing to an existing digital archive project, or doing a certain amount of work on something new. Because of the intense labor involved in digitizing print texts, we knew we couldn’t ask our students to do too much since we only intended to dedicate about four weeks to this topic.

I had the idea of asking all of the students in the class to produce a collaborative digital edition of Harlem Shadows as an assignment, and in the summer I discovered that Chris Forster (Syracuse U.) and Roopika Risam (Salem State U.) had already produced an elegant digital edition (though it admittedly took me awhile to find it; their site does not show up on the top of Google searches for “Harlem Shadows”). I began corresponding with these two scholars with the idea that students in our course might add materials that could eventually be added to their existing site, or perhaps build a parallel site that might look quite different. This is their site:

I have been especially interested in including biographical, historical, and literary context on any site the students might produce to help readers understand better what it is they are looking at. Thanks to projects like Google Books, the Internet Archive, the Project Gutenberg and the widespread interest in digitization amongst digital humanists, we now have a truly formidable array of digital texts available to us online -- though we still often don’t have very good ways to navigate those texts. Google Books has virtually no metadata and is actually difficult to search. As a result, we now have access to millions of texts, but we need much more infrastructure to help us know what we might actually want to read.  

As my reading and preparatory work took shape, I began to generate a list of possible contextual short essays students could research and write, for upload to the site. Eventually, I presented these suggestions to them:

--We should think about the front page and the entry to the site. Perhaps a student could write an “About” page, which introduces McKay and this book of poems and also has a summary of the new contents we are adding with links to the new content.

--Perhaps a student could write a short bio-critical essay that links to and quotes from specific poems. In order for the links to work, we first need to build a Page for each poem that has a unique Permalink.

--Perhaps students could think about a presentation of the poems in Harlem Shadows  that focuses on their historical importance and influence (esp. “If We Must Die” but also “America,” “Mulatto,” etc) rather than recreating the original presentation of the text itself (in any case, the Internet Archive edition and the Forster/Risam edition already do that).

--I would encourage students to generate tags for each of the poems that might allow visitors to the site to approach poems that focus on certain themes that are of interest to them. So we could create tags for each poem (“Race,” “Harlem street life,” “Gender,” “Capitalism,” “Lynching,” “Jamaica,” “Violence,” “Personal life,” “Family,” “Taboo Love,” “Migration” [or “Exile”], “Possible Queer Subtext,” and so on). We could then display all of the Tags on a column in the right; if the user clicks on a keyword they see a list of poems that match that tag. It may even be possible to build a widget that might dynamically arrange all poems on a given topic for the user: here are the 20 (?) poems McKay published in this period that deal with race. This could be especially useful for students or colleagues who are just looking for the poems dealing with race…

--Max Eastman’s preface to Harlem Shadows is problematic. Do we think it adds value to have the preface presented without editorial comment? Or perhaps we could add a short essay about just the Preface – including the language that some might find patronizing / insulting ? Would we prefer to jettison the preface entirely? (This would constitute a radical departure from the 1922 edition! But we are allowed to do it if we want to.) Between the two prefatory documents in the original Harlem Shadows, I prefer McKay’s own “Author’s Note”; perhaps one option might be to structure the site so that text is more prominently displayed.

--Perhaps a student might write a short essay offering a close reading of the poems that seem to allude to the complexity of McKay’s personal life – specifically his relationships with men (and often white men).

--Perhaps a student might write a short essay offering a close reading of the poems as reflective of an immigrant’s outlook. (Quite a number of the poems are reflections on McKay’s status as effectively a foreigner on American shores, still trying to digest the strangeness of American racism.)

--A student might write a short essay discussing McKay’s often tense relationship to the Modernist movement. He saw himself as a political radical who strongly embraced modernity and progress as leading to liberation and justice. But he was not interested in “modernizing” or radicalizing literary language or literary form. He liked the sonnet form.

--A student might write a short essay describing McKay’s relationship to the Harlem Renaissance movement. (He is considered one of the core members of the Harlem Renaissance group, but he is actually an outlier in some ways. A bit older than other core figures, and different in that he was an immigrant who left Harlem fairly quickly. He actually wrote Home to Harlem while living in Marseille, France!). This essay might also mention a few other major figures and benchmark’s in the advent of the Harlem Renaissance (Alain Locke’s “The New Negro,” etc).

--Images and multimedia. (There are numerous audio recordings of McKay reading poems like “If We Must Die.” We could embed those links into our own site.) Have to consider permissions and copyright.

--And in correspondence with me, Chris Forster had this suggestion:

I would add perhaps one more that folks may wish to explore. Do the poems of Harlem Shadows represent a “toning down” of McKay’s politics? The poems that once appeared alongside the poems of Harlem Shadows in periodicals but which disappear when McKay collects the poems of Harlem Shadows (which themselves are largely a rehash of poems that were first in Cambridge Magazine and then as Spring in New Hampshire… I wrote a bit about those here) are often more radical. “To the White Fiends” disappears; and where is “The Capitalist at Dinner” (a poem which is not anywhere mention in the edition right now—to my horror)? These poems strike a very different note from those published in the collection—and very, very different from the universalist spin McKay puts on “If We Must Die” when he later reflects in the reading here. (Chris Forster)

As you might see from looking at the final product, the students took me up on some of my suggestions (though not all of them); they also had their own quite fascinating ideas for topics to cover. One student focused on the different contexts and uses to which “If We Must Die” has been put (divided into three shorter essays; start here). Another focused on the possiblerelevance of McKay’s poetry to the present-day, Black Lives Matter movement. Yet another student decided to write about McKay’s use of bird imagery, especially with reference to migration and movement. Another wrote about the queer subtext in McKay’s poem, “Alfonso, Waiting at Table.” I also found the essay another student wrote on "spatial poetics" in McKay's poem "On the Road" quite compelling. 

Helping the Students Out: a Bibliography and Scanned Critical and Biographical Materials

To facilitate student research, I gave them my introductory lecture notes on McKay’s early career, with a fair amount of biographical material about McKay drawn from Wayne Cooper’s biography (these were notes I had developed for the earlier course I taught). I also scanned quite a bit of recent scholarship about McKay and made those PDFs available on CourseSite (the courseware platform we use at Lehigh).

I decided to do this because this was not, in fact, going to be a class that was centrally ‘about’ the Harlem Renaissance. I had to operate on the assumption that students would have had little or no background working with McKay prior to taking this course (this proved correct). In a class that was more focused on, say, “Digitizing African American Literature,” I might have asked the students themselves to generate these materials.

Here is the preliminary annotated bibliography that I included in the assignment as well:

Wayne Cooper, Claude McKay, Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. 1987 (new edition 1996). This remains the definitive biography of Claude McKay. It suffers at times from a somewhat judgmental attitude to McKay, but the bibliography is invaluable. Chapter 3 deals with McKay’s early years – and his relationships with editors like the Eastmans (which led to his breakthrough publication in The Liberator in 1919). Chapter 7 has a considerable amount of material on Harlem Shadows, including background and context (many of the poems in the collection were first printed either in McKay’s earlier book of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire, or in other magazines). There are also brief summaries and discussions of several reviews of the book that appeared at the time in both the mainstream press as well as in Afro-American magazines and newspapers.

Claude McKay, A Long Way From Home. (1938). McKay’s own memoir of these years. There’s a good deal of introductory material from the editor, Gene Andrew Jarrett, including a detailed timeline of McKay’s life, as well as a helpful biographical note.

You might also consider taking a look at various early chapters from A Long Way From Home, including Chapter 2 (“Other Editors” sets the stage for the publication of McKay’s poems in The Liberator in 1919). Chapters 7-13 (very short chapters) deal with the time period leading up to the publication of Harlem Shadows. Chapter 9 has an intriguing anecdote of McKay’s encounter with Frank Harris (editor of Pearson’s), who criticized McKay for not including “If We Must Die” in the (British-published) Spring in New Hampshire: “You are a bloody traitor to your race, sir!” Chapter 9 also has accounts of McKay’s first encounters with peers like W.E.B. DuBois. Chapter 13 has a brief account of the publication of Harlem Shadows in 1922. It was well-received, but didn’t earn very much money. Soon McKay would be off to Russia and France…

Gary Edward Holcomb, Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance (2007). This is the first book I know of to really explore the complexity of McKay’s identity as a (closeted, at least to the public) gay black man and a Communist and apply that understanding to a close reading of his poetry and fiction. Readings of poems from the Harlem Shadows collection are scattered throughout the book. The Introductory chapter and chapter 1 might be important as an intervention in a tradition of McKay scholarship that has tended to see him as first and foremost a “heroic” Harlem Renaissance figure.

Kottis Sree Ramesh and Kandula Nirupa Rani, Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond. (2006) Chapter 3 deals with McKay’s immigration to the United States and how his status as a West Indian immigrant shaped his writing and outlook. This is valuable mainly because it focuses on McKay’s status as a “colonial subject.”

Tyrone Tillery, Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity (1992). Chapter 3, “The Problems of a Black Radical,” deal with McKay’s writing during the years that led to the publication of Harlem Shadows.

Terence Hoagwood on the poem “Harlem Shadows” Brief essay in The Explicator (2010). Hoagwood talks about McKay’s appropriation of conventions from Elizabethan poetry – though this poem is actually not a regular sonnet but a “deviant” sonnet.

Adam McKible and Suzanne Churchill, “In Conversation: The Harlem Renaissance and the New Modernist Studies” (Modernism/Modernity 2013). This essay will mainly be of interest to people (if there are any) who are looking into McKay’s relationship to modernism – and the theoretical problems we tend to encounter if we think of African American writing from the 1920 and 30s in the context of transatlantic modernism.

David Krasner, review of The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Modernism/Modernity 2010). This is a review of a book that looks at McKay’s representation of race in Home to Harlem in light of the rather different strategy we see in WEB DuBois’s writing from the same period.

James Smethurst, “The Red is East: Claude McKay and the New Black Radicalism of the Twentieth Century” (American Literary History 2009) Largely a review essay – looking at Gary Holcomb’s book. Smethurst also summarizes the three novels that Holcomb focuses on. Not a lot here on Harlem Shadows. That said, there is a lot here for people interested in McKay’s relationship to international communism / socialism / Marxism.

Outcomes: What We Learned from Working with the Students and Listening to their Feedback

Surprise #1: The students seemed to find the assignment highly interesting and involving, and spent far more time on it than we had anticipated they would.

Some students in the class initially expressed concerns about the technical aspects of producing a serious website (as opposed to just a blog). We were able to arrange a visit from skilled digital scholars and library staff just around the time students were beginning to work on the project. This gave them a bit more confidence to start working with WordPress, though only a couple of the students in the class had used WordPress in the past. (I should also note that we decided to use WordPress for this assignment rather than something like Scalar precisely because it is so easy to use.)

I had strongly encouraged them to meet outside of class at least once, and as the students began to work they ended up meeting several times (five times in fact!) to make decisions about the intention and design of the site. It became clear that they had truly entered into the spirit of collaboration, often helping each other out with various tasks. One student took special responsibility over site design and technical features. Another student helped get the ball rolling by going through and creating her own list of thematic tags to all of the poems on her own.

Even after completing the first draft of the project, the students continued to talk about the project later, making it clear to me they were still pretty involved in the work of the project. I hope that this early experience with collaborative work will come back and pay dividends for some of the students later in their careers.

Surprise #2: They renamed it. At some point the students decided to rename the project from “Harlem Shadows” to “Harlem Echoes.” This was completely within the parameters of the assignment, though I had not suggested any such change to them nor did I expect them to do it.

I can see two advantages to the decision to change the name of the project. One is that it frees the project from the responsibility of prioritizing a digital approximation of the original text of Harlem Shadows. Harlem Shadows still forms the core of the site, but as the menu design and ordering indicates, the presentation of the poems is only one of the goals of the site the students produced.

The second advantage of the renaming might be that it allowed the students in the class to differentiate their project from the existing Forster/Risam project.

In effect, I see the project in its current form as more a digital thematic collection based on Harlem Shadows than a technical digital edition of Harlem Shadows

Surprise #3: They decided to orient the project to student users rather than specialist scholars.  This made sense to me since the students themselves are not specialists in either modernism or the Harlem Renaissance, but I still hadn’t quite expected the extremely helpful background essay one student would write describing McKay’s use of the sonnet form in Harlem Shadows.

Surprise #4: Claude McKay talks more often about “nature” than about “race.” The thematic tags the students produced led to a pretty startling observation: the largest word in the word cloud is actually "Nature” – not “Race.” Admittedly, his discussion of nature is not in a vacuum – many of those “nature” poems are also thematizing social issues such as race and migration – but it still tells us something important nonetheless, and reminds us to be careful in slotting McKay unthinkingly into the ready category of “black activist poet.”

Future Directions

We have yet to make any final decisions about what to do with the project. There is still a hope we might coordinate with Roopika Risam and Chris Forster more intensively. There is also a real idea of continuing to expand the site, possibly by adding further works ourselves (I have a couple of short essays I myself would like to contribute), and possibly by soliciting contributions from scholars who work on Mckay. 

There’s also a question about how we might revise the assignment for future iterations of this class. As I mentioned, students put this all together in the space of a couple of weeks; we had only allocated about four weeks to digital archives and collections towards the beginning of the term. We were using a final portfolio structure for the class and asked students to revise their individual essays as much as possible for that final project. But their subsequent work in the course was on different topics; in the subsequent unit, for instance, we asked them to work with data (text analysis, visualization, mapping, data mining, network diagrams, topic modeling, etc).

In our wrap-up conversation at the end, several students suggested we might coordinate the digital archive hands-on project with the hands-on project related to data. Perhaps the data segment could ask students to apply data and analytical tools to the text that they had earlier digitized and annotated? This sounded like an excellent idea in principle, though practically with such a small text (70 short poems), many data analysis tools and methods simply aren’t very useful or relevant. (Topic modeling, for instance, requires large scale corpora to produce meaningful results.) If we repeat a version of this assignment with a much more substantial primary text, however, some of those data-oriented tools could be relevant.

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