Coda: The Human in the Humanities (29 Jan. 2016)

My first semester of grad school was kind of a wreck: I was constantly sick, my nerves were bound tight with anxiety, and my back and wrists were in pain from the Soviet-era metal chair-desks in a basement classroom. None of this was helped by the ideological distress I found myself in. Two pieces of scholarly advice that found their way to me that semester still linger with me: one, there’s no such thing as the human condition; and two, your graduate program will tear you apart and remake you in its image.

A photo of a metal classroom chair with tiny desk attached at the armrest.

The chairs were still the worst part, though.

In the classroom, I mentally conceded the probable truth of the first one. My undergrad philosophy classes taught me that we have no good definition of “human.” And the conditions people live in vary so radically that there can’t really be a universal one: the Elizabethans understood the world’s functions quite differently than do the Mosuo or a New Yorker, and attempts to demand that there is one ideal understanding usually end up serving some hegemonic understanding to the exclusion and oppression of other worldviews. That didn’t stop the statement from messing with my heart, though.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I had recently graduated from a Jesuit college, and “the human condition” is a big part of Ignatian philosophy. My best friend and I had lofty aspirations of studying “the human condition” through literature in grad school; I still amuse myself by correctly identifying Jesuit-educated students and priests by their use of the phrase in discussions and homilies, respectively; and Christ’s entering “the human condition” through the Incarnation is the foundation of Ignatian imaginative contemplation, my graduate research, and my personal aesthetic. To be told that “the human condition” is inherently meaningless was like being told that J.K. Rowling’s prose is mediocre, only worse: both statements may be true, but I still love the object that they discredit — and “the human condition” informed my life and work more deeply and for far longer than Harry Potter.

A photo of tree-lined sidewalk leading to a redbrick academic building, which features a statue of a priest over the entry doors and a clocktower topped with a cross. The trees are bare but there is no snow on the grass.

Le Moyne College on a rare snowless day in winter.


As imposter syndrome set in and I attempted to impress my professors and fit in with my classmates through mimicking their interests and ideologies, I began to darkly wonder if there was some degree of truth to the second statement, too. As I’ve gained confidence in my ideas, my professors have all been wonderfully supportive of my research, even at critical moments of doubt, but I still felt strangely disembodied from my ideas. They were necessarily available, even susceptible, to outside influences in the name of getting a job, which could range from something as benign as entering them into a critical discourse I was unenthusiastic about to something as disheartening as avoiding theories that are no longer trendy.

Not until I took a summer creative nonfiction workshop with the magnificent Minnie-Bruce Pratt did I realize that this compulsory refashioning had nothing to do with my program, but with the state of English-language literary studies. I spent two weeks reading first-hand accounts like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, in which Morrison exposes the subtle racism of American literary tradition not in the form of a journal article, but of a personal reckoning with that history. I spent three weeks writing in the first person about the body of Christ, the woman’s body, and the queer body not in the form of a seminar paper but in the form of a series of anecdotes and meditations steeped in medieval and Renaissance mysticism. I found myself applying my research to my life in ways that made the Early Moderns come alive — in our exchange of good-byes, classmates from diverse religious backgrounds told me how fascinating and important my research was through having encountered it in this genre.

: The greyscale cover of Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark. Morrison holds a giant floppy hat. A gold sticker proclaims that the book won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Fantastic book, by the way: accessible first-person literary criticism. Highly recommend.

Creative nonfiction enabled me to communicate my ideas — shaped by research and critical writing — with a public upon whom they had material impact. My ideas became my own again: I had a personal investment in recovering historically obscured understandings of gender and the body to not only locate the essential value of the queer and the female bodies in Catholicism but also to share old ways of embodying queerness and femininity that are relevant today. In creative nonfiction, my first-person voice had credibility, purpose, and an audience who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t access to this knowledge.

Radical queer and feminist scholarship is somewhat better at this, leveraging the personal narrative as a source of knowledge and an act of inquiry. To assert a self in English (and, I’d wager, biology, history, math, or information studies) is to assert that you are not the implied raceless, genderless, classless entity interested only in books, but that you instead have an investment in disrupting the status quo. This trickles down into policing how we frame our inquiries: we teach our students not to use the first-person because the personal isn’t credible, and we apply the same principle to our critical essays. Consequently, I have no idea why most of my colleagues study what they do: I assume they all love literature, but if that were their only motivation they wouldn’t still be suffering through grad school. If the English scholar speaks, it is only through the voice of their subject of study, and tentatively: papers on nuns I identify with, on devotional poems that resonate with me. Our research overwhelms our selves, and obscures its own real-life applicability. And so we get accused of navel-gazing and being out of touch with reality:

Nothing like some anti-intellectual sentiment to kick-start one’s drive to inform the public.

So maybe there isn’t a single human condition, but that doesn’t mean studying the humanities can’t improve the conditions of some humans. If my experience with creative nonfiction is any indication, one of the most meaningful ways to connect with those outside the academy is to acknowledge our own subject positions, explicitly recognizing the self in order to humanize the humanities. This is what I’ve tried to do here. But now it’s your turn:

Why do you study what you do? Why do you work where you do? Who are you?

A painted full-length portrait of a nun sitting in a library, paging through a book; she wears a large icon of the Annunciation over her breast.

Also, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is just objectively rad.

Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.



Common Knowledge?: EEBO, #FrEEBO, and Public Domain Information (15 Jan. 2016)

If you work in the humanities and you’ve used a database, a dictionary, or Google Docs in the past ten years, congratulations! — you’re already doing digital humanities. This was a point emphasized by Syracuse University professor Chris Hanson in a panel discussion on the digital humanities that I attended after the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon workshop last fall. Grad students, faculty, and a librarian from a range of disciplines underscored that, according to this definition, anyone can do digital humanities — in fact, many already do — as long as they have access to digital information and the tools to manipulate it.

Not everyone has that kind of access, however, and this became painfully obvious for Renaissance-studies scholars a few weeks later when ProQuest discontinued access to the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database for Renaissance Society of America (RSA) members. Previously, those who didn’t have EEBO access through a university’s library subscription — such as independent scholars or those at smaller schools with smaller budgets — could gain access by joining the RSA, a professional organization rather than a library. After a Twitter uproar, ProQuest quickly restored access without much of an explanation, but not before Renaissance scholars could write about the implications of a private business’s controlling access to what is ultimately public domain information.

EEBO’s origins lie in World War II, when the London Blitz threatened to destroy English libraries and the thousands of medieval and Early Modern books they contained — a potential massive loss of information. University Microfilms International (UMI) stepped in to scan the texts for future generations … and for profit. UMI began to offer microfilmed titles in the English Short Title Catalogue (SCT) to university libraries through print-on-demand services.[1] For decades, Renaissance scholars outside the UK relied upon libraries’ microfilm reprints to do their research. Seventy years later, UMI is now ProQuest and the microfilmed SCT is now EEBO, a digitized and expanded collection of scanned texts. Just under half of the (rapidly expanding) current collection was released into the public domain last year. But anyone without library access will have to wait until 2020 for ProQuest’s exclusive rights to expire in order to access the complete collection.[2]

A library with the ceiling caved in. Beams, rubble, curtains, and ladders are heaped in the center. Three men in hats and wool coats inspect the books that remain on the shelves.

The private library at the seventeenth-century Holland House was bombed in the London Blitz. Books in national libraries were quaking in their dust jackets.

I’m one of the lucky ones: Syracuse University participates in the EEBO Text-Creation Partnership, so I have access even to texts that haven’t been made fully searchable. Without my university library access, I couldn’t possibly be an Early Modernist studying Jesuit literature. Syracuse is a long way from the Huntington and the Folger libraries, let alone Cambridge or Oxford. Not only do I not have a research budget as a PhD student, but some of the most prestigious libraries limit access to students already working on a dissertation.. If I hadn’t spent time browsing EEBO’s collections, I wouldn’t even know that I wanted to write about Jesuit literature. I may eventually have read that Richard Crashaw, a seventeenth-century poet and Catholic sympathizer-turned-convert, was raised by a virulently anti-Catholic father who wrote a tract called “The Bespotted Jesuite.” But without EEBO, I would never have had the opportunity to actually read the elder Crashaw’s text for its obsession with the maternal role of the Virgin Mary in Catholic notions of salvation, and then compare its horrified images of breastfeeding with the glorifying images that appear in the younger Crashaw’s baroque — even mystical — poetry. Without EEBO, I couldn’t read about the Maryland colony’s connection to the English Jesuit mission; I couldn’t perform full-text proximity searches comparing discourse on Eucharistic flesh and New-World cannibals; and I couldn’t crosscheck textual references to English Jesuits to add to Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.


A poorly copied black-and-white page of text titled “To OUR LADY OF Hall, and to the Child JESUS”; the rest of the text is half-obscured because text from the opposite side bleeds through.

A page from William Crashaw’s “The Bespotted Jesuite,” aka the “Jesuites Gospell” (1642). Read might be a generous verb.

But not everyone is so fortunate: in the few days when some RSA members believed they would lose their only means of accessing the full EEBO, proposals to make a #FrEEBO circulated on the internet. The conversations reminded me of when I graduated from undergrad and realized, to my horror, that I no longer had access to the Oxford English Dictionary. I found myself keeping younger classmates “on retainer,” pestering them to please, please look up the seventeenth-century definitions of this word so I can revise my writing sample to apply to grad school. Imagine being a scholar trying to publish a journal article for tenure and having to do the same thing — but with every single primary text you’re analyzing. Unlike the OED, the texts in EEBO are public domain, after all, even if ProQuest’s digitizations aren’t; there’s no reason scholars couldn’t create a parallel database that’s wholly public domain from inception.[3]

Digital texts have their shortcomings, of course, including other forms of inaccessibility as well. Untranscribed texts are wholly inaccessible to those with visual impairments. Databases like EEBO offer OCR transcriptions of some scanned texts, and while the good ones can be helpful, quality is inconsistent and frequently bad, especially for Early Modern typefaces and spellings. (If anyone has had a good experience using a screen reader with EEBO, let me know in the comments.) Digital texts also necessarily misrepresent the material object it’s based on by transcribing it into a different medium: a scan of a book obscures its size, its texture, its color, its smell, and even, in EEBO’s case, its cover. (More about that next week!)

A black-and-white scan of two pages of text fills the top two-thirds of the image; a transcription fills the bottom third. The transcription is filled with punctuation marks to signal line breaks and diacritical marks. Each transcription has a yellow post-it note icon in the middle of sentences. The text that fills the margins of the scan is not included in the transcription.

A side-by-side comparison between the scan and the transcription of two pages from “True relations of sundry conferences had between certaine Protestant doctours and a Iesuite called M. Fisher” (1626) in EEBO. To read marginal commentary, you have to click the yellow post-it note icons — a very different experience than the Early Moderns had.


But shortcomings shouldn’t stop us from finding new ways to increase access to these texts. One aspect of Jesuit philosophy that’s always resonated with me is that education is inseparable from social justice. Extensive higher education is required during Jesuits’ training in part because they are meant to share that knowledge in service to others. Education itself is a common good, and as an aid to education the cultural heritage contained in databases like EEBO shouldn’t be limited to scholars attached to the wealthiest schools — or even to scholars alone. If public scholars are truly committed to democratizing knowledge, our work shouldn’t end at merely presenting our research to the public, which only reinforces the ivory tower’s hierarchical relationship to the public. Our service to the public should extend to enable universal access to the primary sources we work with, so that anyone who wants to — no matter their situation — can discover not only our knowledge but also how we arrived at it, and how they could make some new knowledge themselves.




Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

The Human in the Digital Humanities (8 January 2016)

The digital humanities (or as the cool kids call it, DH) have been in my peripheral vision since my first year in grad school: something that looks useful and fun; but for someone who dreads calculating grades, working with data is intimidating. Last September, a series of DH events in a symposium on the future of the humanities inspired me to reconsider how the digital humanities fit into the humanities generally. This month, I’ll be looking at the human in the digital humanities in order to think about where the human is located in the humanities. To do this, I’m going to introduce to you some of my research on the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a missionary order of Catholic priests founded in Spain by Ignatius Loyola at the time of the Reformation. This focus is partly self-serving: I’m a dork and I love studying Jesuit literature even beyond my Early Modern period. But the connection between the Jesuits and the issues I’ll tackle is a lot closer than just my research. Ignatian philosophy on education, public service, and the relationship of the material to the ideal has greatly informed my appreciation of the digital and public humanities.

A cartoon of Ignatius Loyola, wearing sunglasses and holding a to-go cup of coffee.

Time to get Iggy with it.

The first event I was able to attend in the DH series this past September was a workshop with Daniel Shore and Chris Warren on the new DH project they’ve launched, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (or SDFB).* If you’re familiar with cinema’s (Kevin) Bacon Number, the principle is similar: the database maps degrees of separation between major and minor figures in Early Modern England based on the different kinds of relationships they had with each other. Francis Bacon’s network of relationships greets visitors on the home page: he is one degree of separation from Anne Bacon (“parent of” Francis), Elizabeth Hatton (“attracted to” Francis), and William Fulbecke (“collaborated with” Francis); and he’s two degrees of separation from the Archbishop William Laud (via Thomas Coventry) and Sir Edwin Sandys (via Sir Thomas Coke). Francis Bacon also belongs to the groups “Virginia Company” and “Company of Mineral and Battery Works,” and you can search just for members of a single group or for members of two groups (turns out Bacon is the only one in the database who belonged to both those companies). While the foundational information for SDFB was imported from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, new information is crowd-sourced: anyone can add a new person, add a person to a group, add a new relationship, or assign a new relationship type (for admin approval, of course).

A very busy map of Francis Bacon’s first- and second-degree relationships.

Two degrees of Francis Bacon. I can only hope to be so socially well-connected.

Before I started playing with SDFB the night before the workshop, I hadn’t really understood how any DH methodologies, outside of simple word frequency analyses, would be useful to my research. But as I clicked around the website, looking up individual English Jesuits whose writings I’d read, I began to appreciate the power of visual representation of the connections between these priests and the social circles they moved in during their work in England.

Some historical context about the sixteenth-century English Jesuit mission is helpful here. With the replacement of all Roman Catholic bishops with conforming Church of England bishops, and with the institution of the 1584 “act against Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons,” English Catholics could no longer ordain their own priests to serve their communities. Politically, England was reduced to the same status as an Aztec, Chinese, or any other historically non-Catholic kingdom: it became a mission field served by foreign-trained priests, mainly from the expat community in Douai, France. Indeed, it could even be more hostile than other foreign mission fields: the 1584 act made it high treason to be a Catholic priest, and a felony to aid one; even suspicion of either crime could subject a person to any number of gruesome tortures.

Protestant-era England did have two advantages over other mission fields, however. First, most of the Jesuit missionaries serving in England were born there or descended from English families. And second, Catholicism was still fairly widespread in its underground status, with some families even managing to retain considerable wealth. English Jesuits had something of a home turf advantage, and these connections were crucial to carrying out their work in often hostile territory.

Printed engravings of Edmund Campion (with a dagger in his heart, a noose around his neck, and gallows and stretchers in the background); Robert Southwell (with a dagger in his heart, a tiny noose around his neck, and a cherub waving a crown of laurels over his head); and Alexander Briant (with a dagger in his heart, a noose around his neck, and holding a handful of reeds while a cherub waves a laurel crown over his head)

Some of the English Jesuit martyrs: Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, and Alexander Briant (whose good looks were legendary).


When I came to the SDFB workshop the next morning, my goal was to help map the English Jesuits’ human networks of supporters, and I was thrilled to find that this was something in which I had the expertise to contribute and that it was something that was useful to my research. Because of SDFB, I could begin to really see just how tightly connected many of the Jesuit missionaries and their English supporters were, something I hadn’t recognized in the disparate texts I had read before. And I was very pleased to convince Drs. Shore and Warren to add “Jesuits” as a standalone group in addition to “Jesuit missionaries to England,” in order to account for expats who never returned to England.

The database is in beta testing, so there are still some quirks and bugs and inefficiencies. There is a terrible shortage of women in the database, as a consequence of how only 6% of the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, from which the vast majority of SDFB is drawn, are for women.1 This is particularly problematic for my research, as recusant Catholic women were better able to fly under the English government’s radar (so to speak), especially if their husbands conformed, and thus were essential to Jesuit ministry: hiding priests, offering financial support, and granting access to printing presses. (If you want to help boost the number of women in SDFB, check out the Networking Early Modern Women event on January 23 at the Carnegie Mellon and Folger libraries and live online.)

Some features of the current design can also be shortcomings. A sometimes-limiting selection of terms used to categorize and group relationships can flatten their contours and conceal the dynamics. In some ways, broad strokes are necessary to even begin to sort relationships. For instance, “collaborated with” or “attracted to” mean different things to different people, but a general sense of what they could mean enables the first step of investigation. On the other hand, it was rather chilling to see Robert Southwell’s visualized relationships to Robert Persons (a Jesuit) and Anne Howard (a recusant and priest-harborer) given equal weight as his relationship to Richard Topcliffe — his torturer.


Robert Southwell’s first-degree relationships.


But these are the problems that are resolved by the humanities side of digital humanities. As I often remind my students, data does not an argument make. It doesn’t tell us anything — it must be interpreted. Thanks to SDFB, we can see the names, or the dates, or the likelihood of the relationships between people and the extent of their networks. But we need to read their texts and contexts not only to understand the difference between an ally and an enemy, but also to fully appreciate the contributions these figures made to literary history.

*Full disclosure: To my surprise and delight, I was made a curator for SDFB between writing this post and its publication. Opinions are very much my own.

Next week: EEBO and public-access literature


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

Changing The World From Within to Without: My Take on the Importance of Critical Theory (9 Oct. 2015)

The fact that there is a so-called “crisis in the humanities” is old, though persistent, news, with many theories behind its impending demise.  The main culprits are understood to be funding cuts at the state and national level as well as an overall cultural shift toward valuing professional degree paths in the private sector, spurred by conservative thinkers’ critique of the humanities as a degree that leads to “nothing but unemployment.”[1] It’s an ironic position, given the fact that coexisting with this concern regarding practical employment is another dilemma the business community has recently brought to the public’s attention: a general lack of sophistication in critical thinking skills among recent college graduates, as reported recently by Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal.

“General lack” is probably not the best way to put it given Belkin’s mention that, according to a survey of business owners by American Association of Colleges and Universities, “nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the work force in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem solving”––a rather staggering statistic. While critical thinking skills are not only found in English or History classrooms, no one would dispute the fact that the crown jewel of an education in the humanities is the extensive training in critical thinking, whether fostered through in-depth textual analysis or in developing the argumentative prowess of a PoliSci major.  The powers-that-be would do well to reflect on this.


“They’ve redesigned the logo in the wake of funding cuts.”

Yet in terms of the humanities, even amongst those sympathetic to its aims, the popular perception of the “real” reason the humanities exists comes down not to critical thinking, but to passion––the fact that some of us have come, through the process of time, to be enamored with the great ideas of the past (and in fact, the term “humanities” emerged out of the intellectual turn from “scholasticism” to humanism in the 15th century).   As Adam Gopnik has succinctly put it, “The best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books have a place to do it is to have English departments around.”  History majors love history, philosophy majors love philosophy, and so on and so forth.  In defense of the existence of English departments, Gopkin stresses that love of literature is the raison d’etre of studying English and if there is a reason to continue supporting and not axing English departments it’s because

No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Because we are human and because we need to feel pleasure – this is why we should continue to teach English (and philosophy and history too), not because, as Gopnik puts it, “they will produce shrewder entrepeneurs or kinder C.E.O.s.”


And also this reason.

But why not have our cake and eat it too?  Is it possible that the humanities can offer all of the above? Practical skills, attention to moral and ethical concerns, as well as plain old fun?  In fact, for centuries literary endeavors were to follow the Horatian Ode and do just that“to delight and to instruct.” In an era in which deep-reading is also as much in crisis as deep critical thinking skills, it’s important to engage with both literature and critical theory, two areas that are in fact at the core of the humanities.  Although opposites in their intentions and aims, they also complement one another.  While art and literature seek to unabashedly put forth entrancing new ideas that hope to transform its viewers/readers and their world, critical theory seeks to analyze it to pieces and, in some cases, debunk it.  As the adage goes, “Opposites attract.”

Critical theory is not the only way to teach critical thinking, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important, given its attention to analyzing and critiquing the assumptions a society makes.  As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy more specifically puts it, “Some of [critical theory’s] core issues involve the critique of modernities and of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived pathologies of society,” critiques that inhere in traditional Marxist philosophy interested particularly in Hegelian dialectics.”  (Don’t worry if you don’t know what the hell I mean by “Marxist philosophy”––we’ll get to that later…)


What she said.

For the month of October though, I’m not going to go into the history of critical theory or solely summarize the concepts of some of its most influential thinkers (You’re welcome.)  Instead what I want to talk about and to demonstrate is the importance of critical theory, not for academics or undergraduate students, but for people, plain and simple––that is to say, critical theory on a personal, rather than purely “academic,” level.  Why? Because I believe the most exhilarating power of critical theory is its ability to allow us to discern the structural forces that act upon us as individuals, its ability to reveal the inner workings of life and destruct the monolithic force of our everyday understanding that things are “just the way they are.” It has the incredible ability to cultivate the power of discernment––to look at the world and see through its most tantalizing lies and insufferable cajolements.  And it has the same capacity to help one see through oneself, to understand the assumptions our perspectives come packaged with.

Real people, as people, not just professionals or academics, need these skills.  Not because it will help you get a job or make you more erudite, and not even because it’s “fun,” but because, in the end, it is empowering; it can change and liberate your perspective.  As Marx famously put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And to be or not to be the change we want to see in the world––that is the question.

[1] Many critics and scholars have noted that there are other factors to consider when it comes to the “crisis in the humanities” too. Heidi Tworek argues in a December 2013 issue of The Atlantic that the humanities technically lost favor in the 1980s and simply haven’t gained back its relative influence is primarily due to the increasing opportunities for women to major in subjects outside of the humanities, an attractive option for those with an eye toward gaining employment in more lucrative careers they were formerly unwelcome in.

Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.