In the humanities, we place human creation at the center of inquiry. Our work, in its essence, is a dialogue with things people have made and, through them, with particular human creators—their histories and aesthetics, beliefs and philosophies, practices and communities. While the artifacts through which we learn vary by discipline, what humanists have in common is our need for close encounters. Through in-depth examination, we probe the evidence that tells a story: a tool that shows the marks of its use, a hastily handwritten letter, the many editions of a censored novel, the dispersed fragments of a mural, the different versions of a folktale, a photograph album, a new pigment, an extra bead, an extravagant word. We make our methods of observation and assessment available to novice researchers as well, by bringing students into contact with these primary sources and guiding them through the process of investigation, with its dead-ends, unexpected turns, sustained analyses, and proofs.

While original artifacts are irreplaceable in terms of what they tell us, teaching with them in the usual ways is temporarily off the table. So what can we do for our online courses now and in the near future? Luckily, we have recourse to many repositories of digital surrogates, which are eminently transferable to virtual teaching environments.

Here, I will focus on some fundamental pedagogical approaches to textual digital surrogates; in a follow-up post, I’ll describe some basic ways to find them.

Textual digital surrogates, as opposed to digital images of paintings, buildings, or musical instruments, are scans of paper or some other support, like parchment or amate, inscribed with manuscript and/or printed text. They provide access to words but also to the material features of textual artifacts that can be apprehended by sight: illustrations and ornaments, inscriptions, scripts and typography, bindings and support types, lay-out and design. In these ways, digital surrogates differ from text-only e-texts, published in plain text, HTML, or epub formats—a transcription of the words only, with minimal embellishments. There are two basic orientations to digital images of analog originals that we can incorporate into virtual teaching environments; I call these modes of study “the window” and “the wrapper.”

The Window

In window mode, the digital surrogate is used as an aid to observation; we view the artifact “through” it, much as we would look at an object behind glass. Just as we are aware of a transparent window, we are aware of the digital platform, but our aim, essentially, is to ignore it—except when we take advantage of enhancements like magnification.

Experienced researchers frequently use digital surrogates in this mode all the time: when we can’t gain access to an original because it is too far away or too fragile to touch. Experienced researchers also use digital surrogates as aide-mémoires, reproductions that help us continue research after an initial examination of the original, or, if the surrogate is a high-quality scan, to get up close to details that would be difficult to see otherwise.

You can teach your students to navigate digital surrogates in window mode by asking them to:

  • Look closely at distinctive characteristics of the original that tell readers what it is and how to read it.
  • Try to gather as much visual evidence as you can about the material components of the original.
  • Turn or scroll through pages in a manner that is consistent with the use of the original medium, format, or genre, to capture the experience of its original readers.
  • Finally, experiment with additional observations you can make using the platform’s features, such as magnification, searching, annotating, and so on.

The overall goal is to help students grasp the text’s original appearance and use—and, possibly, to glimpse its production, circulation, and first reception. Note: if you are keen for students to learn some of the vocabulary that bibliographers use to describe textual objects, you can ask them to consult the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America’s glossary of book terms, John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, a revered dictionary of bookish terms, or the Society of American Archivists’ brand-new Dictionary of Archives Terminology.

The Wrapper

What your students will undoubtedly discover is that it’s not possible to completely ignore the nuts and bolts of the digital surrogate: even when we try to look through it, we bump up against its presence as a thing in its own right, with affordances that are not identical to those of the thing it represents. But this encounter is itself interesting and worthy of further analysis. Indeed, such questions are at the heart of humanist inquiry: how do human creations and the interpretations they enable change as they are transmitted over time, as their forms and/or vessels transform?

Teaching your students to observe and analyze the digital surrogate as a wrapper—the latest remediation of the original in what is, quite possibly, a series of multiple remediations—might be harder in some ways and easier in others than helping them use it in window mode. On one hand, those of us who use digital resources often (and that’s pretty much all of us) have trained ourselves not to look too closely at the frameworks we traverse in the course of our research… partly because, in window mode, they count as noise, not signal; it can be draining to give them our focused attention. On the other hand, we usually do pay attention when they don’t function well. This potential or actual difficulty might be the point of departure with students.

  • What does the digital surrogate prevent you from doing, seeing, or understanding?
  • How does it fail as an imitation of the original?
  • How is its “operation”—using it as a reader—similar to or different from the experience you would have with an analog original?

An inventory of a digital surrogate’s advantages should follow from the initial inventory of its disadvantages. Both evaluations can be expedited by comparison, if one is available, to a text-only e-text. And both can also lead to observations about systems of access and, indeed, what gets preserved and digitized in the first place, thus illuminating absences in the historical record. Using a digital surrogate as the springboard for an imaginative recreation of an original, its reproductions, and the losses within and around it, students can begin to understand not just what is important about the single artifact under consideration but also the networks—material, social, ideological, and technological—that made and continue to make its existence possible.

For some ways to find digital surrogates, please stay tuned.