through another prism

A couple of weeks ago Suzanne Keen and Alison Booth offered a workshop at the Scholars’ Lab. The workshop was an introduction to BESS (Biographical Elements and Structure Schema), “an XML standoff markup schema designed at IATH as part of Professor Booth’s IATH Fellowship to analyze narrative structure.” If you recall from Bethany’s introduction, the original idea for Prism was inspired in part by recent discussions with Alison about her project.

The workshop/talk was divided into two parts, each related to our Prism in one way or another. In the first part, we were broken up into four groups, each with a small biography of a woman from Collective Biographies of Women. The biographies were printed on copy paper with each paragraph clearly enumerated. Our task was to work as a team to assign one or more of six basic narratological categories separating the Story from the Narrative to each paragraph. The categories roughly corresponded to how one would linearize a person’s life: a)Before they lived, b) The beginning, c)The middle (career period), d) A climax (some kind of breakthrough), e) The end and, of course, d) The post-life. Me and Bethany ended up in the same team, the Sister Dora team. (Sister Dora, if you haven’t heard about her, was the nurse in whose arms you probably would’ve died in the 19th Century). We were struck right away by the differences from our prism exercises. Not only were we assigning categories by paragraphs, we had to come to consensus as teams! The team consensus gives the exercise a much different dynamic as you can imagine.

The second part of the exercise was closer to our model. Each of us was given four paragraphs in a sheet of paper, a transparency and four markers. Sound familiar? We each could only pick one category out of four. I remember I chose figures of speech. I don’t remember the other three categories, but I do remember being surprised to find only a very small number of figures of speech in the sample text. Again, this exercise was very different than our prism. While we give users access to all categories, in this case users are only allowed one category. After we were all done marking up the texts, Ms. Keen collected the transparencies.

At this point she started doing something really neat which I think we are going to emulate in our visualization. She laid one transparency on the projector. She then laid another one on top of the first, ever so slowly. The ‘animation’ effect was very cool to watch, as all the different transparencies started shifting the direction and overall effect of the whole.

After the workshop we had time to talk about the goal of the BESS project and how it relates to the transparency and team exercises. BESS consists of a standard set of narratological ‘tags’ for marking up biographies of women. The list Prof. Booth showed us was very long. Teams of students are assigned the task of marking up the texts using these categories. Of course, there will be much disagreement, but the goal is to find those places were different encoders agree as a tool to help the editors decide what the ‘final’ markup should be. This is a world apart from our goals, but does provide another possible use case for the tool we are actually building.

Textual critic, high theory acolyte, archive rat, hard-hat Caribbeanist, Rails aficionado, conference-trotter. My thesis focuses on the evolution of the play Et les chiens se taisaient by Aimé Césaire. Other projects include: an edition of Césaire, THATCampCaribe, a better Juxta, a class on #critcode, and Prism at the Praxis Program.

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