Literatures, Languages & Cultures

The digital humanities, the ‘Vandegrifter’, and me: Dr Robyn Pritzker

The recent English Literature PhD graduate traces her journey from book historian to digital encoder of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson’s previously-unknown short stories.

It was on a 2016 visit to the archives of the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St Helena, California, that Dr Robyn Pritzker first came across four Gothic fairy tale manuscripts by Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson … and her PhD thesis took an unexpected turn.

While virtually everything about Fanny’s life is known through the fact of her marriage to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, her own writing had been left unevaluated until Robyn’s archival discovery, prompting the then PhD student to wonder how best to free the work from discussions about Stevenson (whose father is believed to have coined Fanny’s nickname, ‘the ‘Vandegrifter’) and his legacy.

As Robyn - whose interests lie in American women's writing in the nineteenth century, as well as transformations of the Gothic genre from that period onwards - says: “I ended up holding onto the manuscripts for a while to figure out what the best thing was to do with them, and to give [Fanny] a chance to stand on her own and represent herself”.

Explaining how her PhD transformed into a Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) project, wherein literary and linguistic texts can be made ‘machine-readable’, she explains: “I decided that building a digital edition [of Fanny’s short stories] would be the best way; not only would it be open source and open access - and that means accessible to the general public - but also the first instance of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson having her own work out there in the world”.

Video: The digital humanities, the 'Vandegrifter' and me video 2019
Interview with Dr Robyn Pritzer

A new way of looking at the Stevenson family

Prior to her PhD, Robyn completed our MSc in Book History and Material Culture and has been researching the Stevenson family, including Fanny’s two children, at the University of Edinburgh for around five years.

It was her primary supervisor and Co-Investigator, Dr Anouk Lang, who first suggested to her that the recently-founded Centre for Data, Culture, and Society (CDCS) would be a good fit for the project; its Small Digital Development Grants would be perfectly suited to the creation of a scholarly digital edition of the forgotten short stories and, as Robyn says of their expertise, “having worked with people from the Centre before, we knew it was a wonderful community and that they’d be supportive of the work”.

CDCS describes the project as an example of "what can be achieved with TEI-encoded text, creating the potential for analysis and putting Stevenson’s work back into conversation of nineteenth-century writers and literary-critical understandings of the period."  

The writer’s connection to Edinburgh was also important, as Robyn explains: “Working in this city, and throughout this city, is a good way of offering another perspective on the Stevenson family and allowing this side of the family, and Fanny’s legacy, to be seen in a way it hasn’t been before”.

A broad portfolio of new skills

Asked what she’s learned through the project, Robyn says “I didn’t just pick up the research and writing skills that you might expect. I also got to pick up all sorts of digital humanities skills and technical capabilities that I never would have imagined I could have taken on, or been good at”.

“Because of the resources and the projects I’ve been able to work on, I’ve learned many skills that I didn’t even really know existed; HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), text encoding, and authorship attribution, GIS (Geographic Information System) and digital mapping… all sorts of things. I’ve also picked up a pretty broad portfolio of project management skills. It’s been kind of a roller coaster, but I’ve absolutely loved it.”

Asked about the role of TEI, and other forms of digital encoding and analysis in English Literature, she reflects: “I think that people can tend to be a little bit intimidated by it, or think that maybe it threatens traditional or conventional forms of studying the humanities. But what you really get with digital humanities projects is a chance to expand the possibilities, gather new information and work with teams that you may never have worked with otherwise”.

“There’s absolutely nothing that would get in the way of all of the tried and true methodologies”.

The Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture & Society (CDCS) brings together researchers across the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh and beyond.

Exploring the ways in which data and digital technology are transforming our world, it supports research groups and projects, facilitates collaborative partnerships, and runs an exciting programme of seminars, events, training and networking opportunities. The Centre's Lead for the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC) is Dr Anouk Lang, and members include Dr Beatrice Alex, Chancellor's Fellow at the Edinburgh Futures Institute and LLC.

As part of the Centre's training programme, Robyn will be leading an Introduction to 'Text Encoding with TEI' workshop on Thursday 21st November (1:30-4:30pm) in the  Digital Scholarship Centre, Centre for Research Collections, Main Library, University of Edinburgh.

Find out more about the workshop and book your place on the CDCS website

Are you interested in postgraduate study in English Literature at Edinburgh?

Based in the first UNESCO World City of Literature, we are the oldest department of English Literature in the UK and one of the longest established in the world. From taught masters programmes to Masters by Research degrees and PhDs, we have a wide range of study options and our community involves reading and discussion groups (a number of which are student led), talks by visiting speakers, ‘work-in-progress’ seminars, conferences and creative writing events. Our PhD students also contribute to, and edit, the journal Forum.

Find out more about postgraduate study in English Literature at Edinburgh

Related links

The Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture & Society