Women Writers

Via UnSplash.

An SIUE professor’s project to recover works by women writers is using a $50,000 grant to create a hub for research.

Jessica DeSpain is an English professor and co-director of the SIUE Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship Center. The project works to create a hub where researchers can access support, technology and peer review as they recover works by women writers, of whom at least 50 percent are non-white and LGBTQ voices.

The project received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the hub. The project received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the hub. DeSpain is the project director for a team of 20 collaborators from across the U.S. according to SIUE’s Fall 2021 Research and Creative Activities magazine.

DeSpain, who also serves as primary investigator of the Hub, developed the idea from the Recovery Hub’s sister organization: the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, she said.

“It’s basically the work of trying to find and acknowledge the works of women writers and get them in front of students and get them out in the public and let people know that they exist. The project works really hard to do that equitably and to think about intersectional identity,” DeSpain said. “It’s really invested in recovering the works of Latinx women and African American women, and sort of the full range of women who are writing, not just in the 19th century, but more contemporarily as well.”

The Recovery Hub exists because previously, works like this would be recovered by printing presses, so that professors could teach them or people could buy them. However now, that has become less sustainable due to the presses not having as much money as they used to, according to DeSpain.

“So digital recovery is kind of the answer to that question, but a lot of times the scholars who do recovery work don’t necessarily have the digital skills necessary to make a solid recovery edition online,” DeSpain said. “The work of the Recovery Hub is really to help all of those different scholars learn how to do that work and give them the tools that they need to do that work.”

DeSpain said the work is important because everyone knows popular writers like Walt Whitman and Herman Mellville, but they don’t know much about the women writing during the same time period. She also said that women tended to use a different format.

“Sometimes what we recover is speeches, it’s all different kinds of ways in which women told their story. And if we don’t do the work to recover that, then that story is lost, essentially,” DeSpain said. “We only get a couple of perspectives, but not all of the perspectives that matter and that kind of informs how we understand history and literature and culture.”

Margaret Smith, a research assistant professor of digital humanities at SIUE, also works within the Recovery Hub project as a co-investigator and director of consultation. She said her job has been to design the training process and to train the consultants that offer consultation to anyone who is working on a project.

“Because digital humanities scholarship can have a lot of barriers to entry just because there’s so many different tools and technologies and it’s hard to know where to start sometimes, so one of the things that the Hub offers then is consultations,” Smith said. “We have five consultants who are librarians, some of them are English professors and so their job is to kind of talk through these project ideas and offer guidance, resources and sometimes just someone to bounce ideas off of.”

Smith said that this work impacts society in many ways, but a change to the canon of literature as we currently know it will benefit society at large, as well as individuals due to more voices improving these types of conversations.

“To think about it in terms of what we call a canon, that’s sort of that collection of authors and voices and people that we consider to be authoritative, that we think offer us these sorts of principles or sort of very pithy statements. Those are the things that we think of as being sort of normative for society,” Smith said. “If all we have in that foundation then are the dead white men, that’s really going to both hinder how we’re thinking about big ideas, but also, how people envision themselves within society, right. It’s a matter of representation. It’s a matter of a plurality of voices.”

Kristen Lillvus, a professor of English at St. Catherine University in Minnesota, serves as the co-investigator and director of pedagogical studies on the Recovery Hub. She said she creates learning materials for teachers to utilize in classrooms about the peer-reviewed projects that are being recovered.

“In addition to giving information about those projects, we’re also going to offer to people who visit the website, teaching materials so people will be able to access syllabi and lesson plans and maybe even sample student works. So that they can more easily incorporate those recovered projects into their own classrooms and then their own, you know, studies and so on,” Lillvus said.

Lillvus became involved after being on a panel with DeSpain at SSAWW conference about digital projects and had discussed DeSpain’s idea for the Hub and said she knew she wanted to be a part of it.

“[I had previously worked at Marshall University] and there I had developed teaching materials for texts that were in our library archives, and I had developed materials for … university instructors, but also high school teachers,” Lillvus said. “Because I have a little bit of that experience doing that, I think it was a good fit for the Hub. So, I’m excited to be involved in that way.”

Lillvus said she is not only excited about the Hub because it features recovered works by women, but also works by women of color and to have access for scholars of color to be able to have resources for these projects.

“You know, too long academia has underserved those individuals. And so it’s making sure that digital humanities and American literature is open and accessible [for] underrepresented voices,” Lillvus said. “And so, I’m excited and I want to be a part of that project.”

Lillvus said the materials she helps create will help students and instructors understand the relationship of these recovered and lesser-known texts to the well-known texts. She, like Smith, said projects like the Hub and others will help change the canon to be more representative of society.

“There are a lot of sites that we’re really looking to as models, and I think it’s important to credit them. The Color Conventions Project for example, has long worked to make sure that Black author texts are available and also that teaching resources for these texts were available,” Lillvus said. “And we’ve seen how projects like that have already done a lot of canon changing work. So yeah, we know it can change the way that we think about American literature, and I think the Hub will be part of that.”

For more information on the Recovery Hub and their work, visit their website.

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