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Definitive Edition Lab: An Experiment in Collaborative Humanities

When COVID-19 upended the spring 2020 semester, all classes had to transition to online coursework in just a few weeks, and research collaborations between faculty and students were thrown into doubt. Fortunately, four students working with English Professor Melanie Dawson were able to translate their passions in class into a summer research opportunity by creating a ‘definitive edition’ of Edith Wharton’s novel The Mother’s Recompense.
The four students, Ella Hadrovic ’21, Angie Weber ’23, Olivia Haller ’23 and Lila Ingersoll ’22, teamed up with Dawson in the final weeks of the spring semester. They were all enrolled in Dawson’s “20th Century Women Authors” course, and when Dawson sent out an open invitation to her students to get involved with a new summer research opportunity working with Wharton literature, they eagerly dived in. Together they formed a collaborative Definitive Edition Lab, an experiment in collaborative humanities research funded by the Charles Center.

Ingersoll saw the research opportunity as a unique way to explore her English passions, though she acknowledged that her interesting ancestral lineage was also a good motivation for getting involved with the lab.
“I got involved with the Definitive Edition Lab after taking a class with Professor Dawson last Spring,” Ingersoll said. “She spoke to us about the opportunity and I was curious about doing this work as I may want to go into publishing for my career. I also am related to Edith Wharton, so I thought it would be really cool to learn more about her.”

Working in pairs, they spent the summer discovering and recording every variation in the many editions of Wharton’s 1925 novel, which tells the tale of an expatriate’s return to New York at the request of the daughter whom she once abandoned. Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature and is best known for her novels The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.

The project involved producing multiple digitized versions of The Mother’s Recompense to compare all print editions issued during Wharton’s lifetime. The first copy was the handwritten manuscript — also known as a “holograph text” — followed by the serialized printing from the magazine Pictorial Review, followed by the first print edition or “copy text”, and subsequent printings within the run of the first edition. The four students ultimately sought a holistic account of all changes to the text during Wharton’s lifetime, a meticulous process that necessitated acquiring all of the aforementioned versions of the text, making high quality copies of them, and then comparing each iteration word-for-word using a combination of computational and manual endeavors. The final product, to be published by Oxford University Press as part of a larger series on Wharton, will contain notes on each page explaining the changes that occurred as the book evolved.

ella_hadrovic_research_2.jpgDuring the initial stages of their research, students worked as if they were in a seminar, first reading The Mother’s Recompense and immersing themselves in Wharton’s writing, which helped them contextualize places, slogans and other literary intricacies for useful footnotes. Dawson said that familiarizing the students with Wharton’s background and other works was essential to facilitating the creation of the definitive text. 

“It was interesting to have everyone fan out and explore different literary works,” Dawson said. “I had initially imagined diving right in to textual comparisons, but then I realized that students would profit from a more extensive exploration of Wharton’s works.  I also thought that this element of the lab would allow the students to apply what we learned to upper-level English classes in the future.”

Dawson said that Haller supplemented her reading of The Mother’s Recompense with The Age of Innocence, for example, while Ingersoll explored The House of Mirth, and through their reading, each identified characteristic use of language, particular metaphors, and plot points that related to novel at the center of the lab. 

Hadrovic said learning about Wharton as an author helped break up the intense nature of read-backs, which required student pairs to compare each word in every sentence of the various editions. Read-backs were an important aspect of creating the definitive edition since they ensured that two sets of eyes would review each textual version, but Hadrovic said getting to delve into Wharton’s works was a welcome reprieve from the sometimes monotonous routine of analyzing each edition so closely.

“Wharton is an author who focuses on themes, like motherhood and age, and certain themes stick out so much throughout the novels,” Hadrovic said. “… What Professor Dawson did, which I think is really amazing, is that she took this opportunity and made it into a learning experience for us. She also budgeted a lot of time to talk about Wharton as an author, to look at her different works and to look at the contexts of what these changes mean.”

Like all research, once the initial steep learning curve leveled off, there was a period of data gathering that sometimes felt repetitive and tedious. Dawson was afraid students would find the work boring due to the time-consuming nature of read-backs and text analysis, but Haller said the read-back processes were surprisingly enjoyable.

 “I personally loved the readback sessions, even though Professor Dawson warned us that they might become tedious and monotonous,” Haller said. “They, for sure, were both tedious and monotonous, but enjoyable nonetheless … One of us would be looking at Pictorial Review while the other would be reading, letter by letter, including punctuation, paragraphs, lines, etc., of the original copy. Just imagine that you have read this email out loud, l-e-t-t-e-r (space) b-y (space) l-e-t-t-e-r (exclamation point)! Whenever a change was noted, we wrote down the page, paragraph, line, and the difference found in both editions in a Google doc. By the time we finished the project, we had over 40 pages of changes.”

These read-backs were hugely constructive in creating a definitive version of The Mother’s Recompense, and Dawson said that the students’ efforts during the seven-week research project accomplished a great deal in a relatively short timeframe.

Weber, who was just a freshman when she took her spring semester course with Dawson, said that the process of read-backs and working with Wharton’s texts helped her craft a more cohesive vision for her remaining time in the English department at William & Mary. In addition to developing strong partnership skills over the summer after working with Hadrovic almost every day, Weber is grateful to have cemented her passions for publishing and text editing: two skills she’s excited to pursue during her remaining three years on campus.

“Usually when you go into college and you decide to be an English major, you don’t expect to do any kind of research,” Weber said. “But this definitely solidified my interests in publishing and editing … I think no matter what I end up doing, it’s great practice working closely with someone and developing your own communication with them, because reading by letter requires understanding each other. Doing research and getting good at tracing little trails of thought serves you in any field you could possibly go in.”

While many English majors pursue research through solo-authored Honors theses, the Definitive Edition Lab experience provided these four students with a feel for a different kind of knowledge-generation process, one in which collaboration and teamwork can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.