Moving Sale!

After a few weeks of hard work, my new website is ready for a housewarming party! (psst…Candles are always a nice gift.) So update those bookmarks because this blog is moving over to! Feel free to poke around into all the new rooms–CV, Contact, Portfolio, and of course, the blog.  There are still a few renovations to complete, so stop by often for new content and improvements.  (Cookies really make a place feel like home too.)

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Bateaux Quittant le Port du Havre

Gustave Le Gray - Boats leaving the port of Le Havre, 1856 (1)Gustave Le Gray is undoubtedly one of the most important photographers of the  nineteenth century. Born outside of Paris in 1820, his early training was in painting; therefore, it’s not surprising that Le Gray favored the grand scale of landscapes and seascapes. However, much of his fame came in the early 1850s when he was chosen to participate in the Mission Héliographique, a project to document French monuments and architecture before restoration could begin.

Central Portal of the Church of Saint-Jacques, 1851

Central Portal of the Church of Saint-Jacques, 1851

The irony of restoration, as John Ruskin frequently lamented/stormed, is that it often involved destroying original masonry and sculptures, replacing them with modern reproductions.While no technology (and certainly no technique available in the mid-nineteenth century) could respectfully restore ancient monuments, Le Gray’s photographs went a long way towards  preserving  them, or at least images of the original for future generations to admire.

Le Gray was not only an active photographer, but an innovator as well, experimenting with techniques and technologies to improve photography. Louis Degeurre’s silver-plate process allowed for sharp details, but it was expensive, cumbersome to transport, required long exposures, and involved hazardous chemicals. Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype process used a paper negative, which was not only easier and less expensive, but also had the advantage of producing multiple prints from a single negative. One significant disadvantage of the calotype process, however, is that the paper was more vulnerable to absorption, unlike daguerreoytpe’s glass plates, leaving blurred edges with fewer crisp details. Le Gray’s solution was to treat the paper negative with wax, resulting in much more vivid photographs.

Le Gray was also an early innovator of “combination printing,” in which multiple negatives are used to print a single photograph.  Bateaux quittant le Port du Havre (Boats leaving the Port of Havre), 1856, shown above, is one of Le Gray’s many seascapes produced using this process. Because of the different exposures required to capture the dark shades of the sea and the bright light of the sky, Le Gray took two photographs and combined the negatives. The result is a deeply evocative chiaroscuro effect, in which the soft ripples of the sea, the clean lines of the ships, and the rich light shining through the clouds are all visible in a single print. Soon, Le Gray began teaching this and other photographic processes in his Paris studio, and though it later proved financially disastrous, his pupils, including Nadar and Maxime du Camp, became the leading figures in nineteenth-century French photography.

The Beech Tree, one of the most expensive photographs ever sold at auction.

The Beech Tree, one of the most expensive photographs ever sold at auction.

Le Gray frequently wrote about his experiments, as well as his philosophies on art. One question that dominated the discourse around photography was whether or not the camera was a scientific apparatus to accurately and objectively document “truth,” or whether photography was an art form in its own right, embracing creativity and subjectivity as part of its own particular aesthetic. Despite his frequent experiments and his involvement with the Mission Héliographique–which above all else was an endeavor to scientifically catalog and categorize French tourist sites–Le Gray was most interested in the aesthetics of photography. In his 1852 treatise, Le Gray wrote, “It is my deepest wish that photography, instead of falling within the domain of industry, of commerce, will be included among the arts. That is its sole, true, place, and it is in that direction that I shall always endeavor to guide it” (qtd. in Daniels). Photography still straddles that odd middle-ground between technology and aesthetics, but while we might admire Le Gray’s contributions to the science of photography, it is his use of light and shadow that captures our eye and imaginations.



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(Ad)ventures in Programming

zerosandonescaptureFor the last year I’ve been organizing a digital humanities working group in my graduate department. Like many scholars, I’ve been hearing about DH for a few years, and I’ve even been excited about potentials and projects, but I’ve never really known where to start. If you’re in the same boat, you can follow along with the working group’s progress as we start, quite literally, From Zeros and Ones. This new venture with my co-organizer, Maia Gil’Adi, will be a resource for those who are just starting out in DH, a forum for group members to discuss their own projects and experiences, and an on-going experiment in building and maintaining web content. We hope this new site will be interesting and informative whether you’re a seasoned pro, a novice, or more interested in gaining transferable tech skills for alt-ac/post-ac jobs.

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Why I Use Blogs as Teaching Tools

classblogFall 2013 is underway, and that means there’s a new class blog up at (It’s a bit wordy, but it’s easy for students to remember.) The three most common questions I get from colleagues each semester are (1) How do I find time to keep up a blog? (2) Why do I keep a class blog? and (3) How do I use/curate a class blog?

To address the first question: the blog actually saves me time. If there’s a topic that I don’t have time to teach, I can blog about it, which takes maybe 15-20 minutes of my time. Better still, I can assign a student to blog about it. Really, the students do most of the work; that’s the whole idea. My primary role is curatorial. The blog becomes an interactive writing assignment and, therefore, doesn’t take any more time on my part than a traditional assignment. Plus, they’re easier and more entertaining to grade.

I think that also answers the question of why I keep a class blog. I just didn’t have time in class to talk about fun topics like spirit photography or to show YouTube videos of an animated James Joyce reading Finnegan’s Wake. The blog lets us discuss those topics that students usually find really interesting. It also allows students to engage in digital scholarship and utilize a wide range of media while learning something about texts and contexts. It’s a format that most students are already familiar with, and it gives students who may not be great at class participation a chance to contribute more to the conversation.

That brings us to the other common question–the how. The instructions for the class blog are quite simple: I give a list of suggested topics and due dates, and students either choose from the list or propose their own topic and date. Most students choose from the list, which is designed to coincide with themes and topics from course readings. Students submit their posts, along with any media attachments, and, if I approve the post, it goes up on the class blog. Additionally, students are required to comment on at least five posts throughout the semester.

Like any other assignment, some students respond really well, and others don’t. On the anonymous evaluations at the end of each semester, some students find the assignment elementary, while others comment that the blog allowed them to engage with history and contexts in a way that made the text come to life. Ideally, by the end of the semester, students are collaborating and interacting on a digital project that they can be proud of. You can see an example of a previous class’s work at

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Edie, Thea, and the End of DOMA

Thea Spyer and Edie Windsor

I would be remiss to let this month–June, Pride month–and this historic week pass without paying at least some small tribute to the Edie Windsor, the Stonewall rioters, the plaintiffs of Prop 8, the majority opinions of the Supreme Court, and every person, activist or otherwise, that brought us to where we are today–where we weren’t just earlier this week. If you haven’t heard the story of Edie Windsor, who brought the case before SCOTUS, and her late wife Thea Spyer, Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement is available for streaming on Netflix.

DOMAFor those same-sex couples who are or want to be married in the US, and deserve equal protection, rights, benefits, and responsibilities of legal recognition, this decision was immediately life-changing. But even for those of us who aren’t or don’t want to be married, the end of DOMA and Prop 8 means a step closer to equality, a step farther away from being fired for being gay, being evicted, or being threatened in the street because you’re holding hands with the person you love. And I was ecstatic to be able to sit in the court earlier this year for a few moments of the DOMA case, and to stand outside cheering Wednesday as the rulings came down.

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Guest Blogging, Summer Salon Edition

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been organizing the Summer Salon Series, bringing together friends and colleagues to discuss music, dance, politics, art, and current events. After the inaugural event, I was asked by Molly Lewis, president of GW’s English Graduate Student Association, to write a post for EGSA’s blog. You can read, “Inaugural Salon Success” here, or contact me to learn more about our Salon events. The next event is this Thursday, June 27th, so stay tuned for more information (and dancing?)!

This isn’t my first time guest-blogging for EGSA; you can also read my post “Digital Humanities in the Classroom: Teaching Text with Technology” as part of EGSA’s excellent “Teaching Series.”

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Straightening Vernon Lee

Vernon Lee was more than just a nom de plume for Violet Plaget, it was her identity. She may have adopted the name to establish a reputation as an aesthete or to sell more books, but among her closest friends, she became Vernon Lee, and to the poet Mary Robinson, one of the women who knew her best, she was simply “Vernie.”

The details of Lee’s biography, particularly whom she may or may not have slept with, has garnered considerably more attention in recent years than what Lee wrote or believed, and among her scholars, there is a clear split into two camps. On one side, there are those who follow in the tradition of Irene Cooper Willis, Lee’s executor, who said, “Vernon was homosexual, but she never faced up to sexual facts. She was perfectly pure” (qtd in Newman 45). In a biography from a few years ago, Vineta Colby calls Lee a “sexually repressed lesbian” (xii). Colby takes considerably other liberties, not only in using Lee and Paget interchangeably, but also in frequently referring to her subject as VioletOn a first-name basis, Colby must be the last word on Lee’s sexuality.

On the other side of the aisle is Martha Vicinus, who has done a lot of interesting work on relationships, romantic and otherwise, between women,  Christa Zorn, whose biography approaches Lee by “redefining classical forms of male homoeroticism;” and Sally Newman, whose article “The Archival Traces of Desire: Vernon Lee’s Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History” argues, essentially, that archival collections cannot prove or disprove relationships that were often kept secret, encoded, or otherwise censored.

Vernon Lee, taken by Mary Robinson

In other words, there is a lot of debate,  and it arises because Lee never came out, as we understand that construction today. She never explicitly stated that she was a lesbian, though she was known to have romantic relationships with several women over the course of her life. In histories of sexuality, she is often recorded as a follower of Pater or as a friend of Oscar Wilde and John Singer Sargent, not as a lesbian in her own right.

There is something about being a woman–about being a lesbian–that is far more difficult to verify, or to acknowledge–not by the women themselves, for, as Sally Newman shows, we cannot know for sure–but for society. There’s something about being a lesbian writer that becomes improbable, erasable, or pathological.

I’m not saying this is simply the plight of the female homosexual: historians often speculate that Ruskin was a latent homosexual. But since that doesn’t explain his predilection for young girls, homosexuality becomes easily bundled in with pedophilia, as it often does in current political discourse, and tied together with a bow of mental illness.

A similar phenomenon surrounds Virginia Woolf, who is sometimes seen as a lesbian because cultural gossip is so eager to label her as such, but it would be more accurate, though perhaps anachronistic, to label her, if a label must be assigned at all, as bisexual. But, again, the narrative becomes progressively dire: had sex with women —–> recurrent bouts with mental illness ——> eventual suicide.  Ah, now it all makes sense.

In 1895, Max Nordau published Degeneration, which classified homosexuality in terms of both mental and a physical decay: “The pelvis retains a feminine form; certain other organs cease to develop, and the entire being presents a strange and repulsive mixture of incompleteness and decay” (538). This book, along with later works by Freud, et al helped to defined homosexuality as a mental illness. Lee was one of the first to counter Nordeau’s claims, which were open attacks on Sargent and Wilde. Nordau doesn’t really discuss female homosexuality, perhaps because it was believed that lesbians either did not exist, or they, like Lee, were simply invisible.

Lee’s lover, Clementina Anstruther Thomson by John Singer Sargent

But that did not keep Lee’s critics, or even modern scholars, from performing a similar pathology of Lee. She also suffered bouts of depression, which only added to her already eccentric persona, most empirically exemplified by her masculine bearing and dress. Even worse, she was that most dreaded of labels–a spinster.  And because she remained private about her sexuality, there is no way to say how she identified or how what labels she might accept today–lesbian? butch? transgender? It’s all speculation, but it is no less speculative than to call Lee a “failed lesbian.” To label Lee as repressed simply because she didn’t openly proclaim her attraction to women is akin to associating female homosexuality with  mental illness, but these often seem to be the only choices available, even to modern scholars, when there is too much evidence to simply sweep Lee under the rug of compulsory heterosexuality.

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Cheers to the New Blog!


Photo credit: Julie Seigel

Here you’ll find updates about my research, sagas from the archives, spotlights on obscure texts I’m reading, information about upcoming conferences, and info about my many experimental prototypes in the Digital Humanities. And you may, from time to time, find posts on personal interests like art exhibitions, events in DC, or maybe even the recipe for the citrus-vanilla concoction seen here. Feel free to poke around and come back often.

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