Campus News

Student takes lead role in expanding digital humanities at UB

Shaun Nowicki, a master's student in English, has learned XML coding in order to transcribe historical documents — from pamphlets on the Great Plague to 300-year-old family cookbooks — to universally accessible electronic files. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published February 21, 2020

“Bringing these to a digital medium allows more people to enjoy them. Plays, recipe books, journals. It gives us a connection to the past I think is really necessary in understanding how our own world works. ”
Shaun Nowicki, second-year master's student
Department of English

One website calls digital humanities a “revolutionary humanities education,” praising those initiated in the sub-culture of digital editing for their “pioneering effort.”

With that introduction, meet Shaun Nowicki, a second-year master’s candidate in the Department of English who, in his unassuming way, is a driving force in the expanding UB world of digital humanities.

Bringing with him a long-standing interest in poetry, Nowicki has uploaded a new ability to transcribe historical documents — from pamphlets on the Great Plague to 300-year-old family cookbooks — to universally accessible electronic files.

But how did a former editor of his high school poetry magazine in nearby Hamburg become someone who uses technology to increase the accessibility of obscure historical works further than scholars a few decades ago would have ever dreamed?

Nowicki has a reasonable and passionate answer: a little computer knowledge in an English major makes a big difference.

“I can look at these texts at a different level,” says Nowicki. “Not only on the level of meaning — reading a Shakespeare play and what it can say about the human condition — but also looking at how the book is put together, the pages, the book itself, and what that means.

“Bringing these to a digital medium allows more people to enjoy them. Plays, recipe books, journals. It gives us a connection to the past I think is really necessary in understanding how our own world works.”

Learning to code helped Shaun Nowicki change the way he understands his field of study.

Navigating the world of digital editing

First, a few words on digital editing, both what it is and how Nowicki became what a faculty mentor called a “student trailblazer.”

Nowicki’s path started quietly enough. Following his passion for poetics, Nowicki came across the Marianne Moore Digital Archive, curated in UB’s Department of English and devoted to making the notebooks of the early 20th century poet readily available to the public. The project needed someone to code elements to preserve their collection and allow more people to see it.

Nowicki applied, and to his surprise was accepted. He soon was learning how to translate a document to a computer file using a relatively straightforward “markup language,” or coding system called XML. He took part in a seminar presented by the Folger Shakespeare Library about encoding Renaissance literature. He started examining texts 400 to 500 years old, becoming the instrument that made them available to researchers today.

Nowhere are the possibilities of digital editing more clear than the Marianne Moore Digital Archive, a project curated by Cristanne Miller, SUNY Distinguished Professor and founder and director of the archive.

“What this does for Marianne Moore is it makes accessible to the world material that has never been published and otherwise is virtually inaccessible,” says Miller. “Marianne Moore kept 122 notebooks on just about everything she was doing in her life. Conversations she overheard. What she was reading. Drafts of poetry. Lectures. Whatever interested her in any way, she wrote down in these notebooks.”

Before the Marianne Moore Digital Archive, these notebooks were available for viewing in a Philadelphia museum only 18 hours a week. “So if you are a scholar in France, Sweden or Israel and wanted to see archival material, you could fly to Philadelphia, but you could only see the material 18 hours a week,” Miller says. “Otherwise, you are twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the next time you could be able to get in.”

Digital editing turned the world of Marianne Moore documents on its head. The Marianne Moore Digital Archive has permission to publish all that original material electronically. “So that’s what we’re doing,” Miller says.

The next step in this humanities revolution is the work itself. Someone has to transcribe original documents to universally available computer files, and it’s more than mere copying words into a computer file. That’s where Nowicki comes in.  

Nowicki was like a digital humanities Pied Piper. He was instrumental in creating “the collaborative environment that helps foster success for later additions to the team,” according to Nikolaus Wasmoen, visiting assistant professor in the Department of English who has worked closely with Nowicki.

“Shaun stands out to me for not only his skills and understanding of the critical issues at stake in our digital editing project,” says Wasmoen, “but also for his enthusiasm and effort to help promote the project and to help introduce other students to this exciting, though challenging, and often misunderstood work.”

A scholarly door opened for Nowicki when he learned to code.

“Basically, it has to do with replicating what the page looks like,” Nowicki says. “You are telling a computer how to display things. There is a whole handbook for encoding standards for XML, basically saying, ‘Do you need to display something?’ So anything else I don’t know I look up.”

In the 18 months since he started learning code, Nowicki has seen more than a few digital editing sights. The material often more closely resembles something out of the Da Vinci Code than merely copying words. That’s the thing about digital editing: There’s a clear sense of mystery, intrigue and discovery.

“You have to look at the page, every page as a sort of holistic grouping, like a piece of art itself,” Nowicki says. “And you are trying to reproduce it as close as you can.”

One of his recent digital editing projects centers on “The Wonderful Year,” a pamphlet about the plague written and published in 1609-10 by the British playwright Thomas Dekker. “There’s a possibility Dekker and Shakespeare would have known each other, and maybe even collaborated,” says Nowicki.

Discovery moments in the transcribathons

Nothing captures the digital editing esprit de corps like the transcribathons, a kind of digital editing crowd sourcing. Hundreds of people throughout the country go online to work on the same problem, a shared experience that bonds them into a cyber community.

With Wasmoen’s guidance, Nowicki helped organize the last UB transcribathon, held in 2018 in Silverman Library. Sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library, everyone examined a mid-17th century family cookbook. One of the recipes involved preserving oranges because they were a luxury commodity. And the family writing the cookbook kept changing the spelling of orange, a twist everyone looking at the manuscript could see at the same time.

“Once people figure it out, it’s a real discovery moment,” says Nowicki. “When an archaic spelling suddenly makes sense, that’s a connection you’ve made to the past. It makes history more real, especially when you are working with personal cookbooks.”

Nowicki now must navigate through the highly competitive, high-stakes game of acceptance at a top-notch doctorate program. His newfound skills have not only enhanced his status in the digital academic world, but also produced an academic symmetry to complement his academic research.

 “Shaun may be my very best student ever,” says Barbara Bono, associate professor and former chair of the Department of English, who wrote Nowicki’s PhD letter of recommendation. “He certainly is my very best-prepared undergraduate ever, especially given the complex and ever-changing world of scholarship, pedagogy, and university and public service he would enter.”

Bono took great pains to explain Nowicki’s vast breath of academic accomplishments — from his honors thesis screenplay Bono called a bayou film “King Lear” to his canonical research into Biblical prophecy. But like Wasmoen, Bono stressed Nowicki’s personal values as much as his academic accomplishments.

“Most impressively to me, nothing is ever lost on Shaun,” Bono says. “He loves to read, to speculate and to think.

“The first member of his family to finish college, he will never lose his working-class ethic and his focus on social justice.”