This week was my first week back in The William Blake Archive offices in over a month having taken a hiatus from work in order to study and take my PhD qualifying exams. This was the longest break I have had away from the archive since starting graduate school, and the first day back in the office helped me appreciate the healthy difference between my archive work and my research work.
During my exam month, I became in all practical sense a hermit. I significantly reduced my non-exam related work load, isolated myself from my social circles, and hunkered down in stacks of books and notes. I found this experience of intense and isolated study both exhilarating and disorienting. Because I had quieted the busy hum of my everyday life, my thoughts seemed clearer, and I began to make real and abstract connections between authors, ideas, historical periods, and genres. More than ever before I entered into and dwelt in a world of ideas.
While I found this exciting, by the end of the month, I had to remind myself that I am not just a brain but also a body. I found myself realizing that there is danger in a particular kind of learning that fends off rather than engages the world. There is a kind of education that people can receive which somehow ironically enables them to hold onto ideas about life, society, social problems, and other intellectual things in such a way that those ideas actually cut them off from life rather than help them make contact with reality. In other words, I recognized my dangerous attraction to a kind of thought-life that would keep me locked inside my own head. This recognition framed, in a new way, the importance, for me, of consistently engaging in academic work that forces me to navigate the messy space connecting the abstract to the actual.
I realized that this is what my work on The William Blake Archive is to me. Be it transcribing Blake’s letters, wrestling with questions about marginalia, struggling to represent a line in XML, and engaging in conversations about editorial practice with my colleagues, I am able to see where abstract ideas can meet actual implementation and am pulled out of my mental isolation into a collaborative learning community. My suspicion, and hope, is that this is a healthy and relieving mental experience that digital humanities projects bring to undergraduate and graduate students on a weekly basis.