Wednesday, February 24, 2016

ETC Interview with Hugh Houghton: Part 2

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Congratulations to Drew Longacre for winning our book giveaway! Thanks to all who participated. I have taken note of your many suggestions for future interviewees. Now here is part 2 of our interview with Hugh Houghton in which we learn of his secret life as a Disney star! Part 1 is here.


You work at the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE) where “computer methods are now fundamental to every stage of the editorial process.” The emergence of digital texts has been hailed as “revolutionary,” something that frees “writing from the frozen structure of the page” (source). From your vantage, how important are electronic texts to how we conceive of texts, how we use them, and how we edit them?

It has become something of a truism, but I do agree with those who say that the advent of digital media is likely to have an even greater impact on our approach to texts than the invention of printing. Of course, in textual criticism, one of the principal benefits of digitisation has been the imaging of primary sources, meaning that we can read the pages of manuscripts from across the world without even travelling to the nearest library.

But electronic text itself offers an even more powerful research tool in terms of the questions we can ask, from examining a particular copyist’s spelling habits or use of abbreviations to reconstructing phylogenetic relationships for an entire textual tradition. First of all, though, we have to encode texts in such a way that we can use them to answer these questions, and no doubt others which we haven’t yet thought of.

The adoption of editing software such as Peter Robinson’s COLLATE has completely changed the way we approach the task of editing the New Testament: no longer is the focus on the painstaking assembly of a critical apparatus, summarising as much information as economically as possible. Instead, the software allows us to generate a collation automatically from transcription files, and the emphasis is now on preparing an accurate full-text electronic transcription of each witness which can then be explored and re-used in the ways I mentioned.

Speaking of analog versus digital, there have been plans to publish the ECM and the Nestle-Aland in both forms. What role do you see electronic editions playing alongside their print counterparts? Are the two more like cassette tapes and MP3s or like radio and television?

Those are interesting analogies. In terms of our own reading practices, I suspect that the parallel with cassettes and MP3s reflects the element that personal choice plays. Some people like to have a printed book; others are happier reading from a screen (and availability also plays a part: certain books are much easier to get hold of as PDFs than in hard copy). But in terms of the structure of an edition, the difference is far more pronounced: with an electronic edition, we can use hyperlinks to move from an apparatus to a full-text transcription to an image to a list of all quotations of that verse in later authors with the click of a mouse. So the edition becomes even more a gateway to the surviving evidence, perhaps the equivalent of ‘virtual reality’ in which we can approach the data from whichever angle we choose and have to make our own decisions about how we assess them, rather than, say, a radio or television programme which can prompt all sorts of ideas in each member of the audience but still has a fixed format and is limited in terms of the scope for interaction.

Two of the major projects at ITSEE right now are the IGNTP work on John and the Pauline Commentary Project. Can you tell us about the aims of each of these projects and how far along they are? Should we expect to see the ECM of John in print in the next 24 months?

Well, the ECM of John, in fact the ECM more generally, has been one of the pioneering projects for creating a born-digital edition of a huge textual tradition, and there have been all sorts of developments and spin-offs along the way, such as the Codex Sinaiticus project or the Virtual Manuscript Rooms. One of the advantages of working electronically is the possibility of publishing the data at each stage. So transcriptions of all 232 Greek manuscripts of John selected for the ECM have already been released on www.iohannes.com/XML, along with some of the versional evidence, and I know that there are plans to put the edited collation online in the next few months.

I also hope that it will be possible to make an interface to allow people to undertake advanced searches in the database of citations, but keeping the technical development up-to-date while maintaining the functionality required by the editors and the integrity of the data is a considerable task. Sisyphean, one might say, although the boulder will eventually get to the top and take us down the other side into an exciting new world!

And can you say something about the Pauline Commentary Project?

Oh yes, sorry. Well, commentaries play a much more significant part in the early history of the textual tradition of Paul than they do in John, so the intention behind the COMPAUL project (funded by the European Research Council) was to develop an understanding of these which would enable us to move forward with the planned ECM edition of the Pauline Epistles by the IGNTP, as well as the Vetus Latina edition of the four principal Epistles.

We still have a few months left to run, but much more has been achieved than I’d originally planned: we have managed to transcribe all the Old Latin evidence (apart from that manuscript in Milan I mentioned), and I was able to recover more early readings from the textual tradition of Jerome’s commentary on Galatians. On the Greek side, we have assembled a considerable amount of patristic material, and made considerable progress in understanding the complex tradition of commentary manuscripts and catenae. I’m currently in the final stages of editing a volume of papers based on a conference we held in Birmingham last year which I hope will provide a foundation for future work on catenae, in particular.

From all appearances, ITSEE is an exciting hub of text critical activity; it looks like a great place for doctoral research. If a reader of the blog is interested in textual studies, what can they expect if they come to work at ITSEE? Can you give us a sense of what research is being worked on at the moment and any particular avenues of study you would enjoy supervising?

I did my own doctorate at Birmingham, and what I really appreciated was the opportunity to work as part of a team and know that my research contributed to a bigger endeavour. One of the distinctive features of ITSEE has always been that that doctoral students may work alongside the other scholars involved on the major editing projects, getting plenty of informal support as well as insights into an academic career. It’s always a good experience when we have visits involving our colleagues from Münster and elsewhere, and there are weekly seminars as well as the regular Birmingham Colloquium and other conferences. We have a distance-learning doctoral programme at Birmingham too, which enables students to work part-time in their own contexts, and visit Birmingham for a fortnight every other year.

I’m particularly keen to encourage students who are interested in working on projects which will contribute to the planned editions of Paul. One of my current students, for example, has transcribed well over one hundred Greek manuscripts of 2 Thessalonians, while another is working on a new evaluation of Tertullian’s biblical text; a third has just successfully completed his doctorate on Origen’s text of three Pauline Epistles. But so long as students have strong linguistic skills, want to work with primary sources, and are prepared to be guided by the evidence they collect, I’d be glad to work with them.

Thanks very much, Hugh!

Thanks, Peter, I’ve enjoyed doing this.

Hey, does this mean that you’re not going to ask me about my favourite music albums, like Maurice Robinson? OK, I may be a bit young for Rock and Roll, but I am singing in two live concert screenings of Disney’s ‘Frozen’ in Birmingham later this year...

Well, I suppose the only thing we can say to that is “Let it Go”! Thanks again, Hugh.

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