HC User Spotlight: Kendra Leonard

Humanities Commons member Kendra Leonard is the Executive Director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive, as well as a musicologist and music theorist. Kendra designs and maintains a personal site and two project sites on Humanities Commons: Spirit Films and Shakespeare in Early Film. She was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, not only about her project sites but also about her own experience in working on Humanities Commons. 

Spirit Films features Kendra’s book that was reviewed on the site using Open Peer Review. Currently, the project site provides additional information via links and embedded Youtube videos.

Shakespeare in Early Film collects digital materials relating to Shakespearean film adaptations from 1895 to 1929, including still photographs of actors, music, advertising campaigns, and reviews. Teaching resources will also soon be available!

CD (Caitlin Duffy): Why did you choose Humanities Commons to house your digital projects (Spirit Films and Shakespeare in Early Film) and your personal site? 

KL (Kendra Leonard): I was impressed by everything Humanities Commons had to offer in terms of digital workspaces and platforms. I have been an advocate of open access for a long time and I wanted to have my work in a place that supported open access and the wide and free sharing of knowledge. I also wanted to make my work available in a space fostered an intellectual community. For my Spirit Films project, I was interested in using open peer review, and Humanities Commons made doing so much easier than any other hosting solutions.

More specifically, Spirit Films began as an article-length project and rapidly became a book. But it’s a very multi- and inter-disciplinary topic: music for silent film and the renewal of interest in spiritualism in early twentieth century America. Readers with expertise in film and music wanted much more information about spiritualism, while readers in religious studies and social movements needed a lot of background in music and film history. It didn’t seem like I would be able to create a traditional book that didn’t require a lot of pages for these essential discussions of the basics of different areas. Making it an e-book in which I could link out to resources for different readerships was the solution. The entire book—with lots of links out to sidebars and to other sites that readers can access as they need to—will be finished in 2019. Humanities Commons is the ideal home for it because HC’s WordPress site-building engine offers a relatively simple and elegant way to construct it as a book and to give it a permanent and stable URL.

Shakespeare in Early Film (SHEAF) is a new project for me, and one for which I hope to gain collaborators. My goal with it is to link to and provide criticism, advertisements, and other metatextual information on and around silent film adaptations of Shakespeare. There are hundreds of these films, many of them still extant, and they were heavily promoted and very popular; they were made by studios to demonstrate that the nascent cinema could be a place of art and refinement and education. So while we have two books that discuss the films, including Judith Buchanan’s excellent Shakespeare on Silent Film: an Excellent Dumb Discourse, I wanted to create a site that made primary sources on these films more easily accessed and more widely available. Humanities Commons makes it very easy for users to collaborate on sites and for site managers to share information about the sites they’re building. In addition, it’s the perfect place for sites that have an educational focus, such as Shakespeare in Early Film, and can be accessed and used by students and faculty anywhere.

I had my personal site on a commercial hosting platform for a while, but once I had begun to build Spirit Films and Shakespeare in Early Film and also found myself continuously updating my HC profile, I realized that it made much more sense for me to have my own site on HC as well.

CD: Have your digital projects and/or your use of Humanities Commons changed your research, archival work, and/or professional identity? If so, how? 

KL: Having Humanities Commons as a place to share my work has had an enormous influence on my research and other work. The Spirit Films project would probably have stayed much smaller—or I might have ultimately decided that it was too much of a niche study even to pursue—if I’d had to try to place it with a traditional publisher. Putting together the Shakespeare in Early Film database has made me take stock of ways in which scholars are taught to approach archives and to develop efficient methods of searching through historical documents and audio/video online. Whereas in the past I might have been satisfied if I’d found a handful of sources for a particular film or aspect of a film, I now need to be much more thorough in identifying and selecting sources to include in the database. Looking at similar projects on Humanities Commons has given me a greater understanding of what’s possible in digital humanities work. As someone who has advocated for HC since it was still the MLA Commons, I now get asked by faculty and students to help them understand everything HC can offer them, how to find research documents, how to find and follow other scholars, and how to create sites for themselves, their courses, and their research projects.

CD: Do you have any plans to add to your projects? If so, can you describe them? 

KL: Spirit Films will be finished in 2019. Once I have all of the chapters and links and other materials completed, it will become static in the sense that I won’t keep adding to it or changing it. But Shakespeare in Early Film will continue to grow as long as I can keep finding material to add. And I update my own website regularly and add my publications to CORE as they come out.

There are numerous other topics I’d love to build additional sites for in Humanities Commons, but they are still in the very earliest stages. Eventually I’d like to create a digital exhibition on women musicians in silent film and an e-book-type project on the representation of Renaissance music in film.   

CD: What is Spirit Films’s ideal future? What is SHEAF’s ideal future? Do you hope others will use your digital projects? If so, how?

KL: I’d love it if Spirit Films found a place in the bodies of literature on women’s labor, religion, entertainment, music, and cinema history. I think there’s a lot of information in the project that can be used by other scholars as starting points or as supporting material for future work in all of those areas and in their intersections. Some of the images and video could be used in presentations or classroom teaching as well.

The ideal future for SHEAF would be to include contributions from students. I think SHEAF offers an opportunity to teach students about archival research, film history, and the history of Shakespeare in performance. I’m preparing workshops that can be presented either in person or via telepresence to introduce faculty and students to SHEAF and to teach them how to do research that contributes to it. I also hope that scholars or those interested in silent film on any level will use the database to learn more about these productions.

CD:  We see that your project Spirit Films was reviewed using open peer review through Humanities Commons. What was that process like? Would you recommend open peer review to others? 

KL: Being able to use open peer review was one big reason I chose to develop Spirit Films as a site on HC rather than on a commercial platform. I first became aware of the concept of open peer review when the Folger Library did it for an issue of Shakespeare Quarterly and I knew right away that I wanted to try it out. I really liked the idea of making drafts of articles or chapters available to anyone who wanted to comment on them. There are plenty of arguments both for and against open peer review, and a number of my colleagues expressed concern about it working successfully, but it turned out to be great. I posted chapters for Spirit Films on my dedicated HC site for it using the CommentPress template, which allows people to comment on each paragraph of the text. Commenters could choose to reveal their identities or be anonymous. I shared the link to the chapters widely and asked friends and colleagues to share it as well so as to get as many commenters as possible.

I found that using CommentPress on HC was a lot easier to manage than if I had just sent out text files and asked for embedded comments or a page of formal response. In CommentPress, commenters could simply tag a paragraph and ask questions, point out inconsistencies or things that needed better explanation or theorizing, and link to other resources or references. Commenters could be in dialogue with each other in addition to responding to my text, and that led to some fruitful suggestions. I didn’t have any problems with spam comments or anything like that.

I recommend that scholars give open peer review a try. Double-blind peer review is certainly important, but it’s often handled in problematic ways. Open peer review encourages criticism that is genuinely constructive; there’s no dreaded “Reviewer #2” to tell you it’s all rubbish and (behind the double-blind anonymity) refer you to their own work. It’s collaborative and supportive and more of what I think critical scholarly review should be.

CD: Would you recommend Humanities Commons to other scholars? Why or why not?

KL: With enthusiastic abandon, yes. I think it’s important for scholars to have a presence online where colleagues and potential students and people interested in their area can easily find and read their work for free. Simply publishing in a journal that’s paywalled and requires any kind of subscription to access is in my mind contravening the very reason we do research: to share knowledge with others. Now when someone publishes in a journal, they can also share their page proofs or the final article on Humanities Commons and anyone anywhere with an internet connection can read it and learn from it.

CD: Has your use of Humanities Commons (overall, not just with the project sites) surprised you in any way? Were there features or results you weren’t expecting? 

KL: I am very impressed by the support offered by Humanities Commons. Staff are knowledgeable and responsive, and always kind and helpful. Once reason I recommend HC to so many people is because there is still a fear or anxiety that surrounds the idea of developing websites that aren’t rigidly fixed to a template like course management systems are. People with no or little knowledge of web design or coding can create great sites on HC, and there is always help in case you run into issues.

Putting projects up on Humanities Commons has also made me rethink the ways we use web sites for sharing scholarly information and how we try to determine the reach of that information. I was used to having a stat counter app built into my sites, and it was interesting to me to know that some of my articles were downloaded in non-US locations, but when HC committed to not tracking user data I had to reevaluate why I thought that data was important and how it could be very problematic for users. So while HC shows how many times an item archived in CORE has been downloaded, it doesn’t track any other data, and sites built on HC cannot track data. For sites that need to show scope of influence in order to secure funding and things like that, this might be an issue, but my work isn’t tied to being able to show that I have x number of hits a day, and it helps protect the privacy of users, so for sites like mine, this is great.  

CD: Do you have any advice for other scholars who are considering building a project site on Humanities Commons

KL: Look at existing sites. Play around with them. Take notes about what features you like and don’t like. Think about your ideal user and how you want your project to function. Think about the ways different users will approach your site and what they hope to learn from it or gain from using it. Seek and involve collaborators. Ask for help when you need it.

CD: Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding Humanities Commons and/or Humanities Commons sites? 

KL: It has helped me find work by colleagues and to make new connections that have led to important exchanges and helped shape my work. I’ve been able to read scholarship that is otherwise unavailable to me because of journals’ embargoes and paywalls. I encourage all of my colleagues to make use of HC, and to invest in it as a platform for teaching and sharing and collaborating.

Putting projects up on Humanities Commons has also made me rethink the ways we use web sites for sharing scholarly information and how we try to determine the reach of that information. I was used to having a stat counter app built into my sites, and it was interesting to me to know that some of my articles were downloaded in non-US locations, but when I requested a plugin to do this on HC I found that tool didn’t meet HC’s privacy standards. I had to reevaluate why I thought that data was important and how it could be very problematic for users.