Posted by gabriella

In January 2014, eight students began an internship with the Harry Watkins Project. I thought this would just be another English class, but it turned out to be something else, something really challenging...

What I initially understood was that we had to copy his handwriting into typed text using Word. “A piece of cake,” I thought smiling to myself. However, a couple of minutes later, I realized I had gotten it wrong when I saw the “piece of cake” with my own eyes: Harry Watkins’s illegible handwriting. We saw copies of pages from his diary and I couldn’t make out three straight words of his writing. “This is going to be tough,” I said to myself, as I held my head in my hands.

Yet the real challenge came when we started learning the way we had to type his words into another format. We wouldn’t use my well known friend Microsoft Word, but rather something called oXygen, and had to learn about XML, tagging, and encoding. My reaction (in my ongoing internal monologue) was “What? What does that mean? Is this a computer class or something?” This was demanding for me, especially because I am not a “computer person.” Another challenge I faced was my ability to guess some of the somewhat illegible words of Watkins when transcribing. Why? Because English is not my primary language. How could I read, understand, and encode the scrawled handwriting of a past century without taking two hours to finish one page?

So, I tried my best to overcome all these little rocks on my way, with help from Danielle Pace, Christine Snyder, and Shane Breaux. Since they were already part of the project, they helped us a lot; since proofreading to “see” some of Watkins’s words and, of course, sharing their knowledge about theatre history with us. The second meeting was a turning point to me because I realized that reading and transcribing Watkins’s diary is all about practice, and accepting the help that was offered.

The following weeks were enjoyable because we learned a lot; we learned new programs, how to code and tag, etc. and started using these skills right away. Little by little we, the apprentices, started to speak the same “language” as Harry Watkins. We now could really understand his letters, words, and phrases. For instance, we knew he started by writing about the weather in a short phrase usually followed by a dash and a period, and we knew what to expect from his letters. We also learned about Harry’s “world.” Irma (a classmate) told me that she had learned a lot about plays of the 19th century. Alex, another student, said that he learned about Harry’s personality—he thinks that Watkins was weird, funny, ironic, and that he thought highly of himself. It was nice to see that we were getting real skills and experiences out of the internship. Cathelyne, a student who is majoring in English and Literature, said that this internship will be really useful for her other classes and she is writing a statement of significance as a final assignment, to encourage other students to register for this internship at LaGuardia Community College.

Towards the end of this project, I can say that I learned a lot and only in six weeks. I now know how to use oXygen and XML. I can tag, encode, and read a different style of writing. I also have a sense of Harry Watkins’s personality and the life he lived. What I enjoyed the most about this project was the way we got familiar with all the material we covered in a very practical. It is not only by reading theory that you become good at something, but through the process of using the theory right away to understand it in a deep way.