By Caitlin Steiner
Notable author and UNL alum Willa Cather, well-known for classic novels like My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, lives on past her stories as several students study her work and improve their education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Both undergraduate and graduate students alike work with the Complete Letters of Willa Cather as they complete their studies, a project supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitally edit and publish all of the writer’s letters.
Senior English and Dance student, Gayle Rocz, works as a UCARE student with the project. “I like reading Cather’s letters,” said Rocz. “They are really funny sometimes because she has a very unique personality and it's been cool getting to know her through her letters. It’s a different way of getting to know an author as opposed to reading her published works.”
The students’ main job is to work on encoding Willa Cather’s letters in TEI XML, a technology that preserves all kinds of information about each letter along with its words, such as when and where the letter was written and all of the people, places, and works referenced in each document.
Senior English and History major, Simone Droge is another UCARE student working on the project. “One of my favorite moments was getting to actually see an original Cather letter for the first time,” Droge said. “I had been working with the letters for a few months at that point, but you suddenly realize the importance because she was this highly esteemed author, and the fact that we get to be doing this work is really special.”
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln aims to help students succeed in their studies. Through their work, students are able to gain hands-on experience to enhance their futures.
Freshman English major, Shea Cortez, works as a FYRE research assistant on the project. “I want to go into literature and translation, so I really think that working with the Cather archive is a good foundation for the literature side of things,” said Cortez. “I have been able to have insight of Cather as more than just a writer as well as her writing style through her novels and letters.”
The students all expressed getting to know Willa Cather’s personality better through her letters. In reading her personal letters as opposed to just her published works, Cather comes alive as a real person and not just an esteemed author.
Second-year English master’s student Hannah Kanninen works in the Archives. “I found one [letter] where she just learned about the Titanic,” said Kanninen. “She was in New Mexico and she actually knew someone who was on it and didn’t make it. It's that sort of thing that makes those events real for you.”
The team works together on the project and has enjoyed getting to know one another while doing so.
Second-year English Ph.D. student Paul Grosskopf works for the English Department with the letters. “The people I work with are great. It's a relatively small team and we work together a lot throughout the week,” said Grosskopf. “Getting to do this collaborative work and feel like you are a part of a team working on a bigger team is very cool.”
“The work the students do is fundamental to the project’s success,” says Professor Andrew Jewell of UNL Libraries and one of the editors of the Complete Letters, “and I’m honored that they give so much of their time and talent to the project. We are building something together that will be a central resource for understanding Willa Cather for many years to come, and it is right that students at her alma mater are key contributors to that resource.”