More Than “Harmless Drudgery”: An Undergraduate Research Assistant’s Perspective

By Hannah Esierman

Hannah Eiserman lives, writes, and studies in oskana kā-asastēki (now called Regina, Saskatchewan). She is currently the Arts and Culture editor for The Carillon. Her published work can be found on her website

This is part 2 of Hannah’s two-part essay, reflecting on her work for JDO. You can read part 1 of her essay here.

Unexpected Discoveries Along the Way

I expected my position on the JDO team to be enriching, if not all that particular to my interests. I knew that an RAship would be invaluable when applying to graduate programs in the future. I never expected, however, to fall so thoroughly in love with the process and work I was doing. Not only have I expanded my knowledge of literature up to the eighteenth century and been able to put my year of Latin studies to good use, but I have also thoroughly enjoyed the work itself. Right from the first few sessions, I found the work extremely satisfying and fulfilling. Knowing I was contributing to something so important and being able to see the progress I was making add up in front of me – XML tags changing the colours of words when I add them, filling line after line of spreadsheet data – made the process so rewarding.

As I began to get more familiar with the Dictionary, it also became calming to be able to turn to it at the end of most days or to dedicate an afternoon to working on it. Taking classes while working both a fast-paced service industry job and as a Teaching Assistant has been a test to how well I can manage my stress levels and has kept me always moving. In contrast, sitting down to make tangible progress on the Dictionary went from being a novelty to being invaluable. The extra bit of money helped a lot with my sense of financial security, of course, but it became a perk rather than an incentive. My main incentive, in addition to personal satisfaction and career building, has been being a part of the JDO team. Working together with individuals across North America on a project of such magnitude (that also happens to be great fun) has been an exceptional experience.

I have begun to love the Dictionary itself for all its quirks and oddities, of which there are many. For one, the way Johnson includes quotations from his own works and yet seems to not want to take credit, often not citing himself in the entries. Whether this is done out of humility or arrogance that he is known well enough is unclear. I suppose we will never be sure, but I like to think it’s the former, not the latter. I have noticed this pattern in the quotations he takes from his play Irene (see “proverbial”); the poem “London” (see “elegant”); his periodical The Rambler (see “expiration”); and his poetic satire The Vanity of Human Wishes (see “lacerate”).

I have also been thoroughly amused with all the entries that Johnson misattributed, perhaps as a result of working by candlelight trying to finish his drafts and appease his editors, as Dr. Mathes once said. My favourite of these misattributed quotes is probably the one where he credits Paradise Lost to Shakespeare, and I had to wonder, at first, if he was referring to a long-lost sonnet. Yet another oddity that I noticed is Johnson’s tendency to jump all over the alphabet when ordering his entries. I had considered that perhaps this wasn’t a blunder, so much as that maybe some letters were previously interchangeable, and it seems I was correct! According to Dr. Young, in the early eighteenth-century both u and v were often interchangeable, as were i and j. I noticed this most often in the A section where Johnson jumps from “atwixt” to “avail,” then comes back from “avaunt” to parse “auburne.” It’s these idiosyncrasies that make coming to work on the Dictionary every day feel like spending time with an old friend.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, working on the Dictionary has been affirming for my career – not only in sharpening my skills and expanding my knowledge, but in clearing my path. Over the course of my undergraduate degree at the University of Regina, I have thoroughly enjoyed all the subjects and time periods that I have studied and, therefore, I have had a very hard time narrowing down the field I want to pursue as I move on to graduate studies. I know now that I must, of course, continue to work in the eighteenth century – for at least one degree.