November 06, 2012 by Amanda Visconti

Living Editions: What Seminars Can Teach Us About Building Digital Editions

"In the humanities, what we produce is narrative, and that narrative comes out of experiences of reading." - Jo Guldi, spoken comment at the Topic Modeling Workshop at MITH on November 3, 2012

My private shorthand for what I want to do with digital editions is "make them like a seminar".

That's not the only or best way of thinking about digital editions; for a start, editions are also conceptualized as:

  • vessels for the centuries-old work of interpreting documents and what they say about the larger text they participate in,
  • pedagogy,
  • cultural preservation,
  • the remixing of multiply useful documents to create new texts for research and reading,
  • useful substitutes for artifacts you can't physically access (Tanselle, G. Thomas. A Rationale of Textual Criticism.), and
  • a way of reading (McGann, Jerome. "Ulysses as Postmodern Text: The Gabler Edition". Criticism 27.3: 1985. 283-305.).

I try to use the phrase "digital editions" instead of "digital editing" to emphasize that I'm talking about a broader DH activity than traditional or text-level editing. These are choices of project and web design that inflect the form of the edition as a text in its own right, an interpretive, critical activity sometimes called "interfacing". "Digital edition" as meta-text to "editing"'s text, if you will. As my work is focused on our interfacing and behavior with the form of the edition (values that take concrete form with code such as CSS and PHP), I naturally gravitate toward a metaphor foregrounding the edition as a tool of communication of interpretive knowledge and connected skills, one that aspires to a wider audience of users than the traditional humanist monograph. That "wider audience of users" means that some of the approaches I'll discuss will be less aimed at seasoned scholars of a text than new readers–but many of these approaches can help provoke new knowledge for readers at any level of intimacy with a text.

So: if a digital edition can be like a seminar, what do I mean by "seminar"? I'm usually thinking about graduate seminars as these have been my best in-class experiences, but we might apply lessons from any class-like meeting where a high percentage of the learners are self-motivated and ready to contribute new learning to the class, but benefit from the content, structure, and guidance provided by the instructor. Seminar as the give-and-take opposite to lecturing's delivery and reception of information.

In a digital edition, the parallel is between the edition's team of creators (editors, designers, project developers) and its audience. There's been good discussion of developing more meaningful crowd-sourcing for editions over the past few years (e.g. the Scholars' Lab's Praxis Program and their Prism tool, which harnesses "collective interpretive energy"), a movement away from treating our audience as students in a lecture (who mainly receive our polished work) or as free labor (for tasks that may be interesting but that require rote transcription rather than interpretive thinking and input of new ideas). The seminar metaphor understands that one party (the instructor/editors) has a privileged position to the project and its main content areas, but that their role is not only to impart information but scaffold and accept new knowledge and intellectual contributions from the other party (the students/edition users).

My last seminar before achieving candidacy was was Dr. Neil Fraistat's Technoromanticism (You can read my series of posts about the class or just my post about one of the times I group-taught the class here.), a class that I now realize was a living edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and that used many approaches I'd like to see in digital editions. By living edition, I want to point at not just the excellently planned syllabus, which structured our developing conversations about whole and hacked technologies of memory and imagination, monstrosity and virtual realities, always building on previous readings and conversations–but also the class itself, students and teacher:

Five Approaches from the Technoro Seminar That Digital Editions Could Employ More Regularly:

1a. Seminar Experience: Technoro quickly had the seminar participants coming to class reporting sightings of our Romantic texts still breathing in the real world, whether that meant the image of Frankenstein's monster in colonial attitudes toward the Irish, or Nigel Lepianka's connection of the videogame Bioshock and Frankenstein's "Modern Prometheus" motif.

1b. Edition Take-away: Explore not just your key content, but the boundaries of each text's discourse field. A digital edition that pulls in examples of the text's reception history provides the user with ways to trace themselves back to the world of its writing as well as gauge the ways a text still influences today's world.

2a. Seminar Experience: The Technoro class brought in many voices with diverse practical and theoretical relationships to course motifs such as hacking and prosthetics of memory; in addition to the core of literature Ph.D. and M.A. students, students' academic positionings included theater, creative writing, education, cognitive science, and circuitry.

2b. Edition Take-away:  I'd like to see digital editions do a better job incorporating the diverse voices and knowledges of their users. We need better ways of moderating, categorizing, and retrieving annotations from users with many different backgrounds; one decided area of my dissertation is a plan to address this issue via coding and design work, a project currently codenamed "Infinite Ulysses" (More on my dissertation plans soon!). And while we're talking about diversity, let's not forget to try designing our digital editions to be universally accessible (e.g. to screen readers).

3a. Seminar Experience: For my Technoro group project, I got to lead a group of students through learning and applying technical skills (Github for markup workflow, TEI encoding) that helped us think about the materiality and transmission history of our key text, Frankenstein, while learning to think like editors about page-level textual issues.

3b. Edition Take-away: Don't obscure the digital structures of your meta-text (the edition framework) by only paying attention to the materiality of the text your edition surrounds. Document decisions about project development and editing methodology using accessible language, and don't efface the human realities behind this work; record both failures and triumphs. If on top of that your edition is able to teach something of how to "think like an editor" to its users, well... that's for another post, as it's a goal of one of the tools I'm building for my dissertation. (I've seen a few examples of editions trying out this possibility, such as the defunct playspace for rearranging Emily Dickinson's poems that used to be a part of the Dickinson Electronic Archives.)

4a. Seminar Experience: One of Technoro's course requirements was for each participant to team-teach two class meetings. Students quickly expanded on fairly standard teaching approaches like preparing short lectures and bringing questions to class, to approaches that generated more new ideas such as thought and design experiments (e.g. imagining an e-lit remediations of Frankenstein, or charting correspondences between Caleb Williams and The Matrix); situating ourselves as masters of the material helped us become masters of it.

4b. Edition Take-away: An important moment in the life of a graduate student is shifting one's relationship with knowledge from student to master (from mostly reception to scholarly creation). Similarly, the moment the reader of an edition shifts from simply reading the text as he would a non-scholarly edition and begins to make use of the intricacies of the form is an important one; an even bigger step is when the reader is able to contribute back to the edition. Making sure our users can do this, whether through annotation, curation, or some other method (blog posts on how they've used the edition in their own work, scholarly or otherwise?)–and modeling how to do these things well–are smart pedagogical steps.

5a. Seminar Experience: Always one of my favorite parts of a class: hearing what course ideas have caught fire in other students' minds and what they plan to make of those ideas. Technoro's projects were especially interesting because they often built on team skill-building from earlier in the course, where students either learned to do basic TEI encoding for manuscript pages of Frankenstein or to produce and understand topic models of Gothic texts. A good seminar encourages specialization of students' research beyond the main concerns of the class and supports communication of that specialized learning through final class projects that are shared with the entire class.

5b. Edition Take-away: Every edition is a work of the editor's interpretation; every reading experience of an edition is an interpretation as well, and if you give the reader a path for communicating that interpretation she'll add to the collective pool of knowledge about a text. Similar to the previous take-away, let readers reflect their experience of the text by adding and/or curating annotations and related media–but also consider opening up your marked-up text so that users can create and submit different themes, functions, and interfaces with different interpretive resonances (more on difficulties, practical strategies, and existing work on editions as APIs in a future post).