April 09, 2013 by Amanda Visconti

My Digital Humanities Dissertation: Building Code, Design, and Games for Textual Knowledge and Participation

How do scholars interface with digital editions of literature, and how can we improve the appearance and behavior of digital edition interfaces to not only better support current scholarly use, but predict and create new ways of reading, teaching, and learning about texts? With my literature doctoral dissertation, titled “How Can You Love a Text, If You Don’t Know It?” (As you might know if you read this blog, just my favorite pro-editing quotation: "How can you love a work, if you don't know it? How can you know it, if you can't get near it? How can you get near it, without editors?" - Gary Taylor, "The Renaissance and the End of Editing", in Palimpsest: Textual Theory and the Humanities, ed. George Bornstein and Ralph G. Williams (1993), 121-50.) : Critical Code and Design toward Participatory Digital Editions, I'm coding and designing scholarly tools, interfaces, and games that value:

  • building-as-making: instead of the traditional monograph, employ and extend theory in the form of tools that can actually empirically test that theory
  • speculative design: push our scholarly tools further by creating solutions for the future (e.g. a digital edition that attracts thousands of public participants)
  • user-testing, participatory design, and the public humanities: in the beliefs that teaching is knowing and it makes for a better world to share knowledge, build on my master's thesis user study of public use of scholarly digital archives to create digital humanities tools that are useful to both scholars and lay-persons; we need to do a better job sharing our passion for the intricacies of our cultural heritage and present with the public
  • games and play: "Games are unnecessary obstacles that we choose to tackle", says games researcher Jane McGonigal--and so are difficult texts; think about games as models of critical learning behavior; build our rich history of literary play and gaming into our digital edition toolkit, thinking about Ivanhoe, the Oulipo, design fiction, communal storytelling, textual intervention, narrative alternate reality games, and video-game modding
  • graphesis and the whole book: grant the same acknowledgement of knowledge-containing visuals we do to our literary objects of study (e.g. Blake's image-texts) to their meta-texts (editions) by incorporating critical graphic design; dream big about conveying the whole book to remote researchers, not just linguistic content and 2D images
  • modeling reading and editing practices: if scholarly interpretation is a conversation, then model our digital editions on participatory exemplars of reading like online communities (e.g. Reddit) and the best graduate seminar experiences; teach people "how to think like an editor" to discover how editors' own theories develop
  • leveraging something old on something new: by migrating and extending a prescient Victorian edition prototype and its design values to digital space, explore the affordances, limits, and possibilities of both the print and digital pages

Digital editions are texts presented according to some critical ideal in digital space. We need to know more about how this scholarly form is used so that we can build sites that fully communicate and preserve literary texts, from the written word on the page to the iconic codes and materiality of the whole book, and so that we can in turn use digital editions as better platforms for inquiry into the nature of complex textual objects. I propose to build textual forms to understand them, creating three digital edition interfaces that separately explore the textual behaviors of reading, teaching, and research. One project will explore the social experience of critical reading, exploring whether a difficult Modernist text (Ulysses) becomes “normalized” or “diminished” by moving to the center of a public annotation, interpretation, and conversation, and how we might curate the information overload of a vibrantly active digital edition reader/commentator base. Another project treats teaching as knowing, using a gamic digital framework for the teaching of editing as a tool for tracing the development of textual scholarship theory and opinion. A third project assesses the whole use a scholar in a physical archive might make of a codex and imagines how we might use digital affordances, such as linkable metadata and 3D models, to bring a less partial simulation of the whole book to remote researchers. All three of these interface projects will be built around specific exemplar texts that push the boundaries of modeling via digital edition, texts that challenge both scholar and reader with a multiplicity of meanings (e.g. James Joyce’s notoriously multilayered Ulysses) or that manifestly cannot be fully communicated by current digital edition formats (e.g. the rich design of a presciently-hypertextual Victorian edition of Hamlet). By building digital edition interfaces that employ and extend current textual theory, this dissertation will advance our understanding of how a key scholarly form creates knowledge around texts.

Studying our meta-texts by building.

Textual studies concerns itself with the study of the history, forms, and whole content (from the linguistic to the material) of texts; digital textual scholarship, as a narrower discipline, focuses specifically on the preparation of such texts for scholarly use via a digital space. To push the current research, reading, and teaching abilities of the digital edition further, we need to not just theorize on paper what needs to be changed about editions—it is necessary that we make these theorized changes to digital editions through web design and code work, then critically assess what our interventions teach us about the texts of these digital editions, the form of digital editions in general, and about literary research and teaching in digital spaces. This dissertation proposes to take a step back from the specific literary texts prepared by textual scholars—and a step forward from the purely-written theorizing of other textual studies researchers—to create tools that explore the critical efficacy and possibilities of that increasingly quintessential meta-textual form, the digital edition.

Three coding projects as scholarly experiments.

Blake textual scholar Morris Eaves conceives of editions not just as vessels for textual content, but as “problem-solving mechanisms”; within my broader exploration of the future of digital edition interfaces, I will focus on several specific problems in the form of three digital coding projects, best expressed by my tweets from earlier today:

I successfully defended my digital humanities doctoral dissertation in Spring 2015. The now-available Infinite Ulysses social+digital reading platform is part of that project; come read with us!