April 11, 2013 by Amanda Visconti

Building for the Great Conversation: Participatory Digital Design & the Urgency of the Public Humanities

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!

Scholarly editor Gary Taylor has asked (And I have requoted just about every month) : “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?” Scholarly editors are an integral part of the continuum that keeps the stories of the past available to and understood by the present—but just as important in Taylor’s formulation is the you, that public of not just scholars, but also readers beyond the academy whose interest keeps the humanities alive and relevant. I intend to build tools and digital editions that help everyone—textual scholars and the lay person—participate in our love for the nuances of a text’s materiality, history, and meaning. We need to rethink the structure—the look and behavior—of our most foundational form, the scholarly edition, looking to the full possibilities of the digital (and not just those that approximate traditional codex form) in order to see a more public textual studies—a textual studies that encourages participation outside of a limited circle of expertise, using games and ludic approaches, provocations to deeper thinking, visual design, and visual knowledge to share our intelligence about and passion for book studies more widely.

As researchers, we feel the urgency of a more publicly understood and useful humanities: convincing the public of our worth ties into how we are funded, but even more importantly, our ability to argue convincingly for our worth to non-specialists requires us to have an understanding of our studies so clear that it can be rendered into simple language. Teaching is knowing:

[Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman] prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, 'Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.' Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, 'I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it.' But he came back a few days later to say, 'I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don't really understand it.' (David L. Goodstein, in Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun)

Human-computer interaction, a field focused on interfaces between user and computer (including interfaces of reading and research), provides a useful approach to a humanities that simultaneously benefits the public and scholars: participatory design. Participatory design is an approach not just centered on the scholar or just on the public, but finessing the “third space” of discussion and shared learning that exists when the two groups come into conversation; results can include “challenging assumptions, learning reciprocally, and creating new ideas, which emerge through negotiation and co-creation of identities, working languages, understandings, and relationships, and polyvocal (many-voiced) dialogues across and through differences“ (Muller, Michael J. "Participatory Design: The Third Space in HCI". In The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook. 1051-1068.). When we bring the public into our scholarly conversations, everyone benefits; designing for interactive participation and pedagogy is a scholarly activity that also benefits the public.

In my participatory design approach to digital edition interfaces, I draw on my own positive experiences in graduate literary seminars, in the belief that we can build scholarly digital editions that model two of the most rewarding aspects of a good class: communal enjoyment and communal knowledge of a text. A well-run seminar gets participants excited about the subtleties of a text, regardless of how remote its language or voice or subject matter might be from their own lives; a well-run seminar also results in everyone, teacher as well as students, gaining new insight into a literary text. As I experiment with the nature of digital editions, textual materiality, and other scholarly questions, I believe I can at the same time imagine digital editions as ideal communal spaces of literary conversation where scholars and public can learn from one another.

This dissertation addresses a gap in humanities knowledge: the digital edition, like the print edition before it, is developing into a key form of scholarly textual presentation, yet the advances in the past thirty years of textual studies have mostly focused on three areas of study to the exclusion of other knowledge: the development of a standard for encoding text (the Text Encoding Initiative), the development of archives presenting well-encoded text and textual images alongside tools for searching and inspecting these (e.g. The William Blake Archive), and theorizing possibilities for textual studies in digital spaces without making major changes to digital editions in concert with these theories (e.g. Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web). To fill out the first two areas of study, we need to study in real scholarly situations how that encoded text, and those powerful but now fairly standard tools, are actually used and how they might be improved; to capitalize on the third area of study, we need to build these theories into our digital editions such that their innovative arguments are obvious to new users and empirically testable via user studies. There are some very good reasons why user-awareness isn't more prevalent in DH and in digital editions in particular (e.g. funding and grant time constraints, lack of example metrics to build off), and I'll be addressing these as well as throwing in my bit of DH user studies work for the next practitioner to build on. I'll also be discussing some recent and important work innovating the interfaces of our digital editions, such as the TAPAS project (trying to open all that lovingly encoded text to remix and reuse for research and teaching), various INKE initiatives (especially Jon Saklofske's NewRadial work imagining new entries into the Blake Archive), and Alan Galey's Visualizing Variation code sets, all of which incorporate a laudable awareness of the broad end use and reading experience of editions.