December 03, 2013 by Amanda Visconti


Digital humanist Scott Weingart's website includes a "pledges" page that records his definition of being a good scholarly citizen: committing to open access and open source all the time, reducing barriers to participation in and extension of his scholarly work. This is an awesome idea: publicly recording what's important to you helps regularly check that you're acting in a way that accords with your values, and not just when it's convenient (If more scholars did this, we could look at word and topic frequencies and compare individuals' values to what we perceive as the values of the DH community as a whole). For example, if accessibility is important to me, I need to make certain that value is reflected in my current work, and I need to educate or reject participation in venues (conferences, projects) that don't care about accessibility.

I spend most of my scholarly time at present on dissertational work—web development, design, and blogging—so I want to record my values in relation to these activities. These values come across clearly in my dissertational blogging, with statements

  • On a public, participatory humanities: "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... a more public textual studies—a textual studies that encourages participation outside of a limited circle of expertise" (here)
  • On reifying and testing our theories about digital objects: "We need to build these [textual] theories into our digital editions such that their innovative arguments are... empirically testable via user studies" (here)
  • On allowing your work to be extended and reused: "I’ll be releasing this project’s code (Drupal modules, themes) on GitHub so that anyone can reuse or modify my work in their own digital edition." (here)

As I'm building my dissertation projects to assess textual theories, I need to actively check that what I build not only reflects the values I blog about, but non-verbally demonstrates them. Below, I've listed these various values in one place and tried to identify where in my dissertational projects they will be reified (I'm sure I'll forget something important to me that has become a tacit part of how I work—looking forward to that inevitable discovery after posting this!):


1. Accessibility = universal design. As much as possible, design for all readers; build on existing work on usability and accessibility to create better DH-specific accessibility tutorials and standards. Library website accessibility and usability work is a fruitful place for research, as the structure and use of library websites is similar to that of a complex digital scholarly edition.

2. A public humanities. Teaching is knowing; you should be able to explain your work to a non-specialist audience (without forgetting there's no royal road to geometry, of course! ("It is too bad that [the language for explaining mathematics] has to be mathematics, and that mathematics is hard for some people. It is reputed - I do not know if it is true - that when one of the kings was trying to learn geometry from Euclid he complained that it was difficult. And Euclid said, "There is no royal road to geometry". And there is no royal road. Physicists cannot make a conversion to any other language. If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in." —Richard Feynman) ). While using speculative experiments is a key methodology for at least the Infinite Ulysses portion of my dissertation (what happens if we build a digital edition and everyone shows up?), I also want these experiments to produce deliverables useful here and now (a participatory edition for reading and discussing Ulysses).

3. A public humanities is a participatory humanities. Our work is to preserve human culture, and preservation = propagation (see Ready Player One). Communication of our nerdy passions should be a two-way conversation, with the new questions and thoughts from readers outside our field or the academy brought into the great conversation. User-testing incorporates audience participation into the design as well as the final use of a project, but the digital humanities has been slow to establish best practices for DH-specific user-testing. I hope to help make user-testing easier to include in a grant timeline by exploring and consolidating best practices.

4. Scholarly design and development. Interface is argument: a critical act both to create and read. Building is scholarship, and while I don't believe that many works of built scholarship require replication in text to stand as intellectual contributions to the community, some sort of narrative of the methods and experience of creating the work is important to its reception and usage, and to reach a wider, non-technical community, that often means a written narrative. The benefits of reaching a wider audience by replicating your built scholarly work in an article or monograph aren't as important as getting that work done, though—so we need to advocate for student projects and dissertations to be accepted in forms other than the monograph, because the common requirement of doubling one's built scholarship with a monograph spreads a chilling effect on young scholars' interest in trying design, coding, and other digital or non-monograph-form scholarly work.

5. Design is not pre-critical. When I consider an edition and what information it's trying to express, I've moved from thinking about the narrative content of a piece of literature to aspects such as its interpretations and reception history—those features the scholarly editor foregrounds in their textual notes and methodology, aspects which a well-designed interface can support or augment. This information-centered approach requires thinking about your audience and your goals for the use of your scholarly product. What we see when we encounter an edition shapes the questions we raise, the biases we inherit, and the things we end up knowing; as Jon Saklofske asks during his reimagining of the Blake Archive interface: what are the interpretive resonances of redesign? (Saklofske, Jon. "NewRadial: Revisualizing the Blake Archive". Poetess Archive Journal 2.1 (December 2010).)

6. Accurate semantics for situating what we do. Be as sensitive to how I construct non-digital or non-making scholarly work as I am to how scholarly building is often treated (e.g. "developers aren't scholars, or at least not when they're coding/designing"). I want to be wary of characterizing anything as "traditional work" or "non-digital"; these terms are too wide and abstract, carry connotations of datedness, and, most importantly—digital work IS traditional in the sense of following a tradition of practice (as with creating and designing editions in textual theory, or as with algorithmic criticism pre-computer, as Steve Ramsay shows in Reading Machines). Building and design experiments have a long history as part of the textual scholar's intellectual toolkit; it isn’t whether something is written, or can be described linguistically, that determines whether critical thought went into it and scholarly utility comes out of it: it’s the appropriateness of the form to the argument, and the availability of that argument to discussion and evaluation in the scholarly community.

7. Documentation. Part of accessibility and participatory design is making your technical and design decisions/methodology understandable to people not versed in the skills you employed. Good documentation can be a fairly simple by-product of good technical practice; for example, I basically produced a guide to creating your own Islandora digital edition site just by recording all my attempts, failures, and successes as I set up my own site (with the additional benefit that I could remember what I had already tried and places I might need to go back and alter).

8. Open source, open access: clone my work and read it too. Here's a simpler way of putting it: your documentation should be so good that someone willing to put in the time and technical learning could hypothetically replicate your exact work completely (e.g. I'm hoping to make it clear how to "make your own Infinite Ulysses site") and more probably, create their own intellectual argument using the tools and scholarly form you documented. All code should be distributed with some license allowing at least free, non-commercial reuse (and although Creative Commons licenses aren't appropriate for code meant to be run, Bethany Nowviskie's argument for not keeping a non-commercial requirement on your work is pretty convincing). As a corollary to making my code reusable and understandable, when I do get around to publishing about my dissertation via journal articles or other peer-reviewed platforms, it's important that I retain rights to the content allowing me to make it freely available to anyone to access.

Values Reified

I should also write a set of blog posts exploring how each value ends up functioning as part of my dissertation and what difficulties (if any) impeded the value's inclusion (I'll come back and link each of the listed values to the posts as they are written).

Have you written something explaining your scholarly values? Add it to the "Values" folder in the Digital Humanities Zotero library and we can look at word and topic frequencies in digital humanist values!

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!