March 31, 2014 by Amanda Visconti

Designing a digital scholarly article

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!

I'll be speaking on a panel on "21st-Century Forms for the Dissertation" on Wednesday, and will have more general thoughts to share on using forms other than the monograph to convey your scholarly argument then. Today, though, I'll describe my plans for one of the pieces of my unusually formatted dissertation: an "interactive" scholarly article that will serve as public entrance into my dissertational research (I'll get to what the heck the much-abused word "interactive" means here in a minute!).

This dissertation's focus is a website—the Infinite Ulysses participatory digital edition of James Joyce's novel Ulysses—and the critical design, coding, contextual annotation, and user-testing work that will make up that piece of scholarly digital editing (Note that I've downsized the project from the previous three different coding projects to focus on just this Ulysses piece. The dissertation actually had five different coding projects when I was writing my prospectus for it originally... but then I decided I wanted to graduate! I may still pursue the Rochfort-Smith critical visual design project, but that'll depend on the kind of usability work I need to do on the Ulysses site after initial testing.). This "interactive" article is already building itself through my regular blogging on this site, but it will be more polished than some of this blogging, and also offer some writing that doesn't make it onto the blog for one reason or other, like a research bibliography and full analysis of my user-testing results. The article will also link out to the other pieces of my dissertational work: the Infinite Ulysses participatory digital edition, code repositories, this blog, etc.

From the beginning of the dissertation, the idea was to work with a publishing platform that welcomes new media submissions so that I could publish my code/design work as well as my writing—but I've since decided that a developing form of web design that interests me would also be the perfect format for this article. I've called it "an interactive scholarly article" above, I call it an "HTML5 manifesto" in my head, and the New York Times calls their version of it "interactive storytelling", and I'm sure there's some specific phrase that would better capture the picture that's been developing in my head. What I'm hoping to produce is a HTML5 site that uses the fact that it isn't a printed page of paper to convey my argument.

What does that look like?

Let's look at some examples of this admittedly broad form to quickly give you the best sense of what I'm thinking:

These all function by scrolling down to reveal more content (rather than using the codex-holdover of multiple pages), and employ features such as typography, layout, and embedded video to unfold their narrative—an approach I've personally enjoyed reading, and that gives me a better mental map of the argument I'm following than a traditional paper does.

Text is chunked into sections that may be related in more than the normal linear fashion, in order to cover the multiple but related preoccupations of my work. A virtue of this approach is that I can use space to make an argument more easily than in the confines of an ordinary print page. For example, to discuss the speculative experiment part of my work as it impacts different mechanical pieces of my site such as tagging and voting, I can branch the page into three areas representing different aspects of the approach in respect to each feature, with and links arrows connecting among these three strains of thought—or maybe a chart listing "features" down one side (tagging, voting, etc.) and how past scholarly attempts (e.g. how other DH projects have experienced crowd-tagging), my usability study (e.g. the reality of crowd-tagging I observe via my user study), and my thought experiment (what I think I might observe if the site actually encountered the speculative state of being annotated and tagged by "everyone") each reflect on that feature.

If this is a bit hard to picture... it's because this is an approach for those times when you really need to be drawing on a whiteboard at the same time as talking, or showing a slide, or otherwise supporting verbal argument with visuals.

Possible Issues: Accessibility, Effort

I'll need to do some research into the accessibility of this design approach, but I think that unlike similar-looking sites from years ago (e.g. sites using image slices, Flash, and other early-e-lit-like approaches), the use of clean HTML5 here actually lets the content be extremely screenreader-friendly (well structured, free from cruft). That also means that the core textual content should be easy to print off for purposes of pre-defense comments.

I'll also need to be certain I don't get distracted by the fun of designing/coding this article at the expense of time that could be better spent on other aspects of the dissertation. I think this approach is definitely worth the effort: it's likely to welcome more people to reading my dissertation, and make the dissertation more accessible in multiple senses of the word (available on the web, form/layout supports understanding of arguments, link to further reading on non-literary terms of art such as the HCI terminology I'll be using). Being a really fun thing to do as a web designer is just a happy bonus of the form!