April 20, 2014 by Amanda Visconti

My Digital Dissertation: Public Humanities, Participatory Design, and Infinite Ulysses

A transcript of my talk on digital humanities interface usability and my dissertation from the recent Nebraska Digital Humanities Forum is below, and it's a great overview of the entire dissertation. For an even quicker overview of my dissertational research, please check out this three-minute video on my dissertation project!

"What if we build a digital edition and everyone shows up? Public Humanities, Participatory Design, and Infinite Ulysses"

(transcript of talk delivered at Nebraska DH Forum 2014)

Draft of logo for Infinite Ulysses site

Draft of logo for Infinite Ulysses site

What if we build a digital edition and everyone (millions of scholars, first-time readers, book clubs, teachers and their students) shows up and annotates the text with their infinite interpretations, questions, and contextualizations? The “Infinite Ulysses” project pursues this speculative experiment, and today I'm going to talk about how this unlikely hypothetical is helping me study and improve DH interface usability.

Textual scholar Morris Eaves conceives of editions not just as vessels for textual content, but as “problem-solving mechanisms”; and I'm using this speculative edition experiment to both

  • produce something practically useful, designing and coding an actual digital edition of James Joyce's Ulysses with a number of experimental interface features, and then
  • conducting use and usability testing with real readers and researchers to focus on three interrelated lines of questioning:

1. First, a question about how such an experiment can benefit the humanities: How can we design digital archives and editions that are not just public, but invite and assist participation from both trained academics and the lay person in our love for the nuances of a text’s materiality, history, and meaning?

2. Second, a question about how we make such a thing as my speculative idea work: How can we borrow successful social mechanics from existing online communities (things like upvoting & tagging) to create reading and research experiences that adeptly handle not only issues of user-generated contextual annotation quantity but also quality?

3. And third, a question about how this interface work affects the texts at its core: What happens to complex texts—especially those purposefully authored to be hypertextual, chaotic, and encyclopedic, like Ulysses—when a participatory digital edition places them under heavy and thorough annotation and conversation?

Some Quick Definitions

I'll be discussing how scholarly digital edition development helps us look at these three questions, and I'll also address how the overall Infinite Ulysses project functions as an unusually shaped humanities dissertation. Before I go any further, though, I want to define some words I'll be using a lot:

The "digital editions" I'm talking about are literary or other texts that have been prepared for online reading and research by a scholarly editor according to a carefully constructed interpretation and methodology. These are digital editions like those on the Whitman or Shelley-Godwin Archives, rather than the digitized/scanned and non-interpreted texts you find on Google Books.

I'll also be talking about "annotations" a lot. When a reader "annotates" my digital edition, they're highlighting a word, phrase, or other section of the literary text, then typing in a comment on that highlighting. This annotation then appears in the margin of the text depending on some other factors.

Finally, I'll be talking about "speculative design", a design approach that imagines future challenges and opportunities, and builds design solutions both imbued with theoretical innovation and the possibility of future utility. It's a way of using hypotheticals to make connections you might not otherwise make. My designing a digital edition that could handle a hypothetical public wildly interested in annotating a complex text is a speculative experiment that's helping me think about customizing annotations to individual researchers, and about how heavy annotation changes an unwieldy text like Ulysses.

Participatory, Public

Scholarly editor Gary Taylor has asked : “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 in and beyond the academy whose interest keeps the humanities alive and relevant.

Lindsey Thomas notes that "making something freely available online does not necessarily guarantee that thing is public, or that it will be used as a public resource"*. I'm interested in building tools and digital editions that help both textual scholars and the lay person participate in our love for the nuances of a text; and I'm especially interested in how we can use interface design to encourage not just consumption of, but participation in the humanities.

One way of thinking about participatory platforms is as a classroom. What's the connection between teaching and editions?

"[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.’ ...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 

I like how this Feynman quotation expresses that teaching is knowing, that we learn something more intimately when compelled to make our knowledge declarative for others, and if we're not able to teach a thing, then we might not know it as well as we thought. When I think about designing welcoming digital editions and other digital humanities sites, I often think about how we can make them more like a really good graduate seminar experience, where scaffolded discussion helps you think and discuss better.

The flip side to the metaphor of a classroom as a participatory space is that many digital editions are kind of participatory once removed. By aiming their content at teachers with things like teaching guides and sample assignments, they do a great job at humanities outreach, but the learning and discussion usually happens off the actual digital project site, and thus doesn't feed into the experience of other users.

Participatory Design

I've just discussed a more loose way of thinking about "participatory" design. There's also a more rigorous definition for participatory design that comes from the field of human-computer interaction (or HCI). HCI, a field focused on interfaces between user and computer (including interfaces of reading and research), provides this useful approach to a humanities that simultaneously benefits the public and scholars. 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; Michael Muller has found that 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 dialogues across and through differences"*.

Some sites and projects are intended "primarily with scholars in mind", and these are necessary and important contributions to the academy and human knowledge. On the other hand, I feel like non-designers are too quick to repeat the cliched "you can't design for multiple audiences", instead of thinking "how do I design for this space where we learn together?" For example, in a formal usability study of public use of several key digital archives, I found that it was often very simple interface changes users desired in order to be able to understand and use a DH site. When we bring the public into our scholarly conversations, everyone can benefit, and it's important to remember that designing for interactive participation and pedagogy is itself a scholarly activity that also benefits the public.

Infinite Ulysses: What's It Going to Look Like?

Let's turn to the Infinite Ulysses digital edition and how I'm designing it to be participatory. Here's the simple version of what my edition will let scholars and readers do: read the text online on their laptop, iPad, or tablet; when they run into something in their reading, whether that's a question, or an interpretation or context they wish to share, or an answer for a question left by another reader, they'll be able to highlight that piece of the text and add that as an annotation, which will then show up to the side of the text. Readers can also add tags to these annotations and up- or down-vote them, as well as have the option to fill out site profiles with fields for research interests, whether you've read the text before, and other details to aid in site customization.

The site lets readers add notes and otherwise discuss the text, then uses those notes to make a more customized experience for each reader.The site lets readers add notes and otherwise discuss the text, then uses those notes to make a more customized experience for each reader.

I'm not going to demo the site because I've been focusing on coding the interface behavior and not on the final theming design yet. The final site won't look like this, but it's a general sense of the layout:

Old wireframe capturing general layout of site (but not current design work).Old wireframe capturing general layout of site (but not current design work).

  • a central column of reading text
  • a drawer on the right for creating and reading annotations
  • a drawer on the left for customizing your view of the text

Fun Potential Issues with which I'll Be Dealing!

This project combines its speculative design approach with the scholarly primitive of curation (dealing with information abundance and quality and bias), imagining scholarly digital editions as popular sites of interpretation and conversation around a text. Of course, with our hypothetical millions of users and annotations, we can't display all of them next to the text, and you'd quickly see the entire text covered in a single block of yellow highlighting if we left everything highlighted that ever got annotated. By drawing from examples of how people actually interact with text on the internet, such as on the social community Reddit and the Q&A StackExchange sites, I’m creating a digital edition interface that allows site visitors to create and interact with a potentially high number of annotations and interpretations of the text.

The big questions I'm trying to answer with this interface design are:

  • If everyone’s submitting annotations to a digital edition, how can we automate the massive task of curation and moderation so that it occurs in a timely and unbiased manner?
  • And once we’ve separated the wheat of critical yet diverse annotations from the chaff of repetitions, spam, and under-substantiated suggestions, how do we make the still-plentiful remaining material accessible to the users it would best serve?
  • That is, how do we separate the signal from the noise when the “signal” of pertinent contextual annotations means different things for different reader needs?

My project is testing out to what degree using tags, upvoting, and profile information can help customize the reading experience for each reader. The hypothetical here is that we're able to filter the annotations to match the level of help a person needs, or their research interests; and, when there are still too many annotations available for a given word or phrase, at least cycle randomly through better subsets of annotations than the entire available pool. I've been coding to follow what seems to work best for existing successful online communities, including by visiting these communities' spaces for meta-analysis such as the subreddit "theory of reddit", but we won't know how well this works with a digital edition until I begin my usability testing this fall.

Site Features

I won't read through all the examples of functions I've been coding for (you can read a full list in this post), but here are a few examples of things you should be able to do with the edition:

  1. filter the annotations to only show those on particular areas of interest (e.g. annotations that translate foreign words, or annotations aimed at first-time readers)
  2. filter out annotations the reader doesn’t want to see (e.g. spoilers about something that only becomes clear later in the book)
  3. easily create a curated “edition” of Ulysses showing only annotations aimed at a specific topic (e.g. an edition meant for use by a class focusing on the place of books, letters, newspapers, and other written material in the Modernist novel), and/or only see annotations added by specific users, such as members of a class or book club

So, will we get enough annotations, tagging, and voting to make the site work? Even if the site doesn't have many more annotations and tags than the base set provided by me and several contributing scholars, it'll still be a useful public site. Some years back, I built a prototype non-participatory digital edition of Ulysses that was much simpler, but dealt with similar questions of interface design for ease of Ulysses first-time reading; unfortunately it's now very technically dated and has a frightening color palette; I still hear from random people around the world that they've read its two chapters of Ulysses and want more, though, so I do think there is already a desire for a certain way of presenting Ulysses online with annotation. I'm really hoping to be able to support a resource that is not only read, though, but also participated in, so that we can hear many more voices in our discussion of Ulysses.

Will Readers Tag?

The LibraryThing blog has a great article on how people tag things for themselves, not just because a site offers it, for personal reasons like aiding in memory and socializing. LibraryThing has found success with users tagging books, while Amazon's book tagging feature has failed (I didn't even know you could tag books!). I choose Ulysses for my test text in part because it occupies a special position: difficult enough that people welcome help in reading it, yet still very much in the popular consciousness as something that can and should be read (as opposed to, say, Finnegans Wake). People tweet about trying to read Ulysses all the time, hold reunions with book clubs with whom they read the text in the past, and celebrate the Ulysses holiday of Bloomsday every June. There's an audience out there to support with such a site, and I'm expecting that people will use the site's features in a way that benefits themselves but also others, whether they choose to annotate and tag and vote to interact with people they know offline like book clubs, or want to create a customized annotated edition for teaching or research use, or want to help track clues throughout the book, or otherwise serve the same purpose as sticky notes and penciled marginalia in print books.

Digital Humanities Use and Usability

I'll be conducting both use and usability studies to understand and build from user feedback. Usability is concerned with whether the site lets users simply and intuitively do what the site is meant to do—that is, read Ulysses and participate in a discussion around it. To study this, I can for example see how much time or how many clicks it takes a user to get to the text and add a question or other annotation. Use is the equally interesting study of how people actually use the site; do they want to tag annotations? do they want to do unexpected things like literary role-playing using the annotations? To some extent, I've tried to design for expected "non-official" uses, such as realizing that people would use the annotation feature to ask questions and supporting it both by allowing filtering for questions and answers, and creating a link to a feed of all unanswered questions.

Literary Texts under Participation

The third question this project is helping me explore is about Ulysses itself. What happens to complex texts—especially those purposefully authored to be hypertextual, chaotic, and encyclopedic—under heavy and thorough annotation and conversation?

My project builds on previous Joycean contextualizing work: such as Blamire’s Bloomsday Book and Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. Previous contextualizations (especially those on a higher, more macro-level of understanding the basics of Ulysses rather than specific allusions) carry an increased risk of authorial bias because of their individual authorship (e.g. the Bloomsday Book is very interested in charting Bloom’s development as a Christ figure); while the sources I’ve named are all excellent and useful pieces of scholarship that have improved my enjoyment of the novel, I’m very interested in seeing how a participatory edition might moderate among a variety of higher-level contextual interpretations and whether we might thus prevent a canon of interpretation from calcifying around the text, or at least multiple popular key streams of thinking around the text within the same digital space. Ulysses is also an interesting contextualization problem in that there are many sets of contextualizations floating around the web from both scholars and amateurs (in the old and new senses of the word); I’m interested in bringing diverse sets of interpretation together in one place and seeing how they overlap or contend with one another.

Some key print precedents for this project are variorum and other editions that deal with a large quantity of variants, marginalia, or other annotation, such as the Shelley-Godwin manuscript notebooks and Hans Gabler’s synoptic Ulysses edition; these last two examples have convenient digital counterparts in Michael Groden’s never-finished Ulysses in Hypermedia prototype, and the developing Shelley-Godwin Archive.

Ulysses + Hyperannotation = ???

While there isn’t a complete critical digital edition of Ulysses yet published, that hasn’t kept Joycean scholars from anticipating issues that might arise with the eventual migration to digital space. Where the limitations of print space have in the past kept annotations of the text in check, what will happen when a digital platform allows the addition and navigation of infinite annotations? Can we migrate complex print hypertexts such as Ulysses to a digital space with socially multiplied annotations without, as Mark Marino wonders, “diminish[ing] the force of the book”? Marino asks, "Assuming it were possible, would the creation of a system that automatically makes available all the allusions, unravels all the riddles, and translates foreign languages normalize Joyce’s text?"

Derek Attridge similarly sees a risk in Ulysses' hypertextualization and hyperannotation, saying "[Ulysses'] cultural supremacy, and the scholarly efforts which reflect and promote that supremacy, have turned it into a text that confirms us in our satisfied certainties instead of one that startles and defies us and thus opens new avenues for thought and pleasure. It now provides a spurious sense of rich complexity by reducing differences and distinctions".

Yet Attridge also sees space for promise in the digital development of the text, saying "The very magnitude of the encyclopedic Joycean hypertext can itself be unsettling… and it may be possible to produce a hypermedia version of Ulysses that is anything but reassuring—one that revives, in new ways, the provocations and disturbances of the original publication… The best teachers (like the best critics) are those who find ways to sustain the disruptive force of Ulysses even while they do their necessary work of explaining and demystifying". I'm hoping that by going back to my earlier definition of a participatory edition—one that functions like a classroom—we might be able to collectively make Ulysses' chaotic wonder accessible to more people, without also dampening that wonder.

So, despite there being no full digital edition of Ulysses against which to test these fears and assumptions about hypertextualization, we already have some questions about what happens to a complex Modernist text when “everyone shows up”, and I’m hoping that by creating a site that experiments with allowing “infinite” contextual annotation of Ulysses, we can get a more realistic picture of what extreme annotation actually does to our experience of the text. When even Ulysses editor Hans Gobbler says he still learns new things about Ulysses from time to time, I’m confident that Ulysses will persist as always partially unfixed, always giving back more.

How does this work as a dissertation?

The Infinite Ulysses digital edition is a dissertational project. In addition to the Drupal edition site, which will include the theme design, module coding in JS and PHP, and incorporated user feedback, the overall project has four other deliverables:

  1. Public code repository and documentation on using my code to build a similar digital edition
  2. Formal usability study
  3. Regular blogging on the technical and theorizing processes
  4. Scholarly digital article built from the blog posts and the usability study

So why this format and these methodologies? My primary field of interest is textual studies, a sub-field within literary studies that concerns itself with the scholarly acts of editing and edition-making, as well as preserving literary texts; more specifically, I’m interested in digital editing, which migrates these traditional scholarly practices to the online world, opening up possibilities for new ways of reading and studying literary texts. Much of the recent activity in textual studies as a discipline has followed this path, as an examination of the program for the annual Society for Textual Scholarship conference would confirm.

I feel that the most productive and efficacious (in terms of scholarly impact) way to push the current research, reading, and teaching capabilities of the digital edition further is to actually demonstrate them in practice, through the hands-on work of designing, building, and testing a digital platform for new editing practices. In many respects, my project is not much different from the previously accepted practice of producing for the literature dissertation a scholarly edition, complete with commentary and editorial apparatus.

In a field concerned with scholarly editing and edition-making, we need editions that experiment boldly not only with the editing of texts, but also with the crafting of those textual frames, treating the edition interface as an argument and meta-text worthy of experimentation and innovation.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the feed of my regular dissertation blogging, including posts on the public digital humanities via participatory interface design, precedents for scholarly experimentation as critical work, and how I'm demonstrating my intellectual values via this project.

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!

*: "Making something freely available online does not necessarily guarantee that thing is public, or that it will be used as a public resource...'Openness,' as we tend to understand the term in the Digital Humanities, might not necessarily involve 'making public' as we are used to thinking about it." — Lindsey C. Thomas, "Open Access and the Digital Humanities") *: Michael J. Muller. “Participatory Design: The Third Space in HCI”. In The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook. 1051-1068.