Infinite Ulysses: Designing a Public Humanities Conversation

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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 and other textual scholars are an integral part of the continuum that keeps the stories of the past understood by the present—but just as important is the you, that public of not just scholars, but also readers beyond the academy whose interest keeps the humanities alive and relevant.

As a web developer and textual scholar, I’m interested in improving interfaces to digital humanities projects: can we design for a more public conversation? MITH is supporting my dissertational Infinite Ulysses project, for which I’ve built a participatory digital edition of James Joyce’s difficult but rewarding novel Ulysses. The website creates a community for discussing the text; users can highlight sections of the text to add a comment, question, or interpretation, as well as read, upvote, and tag others’ annotations. A variety of sorting, filtering, and toggling options customize the experience to an individual reader’s needs, whether that reader knows Church Latin, wants to avoid spoilers, needs extra help as a first-time reader, or is a scholar studying Ulysses‘ puzzles or the function of written material (letters, poems, etc.) throughout the novel.

Besides this design and coding work, I’ll conduct user testing to gauge the use, usefulness, and usability of the edition. Digital editions are a key humanities scholarly form, but often we don’t base our understanding of how they are read and used on data gathered through formal user testing. This project builds on my master’s thesis work at the University of Michigan School of Information, where I explored user testing for the digital humanities, and how digital archives and editions might be designed to include a public audience.

I’ll assess the digital edition site itself, looking at how features drawn from existing, successful online communities that deal with quantity and quality of text (such as Reddit and StackExchange) port to digital humanities platforms. I’ll also use test and analytics data to support the speculative design of the edition as an “infinite” Ulysses conversation. Could the site still produce customized reading experiences while storing an “infinite” quantity of annotations of various quality? What happens to complex texts—especially those authored to be hypertextual, chaotic, and encyclopedic, like Ulysses—when a participatory digital edition places them under “infinite” annotations and conversations? Data on reading behavior—such as what pages of the book take users the longest to read, or receive the most annotations, or the most contentious (both up- and down-voted) annotations—will give me a basis to speculate on questions like these.

I’m finishing up private alpha-testing of the site this month. Beta-testing with individual volunteers will begin at the start of January, with group testing (teachers/students, book clubs) following at the end of the month. To sign up as an Infinite Ulysses beta-tester, share your Ulysses annotations, or inquire about using Infinite Ulysses in your classroom or book club this January, please fill out this form!

I’m grateful to MITH for their support—I’m working this academic year as MITH’s Winnemore Digital Dissertation Fellow, allowing me to focus full-time on the project’s various deliverables. The dissertation takes a unique non-monograph form, consisting of the Infinite Ulysses participatory digital edition (plus a public code repository and documentation on using my code to create your own participatory digital edition); user testing, site analytics, and analysis; and regular research blogging culminating in a scholarly article final draft. For more about the project, check out the quick three-minute video below, read more on the project page, or get the latest by following my regular research blogging.

A transcript of the video is available here.

Amanda Visconti is MITH’s Winnemore Digital Dissertation Fellow for 2014-2015 and a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Maryland English Department.

By | 2017-02-05T21:14:07+00:00 Mon, Dec 1, 2014|Fellows, Research, Winnemore Fellows|