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

By Amanda Visconti | April 22, 2014

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?

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Amanda Morton based on nominations by Editors-at-Large Ayla Stein, César Viana Teixeira, James O'Sullivan, Beth Secrist, Amy Wickner, Amy Williams, Angela Galvan, Elizabeth Goins, Anke Finger, Daniel Chávez Heras, Aisha Clarke, Sarah Canfield Fuller, Andrew Hyde, Souvenise StLouis, John Bell, Kevin McQueeney, Steve Anderson, and Elizabeth Dill.