"How can you love a work
if you don't know it?":

Critical code and design toward
participatory digital editions

By Amanda Visconti

Dissertation Committee:

  • Professor Matthew Kirschenbaum (Chair & Advisor)
  • Professor Neil Fraistat
  • Professor Melanie Kill
  • Professor Kari Kraus (also Dean's Representative)
  • Professor Brian Richardson

Dissertation submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English
April 2015

Dissertation Project Abstract

Click to download a PDF of an abstract for the entire dissertation (as opposed to just the whitepaper piece of the dissertation), or read on below:

Scholarly editors are integral to the continuum that keeps the stories of the past available to and understood by the present—but that public of readers beyond the academy whose interest keeps the humanities alive and relevant is just as important. What if we build a digital edition and invite everyone? What if millions of scholars, first-time readers, book clubs, teachers and their students show up and annotate a text with their "infinite" interpretations, questions, and contextualizations? My dissertation pursues this speculative experiment through the creation of the Infinite Ulysses digital edition; I've studied how to improve the design and functionality of a key artifact of the digital humanities—the digital edition—through this unlikely hypothetical.

First, I designed, coded, and publicly released an actual digital edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses with various experimental interface features. Second, I conducted user testing and analyzed site analytic data with real readers and researchers. Third, I used the results of the experiment to build on knowledge from fields with a stake in digital social reading: literary studies, textual scholarship, information science, and visual design rhetoric. I’m using this speculative experiment to dream big about the public humanities, produce something practically useful, and capture data to support critical responses to the challenges of a more public digital humanities.

Three research areas were explored through these methodologies:

A whitepaper serves as a report on the dissertation's process and products.


Click to download a PDF of the full whitepaper. Below is an abstract for the whitepaper:

This whitepaper offers an analytic discussion of the process and product for Amanda Visconti's dissertation "How can you love a work, if you don't know it?": Critical Code and Design toward Participatory Digital Editions. The introductory section proposes a speculative experiment to test digital edition design theories: "What if we build a digital edition and invite everyone? What if millions of scholars, first-time readers, book clubs, teachers and their students show up and annotate a text with their infinite interpretations, questions, and contextualizations?". Approaching digital editions as Morris Eaves' "problem-solving mechanism"s, the project designed, built, and user-tested a digital edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses with various experimental interface features: InfiniteUlysses.com. Three areas of research advanced through the project are presented: designing public and participatory edition projects, and whether critical participation is necessary to such projects; designing digital edition functionalities and appearance to serve a participatory audience, and what we learn about such an endeavor through Infinite Ulysses' user experience data; and separating the values of textual scholarship from their embodiments to imagine new types of edition. A review of theoretical and built precedents from textual scholarship, scholarly design and code projects, public and participatory humanities endeavors, and theories around a digital Ulysses grounds the report, followed by an overview of the features of the Infinite Ulysses participatory digital edition.

Section 2 discusses existing examples of public participation in digital humanities (DH) projects, and publicly annotatable digital editions in particular. "Critical public engagement" is defined to mean public interaction with the scholarly community marked by the learning and use of scholarly rhetoric and approaches. Whether participatory digital editions should always aim for critical public engagement is explored through a list of possible scholarly gains from non-critical public engagement, including gains from user testing and the application of scholarly textual analysis tools to user comments around the texts usually analyzed by such tools. Useful lessons for participatory DH projects from non-academic online communities such as Reddit and StackExchange are discussed. Existing approaches to thinking about a digital (hypertextualized and hyperannotated) Ulysses are considered, laying groundwork for testing these theories through actual digital edition design.

Section 3 focuses on digital editions and the design process, beginning with an overview of humanities design thinking, DH user testing, and the history of the graphic and iconic in textual scholarship. The section turns to the specific example of Infinite Ulysses, defining the scholarly values that went into the project and demonstrating how these values were reified through code and design. The site's design development over the course of the project is charted through wireframes and screenshots, and three specific design challenges are treated in depth. Preliminary data collected about the digital edition user experience (including results of informal feedback, formal user surveys, and site analytics) are presented and discussed in the context of understanding participatory use of the digital edition. Because this data only represents an early piece of the predicted life for the digital edition, this section concludes by speculating on how such data might look after further months of site use, and identifying what new questions longer site use would let us address.

Section 4 reimagines the digital edition by separating textual scholarship values from the common embodiments of these values. We begin with a brief history of textual scholarship values and their accompanying manifestations in edition form, followed by a discussion of current guidelines for editions from the MLA and RIDE digital edition review journal. These values are distilled into 1) the common artifactual embodiments of these values and 2) what those embodiments reflect as the current state of textual scholarship values for edition creation. Using these guidelines, whether Infinite Ulysses is a scholarly edition (no; "scholarly edition" is most useful as a specific term of art) and whether Infinite Ulysses is an edition (yes; meets textual scholarship values, advances disciplinary knowledge) are discussed. Issues faced by digital editions striving to meet values that have largely been developed around print editions are considered, and paths to bring Infinite Ulysses even closer to textual scholarship values (and therefore recognizable "edition-ness") are discussed. Other embodiments of textual scholarship values that don't look like the most common manifestations of textual scholarship values are examined towards an expanded edition typology arranged via edition values and values performance. Against the argument that expanding the bounds of what is considered a digital edition is healthy for the discipline, what isn't an edition is discussed through the examples of a commercial reading app, an audio text, and a literary museum exhibit. The section ends by building on Jerome McGann's review of Gabler's synoptic Ulysses to imagine editions as providing new literacies for textual engagement.

The conclusion sums up the interventions of this project and lists next steps for continuing this research. A bibliography and appendices (full texts of user surveys, explanation of project's dissertational format, wireframes and screenshot from throughout the design process) conclude the report.

Acknowledgments and Credits

This dissertation is dedicated to Drs. Matthew Kirschenbaum, Kari Kraus, and Neil Fraistat, for introducing me to the digital humanities and generous mentorship ever since, always pairing intellectual challenge with steadfast support.

Thank you to the following people for helping me realize this project:

My dissertation committee — Drs. Matthew Kirschenbaum (chair), Neil Fraistat, Melanie Kill, Kari Kraus (also dean's representative), and Brian Richardson — for their intellectual and personal generosity. In particular, their willingness to learn about, support, and refine my project's unique format and methodology; meeting with me as a team and always being available for discussion throughout the course of the project; and thoughtful evaluation of unusual deliverables for a literature dissertation.

For their support of my unique format and methodology: the University of Maryland English Department, UMD Graduate School and Dean Charles Caramello, and the UMD Libraries Digital Repository.

The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) and its stellar staff for introducing me to the digital humanities; intellectual stimulation, community, and funding; and mentorship in diverse digital skills and staff roles.

At the University of Michigan School of Information, Paul Conway (mentorship of my master's thesis research), Chris Quintana (mentorship of my earliest digital Ulysses prototype), and Charles Severance (kindling my abiding enjoyment of all things web design and development).

Porter Olsen, for his invaluable advice and example when learning to teach and preparing for the Ph.D. exams, and Peter Mallios, for supporting my creation of digital projects during his seminars.

For funding, sharing of code and other resources, and intellectual support: Editing Modernism in Canada (particularly Dean Irvine and Alan Stanley), the Modernist Versions Project (particularly Matt Huculak and Stephen Ross), Michael Widner with Stanford's Lacuna Stories project, the Annotator.js community, and the Ulysses Seen team (particularly Rob Berry and Chad Rutkowski).

For family and home: Barb, Keith, Sam, and Kyle.

My partner Jordan, for unequivocal encouragement of everything I do. And for starting all this by lending me some book called Ulysses.


Whenever possible, each piece of this dissertation has has been stored in more than one location (LOCKSS).