Amanda received her PhD (Literature, Digital Humanities, 2015) at the University of Maryland. She created an interactive digital dissertation that let users annotate James Joyce’s Ulysses. Amanda was hired by Purdue University as a tenure-track assistant professor, then moved to the University of Virginia to co-direct the Scholars’ Lab, an internationally recognized research center.
Non-traditional content: no chapter-writing: digital humanities dissertation involving blogging and a debriefing report.
Non-traditional mentors/collaborators: participatory online project with thousands of users.
Could you describe your dissertation topic to us?
Scholarly literary 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 InfiniteUlysses.com 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 of massive public interest in reading and discussing a challenging novel. “‘How can you love a work, if you don’t know it?”: Critical Code and Design toward Participatory Digital Editions”, was a literature dissertation innovative in its digital humanities (DH) methods and formats. 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, participatory design interviews, and studied site analytic data. The dr.AmandaVisconti.com website serves as the container for all pieces of the dissertation, including a whitepaper written at the project’s end that discusses process and outcomes of the research. I used the results of the experiment to build on knowledge from three fields with stakes in digital social reading:
1. information studies/human-computer interaction: How can we design participatory digital editions to handle a heavy influx of readers and annotations? What might we learn about digital editions and their texts from the accompanying influx of site use data? How can we help each reader filter a large number of public annotations on the novel to just those an individual reader wants or needs to see?
2. literature: How can we design digital editions of literature that are not just public, but invite and assist participation in the scholarly love for the nuances of a text’s materiality, history, and meaning? Are there ways to design for meaningful participation that don’t necessarily scaffold critical participation?
3. textual scholarship: Can we separate the values of textual scholarship from the physical manifestations of these values? How might this clarification help us imagine new types of digital edition that hold true to those values?
In what ways was your dissertation non-traditional/innovative in your field?
My dissertation was possibly unique in two ways:
1. There was no chapter-writing: there was no core of proto-monograph writing throughout the dissertation. I did produce analytics writing, but in non-traditional forms: blogging throughout the entire process, both about my research questions and around the meta-questions of doing a uniquely shaped DH dissertation; and a final debriefing report (whitepaper) that was written entirely during the final month before my dissertation defense (usual for a math dissertation, unique for a literature dissertation).
2. The dissertation was formally evaluated on the entirety of digital humanities scholarly effort during its process: It’s difficult to tell how unusual this is, because the tradition of evaluating only a proto-monograph at the time of the defense makes it difficult to tell whether a candidate’s committee allowed DH scholarship to happen during the dissertation process, but did not include the any completed unusual deliverable and/or the critical efforts leading to that deliverable in what they formally evaluated when deciding whether to confer the doctorate. In my case, my committee formally evaluated both my DH endproducts (e.g. the InfiniteUlysses.com participatory digital edition) as well as a variety of other efforts throughout my dissertation process (e.g. blogging, tweeting, invited talks, coding work).
As you conceived to follow this path, what was the reaction of the key actors in your university (such as your supervisor, committee, department, other)? Did you receive any resistance?
Early in the project, I identified the university stakeholders in my dissertation, including my department’s graduate and general chair, the graduate school dean, and the librarian responsible for ingesting completed dissertations into the institutional repository. I prepared two short paragraphs for them to read: one that explained in lay terms what my dissertation would look like when defended, and one that explained why my methods and format were the best ways to pursue my research questions and prepare me for my planned career. Each of these stakeholders was supportive, such that I was able to feel like I was helping folks learn about DH scholarship, rather than defending what I wanted to do against skeptics. I had incredible mentors as my dissertation committee (Matthew Kirschenbaum as advisor; Kari Kraus, Neil Fraistat, Melanie Kill, Brian Richardson). They met with me throughout the dissertation process to give me feedback and help us make sure that, for a very non-traditionally shaped dissertation, we were all on the same page as to expectations for the final outcome. In addition, they were generous in their willingness to evaluate something that looked very different from other dissertations.
How do you think your non-traditional dissertation helped you develop professional competencies and prepared you for academic/non-academic career prospects?
Because my dissertation was conducted in public (e.g. tweeting, blogging), more folks knew about my work and associated those topics with me, which was helpful on the job market and for other opportunities such as collaborating on panels or invitations to speak. I practiced speaking to multiple audiences about my work, and built a sense of what kinds of scholarly activities were most fulfilling to me (making, coding, community building, collaboration, infrastructure).
Did you face any challenges regarding the evaluation of your dissertation (such as from the external examiner)?
Most of the online advice I’ve encountered for evaluating non-traditional scholarly projects seems to focus on seeking jobs or applying for tenure with a portfolio that is significantly digital; the process of translating that body of work for a reviewing committee matches up pretty well with how evaluation works for the final dissertation defense process for a non-traditional and/or digital project. But that only covers scholarly end-products, and I wanted my dissertation to be evaluated not just on the digital edition I created, but also on all the critical work that led up to that deliverable. I did not find as much guidance on how to chart my progress and record my effort throughout dissertating, so I documented my approach in a blog post: “Evaluating Non-Traditional Digital Humanities Dissertations” (9/30/2014). To summarize that post, I used GitHub to track versions of my code and coding activity, and Basecamp to track design, usability, and other non-coding work. Blogging my critical thinking throughout the process meant that when I spent six months coding on a platform I ended up not using, I didn’t lose 6 months of dissertating time because I had that set of critical thinking and effort to show for those months. I sent weekly email updates to my advisor, not so much intended to be read as to form a record we could look back at, if there was any question about whether the effort I put into my project was equivalent to the writing of a proto-monograph. Finally, my advisor Matt Kirschenbaum suggested I create a “manifest” listing, linking to, and explaining all the pieces of effort that I wanted evaluated as my dissertation. The manifest also helped my committee and I discuss what I didn’t want evaluated; typically, a digital edition’s annotations would be evaluated as part of textual scholarship, but I intended mine to be extremely basic notes (translations, explanations of what was happening on the page) that seeded my digital edition so other readers would feel comfortable adding their own annotations—unlike a traditional digital scholarly edition, these annotations weren’t intended as contributions to my scholarly community. That manifest explains how methods such as social media use, coding, and design interviews function as scholarship, assisting my committee in evaluating my variety of scholarly effort.
What would you have done differently if you could do it all over again? What advice do you have for doctoral students who would like to produce a non-traditional dissertation?
I would have used the same methods and formats! I would *not* use a canon literary text (Ulysses) this time, or I would ask for my scholarship to be additionally evaluated on how I used a participatory digital edition of a canon text to make further scholarship on texts by non-cis white male authors better supported (e.g. better documentation showing others how to make their own participatory digital editions of non-canon texts, more studying and writing about how DH is reifying the canon and how to change that). And I’d do a better job making sure edition users understood my site was run by a single person, and that it might no support reading and annotation for more than one year.BACK TO BROADENING THE DISSERTATION