Editing Modernism in Canada


August 21, 2011

Making meaning through digital design

I feel very fortunate in having been able to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria for a second time with EMiC colleagues, and in having had the opportunity to take part in the first iteration of Meagan Timney’s Digital Editions course as part of DEMiC. Other EMiC-ites have written eloquently about the various DHSI workshops and how awesome they are, so although I share their enthusiasm, I won’t recapitulate that subject here. Instead, I thought  it might be worth drawing attention to a recent article in Literary and Linguistic Computing which resonates with much of what we were talking about at DHSI: Alan Galey and Stan Ruecker’s “How a Prototype Argues”, LLC25.4 (Dec 2010): 405-424.

Galey & Ruecker’s basic proposition is that a digital object can be understood as a form of argument, and indeed that it is essential to start thinking of them in this way if they are to get the recognition they are entitled to as forms of scholarship. Interpreting scholarly digital objects – especially experimental prototypes – in terms of the arguments they are advancing can be the basis on which to peer review them, without the need to rely on articles that describe these prototypes (413). They set out a checklist of areas which could be used by peer reviewers, and also consider the conditions under which peer review can happen – that a prototype reifies an argument, for example, rather than simply acting as a production system.

What I found especially useful in Galey & Ruecker’s piece was the idea of understanding digital artefacts in terms of process. As they point out, this is a point of commonality for book historians and designers, as both are interested in “the intimate and profound connections between how things work and what they mean” (408). Book historians, for instance, situate authoring in the context of multiple meaning-making activities – designing, manufacturing, modifying, reading and so forth – so that it becomes only one process among a plethora of others which together act to shape the meanings that readers take away. Similarly, a range of processes shape the semiotic potential of digital objects. One thing the Digital Editions course did was to force us to think about these processes, and how our editions (and the online furniture surrounding them) would be traversed by different kinds of users. This involves asking yourself who those people will be: see Emily’s fabulous taxonomy of user personas.

However, the act of designing a digital edition is not just about the process of creating an artifact. It’s also a process of critical interpretation (though cf. Willard McCarty’s gloss on Lev Manovich’s aphorism that “a prototype is a theory”). For Galey & Ruecker, digital editions not only embody theories but make them contestable:

By recognizing that digital objects – such as interfaces, games, tools, electronic literature, and text visualizations – may contain arguments subjectable to peer review, digital humanities scholars are assuming a perspective similar to that of book historians, who study the sociology of texts. In this sense, the concept of design has developed beyond pure utilitarianism or creative expressiveness to take on a status equal to critical inquiry, albeit with a more complicated relation to materiality and authorship. (412)

Having spent the week at DHSI getting my head around the intersection of scholarly inquiry, design, and useability, and discovering how exhilarating it was to think about the texts and authors I work with using a completely different conceptual vocabulary, I couldn’t agree more with this: this is intellectual labour on a par with critical inquiry. Thinking about how a user will proceed through a digital edition is every bit as crucial as planning how to construct a conventional piece of scholarship such as a journal article: both involve understanding how to lead your reader through the argument you have built. It’s also daunting, of course, when you have no training in design (and run the risk of getting it spectacularly wrong, as in this salutary warning that Meg & Matt put up in the Digital Editions course). And where the time to learn and think about this fits onto already crowded professional plates I’m yet to figure out, though this is something of a perennial question for DH research. But, I’m also delighted that at this point in my career I have the opportunity to bring in a whole new realm – design – as part of the process of constructing an edition.

One of the reasons it’s important to pay attention to the design of an artifact, Galey & Ruecker assert, is that it has something to tell us about that artifact’s role in the world. While I have certainly thought about the audience for my own digital edition, and the uses to which users might put it, I had not really considered this in terms of my edition’s “role in the world”. The mere act of building a digital edition is an assertion that the material being presented is worth paying attention to, but beyond this there are three further aspects of a digital artifact that Galey & Ruecker suggest as criteria for peer review, which they take from Booth et al.’s (2008) three key components of a thesis topic: being contestable, defensible, and substantive. So, I also have to ask myself: What, exactly, is my edition of correspondence contesting? How am I defending the choices I have made about its content, its form and every other element? And how is it substantive? (These could be useful questions with which to structure the “rationale” part of a book or grant proposal.)

If it’s clear, then, that interfaces and visualization tools “contain arguments that advance knowledge about the world” (406), then the helpful leap that Galey & Ruecker make is to connect this observation to peer-reviewing practices, and to suggest that part of the peer review process should be to ask what argument a design, or a prototype is making. “How can design become a process of critical inquiry itself, not just the embodiment of the results?” (406), they ask, and this seems to me to be a question that goes to the heart not just of our various EMiC editions, print as well as digital, but also of the DEMiC Digital Editions course itself. A great deal of time and effort will go into our editions, and if print-centric scholarly appraisal frameworks aren’t necessarily adequate to all digital purposes then it’s important that we take the initiative in beginning the conversations which will determine the standards by which our digital projects will be reviewed, which is precisely what Galey & Ruecker are concerned to do. As they point out, digital objects challenge hermeneutic assumptions which are anchored in the print culture and bibliographic scholarship of the past century (411). One of the difficulties DH scholars face is when our work (and our worth) is assessed by scholars whose own experiences, training, practices and so forth are grounded in print culture, and who see these challenges not as challenges but as shortcomings, errors, and inadequacies when compared to conventional print formats. The onus, then, is on us to be clear about the arguments our digital objects are making.

I am left to wonder: What argument is my digital edition putting forward? What about those of other EMiC-ites: What arguments are your editions advancing? And how can we be more explicit about what these are, both in our own projects, and across the work of EMiC as a whole?

2 Responses to “Making meaning through digital design”

  1. Melissa Dalgleish says:

    Anouk, this is fantastic. We talked about so many of these issues–thinking modularly; seeing early iterations of our work as prototeypes, not failures; peer-review and what the criteria will and should be; being explicit about our editorial decisions, purposes, and methods–at TEMiC. I’m excited to read the Galey article; he’s doing some really cool work.

  2. Anouk says:

    Wish I could have been there — it sounds excellent (especially the bit about finding another way to conceptualise one’s failures!)

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