ischool and about me

I started my day playing around with the R statistical language for my statistics course, followed by some work in Adobe InDesign for a graphic design course.

I’m currently finishing my master’s degree at the University of Michigan’s School of Information (SI; M.S.I. = master of science in information). The overlap of information studies and DH is an interesting one. I’m interested in literature, web design, and online learning, and SI does a great job covering the last two areas–I think we had more students enter our HCI (human-computer interaction) specialization than any of the other specializations (people study everything from information economics to natural language processing to programming and design to archives to preservation to library science) for the first time this term. For the literature part, I had to work a little–I used the tailored option to make my own “digital humanities” specialization. Got to throw a lot of DH stuff into the mixture, from an IMLS Digital Humanities internship at MITH to independent studies creating digital texts and programming web learning tools in Python to my thesis on digital text use.

UM's SI logo

SI's new logo. I miss the old one.

masters thesis soiree, master’s thesis

Laptop with screenshots of Blake And Whitman digital texts.The School of Information held its annual “MTOP Soiree” at lunchtime today (because it’s evening in Paris?). The MTOP is SI’s masters thesis option program; for the last six years or so, the program has allowed masters students with an interest in academic research to apply to conduct year-long research culminating in a thesis. Doesn’t seem to have been very popular so far–the program caps at twelve students, but the haven’t reached that number yet. I think a lot of students in the program are intent on professional careers in HCI, archives, information economics, etc.–surprising given the number that come into the program who already have masters and Ph.D.s in other areas. Still, about 25 people showed up to hear about the thesis option, talk to the three current MTOP students, and eat delicious sandwiches.

As one of the three MTOP students, I gave a short talk about my thesis.

Some background. I like massive unwieldy works of literature; I like web design and programming; I like using the web to teach and learn, especially to help those really cool people engaged in self-motivated learning via the web. I’ve created my own digital humanities M.S.I. specialization, and writing a thesis was, among other things, a great way to tailor my degree more to my DH interests in literature and web learning.

My decision to focus on digital texts came from my continuing work on a personal digital text of Joyce’s excellent, sprawling novel Ulysses (another post on that to follow, I’m sure– This digital text aims to help first-time readers of Ulysses who are coming from outside an education focused on literary analysis. While prototyping the site last year, I had trouble locating other digital texts doing what I wanted to do, or studies working with my intended audience of self-motivated, less-invested learners.

The great digital text projects (e.g. The Valley of the Shadow, the Dickinson Electronic Archives) are built by and for what we’ll call a primary audience: scholars (Ph.D. students and up) and DH developers who have a high degree of investment and experience with one or a few digital text projects, enough that these projects matter significantly to their learning and livelihood. Being built this way is great–the developers know (or are) their main audience, so you’ve got a very accurate design persona.

Other people, however, also use these digital texts. Maybe it’s a scholar in another area looking for specific information; maybe it’s a student anywhere below the PhD level working on a class assignment; maybe it’s just someone looking to learn on their own. This secondary audience of learners doesn’t have the same level of investment or experience with a given digital text as its primary audience. Given the intended audience of my Ulysses digital text, I decided to focus on this secondary audience with my thesis.

The thesis. I conducted a use study of two respected digital texts (the Walt Whitman Archive and the William Blake Archive) with two topics in mind:

  1. Digital texts have not seen much in the way of systematic, scientific users studies. Digital texts have really not see much in the way of studying the digital text secondary audience.
  2. Digital texts do awesome things. Some of these are obvious: offloading scholarly tasks like searching and annotation, condensing resources, preserving the materiality of interesting originals. But DH people also talk about “new knowledge” coming from digital texts–learning that could not be accomplished with traditional resources, even with all the time in the world, a million note cards, a thousand highlighters, and a free jet to the world’s best libraries.

Given these ideas, I created a study that would begin to describe the secondary digital text audience as well as look at their perceptions of learning, particularly “new knowledge” learning–was “new knowledge” limited to the primary audience because of their greater experience and investment with digital texts? I’ll be defending the thesis next month.

a ulysses digital text

! I spent the evening sketching the site structure redesign for my digital text project.

A. I love Ulysses. I’ve read it five times, pages have fallen out of my copy, I’ve recorded myself reading several chapters, and et cetera. It’s a hard book–a great book–and it opens to you every time you read it. I want other people to experience it.

B. I love web design.

C. A digital text was an obvious next step. The novel is complex: it makes use of multiple languages and is ultra-allusive, confusingly referential: in short, a massive analog hypertext, and a great candidate for a hypertext around a hypertext. Other scholars have used the web around Ulysses in different ways, but I haven’t found anything I can share with my friends who’d like to try reading the book–so about two years ago, I started planning a site that would use annotations and multimedia to help first-time readers appreciate the text.

I put the project on hold during my thesis and finishing my information masters, but the summer (and beginning a Ph.D. in literature this fall) will let me work on the site again. Things that are in the works:

  • Conversion to Drupal framework, allowing templating and design changes (no more ’70s-basement color palette).
  • Moving the text from HTML to TEI-Lite.
  • Log-in allowing user customization (personal annotation, bookmarks, group readings)
  • If the PHP code allowing the hovering annotations is elegant enough, maybe releasing a simple digital-text-maker for use by others.
  • And, of course: better, more thorough annotations for the entire novel (the current annotations were for prototyping)