New and Noted: “Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities” (Ashgate)

Marilyn Deegan and Willard McCarty, eds. Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.

This is a new collection of essays on a subject that is, really, central to the way Digital Humanities has evolved, and perhaps a necessary adjunct of its methodologies:  collaborative work and research.  The volume is edited by two stalwarts in the field, Willard McCarty and Marilyn Deegan, and contains essays by a great many familiar names.  It prompts two reflections on my part.

  1. I wish I were better at working collaboratively than I am.  (My reluctance stems less from a personal or professional dislike of collaboration than it does from laziness.)
  2. I wish scholarly books weren’t so hideously expensive.

This looks like a future “must read,” however. I am personally particularly looking forward to reading the pieces by Roueché, by Kathryn Sutherland and Elena Pierazzo, and by the HCI-Book Consultative Group and the INKE Research Team.

Here is the description as given on Ashgate’s page for the new volume:

Collaboration within digital humanities is both a pertinent and a pressing topic as the traditional mode of the humanist, working alone in his or her study, is supplemented by explicitly co-operative, interdependent and collaborative research. This is particularly true where computational methods are employed in large-scale digital humanities projects. This book, which celebrates the contributions of Harold Short to this field, presents fourteen essays by leading authors in the digital humanities. It addresses several issues of collaboration, from the multiple perspectives of institutions, projects and individual researchers.

And here is a breakdown of its contents:

  • Marilyn Deegan and Willard McCarty, “Foreword”
  • Willard McCarty, “Collaborative research in the digital humanities”
  • John Bradley, “No job for techies: technical contributions to research in the digital humanities”
  • Hugh Craig and John Burrows, “A collaboration about a collaboration: the authorship of King Henry VI, Part 3”
  • Julia Flanders, “Collaboration and dissent: challenges of collaborative standards for digital humanities”
  • Susan Hockey, “Digital humanities in the age of the internet: reaching out to other communities”
  • Laszlo Hunyadi, “Collaboration in virtual space in digital humanities”
  • Jan-Christoph Meister, “Crowd sourcing ‘true meaning’: a collaborative markup approach to textual interpretation”
  • Janet L. Nelson, “From building site to building: the prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) project”
  • Geoffrey Rockwell, “Crowdsourcing the humanities: social research and collaboration”
  • Charlotte Roueché, “Why do we mark up texts?”
  • Ray Siemens, Teresa Dobson, Stan Ruecker, Richard Cunningham, Alan Galey, Claire Warwick, and Lynne Siemens, with Michael Best, Melanie Chernyk, Wendy Duff, Julia Flanders, David Gants, Bertrand Gervais, Karon MacLean, Steve Ramsay, Geoffrey Rockwell, Susan Schreibman, Colin Swindells, Christian Vandendorpe, Lynn Copeland, John Willinsky, Vika Zafrin, the HCI-Book Consultative Group and the INKE Research Team, “Human-computer interface/interaction and the book: a consultation-derived perspective on foundational e-book research”
  • Kathryn Sutherland and Elena Pierazzo, “The author’s hand: from page to screen”
  • Melissa Terras, “Being the other: interdisciplinary work in computational science and the humanities”
  • John Unsworth and Charlotte Tupman, “Interview with John Unsworth, April 2011”

Are We There Yet? Touch Press’s “The Waste Land” for iPad.

Usability studies have demonstrated that reading on tablets is more enjoyable than reading on the screen of computers and, in some cases, more than reading print. But this is for general reading: does it also apply to highly sophisticated digital scholarly editions? Is the sophistication of such editions, as we have conceived them so far, the enemy of accessibility and user-friendliness? Are tablet apps a possible way to enhance the appeal of Digital Scholarly Editions?  (Elena Pierazzo)

A month or so ago, I posted a review of the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio'” app for iPad, a digital “edition” that I found to be more than a tad disappointing.  At roughly the same time that I downloaded the British Library’s “First Folio” app, I also acquired, at the particular recommendation of a friend, a book app devoted to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  I would like now to consider this digital edition within the larger context of thinking about what such electronic texts should look like and do. In particular, I want to use this “review” as a leaping-off point for a subsequent discussion on the subject of digital texts for a more “scholarly” audience, with a particular focus upon texts for teaching. As Elena Pierazzo’s comments above might suggest, there is a great deal of potential in apps such as this to bring digital scholarly editions — whether intended for researchers or students — to the mainstream.  But are we there yet?

I teach some Eliot in a first year course, but my acquaintance with him, while more than merely passing, is probably not a great deal deeper than that of most experienced students (“official” or otherwise) of English literature. The Waste Land is, after all, arguably the defining poem of the 20th century, and in that sense it is communal property in a way that most other poems are not.  When I was a teen, and first discovered the enormous angst-potential of poetry, Eliot was The Poet, and The Waste Land  unquestionably the vital touchstone of a certain kind of moral and aesthetic “seriousness” in literary taste, so I became reasonably familiar with it at a fairly early age. And while I am more aware now than ever of how much I do not know about it, the poem still “sounds” to me as a familiar voice: comfortable and, despite all its gloom, somehow comforting.  Indeed, perhaps too much so, as the poem is for me somewhat more resonant with personal significance than is really helpful to someone who teaches it.  I looked forward to exploring the iPad app, and angsting away again to the familiar cadences of Eliot’s masterwork.

The digital "front page" of Touch Press's impressive "The Waste Land" app

The Waste Land  for iPad is published by Touch Press LLP and Faber and Faber.  The commentary that can be read alongside the poem in this app (and about which more below) have been taken, we are told, from B. C. Southam’s A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, first published in 1968. The involvement of Faber and Faber in this project is a very good sign in some respects: most of Eliot’s oeuvre was, of course, first published by that house, and Eliot himself was, from 1925 onwards, an employee (and eventually director) of the company.

Screen capture of a text page of the poem with marginal notes. Some of the latter are quite extensive, and expand when touched.

How happy am I to report that my high hopes for this app were fulfilled?  Well, very happy.  In almost every regard, this is a very capable and worthwhile treatment of Eliot’s poem.  It is not, it must be said, a “scholarly” edition of The Waste Land, but as a resource for general readers it exemplifies some of the really exciting things that can be done with digital texts.  The app, which is aesthetically very well designed and attractive, includes not merely the complete text of The Waste Land, but also a complete photo facsimile of Eliot’s annotated typescript of the poem, with the handwritten comments, suggestions, and criticisms that were added by Eliot, his first wife Vivien, and Ezra Pound. The typescript (the app calls it a “manuscript,” but hey, whatever) is lightly but informatively annotated. The poem itself can be read as a “clean” text, or with extensive (and often lengthy) explanatory annotations that appear to the left of the screen:  these address everything from the specifics of the allusions that the poem makes to aspects of the poem’s composition and reception.

Audio recordings of the poem being recited are also available, and can be listened to in conjunction with a view of the text (each line is highlighted as it is read): readers include Eliot himself (in two versions, from 1933 and 1947), Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen (huh?), and Fiona Shaw.  Shaw’s reading is taken from a dramatic “performance” of the poem that is also included with the app as a full-length video: it is a compelling and arresting performance (if also perhaps a little problematic in some respects, as an “interpretation” of the poem).

A still from Fiona Shaw's (very) dramatic reading of the poem.

One of the more interesting and innovative facets of the app is its surprisingly generous selection of video commentaries on the poem, found in a section of the programme entitled “Perspectives,” from a variety of writers and performers that includes the poet Seamus Heaney, editor Paul Keegan, critic and editor Jim McCue, poet Craig Raine, actor and director Fiona Shaw, punk musician Frank Turner, and the novelist Jeanette Winterson. The commentaries are fascinating precisely because they provide such a diversity of perspective on the poem; as each commentator speaks, the apposite section of the poem is displayed to the right, along with an occasional image relating to the commentary. In some ways, as someone who is already reasonably familiar with the poem and its history, I found this feature of the app most appealing, as it exposed me to some rather new, interesting, and diverse perspectives on Eliot’s piece.

A final feature of the book app is a modest gallery of images relating to the poem. The appropriateness of most of these is self-evident: they include, for instance, a couple of photographic portraits of Ezra Pound, and one of Vivien Eliot, as well a photo of the opening of the poem as it appeared in The Dial, where it was first published. Others seem a little odd: there are no less than two pictures of Bob Dylan who, we are told, was much influenced by Eliot’s poetry. This struck me as the least satisfactory element of the app, as the pictures seem a little miscellaneous and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the digital edition.

The publishers of the app have produced a video highlighting many of the facets of this edition:

Much of the context, background, and interpretation that this app provides for the poem will seem immediately familiar – the comfortable voice(s) of which I spoke – to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance of the poem.  The notes contain the expected expansions upon Eliot’s allusiveness, and upon his use of the myth of the Fisher King in the poem; there is also much on his relationship with Pound and the influence of Vivien Eliot. In this sense, the app provides little that is new.

For me, the heart of this digital edition, however, lies in the “Perspectives” section, which (as I have noted) includes the more personal reflections and comments upon the poem by people as diverse as Frank Turner and Seamus Heaney. These provide what the commentary to the poem really does not: fresh views and understandings of The Waste Land.  This I found also to be a function of audio recordings of readings of the poem: to listen to Alec Guinness’s rendition of The Waste Land  is to hear a very “different” poem, in some respects, than we get hearing Eliot, Hughes, or Shaw, reading it.  Indeed, there are instructive, if subtle, differences between Eliot’s 1933 and 1947 readings of the poem of which I had been unaware.  (I was also personally heartened by Mortensen’s reading, which I am pretty sure is not much better than my own.)  The app really does, quite literally, give us The Waste Land  in different voices.

I do have some cavils.  Eliot’s notes appear at the conclusion of the poem, which is as it should be, but some facility to leap back and forth between these and the text to which they refer would have been helpful. Ironically, consulting the notes in conjunction with the text is a relatively simple task with a printed codex; one need only flip back and forth between pages.  Doing so with this app is somewhat more laborious, and it isn’t possible to have both the text of the poem and Eliot’s own notes on the screen at the same time, although one can read the critical commentary alongside the verse text.

One might wish as well that the notes for the poem had been written afresh, rather than recycled from a now fairly ancient student guide to Eliot, even an updated one.  A awful lot has happened in Eliot scholarship in the past few decades, and it would have been nice to have had better access to such new scholarship than Southam’s book provides.  In this context, too, it’s a shame that the app does not include a brief biographical note on Eliot himself, and one in particular that glances at some of the darker aspects of his life, character, and poetry. Unsurprisingly, this app tends to be a “celebration” of the poem, and generally eschews a more probing critique of its somewhat recidivist aesthetics and ideology.

Screen shot of a page from the "manuscript" of the poem, with annotation in a panel to the lower left.

One might also have wished for a bibliography or list of books and articles for “Further Reading.”  The edition’s notes occasionally cite particular critics by name, but do not, unfortunately, reference the particular papers or monographs being cited. Finally, a minimal textual apparatus would have been helpful. There are references to textual issues in the notes and annotations, but it would have been nice to have had these details assembled in a conventional form in one place.

These issues notwithstanding, I would not hesitate to recommend this app to anyone interested in knowing this poem better, or, for that matter, to my own students. In fact, I would be delighted to assign it as a course text in my first-year English course (in which I do teach The Waste Land), and would probably devote a couple of weeks to exploring it with them, were it cheaply and easily available to all of my students.

But there, alas, lies the rub. While the app itself is quite inexpensive, the hardware required to use it is, of course, not. Sadly, too, this app is available only for the iPad, a particularly pricey little digital toy that is undoubtedly well beyond the means of the majority of my students.

I’ll conclude with a final thought on this kind of app. Touch Press’s The Waste Land and other apps of its kind are self-contained mini-programmes that “live,” for the most part, on your iPad, in isolation from the larger world of the Web.  This fact makes them more stable than online resources, and it also means that they can generally run more quickly, because they are not reliant upon information being streamed to them from an external server. But while much is to be gained by this approach, something else is lost, namely, the connectivity to a (much) larger metaverse of information and resources already existing online. This kind of connectivity is often problematic: web sites disappear, links become “dead,” and, of course, one has to continually exercise one’s judgement to determine what is “worthwhile” and trustworthy from the great mass of dross that is also to be found online. This said, that connectivity is what makes online scholarship truly dynamic, a “work in progress” rather than a neatly packaged but ultimately static book-in-a-box. Additionally, it would be good to see resources like this enable connectivity between “users,” be they students or otherwise.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s comments on the iBook Authors app by Apple are relevant in this context:

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

It is at least mildly disturbing that these new apps are happy to eschew the admittedly problematic fecundity of existence within a larger world of the Web for a safer, but ultimately more sterile existence locked within the hard drive of a tablet computer.

The Wasteland for iPad is probably just about the most attractive, sophisticated, and information-packed app for a digital book now available. But does it herald the arrival of truly scholarly works to the mainstream eBook medium?  Are we, in fact, there yet?  The answer, as I’ll discuss in my next post, is, I think, no.  But, as a major step in the right direction, this app is worthy of some study by digital editors.


T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land  for iPad, ed.  Justin Badger and Charles Chabot, Touch Press LLP, and Faber and Faber, 2011.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Reflections on the Apple Education Event,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 January, 2012. Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Elena Pierazzo, “Tablets Apps, or the future of the Scholarly Editons?” Elena Pierazzo’s Blog: Random Thoughts of a Digital Humanist with a Passion for Cookery, 27 November, 2011. Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Brian C.  Southam, A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1968; 1994.

Is this Textbook Really Smarter than Your Prof?

I read this morning Lawrence Summer’s editorial in the New York Times with a mixture of fascination and horror.  Entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know,” the piece contains some motherhood-and-apple-pie truisms — the world is changing rapidly, students need to be “engaged” through “dynamic” educational practices, collaboration is a Good Thing, etc., etc., etc.  But I was stopped short by these two paragraphs:

New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. Think of a music text in which you can hear pieces of music as you read, or a history text in which you can see film clips about what you are reading. But there are more profound changes set in train. There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

Similarly, it makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented. In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

To begin first with Summer’s last point here:  do we really believe that “accelerated video lectures” are superior to attending lectures in person?  Or could it be, just maybe, that the other activities in which students engaged alongside the video lecture (small group discussions, for instance) were what actually made this a better learning experience, and that these were sufficiently effective to make up for the stultifyingly dull experience of watching a video lecture?

The irony of advocating passive video lecturing (and thank goodness he doesn’t “mention the cost savings,” because that of course has no bearing on his argument, right?) in the same editorial in which “Active learning classrooms” are lauded seems lost on Summers.  I can well imagine how a digital lecture, fully integrated with interactive and dynamic elements and features, might produce an excellent learning experience, but that’s not quite the same thing as plunking students down in front of a video of a talking head (however brilliant a head it may be) discussing the causes of the American Revolution.

However, I primarily want to address Summers’ first point about textbooks, which he suggests have been “written by just a few of the most able” pedagogues and scholars.  To begin with, I’m far from sure that this is really an accurate characterization of the way in which textbooks have been produced, but for the moment I’ll accept the premise that current practice is to rely upon the “excellence” of our textbook authors and editors so as to free ourselves up for other “more important” things.

Summers is clearly thinking about, even if he doesn’t directly mention, the new iBooks Author application from Apple;  a link within the paragraph refers readers to an index of NYT stories on that tool.  As is suggested by his segue to video lectures, Summers believes that the “old model” of textbook production is a good thing:  let’s have the “most able” in our disciplines produce the texts, just as we should leave our lecturing to the best lecturers.  Now, however, the “most able” can create these textbooks in iBooks Author, and thereby produce more engaging and interactive texts for our students.

This approach, this acquiescence to the notion that we should let the “most able” build our textbooks for us, seems to me to miss out on an important element of the potential power of iBooks Author, or at least of what that tool represents.

How many of us are truly happy with our textbooks?  I take some care to choose anthologies for my course that are the best available (bearing in mind, however, cost to the student as well), but I still find myself in the not-infrequent position of apologizing to the class for the text.  An error here, an omission there, and on occasion a glaringly awful misprint — I’ve had to direct students’ attention to all of these.  On one memorable occasion, my students were thrown into confusion because a very popular textbook we were using had managed to run parts of two Seamus Heaney poems together, producing a sort of inadvertent monstrous poetic pastiche.

And of course there is the question of availability: I often have to drop from a syllabus a literary text that I’d love to teach simply because it is not available in a cheap modern edition.

Surely part of the appeal of easy-to-use tools like iBooks Author is that they can, in theory, allow us to create our own customized teaching texts?

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that we need to reinvent the wheel every time we teach a course:  I am, by and large, still pretty happy with the Broadview Anthology of Restoration and 18th-Century Literature as the core text for my survey course covering that period, despite some serious cavils here and there.  But what would be really great is an easy way to build on such core textbooks with custom-built texts that allow me to teach literary works or contextual materials not otherwise easily available.  It would be wonderful to enable a more engaging, complete, and dynamic contextualization of the ones that are already in the prefabricated textbook.  So, if I want to teach Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with Dissenters (and I do), or John Dryden’s “Preface” to Fables, Ancient and Modern, neither of which are in the Broadview Anthology, I can do so by creating my own eText versions of these, complete with any media or contextual materials that I think might be worthwhile. Increasingly, textbooks are being offered to us in “modular” form by publishers; what I am suggesting is that we can build some of these modules ourselves.

Such an approach to course texts would, of course, demand a fair amount of work from instructors, and would, as things currently stand, disadvantage those who lack the technical skills to produce their own digital texts. But what I think that iBooks Author potentially represents is a significant move towards a day when there are cheap and easy-to-use tools available to build just such custom modules.  Imagine, for instance, a web site into which someone with the most basic technological knowledge could simply input text and multimedia content, click “Submit,” and receive an ePub-compliant HTML5-encoded text (and maybe XML too) as output?

We’re not there yet, but surely iBooks Author gives us glimpses of a future in which we can all become as smart as our textbooks, because our textbooks are built by us.

Outrage from Mainz over Apple iBook 2 “Innovations”: “We Did It First!”

(Mainz) In the wake of Apple’s important and much-anticipated announcement yesterday of iBooks 2 comes some sharp criticism from the printing shop of Johannes Gutenberg, where it is being claimed that Apple’s new etext interface has copied many innovative features first introduced there.

“I can’t say I’m entirely surprised,” said Peter Schöffer, Gutenberg’s spokesman and CFO, “The Scheißerei at Apple have been trying to buy out our patents for 2 years now.”

Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg: "iBook-schmieBook!"

Schöffer expressed particular concern over Apple’s new “page finding” feature, which allows users to go directly to a given page in the digital book simply by entering a “page number.”  “Look at this!” Schöffer fumes, “When a user interfaces with one of our printed books, all he needs to do to find a particular page is flip through the leaves!  No clicks, no entering numbers:  if you can count, you can find it!  They copied us, but they did it badly.”

The CFO also expressed anger at another feature of iBooks 2, the ability to “bookmark” particular pages for quick and easy later reference.  “You’ve been able to do that with our books for years!” snorts Schöffer as he demonstrates by turning down a corner of a paper page, closing the book, and then reopening it again instantly to the marked page.  “No clickety-click needed!” he notes.

Schöffer was not entirely dismissive of iBook 2 innovations however.  “That index thingy they have – we may want to introduce that feature to our own books eventually too,” he chortles mischievously.

Apple is being fairly quiet about the allegations coming from Mainz, but Apple SVP Phil Schiller did have this to say when we contacted him:  “I think it’s inaccurate to say that we ‘stole’ these features from Gutenberg.  I mean, “pages” – well, manuscript codices have had those forever.  I think it’s more accurate to say that we broke into the scriptorium late one night, only to find that the place had already been burgled by Gutenberg.”

Schöffer was less forthcoming about rumours that the Gutenberg press is looking to sue Apple for patent infringement over their “iBook Author” tool.  “Well, we’ll see.  Our lawyers are still looking into that one,” says Schöffer, patting the wooden-framed handpress standing beside him.

The Gamification of Textbooks?

The word from Ars Technica that Apple plans to release a “GarageBand for Textbooks” tool has, understandably, begun to produce something of a buzz.

Apple is slated to announce the fruits of its labor on improving the use of technology in education at its special media event on Thursday, January 19. While speculation has so far centered on digital textbooks, sources close to the matter have confirmed to Ars that Apple will announce tools to help create interactive e-books—the “GarageBand for e-books,” so to speak—and expand its current platform to distribute them to iPhone and iPad users.

Most of the discussion has been so far focused upon the advantages, in terms of cost and media-enhanced educational resources, that moving textbooks onto tablet computers would entail, or upon the likelihood of Apple succeeding in its attempt to break the back of the multi-billion dollar textbook publishing industry.  (Steve Jobs apparently thought the textbook publishing trade an “$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.”)

My own sense of this, which I’ve already articulated here, is that, even with a vast increase in available content for educational purposes (and most of the talk at this point seems to have centred around the K-12 market, rather than postsecondary education), the sheer cost of moving textbooks to iPads in a consistent and broad way is going to severely limit the degree to which this will impact upon teaching. Even were the entire textbook content for all of a postsecondary student’s required texts moved onto iPad apps, the price of the device remains prohibitive for most students.  (Arguably, a textbook app might work for iPhones as well, but there is something about the idea of reading Paradise Lost or Moby Dick on an iPhone that I find hilariously implausible.)

Apparently many K-12 schools have vast stores of under-used iPads available for classroom use . . . or so some are saying.  Perhaps some do, but I would imagine that a great many do not, especially among those schools that service economically-disadvantaged neighbourhoods.  Will a move to iPad educational applications widen the gap in an already two-tiered educational system?

And then, of course, there is another issue: do we really want Apple cornering the market on digital content for teaching?  I sure don’t.

But I am particularly intrigued by the analogy being employed for this putative new textbook-creation tool:  “GarageBand for Textbooks.”  While I do know musicians who have employed GarageBand as a serious composition and/or recording tool, it is, of course, really a game.  It’s powerful, easy to use, and, most importantly, oodles of fun.

How well will the analogy hold?  Will the new textbook creation tool be oodles of fun too?

Cards on the table.  I am interested in digital textuality and eTexts for all sorts of reasons — pedagogical, ideological, and academic.  But one of the salient reasons that I produce eTexts is that it is fun to do so.  Creating a beautiful and usable interface, playing with code, and, finally, seeing one’s productions come to life on the screen — well, it’s simply a whole lot more enjoyable that producing a manuscript on Word, isn’t it?  Building digital resources permits me to employ both my scholarly skills, and my creative bent.

Are footnotes in the key of C, or G?

One of the things that a textbook creation tool may do, I think, is make that same “fun” available to a much broader audience than is currently the case.  And that is a very good thing, because it will empower that enormous pool of talented and brilliant scholars out there who are currently locked out of the digital world because they don’t have the necessary technical skills to engage with it.  It means that all of those brilliant pedagogues, writers, editors, and thinkers who haven’t had the time or inclination to learn coding will now be able to make their presence felt in our world, the world of digital learning and knowledge. And, if it is fun as well as easy to do so . . . many of them will do just that.

Interestingly, I have been giving much thought of late to precisely this problem: how can we make it easier for those lacking technical skills to engage in what we in the digital humanities are already doing?  I confess, the idea that we might make it “fun” to do so had not occurred to me . . . until now.

I’m not sure that I would characterize this potential phenomenon as a “democratization” of digital humanities, but I do know that one of the things that has most troubled me about our field (or whatever you want to call it) is that it has been, by its very nature, “exclusive.”  Listening to an absolutely wonderful talk by Tim Sherratt the other day, as he spoke about the ease with which one can script extensions to more effectively data mine online archives and resources, I found myself a mite troubled by the suggestion that producing these kinds of tools was “easy.”  For those in the room listening to the paper, yes, this was probably the case.  But then this was, for the most part, a self-selecting audience of digital humanists who are already likely to possess such basic skills.  What of those who don’t?  Does the free availability of such tools online fully address the degree to which certain skill sets have produced a “digital elite”?

Of course, the “exclusivity” of the digital humanities cuts both ways:  it is undoubtedly one of the reasons why there has been so much resistance to digital scholarship in mainstream academia, and why, despite some assistance from the MLA in providing tools for evaluation, it is still so difficult and perilous to attempt to build a scholarly reputation in the humanities via this route.  Could it be that the gamification of building eTextbooks will have the effect of making the digital humanities more “understandable” to non-techie academics, and so also more “acceptable”?

Well, this would also be a good thing, would it not?

One last dimension of this gamification of textbooks is also worth mentioning.  Quoting a white paper by Dr. William Rankin and others, the Ars Technica article goes on to imagine a brave new world of interactivity that might well arise from these new textbook apps:

Such digital texts would let students interact with information in visual ways, such as 3D models, graphs, and videos. They would also allow students to create links to additional texts, audio, and other supporting materials. Furthermore, students could share those connections with classmates and colleagues.

“What we really believe is important is the role of social networking in a converged learning environment,” Rankin told Ars. “We’re already seeing that in Inkling’s platform, and Kno’s journaling feature. Future digital texts should allow students to layer all kind of other data, such as pictures, and notes, and then share that with the class or, ideally, anyone.”

Here, we are of course in more familiar territory: the use of game-like features to enhance pedagogy. This vision of interactive, interconnected digital textbooks really represents a turn to the social media model of learning: interconnectivity, direct participation, and “remix” are all part of this imagined future for the classroom.  Will making textbooks “fun” for students in this way increase their engagement with them?

Perhaps . . .

Is such a goal viable now, and worth the price of handing the keys to the textbook cupboard over to Apple?

Well . . .

But Mum, I NEED a New iPad for School!

In an interesting short post on Mashable, Erik Loehfelm predicts that, among the “5 Digital Publishing App Trends to Watch in 2012” will be an increase in (or, indeed, the advent of?) the use of textbook apps for education.

Should students be carrying four or five textbooks to school each day? Could students purchase only certain chapters of books? Could books include text that is updated by authors in real-time? Could the concept of a “textbook” be a compilation of Wikipedia entries, content queried from Wolfram|Alpha, a professor’s thoughts and musings and social network contributions?

I’ll confess that the idea of using a “compilation of Wikipedia entries” as classroom texts leaves me feeling slightly nauseous — would any postsecondary instructor even consider doing such a thing?  However, I think the general principle here is sound.

What I don’t think likely is that this is going to happen next year . . . or even the year after.  Perhaps there will be an explosion in content suited for teaching and available for tablets in the near future, but there’s precious little that I’d want to use available right now.

More to the point, the sheer cost  involved in obtaining a tablet computer makes this idea, for the time being, impractical.  The cost of textbooks has soared, but while apps are admittedly cheaper, replacing that $150 satchel of printed texts with a $600+ tablet is not something that is going to be happening anytime soon. Yes, these are going to become much cheaper soon, but not quickly enough to meet Loehfelm’s immediate expectations.

That said, I think that this will happen, eventually, once more and better content is available, and the devices themselves become more accessible.

What should a textbook app feature?  Well, in my field (i.e., literature), it should minimally include:

  •  Reliable texts
  • Decent metadata and a basic scholarly apparatus (at the least)
  • Commentary and annotation
  • Lists of resources and further reading
  • Media-rich features that set the eTextbook apart from print versions of the same
  • A reasonably aesthetically-pleasing and effective interface

As further desiderata, I might add as well greater connectivity with other devices, and the ability to “mark up” and annotate texts oneself.

I think one of the challenges in the next few years for apps creators and eBook publishers will be — or should be — the setting of a minimum standard for this kind of digital textbook.  Without such inducements, there won’t be the necessary justification to offset what will surely still be an increased hit to the pocketbook for students.

I’d be most interested to know if anyone out there is already using tablet apps for teaching.  Anyone?

Much Ado about Nothing? The British Library’s “First Folio” App for iPad

The British Library, William Shakespeare’s ‘The First Folio’ for iPad.

It’s pretty rare that I feel “leading edge”; in general, I tend to bob along after trends like a rubber dingy tethered to an ocean liner.  This Christmas was no exception:  like, it would seem, a great many others, I received an iPad2 from Santa. (Well, strictly speaking I bought it for myself, and then placed it under the tree: the old guy is too busy to keep up with all of the tech toys, and I wanted to be sure that what I received was actually what I wanted and needed.)

I have always been resistant to the allure of Apple, although I have long owned an iPod:  while I will readily concede the excellence of Apple products, their corporate philosophy and insistence upon a closed-source control over very nearly every aspect of everything they produce has always seemed to me a bit . . . well, fascist.  However, the point of getting an iPad in the first place was to get a sense of the way in which digital texts were being translated for tablet computers, and, for better or worse, most of these are being produced for the iPad (although more and more appear to be available for Android as well).

When I first began to explore digital textuality some 8 or 9 years ago, the “place” where electronic texts “happened” was, of course, on the desktop or laptop computer.  Increasingly however, and particularly with the advent of relatively cheap eReaders such the Kobo and Kindle providing access to tens of thousands of inexpensive (and sometimes even free) digital texts, digital textuality is moving on to the tablet or eReader. My interest in the books available on simple readers such as the Kindle is fairly limited right now, although I’m sure that this will change.  These are relatively unsophisticated devices after all, and their potential is limited by the simplicity of their platforms. Also, they are not nearly as pretty or fun as tablets, and you can’t play Angry Birds on them.

Title Page for First Folio

The title page of the first folio of Shakespeare's plays.

The potential offered by the graphics and scripting capabilities of the true tablet computer such as the iPad, on the other hand, means however that texts made available for these platforms can provide full and deeply engaging multimedia experiences.  And so, almost the first two apps I downloaded on to my shiny new iPad – just after “Angry Birds,” of course – were a Shakespeare app from the British Library, and another devoted to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.  Early Modern book geek that I am, I was particularly excited by the Shakespeare app, which promises “an exact facsimile reproduction of the large and handsome book known simply as the ‘First Folio,’” and notes that consulting early printed versions of these plays “is an essential part of a more complete understanding of Shakespeare’s work.”  Well, yeah.  Duh.

Ok, fair enough. Unfortunately, however, the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’” on iBooks turns out to be something of a disappointment.  The application does indeed provide no fewer than 905 photo facsimiles of one of the BL’s copies of the First Folio: these are very nicely rendered in full colour, and can be displayed to show one page opening, or a single page per screen. A zoom feature also permits a somewhat closer view of the text, although the image deteriorates in quality fairly rapidly if one attempts to zoom in too closely.

Sadly, however, this is pretty much all the BL app offers.  The briefest one page introduction to the history of the First Folio (given without any citations or references), and an even shorter list of the credits for the short audio excerpts included in the app represent almost the only addition to the facsimile images.

A screen capture from the BL's "Shakespeare's 'First Folio'"

Now, if one enjoys, as I do, reading early modern texts in their original printed format, the app clearly has something to offer.  For the general reader or the scholar, however, this digital edition comes up decidedly short.  There is no metadata and no scholarly apparatus of any sort; the BL doesn’t even tell us which copy of the First Folio it has reproduced.  We are told nothing about the provenance, location, identity, or material conditions – not even the page dimensions – of the book we are viewing. And, while it clearly would be expecting too much for this edition to include commentary, annotations, or extensive textual notes, a simple introduction to each of the plays should surely have been possible.  This is not unexplored terrain: a few things have been written about this guy’s plays, and one would have thought that it would not have been terribly difficult or expensive to add a few words about them.

The pages can be accessed by flipping through the book one page at a time (using the somewhat annoying “page flipping” animation that has now become almost standard for this kind of eText), and there is a table of contents that provides either a list of the plays and pages, or nearly useless page thumbnails from which to choose. A search feature (which is I think standard with iBooks) will search the two “introductory” pages at the beginning – all two or three hundred words of them – but can’t access the play texts themselves, and otherwise includes only buttons to “Search Web” and (*gag*) “Search Wikipedia.”  Other than these features, the only additional “shiny” offered us is about a dozen short audio clips from the plays, performed with Early Modern pronunciation. Cool, but not really sufficiently interesting or informative to add a great deal of value to the edition.

I’m a little mystified as to what the British Library thinks it is offering here.  The page images are very pretty, and reasonably clear, but they aren’t really detailed enough, at a screen resolution of only 768px X 1024px, to be of much use to the scholar, and the lack of even a minimal textual apparatus and metadata more or less rules out any scholarly utility anyway. As for the general reader, the complete lack of annotation, explanation, context, or indeed virtually any information about what is appearing on the screen must surely render this resource a much less useful and interesting gateway to Shakespeare’s plays than might otherwise have been the case.  How many people really want to read Timon of Athens straight through in a facsimile of an original printing, without the aid of any context, commentary, or even cheap thrills?  A few might, I suppose, but I don’t know of any, nor do I number myself among them.

Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to complain about this app. Although it is relatively expensive compared to all other book apps that I’ve seen, it is still pretty cheap, coming in at about $26.00 (Canadian).  I’d happily pay that for a print photo facsimile edition, with or without apparatus.  But it is a little off-putting that the BL seems to have put such little effort into the creation of this app.  The page images they must surely have already had, and as interesting as the brief audio clips are, they don’t really add a great deal to the package. Would it have been too much to ask for a little more in the way of information from them about the book that they are so reverently offering up to the public?  One frankly expects more from the BL than what seems to be, at first glance, a hastily-assembled and poorly contextualized collection of page images.

So, for the price, this was, I suppose a worthwhile investment.  But only just.  I’m not unhappy to have it, and I’m sure I’ll be able to make some use of it in the future, but if this represents the “future” of scholarly book apps (and fortunately I don’t think it does), then I am unimpressed.  In the meantime, however, I am well equipped for the next time I feel a hankering to read Timon with long “s”s and wormholing.

(Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post originally written for Facebook. I have changed relatively little but the style, having received a criticism from a friend — well, she calls herself my friend — that my original was “pompous.”