Imagining end users for requirements gathering

Bethany writes, “It was important to us that the project only be in service to the program — that its intellectual agenda was one our students could shape, that they set the tone for the collaboration, and that — as much as possible — it be brand-spanking-new, free from practices and assumptions (technical or social) that might have grown organically in a pre-existing project and which we might no longer recommend.”

This sounds like a great approach, but I worry that it leaves out a few important details. Prism does fit this description—there are many possibilities for what it will look like and how we will work together and separately to create it—but it also brings with it some theoretical assumptions that we have less freedom to critique or modify. The idea has been around for a while now, as Bethany and Alex explain, and our discussion about it last week was more Q&A and less brainstorming session than I had expected. Bethany writes, “The version of the Demon I presented to the Praxis team last week as an inspiration for Prism is simpler in scope and beholden more to the material and pedagogical than to the text-theoretical.” A few weeks ago Bethany helpfully talked about how all DH projects have implicit theoretical stances and how programming performs critical work, so I do think Prism will have a “text-theoretical” aspect.  It’s an aspect of PRISM that seems non-negotiable right now. I left last week’s meeting thinking that a text-mining functionality is a goal we have to adopt, despite any reservations we might have about it, and that’s a part of Prism that is bringing out some of our differing ideas about interpretation. I realize that we are creating a tool for researchers to use in ways we anticipate and ways that we don’t, so it’s not up to us to interpret the crowdsourced interpretations. Yet I still worry about enabling facile conclusions from quantified data under the name of “literary” interpretation and what an increase in this kind of work would mean for the future of the non-alternative academy. Now that we’re working on our requirements and expectations for Prism, I support making text-mining a much later goal and focusing on creating user accounts and communities.

Thinking through requirements has also gotten me excited about how Prism could work as a tool for the social sciences. If Prism can collect information (demographic and otherwise) about the people tagging or highlighting text, social scientists could use it for research questions about reading communities, literacy, and education. Focusing on this possibility helps me get away from worrying about text-mining, but I’m not sure if this takes Prism out of the scope of digital humanities.

I am a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow, a PhD candidate in the UVa Department of English, and a former AmeriCorps member, campus civic engagement coordinator, and criminal defense investigator. My dissertation uses theories of waste and excess to examine American literary responses to disaster from the 1927 Mississippi flood to the present.

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