Marking and Explanation in Prism

My first experience with Prism last spring brought something of an existential crisis along with it, when I was asked to mark my beloved A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in terms of realism/modernism:

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms

On the little green place.

Considering Portrait as a modernist novel was nothing new, but being asked to consider individual words in that context was altogether unsettling. Words like “tuckoo” and “moocow” are easy to mark as modernist, but “baby” is perfectly reasonable within a realist text; it only begins to feel experimental as a part of the larger phrase “baby tuckoo.” And how do we account for the two lines of verse, where the words themselves are not particularly experimental but the juxtaposition between prose and poetry creates just the sort of genre bending you would expect from modernism?

I think this very brief analysis tells us something very important about how we make meaning: interpretive choices depend not just on the words in the text but on perceived relationships among different textual groupings within the text as a whole. Part of the perceived value of a crowdsourcing tool like Prism comes from its ability to generate conversations about these interpretive decisions. I wonder, though, if we can include these conservations in the tool itself.

The obvious response to this perceived need would be to prompt users to justify each interpretive decision they make, but this seems undesirable. I expect that the interface would become unwieldy very quickly if we asked users to explain every marking that they make, and I imagine that the defensive posture this would engender in users could be inimical to the nature of the tool’s ethos.

Perhaps we could consider an opt-in approach, where we offer users the option to select a particular marking and offer a short explanation after marking and just before saving the highlights. Then these terms could be footnoted in some way for visualization. Perhaps we could even run some sort of thesaurus program to link similar explanations across different marked passages.

I don’t mean to imply that this is a flaw in the Prism’s design: I think one of the more mind expanding aspects of the tool is how it lays bare the process by which word transforms into meaning. I hope we can find a way to front-end this strength in the user interface.

Brandon is Head of Graduate Programs in the Scholars' Lab. His research focuses on modern and contemporary fiction, especially on Anglophone modernisms and the novel in relation to sound studies and musicology. Before coming to the Scholars' Lab, he was Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of English in the Washington and Lee University…

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