New ways of showing are new ways of knowing

Matt Gilchrist

Matt Gilchrist, a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department, is Director of the Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning Initiative (IDEAL), which supports students and instructors who use new media in course assignments.

The University of Iowa’s Next Gen PhD planning initiative, The Newly Composed PhD, is an important part of the growing acknowledgement that humanities PhD graduates thrive in diverse career tracks not bounded by academia. The NEH grant program that supports Iowa’s initiative asserts that “Humanities knowledge and methods can make an even more substantial impact on society if students are able to translate what they learn in doctoral programs into a multitude of careers.” How do we prepare PhD students to make such a substantial impact? The NEH wants us to “transform scholarly preparation at the doctoral level.” At Iowa—the institution that proudly calls itself The Writing University—the transformation begins with writing. The Newly Composed PhD asserts that the understanding derived from study in the humanities should be composed in many forms.

The scholars who took part in last year’s symposia hosted by The Newly Composed PhD demonstrate that much can be learned by meaning-making in varied modes. Dr. Amanda Visconti composed her dissertation, titled How can you love a work if you don’t know it?: Critical code and design toward participatory digital editions, as a hybrid of digital edition, white paper, and hypertext. But such a stripped-down description doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the project, the composition of which involved software design, database design, interface design, graphic web design, and more. Along the way, Visconti tweeted, blogged, created data visualizations, and spoke on a variety of digital humanities topics. As her dissertation shows, Visconti has discovered new possibilities for inquiry through the process of composing in many forms.

Like Visconti, Dr. Nick Sousanis composed his thesis in a non-traditional form. Sousanis’s dissertation is the comic Unflattening—a form that allowed him to use image as a primary semiotic resource. Like Visconti, Sousanis told us during the symposium dedicated to discussing his dissertation that he blogged about his work as he was composing it. For a hint about what Sousanis was thinking early in his dissertation process about the power of composing in comic form, see the quote from Susanne K. Langer he offers in a blog post. In his discussion here at the University of Iowa, Sousanis put it this way: “My comics are smarter than I am.”

Our Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Dan Reed, pointed out in a recent blog post on this site that writing a traditional book-length dissertation is commonly understood as the means of documenting and communicating ideas privileged in the humanities PhD, but that this format isn’t very effective at spreading those ideas. Dr. Reed writes that, if the form limits the reach of important ideas, then scholars should look for another medium—one appropriate to the message. This semester, Dr. Reed will visit a course I teach for graduate students in the sciences called “Science Communication in the Digital Age.” Much like the NEH’s support for The Newly Composed PhD, the NIH provided grant funding that helped to launch this course in order to prepare scientists for careers beyond the academy. The funded project at Iowa, directed by Professor Dan Eberl (Biology), focuses on communication skills and rhetorical forms. The course acknowledges the importance of addressing audiences outside of academia as crucial for achieving the NIH’s goal of “broadening training to better prepare students for research careers in a variety of venues, such as industry, government or entrepreneurial enterprises.” The support of both federal grant agencies responds to a long-standing need for pragmatic communication experience in the new media landscape, extending and complementing the efforts of those who seek and offer such training at the graduate level.

If the humanities is to move beyond the “write only” paradigm Dr. Reed calls “one of the biggest challenges we face in academia,” humanities students will need courses—corollaries to Science Communication in the Digital Age—specifically targeted at their needs. The write only paradigm cannot be justified amidst the range of rhetorical forms now readily available to scholars. These new forms—or new media—require a new approach to the fundamentals of composition. No longer can we assume that fluency with the conventions and grammars of alphabetic text represents the fundamental or most significant means of developing and sharing ideas. Instead, communicating ideas now requires awareness of image and visual design, sound and audio design, code and software design, data and database design, and etc. Humanists remain writers, but we are called to write and. Scholars and teachers in the field of composition use the term multimodal composition to describe, analyze and assess texts that incorporate writing and other modes of representation. Thinking in these terms makes clear that writing is one of many overlapping semiotic resources available to a rhetor. Meaning-making is a central goal of the humanities, and ignoring compositional modes other than alphabetic text cuts us off from many kinds of meaning-making and discoveries.

This semester, Professor Judith Pascoe offers a course that allows PhD students in the humanities to practice with digital humanities methods and multimodal composition. Pitched as a “pilot model of a humanities interdisciplinary methods course,” this seminar offers the benefits of such courses extolled by Katie Walden in her recent post on this site. Aligned with the goals of the Next Gen PhD, the course “[a]ssignments will be aimed at helping students showcase their research in a variety of formats that could include the blog post, the grant proposal, the data visualization, the network analysis, the map, the 3-Minute Thesis, the podcast, the PechaKucha, the illustrated narrative, and the tweet.” The course offers practice and training in genres—other than linear, alphabetic text—that are relevant to humanists but too often ignored in humanities education.

As we have seen in the first semester of The Newly Composed PhD, forms other than the manuscript have been crucial to the scholarship and integral to the career success of the scholars who have visited our symposia. Visconti, Sousanis, and others have extolled the benefits of taking ideas from one semiotic mode into another. All agree that new and important ideas emerge from multimodality. So, in addition to the likelihood that scholars who tweet, speak, draw, code, map, record, and design will be more successful in career searches within and beyond the academy, humanists should consider what important insights are lost when we over-emphasize one modality. The humanist endeavor depends on leaving behind the write only paradigm and engaging the possibilities of write and.

PhDs in the Library

Dr. Amy Chen

Dr. Amy Chen is the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa. Her Twitter handle is @AmyHildrethChen.

Looking over Dr. Amanda Visconti’s CV before her talk at the University of Iowa a few weeks ago, I realized that part of her success as a tenure-track Digital Humanities (DH) Assistant Professor and DH Specialist Librarian derives from her background. Dr. Visconti received an MS degree in Information prior to obtaining her PhD degree in Literature/Digital Humanities.

So does it matter that Dr. Visconti has both the MS and the PhD degrees? The truth is that obtaining an information science degree may not be necessary in every case for future digital humanities faculty and/or librarians, but it does allow candidates more flexibility on the job market.

I believe Dr. Visconti’s MS degree helped her in four ways:

  1. It highlighted her commitment to a professional orientation beyond a tenure-track job in a literature department. While Dr. Visconti does not have one of the most common library degrees, the Master in Library and Information Science (MLIS) or the Master of Library Science (MLS), her Information MS can perform the same role as these degrees do by formally expanding her identity.
  2. It added value to her Literature/Digital Humanities PhD. The Information MS degree is for students who might wish to work in a variety of settings, including the technology industry. As Visconti went on to have her PhD cross-listed in Literature and the Digital Humanities (DH), she was able to take the broader understanding of technology she acquired from her master’s degree and apply it to the research she was doing for her PhD, increasing her academic exposure to digital methods.
  3. It allowed her to be a more sophisticated doctoral student in Literature. With her first degree behind her, Visconti was better informed when she needed to research graduate schools and choose a mentor. This savviness also allowed her to be better positioned to reshape the paradigm of what the dissertation looked like, and to be able to advocate for her work.
  4. It gave her better timing on the job market. Dr. Visconti got her “additional” certification first. For doctoral students interested in library or DH careers, contemplating—while taking coursework, studying for exams, or writing dissertations—the pursuit of an additional degree can be overwhelming. But waiting until after graduating to consider this possibility can be even worse: at some point, a newly-minted PhD needs to earn a living wage, establish a family, settle down geographically, or simply leave her student days behind. Rather than finding a master’s program to professionalize her doctorate credential, Visconti carried her professional orientation into her PhD research, empowering her literary analysis while also giving her more options on the job market.

Writing this as an academic librarian—I am currently the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa—without an additional master’s degree, I can’t approach Visconti as a model of how to pursue a career in libraries because she is relatively exceptional.

It’s not just that she holds two degrees, but that the order in which she obtained them is important. Acquiring additional credentials so as to move into a different career track after graduating with a doctorate is a much more complicated undertaking, although certainly not impossible, as my career proves. To acknowledge this reality is not to make Visconti’s new role at Purdue seem any less exciting, or to suggest that her research is any less avant-garde, but it does concede that her experience is difficult for many students currently enrolled in PhD programs to emulate.

The role of generosity in best practices for digital humanities advisors


img_0959Dr. Amanda Visconti reflects on her dissertation experience at Next Gen Humanities PhD Symposium

Post by Amy Chen, Special Collections Instruction Librarian, U of Iowa

What struck me as I listened to Amanda Visconti’s question and answer  session last Wednesday is that the generosity of Visconti’s mentors helped enable her success in academia as an Assistant Professor in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Education and Business division of Purdue University Libraries. I focus on the word “generosity” because it indicates that the mentorship Visconti received went beyond what traditionally is given in an academic setting. The exceptional support her committee provided highlights two examples of best practices that could be adapted by future digital humanities advisors to make Visconti’s experience more universal.

First, Visconti’s committee members prepared her to answer negative feedback that would misinterpret the value of her digital humanities work. In so doing, they viewed themselves as advocates of their unconventional student rather than as traditional certifiers of disciplinary expertise. As the author of the first fully digital dissertation, Visconti needed to anticipate how textual studies scholars would perceive Infinite Ulysses. Although her committee—Matthew Kirschenbaum, Neil Fraistat, Melanie Kill, Kari Kraus, and Brian Richardson—was fully supportive of her approach, they recognized Infinite Ulysses could be perceived as just an edited digital edition of Joyce’s masterwork. Then, the question would be if editorial work was sufficient for obtaining a doctorate. But Visconti did not shy away from this critique because she was able to engage with it early in her project’s development. Therefore, doctoral committees need to view their role as not only grounding graduate students in the extant scholarship, but also helping them anticipate how these modes of scholarship will view digital approaches.

Second, Visconti’s entire committee met every semester. In contrast, many graduate students only are able to get their committees in one room in person at critical moments in their graduate careers, such as at their exam or defense meetings. The collective approach taken by Visconti’s committee did not replace individual relationships; rather it bolstered those one-on-one meetings by helping Visconti to discuss Infinite Ulysses in both settings. However, to make biannual committee meetings possible for graduate students, faculty may need to formally revise their expectations for mentoring. Otherwise, as Visconti’s use of the word “generosity” recognizes, the majority of faculty will not find the time for these additional recommended meetings.

What Amanda Visconti and Infinite Ulysses Get about James Joyce

Tom Keegan

Tom Keegan, Head of the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, is an Iowa English PhD whose dissertation focused on pub phenomenology in the works of James Joyce.  Tom’s twitter handle is @tmkeegan.

With Professor Amanda Visconti in town this week as part of the University of Iowa’s NEH Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. Planning Grant, I wanted to reflect on the importance of her Infinite Ulysses project for literary study in general and Joyce studies in particular.

Amanda Visconti—then a graduate student at the University of Maryland.
Amanda Visconti—then a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

In 2015, Amanda Visconti did something that many Joyceans had often considered but never fully realized: she invited the public to annotate a public, web-based, and full-text version of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). For decades, scholars had struggled with the notoriously irascible Joyce estate and its policing of copyright, access, and articulation where Joyce’s writings were concerned. The past thirty-plus years are littered with wonderful projects—some digital, some not—that bear the strain and scars of policy and litigation.

By 2012, however, Joyce’s novel could now circulate in ways that its author (arguably) had hoped it would. That year, Ulysses exited copyright and returned anew to the welcoming embrace of the public—a public that is its subject; a public for whom it was written; a public that can now in turns, be informed by and inform the text.

When Amanda Visconti, as a graduate student, began work on her project, she entered into a long line of digital projects that sought to remediate aspects of Joyce’s work. Some of these projects were annotative in nature; others sought to echo the experimental aspects of Joyce’s writings. In her excellent whitepaper submitted as part of her doctoral dissertation, Professor Visconti maps out a number of digital treatments of Joyce’s work. So, I won’t rehash those here.

Heyward Ehrlich's James Joyce Text Machine. Screencap of in-text annotation links with resizeable windows.
Heyward Ehrlich’s James Joyce Text Machine. Screencap of in-text annotation links with resizeable windows.

Instead, I want to call attention to her project for its public, digital focus on collaboration and community-building.

There is arguably no work of literature more devoted to the idea and the practice of community than James Joyce’s Ulysses. As early as Dubliners (1914), Joyce was remarking on his own “scrupulous meanness” with respect to that collection’s careful articulation of seeming banality. Joyce’s talent for translating the everyday into prose informs all of his works. And Ulysses, the story of a day in Dublin, so elegantly, so experimentally, so thoroughly captures the pulse and verve of life hiding in plain site, that Joyce boasted to his friend Frank Budgen, “I want…to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” The line is, of course, not literally true—and today, with Dublin having undergone so many transformations, too much physical difference lies between the Dublin of Ulysses and its 21st century iteration. But I don’t think that was Joyce’s point. Joyce is, for me, our most human writer. The picture of Dublin he gives us is one informed by our pettiness, insecurities, and fears just as fully as it is our empathy, charity, and loves. Where we fail to give things a second thought—opening a door, crossing the street, pouring a drink—Joyce follows behind us, gathers up the neglected details of our everyday lives, and relocates them in this human narrative. And by virtue of reading Ulysses, we re-encounter ourselves in the text.

The welcoming front page of Infinite Ulysses.
The welcoming front page of Infinite Ulysses.

Now, that’s a point I had to make in order to best articulate the value of what Amanda Visconti has done. For years, people have created reading groups around Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Those texts nearly necessitate and certainly support a multiplicity of perspectives. Joyce’s work both turn upon and turn towards the public. We read them to better know ourselves and in reading them we create or are brought into new communities addressing those texts. Infinite Ulysses stands as one of the most successful public digital projects that attends to the work of literary criticism via annotation while at the same time creating a community around the text.

This summer, J.D. Biersdorfer, writing for the New York Times, mentioned the site in a piece about the rise of digital assistance in reading Joyce’s tome. Biersdorfer referred to the site as “a global community of readers and scholars discussing an online copy of the text together in a mash-up of literary analysis and group therapy.” I have no issue with that assessment. The creation of a vibrant community in which ideas circulate, questions are posed, debates had, and the odd or idiosyncratic view conveyed seems like precisely the picture of humanity Joyce sought to give us.

A dissertation that advances both a critical apparatus for approaching (literary) works while also enacting public use of them marks, to my mind, a turning point in what we can expect from a dissertation. For me, Infinite Ulysses illustrates just how much of Joyce’s work Professor Visconti came to understand while pursuing her degree. The fact that her dissertation reaches beyond the page and into the broader public captures the essence of Joyce’s work in a way few do.

Next Gen Ph.D.: A Conversation with Amanda Visconti was held on Wednesday, October 12th, 2016 at 3:30pm in the E125 Visual Arts Building.

What if we build a digital edition and invite everyone?

img_0942Auditorium in the beautiful new Visual Arts Building, site of Wednesday (Oct. 12, 3:30) Conversation with Dr. Amanda Visconti. Dr. Visconti’s dissertation  will serve as the impetus for a wide-ranging discussion of dissertation and citation practice. The title of this post comes from the white paper report on progress and process that Dr. Visconti wrote as part of her dissertation portfolio.

At the Next Gen planning meeting in advance of Amanda Visconti’s visit, we identified what we collectively see as the most important tasks that a dissertation in the humanities must accomplish.  We found that the assembled historian, librarian, and literary critics agreed that dissertations must:

Present a new argument or intervention in a field. (There was some disagreement about whether this intervention has to be a “major” one.)

Showcase the author’s fluency in the extant scholarship

Other priorities, not necessarily shared by all, included:

Convey a sustained written argument with clarity and style.

Carry a narrative arc through to completion.

Provide a stepping stone to publication, whether print or digital.

In a similar manner, we pondered the many tasks that the humble footnote has traditionally carried out, and our conversation extended to encompass such broad categories as ethics, collaboration, collegiality, etiquette, and community. “It’s a place to show that writing is not a solitary act, that you are not a ‘solitary singer,'” said a Whitman specialist. “It’s a way of showcasing a community of like-minded scholars,” added another participant. Although we are interested in thinking alongside Amanda Visconti about how citation practice is being altered and expanded in digital venues, we were impressed by the varied work the traditional footnote carries out, and by cultural differences in its deployment (in some countries, footnotes convey miniature essays packed with competing views on a given subject, in others, footnotes communicate only the bare details of attribution).  More than one person noted that footnotes, like a trail of bread crumbs, allow scholars to follow a researcher back to his or her origins, and so hold scholars accountable for their claims.

We look forward to talking with Dr. Visconti about research practices old and new, and about how these practices can be marshaled in the service of varied career pursuits.


We’re thrilled to be welcoming Dr. Amanda Visconti to campus to participate in our first Newly Composed PhD symposium, one of seven gatherings focused on rhetorical forms ranging from the dissertation to the tweet.  The first symposium is described in our grant proposal as follows:

     Symposium 1: The Dissertation– Participants will look at traditional   dissertations across humanities disciplines and also examine an array of new digital dissertation projects that take new forms (e.g., online exhibitions, maps, graphic format) and/or take advantage of new publishing platforms.

In Dr. Visconti, creator of InfiniteUlysses, a participatory digital edition of James Joyce’s masterwork, we have the perfect inspiration for such a discussion.

Visconti’s project could just as easily  provide talking points for our second symposium, focused on citational practices, and described below:

   Symposium 2: The Footnote–Participants will look at the many creative roles the lowly footnote serves, both in the documentation of sources and in the expansion of thought. Participants will think about the work accomplished by this most traditional of citation forms, as they consider how new forms of digital scholarship (such as digital mapping and 3-D modeling) inspire new ways of crediting sources and directing readers to ancillary knowledge bases. This symposium will provide an opportunity to think about collaboration and teamwork more generally as participants consider how the skills required for successful scholarly citation (attention to detail, generous acknowledgment of others’ work, comprehensiveness) are transferable to other occupational settings.

Since the work of Dr. Visconti and that of our second symposium guest, Dr. Nick Sousanis (creator of the first comics dissertation), both serve as great test cases for discussing these issues, we’ll be using both symposia to discuss both the dissertation and the footnote (and citation practices more generally).

Some of the questions we’ll take up with Dr. Visconti:

What modes of citational practice did you deploy in InfiniteUlysses? In what ways did your project require new kinds of citation?

Does InfiniteUlysses get cited in scholarly work? Does this matter?

How do you drive traffic to InfiniteUlysses?

Are Digital Humanities projects changing the ways in which scholars in the humanities think about acknowledgment pages and citations?

What visual influence shaped your platform design?

Did you have inspirational DH projects that you sought to emulate?

How would your prefer your work to be cited? Have you experienced problems with people using your work without citation?

Do you have a clear sense of what is expected of you in the promotion process or of what kind of peer review process your work will encounter?

Are you where you thought you would be?

447px-revolutionary_joyce_better_contrastRevolutionary Joyce, Cornell University Joyce Collection

              Our 9/30 planning group (with members of the core planning committee and the Dissertation and Citation working groups) discussed the form and content of the upcoming visit by Dr. Amanda Visconti, creator of InfiniteUlysses, a participatory digital edition of James Joyce’s masterwork. Our symposium format is inspired by the flipped classroom structure (in which lecture and homework are flipped so that in-class time is devoted to projects and discussions). Rather than asking Dr. Visconti to give a lecture, we’ve asked her to talk with us about the implications of her work, and about the extent to which it can serve as a model as we re-imagine graduate education with a focus on writing, DH training, and career flexibility. With these topics in mind, the planning group composed questions for Dr. Visconti. The questions included:

What was exceptional about your experience as a graduate student? What could or could not be translated for a different institution?

What was the relationship between your comprehensive exam and your innovative dissertation?

Are you where you thought you would be when you began graduate school?

What is the harshest criticism your work has received?

Do you have questions you’d like to ask Dr. Visconti? Please ask them during her visit (see event dates and times in our list of upcoming events) or submit them to

Next Gen PhD planners, creators, and friends: check out Dr. Visconti’s research blog, which includes advice on doing digital work as a humanities graduate student, her dissertation defense talk, and a DH job talk.

Looking for innovative, consequential dissertations


Dancers, University of Iowa, 1928

At the September 13 core planning group meeting, we celebrated the news that Amanda Visconti, creator of Infinite Ulysses (an award-winning dissertation project which encourages readers from all walks of life to read James Joyce’s masterwork and to participate in the annotation of its elusive twists and turns), will be participating in our symposium on the dissertation. We discussed what will likely become the basic structure for each of our Newly Composed PhD symposia: a lunch discussion at which the guest will talk to graduate students, a larger conversational gathering at which the guest’s innovative contribution will be (swiftly) showcased before we (the entire Next Gen PhD planning committee, along with members of the larger community, especially Directors of Graduate Studies, current graduate students, and members of the Humanities Advisory Committee) zero in on issues related to transforming graduate education so that graduate students are better prepared for future careers both within and beyond the academy. After each of our symposia, a Next Gen working group will create a document in which they list the best strategies broached by the symposium participants, and brainstorm about how they might be implemented, this as a rough draft contribution to the action plan we plan to write at the end of the planning year.

One of our graduate student committee members mentioned that she entered her PhD program knowing that she is not interested in a career as a college professor—she looks forward to working in a library, and is excited about using mapping tools both as means to visualize arguments and to reveal patterns in data. Another graduate student visitor to our planning meeting, a PhD candidate in the University of Iowa’s Interdisciplinary PhD program (a student about which we will say more in a future posting), is developing a game as part of her dissertation work.

We also made tentative plans to curate a list of innovative, consequential dissertations to serve as inspirational models. Nominations? (leave a comment or send suggestions to