Prism is a tool for "crowdsourcing interpretation." Users are invited to provide an interpretation of a text by highlighting words according to different categories, or "facets." Each individual interpretation then contributes to the generation of a visualization which demonstrates the combined interpretation of all the users. We envision Prism as a tool for both pedagogical use and scholarly exploration, revealing patterns that exist in the subjective experience of reading a text.
The concept emerged from a decade-long conversation on categories of textual interpretation which took place at the University of Virginia, and specifically from transparency mark-up games designed by Bethany Nowviskie for her Media Studies students and her colleagues in SpecLab:
the original game involved shared, Xeroxed page images, transparent overlays, dry-erase markers, a common interpretive prompt, and a moment in which somebody yelled ‘Stop!’ and the transparencies were stacked up for discussion. (Nowviskie)
At SpecLab, Jerome McGann further developed the concept, which became known as the "Patacritical Demon" — the best bit of vaporware (not) to emerge from UVa at the turn of the century.
The Scholars' Lab offered these un-realized concepts as inspiration for the first project to be undertaken by graduate student fellows of the Praxis Program in its inaugural year. The task of the 2011-2012 team of students was to determine how to translate the physical exercise of marking a text into a digital one. They chose to employ a constrained interpretive vocabulary and to limit the length of the text in order to stay true to the transparency game. Like the transparency exercise, the end goal of Prism was to produce aesthetic provocations, that is, visualizations which provoke further discussion.
The 2012-2013 cohort of Praxis fellows (listed below) retained the vision set by the original team. Their goal was to expand Prism to a format that would promote classroom use and scholarly conversation. This led them to define two primary objectives. The first was the ability for users to upload their own texts and to define their own interpretive categories. The second was to create a more inviting and user-friendly environment that would encourage participation and exploration. To that end, they redesigned the website, paying special attention to workflow, ease of use, and aesthetic concerns. In addition, both the simple visualization feature and highlighting function were refined, in hope that Prism can now be more easily employed by the user for a variety of interpretive projects.
Be sure to check out the future directions page to learn more about additional potential capabilities of Prism, including enhanced visualizations, image annotation, and computational linguistic analysis.
Shane Lin refactored the database schema and worked on user uploads. He commands the loyalty of forest creatures and once won second place in a baking competition. He is a graduate student in the History department.
Claire Maiers, herder of cats, served as the Program Manager and worked on copy for the Prism website. She is a PhD student in the Sociology department.
Cecilia Márquez worked on the design team building and breaking CSS like it was her full time job. Her crowning achievement in Praxis was he making almost everyone in the office say "Honey Boo Boo" at least once. She is a PHD student in the History department.
Gwen Nally was our Prism Designer. She worked with Cecilia Márquez to create wire frames and to style the website. She is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy department.
Chris Peck worked on improvements to the highlighter tool and visualizations. He is a PhD student in the Music Department.
Brandon Walsh worked on implementing Omniauth, helped with user uploads, and generally made snarky comments while the rest of the design team was working. He is a PhD student in the English department.
With thanks to our 2011-12 Praxis Alumni
The Praxis Program
The Praxis Program is a key mentoring and training project of the Scholars' Lab at the University of Virginia Library, in which six humanities graduate students spend a year in a collaborative, hands-on, digital humanities apprenticeship. The program’s goal is to better equip knowledge workers for emerging faculty positions and alternative academic careers at a moment in which new questions can be asked and new systems built. Visit the Praxis Program site to learn more about the program’s evolving curriculum and to hear directly from Praxis Fellows and Scholars’ Lab faculty and staff as they blog about their experiences. The first two, pilot years of the Praxis Program were supported by a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation to UVa Library's Scholarly Communication Institute, which also allowed the Scholars' Lab to create a broader Praxis Network, in collaboration with six other universities in three countries.
The Scholars' Lab
The Scholars’ Lab was established in 2006 by the University of Virginia Library as a site for innovation in the humanities and social sciences. The Scholars' Lab is a place where faculty and advanced students can explore digital resources, find expert help, and collaborate on innovative research projects. The SLab also hosts events, such as workshops, talks, and roundtables, and sponsors the Praxis Program and a prestigious graduate fellowship in the digital humanities.
Humanities Design Architect (of Dreams), UVa Library Scholars' Lab; Wizard of Web Aesthetics
Head of R&D, UVa Library Scholars' Lab; The Obi-Wan Kenobi of Programming
Head of Outreach & Consulting, UVa Library Scholars' Lab; Resident Nice Guy
Web Applications Specialist, UVa Library Scholars' Lab; All-Around Wunderkind
Dr. Bethany Nowviskie
Director, Digital Research & Scholarship, UVa Library; Our Fearless Leader
Dr. Eric Rochester
Senior Developer, UVa Library Scholars' Lab; Programming Jedi, Solver of Problems