Reading with Matthew K. Gold

mkgold-gc-15Before the holidays, I had the chance to chat with Manifold Co-PI Matthew K. Gold, who is Associate Professor of English and Digital Humanities and Executive Officer of the M.A. Program in Liberal Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. I have been lucky to work with Matt for a couple of years now, through seminars on digital humanities praxis and textual studies, on DH tool-building projects like DH Box, on the editorial collective of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, and with the digital fellows of the GC Digital Initiatives. His widespread commitment to textual scholarship and digital innovation, his seemingly tireless support of his students and digital experimentation, and his humility (which he may not even let me mention) never cease to amaze me. I have spent a lot of time discussing Manifold with Matt, but I was glad to get the chance to ask him more specifically about his personal motivations for developing a hybrid publishing platform. 

What matters most to you about Manifold? I think it’s the overall excellence of the user experience. Our goal is to create a platform that will rival the reading experience of a commercial site like Medium but that is free and open-source. I’m excited to see how various people will use it — certainly our primary audience of university presses, but also a wider set of authors and publishers of all types.

Cool. That sounds like a pretty noble mission to me. I’m also excited about our team — we have the University of Minnesota Press, which is doing exciting experimentation on both its editorial and production sides —  it’s a Press that’s willing to take risks with the way it thinks about the future of publishing. Working with a partner like that — and with Doug Armato and his team in particular — is a lot of fun.. And then we are lucky to be collaborating with Cast Iron Coding– Zach Davis and his team are extremely talented and very much aware of the latest trends in web development. Manifold won’t feel like a typical piece of academic technology, thanks to the work of Zach and his team.

What’s your ideal reading experience? For me, print is still most important as a reading experience. But I’m never satisfied when I buy a printed book from a bookstore and then “that’s it.” I can’t carry all of my books with me when I go on a trip, so I really want both print and digital at the point of purchase. For me, if I’m going to read a book of theory or criticism, I’m going to be reading it in print, but I also want to be able to easily pull it up on my laptop or phone when I’m traveling or just happen to think of it during a meeting with a student, or I’m doing some writing and I want to refer to it. I want the materiality of the print book, but for access and reference, the online version.

And Manifold is precisely about achieving that hybrid experience. So we are producing print books, but we are also creating web-based interactive texts that open up new collective and social reading experiences.

What are you reading now? I am reading (and loving) Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Somehow, reading about waves feels like the right thing in this post-election moment–an escape from politics but also a reminder of how to make our way among larger and sometimes brutal forces.

Who inspires your work? I tend to be inspired by my academic mentors. My first academic mentor was Robert D. Richardson, Jr., who is a biographer of Thoreau and Emerson (his biography of Emerson remains one of my favorite books). I’m still in awe of his erudition and research and writing skills. I’m also inspired on a daily level by my colleagues at the Graduate Center and across CUNY, especially by the students I work with.

After Matt answered all the questions, we had the chance to speak more broadly about Manifold and the features that specifically address readers’ needs. The design of the platform — from the icons, to commenting and annotation, to the reading interface — is the result of careful consideration by a team of careful readers. Moving forward, even as I share more about the creators of Manifold and the reading practices that influence its development, I will be adding a features series to outline the thinking that goes into the various components of Manifold.

Reading with Zach Davis

Zach Davis

Zach Davis

Last week, calling Portland from the Digital Scholarship Lab at the Graduate Center, I had the pleasure of speaking with Manifold’s lead developer, Zach Davis at Cast Iron Coding. Yet again, my attempts to record the call came to naught, but I will conjure some of the conversation from my notes.

Zach is Principal Chief Technologist at Cast Iron Coding. His previous CIC projects include sites for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the Jersey Give-Back Guide (check out the animation on the “generosity generator”) and Debates in Digital Humanities, a collaboration with The University of Minnesota Press and Matt Gold that served as a prototype for the Manifold project.

Zach has been working steadily and seems rejuvenated by the team’s recent Portland meeting. Talking through the next steps and considerations about how university presses will be able to customize Manifold installations seems to have crystallized the work that everyone has been doing in exciting ways.

First, I asked Zach what matters most to him about Manifold. He noted the two most important things to him at this stage, made even more clear after the meeting.

  1. That Manifold is open and open source. Zach says, “it is a pleasure to work on software that has to be open source, where it’s written into the very project.”
  2. That they are building something that solves a problem for a good number of people. He recognizes the audience, but beyond Manifold’s immediate uses for the press, the software has the potential to serve an even wider segment.

After that we spoke about ideal reading experiences. While his habits have changed since the days when he was a Ph.D. student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, Zach says it’s “still a book most of the time. It depends on what kind of text. I don’t read theory and criticism the way I used to. For short forms, I will read on the web or my phone, but for reading, I still like the physical artifact.” We talked a bit about the different demands of different types of reading. When he was working on his dissertation, Zach categorized himself as a transcriber. He would cite passages as a way of thinking through the content. Now while working on Manifold, he imagines the sort of tools that would have facilitated this sort of reading. He says he also spent much of his academic life reading digital texts, which were often easier to track down. He thinks about the ways Manifold could simplify the lives of scholars.

What is he reading right now?

  1. A collection of Leonard Cohen poetry
  2. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Both seem rather timely.

Lastly, I asked who inspires his work. Zach says lately he has been particularly inspired by the work of Dan Abramov, a JavaScript developer. He finds inspiration in Abramov’s career and particularly appreciates Abramov’s attitude about open source software and towards the community around his work. Now that he has transitioned to his developer role, he finds his book-world inspirations are much the same as they were ten years ago. He says he hopes he in any way resembles the thoughtful, careful, kind approach to work and students that he saw in Milton scholar and mentor Joseph Wittreich at the Graduate Center.

As the project moves on, I’m interested in the ways the underlying experience of the Manifold team influences the way they craft the reading experience.

Thanks, Zach!

Follow @zdavis

Joining Manifold

Happy Halloween!

My name is Jojo Karlin and I am an English doctoral student and Digital Fellow at the Graduate Center, CUNY. I’ve joined Manifold this fall to help get the word out about what the team has been up to, and I am excited to investigate the generative potential built into this iterative, collaborative platform. I love the ways Manifold seeks to enrich scholarly publication by building communities of researchers engaged in collective annotation and networked reading.

When friends and acquaintances unfamiliar with the field hear I work in “digital humanities,” they often react with anxieties about the death of print. Skeptical bibliophiles lament the impact of screens on humanity as they cite popular science articles about babies swiping pages of print books.  Yet I remain a stalwart defender of books in their many forms. I grew up in a house lined with books and have a categorical weakness for library book sales and department book swaps; I also depend on my computer and smartphone as part of my reading practice.

Books, even print-only, are not single-use — people come to them and at them from different angles and at different times. I believe that the many ways we read books should be simultaneously available and that ideas deserve the full range of available outlets and expression. What I particularly love about Manifold is the way it bridges print and digital forms, giving presses and authors the opportunity to benefit from affordances of both — utilizing digital features while reinforcing the value of print-based scholarship.

Since joining Manifold, I have begun to see how the team approaches the transformations of text in recent years, the influx (sometimes numbing inundation) of social media, and the existing endeavors of numerous presses to engage scholarship digitally. “Building Manifold” gives me a sense of Manifold’s dual purpose– platform construction and conceptual restructuring — and Zach’s updates describe incremental decisions of development. By taking pains to publicly share the process of creating the tool, the Manifold team participates in the kind of transparent teamwork that the tool itself proposes. I look forward to sharing my perspective as well.

In the coming months, I will help to surface some of the exciting progress that the team has been making. I will post updates about design, interviews with team members, and reflections on some of the trickier conceptual decisions. Even jumping in now, I have found the whole team — Susan, Zach, Matt, Doug, Terence, Naomi, everyone!– to be wonderfully welcoming and warm. I am looking forward to learning more, and I hope you will share in my excitement.

If you have questions about Manifold, sign up for our newsletter, follow/star/love our git repository, follow @ManifoldScholar on Twitter, and feel free to get in touch.

Thanks and be well,