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Screenshot of the front page of Startwords.

Startwords, An Experimental Publication from the Center for Digital Humanities

By Kate Carpenter, CDH Public Writing Graduate Fellow


This week, the Center for Digital Humanities launched something new and a little…irregular.

Startwords, an online publication, made its debut on Tuesday, and it aims to be anything but commonplace. With an emphasis on exploration and creativity in both content and presentation, Startwords is “a forum for experimental humanities scholarship” that invites a broad audience to think about new or underexplored aspects of DH work. The title has three meanings: it references a computer science term for the words used to start a programming sequence, a literary term for the first time a genre appears in print, and a cheeky alternative to “stop words,” words discarded in the course of natural language processing.  

More experimental than an academic journal but more formal than a blog, Startwords’s potential content could include “creative nonfiction, essays, data journalism, but also writing that draws on emerging scholarship practices in digital humanities,” including new approaches to code or means of documentation, says editor Grant Wythoff, who also serves as the CDH digital humanities strategist.

The first issue, “Transformations,” features two articles representing the range of approaches writers might undertake. The first, “Data Beyond Vision,” explores data physicalizations that represent “the transformation of data into more tangible forms, so we can understand that data differently,” Wythoff says. This essay sits on the highly interactive end of the journal’s vision, offering readers 3D models and even instructions to create their own data-based objects.

At the other end of the range is an essay by CDH project and education coordinator Rebecca Munson. “Their Data, Ourselves: Illness as Information” is a thoughtful and moving reflection on how Munson’s experiences as a cancer patient have changed how she thinks about data, now that she sees herself both as a person and as a part of someone else’s data. Wythoff says that the contrast between these articles is one of the first issue’s greatest strengths.

“The two essays couldn’t be more different in terms of style, format, and ideas,” he says, “but they are almost perfect mirror images of each other,” with one emphasizing how a dataset can be transformed into a physical object, and the other exploring how a physical object—a body, in this case—transforms into a dataset.

The emphasis on innovation also translates to the Startwords site itself. Though in some ways the project is simpler than those that CDH developers usually tackle—there are no databases to wrestle—developer Nick Budak notes that building the site brings its own creative challenges.

“We’re trying to support many different kinds of content across many different devices,” he says, noting that the first issue includes 3D models, a high-resolution interactive photo, and a powerful contextual note feature, all developed to work not only across desktop and mobile devices but also via text and PDF.

A screenshot of one of the contextual notes.The team is particularly proud of the contextual note feature, which showcases the interaction of development, design, and content creativity that is at the heart of the Startwords mission. Other online publications have taken a variety of approaches to notes, from margin notes to pop-ups, but these either differ depending on display or require a lot of programming duplication to make them appear consistently. The clickable contextual notes also offer an elegant reading solution, one that doesn’t require readers to jump between text and footnotes.

User experience designer Gissoo Doroudian also points out that the design—a “highly collaborative” effort—reflects the project’s values of ethics and transparency. By giving readers multiple ways to engage and gain context for content, she hopes that the result will empower readers to decide on the reading experience that suits them. “Startwords’s visual design aims at creating an experimental, humble, and playful environment, where creativity and new ways of seeing are celebrated,” she adds.

Another Startwords goal is to emphasize writing that engages a public audience, something that Wythoff describes as “baked into the interface.” The front page of the site, for example, prominently features each article’s first sentence, forcing authors to pay careful attention to the impact of their opening line. 

Developer Rebecca Sutton Koeser, who also co-authored “Data Beyond Vision” with Budak, Doroudian, and Xinyi Li, hopes that the design generates new approaches. “A lot of people are publishing interesting work online, but innovative work is still usually published in traditional ways,” she says. “I hope the ways we’re experimenting with format…will challenge and inspire them.”

For Munson, the invitation to experimentation allowed her to blend her humanist perspective with science and data in a way that might not suit a more academic platform. Here, she could speak to both STEM-focused readers and those in the humanities. The emphasis on creativity also allowed her to return to a skill that is often pushed aside in daily academic life: “So much of DH is building and tweaking, or mentoring and giving feedback with students. Just getting to create something again was very exciting,” she says.

The Startwords team is already looking toward future issues. Influenced by the experience of producing the publication remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and inspired by this summer’s social justice uprisings, the team is eager to involve those outside of Princeton as authors and guest editors. In the process, they hope that Startwords might amplify voices from the Black DH and Indigenous DH communities, in a forum accessible to far more people than a closed campus lecture.

“I hope readers see it and think, wow, this is an interesting platform, I bet I know something that would fit there,” Budak says. “Maybe something they’ve never had a forum for.”

Above: The home page of the Startwords site, featuring the opening lines of essays from the first issue. Below: A screen shot of the innovative contextual note feature in action.


NEH Grant Will Help Increase Linguistic Diversity in DH: The NEH Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities recently awarded a grant to New Languages for NLP: Building Linguistic Diversity in the Digital Humanities. The project, led by CDH Associate Director Natalia Ermolaev and Andrew Janco (Digital Scholarship Librarian, Haverford College), will enable the CDH to continue its commitment to language diversity in DH by hosting an intensive workshop series. Read more about the award and project.

Call for Papers: The World of Shakespeare and Company. The Shakespeare and Company Project, in collaboration with the Journal of Cultural Analytics and Modernism/modernity, invites proposals for articles about Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and lending library in interwar Paris. The articles should be based on documents and data made available by the Project. Proposals for articles are due December 15, 2020, and should be fewer than 400 words in length. Read the complete call for papers and learn how to submit a proposal.

Upcoming Events:

All times Eastern unless otherwise noted.

October 29 (today), 2 to 3 p.m.: New Faculty Drop-In Open House at the CDH. If you’re curious about incorporating digital humanities into your research and teaching, if you have ideas for a project, or if you’re interested in learning more about what we do at the CDH and the different ways you might get involved, please join us! Get the Zoom link.

October 30: Living at the Intersection Symposium. The Princeton Council on Science and Technology’s 2020 symposium will examine the topic of “Truth and Evidence” at the intersection of STEM and the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Register for the conference.

November 2, 11 a.m. to noon: "The Garden Party and Other Stories" by Katherine Mansfield. In this meeting of the Shakespeare and Company Project book club, in partnership with Princeton Public Library, participants will discuss Mansfield's collection of short stories. This is the
first in a series of explorations of titles frequently borrowed from Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Access the book for free, and register for the discussion.

November 3, noon to 12:30: Getting Started with the Library: Center for Digital Humanities and Stokes Viz Hub. This webinar, part of the library's First-Year Graduate Student series, will provide information on support and programs from the Center for Digital Humanities and Stokes Viz Hub for graduate students in fall 2020. Register for the webinar.

November 5, 5 to 7 p.m.: Ruha Benjamin: Race to the Future? Reimagining the Default Settings of Technology & Society. This discussion, from the Program in Media and Modernity, features Ruha Benjamin discussing her work on the "New Jim Code," her term for discriminatory technological design that encodes inequity. Learn more about the event.

November 10, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.: CITP Seminar with Vanessa Teague. This talk by Vanessa Teague will compare recent advances in the understanding of election integrity and the challenges of Internet voting. Learn more and join the webinar.

November 17, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.: CITP Seminar with Anita L. Allen (co-sponsored by CDH). In this talk, Anita L. Allen will survey issues and concerns at the intersection of race relations and privacy — values and rights. Who gets to be shielded or secluded? Who gets watched; gets to observe? Who gets profiled, who ignored? Who gets to be invisible or is forced into invisibility? Learn more and join the webinar.

November 18, 7 to 8:30 p.m.: Rediscovering the Lost Generation: Inside the World of Shakespeare and Company. Joshua Kotin, director of the Shakespeare and Company Project, and Keri Walsh, editor of "The Letters of Sylvia Beach," discuss the Lost Generation and the books they loved. This event is in partnership with the Princeton Public Library and the Historical Society of Princeton. The Shakespeare and Company Project is a digital humanities initiative that brings the world of Shakespeare and Company to life. Learn more and register.

Links We're Digging Lately

If you missed the first 2020-2021 meeting of Princeton's Archival Silences working group, you can now watch video of the conversation.

This climate map from ProPublica, shared by CDH faculty director Meredith Martin, shows how climate change could transform the way we live in the United States.

CDH research software developer Kevin McElwee pointed us to this fascinating article in Wired: "YouTubers are upscaling the past the 4K. Historians want them to stop."

Earlier this month, The Guardian published this story of a courageous data scientist using her skills to expose far-right white supremacists in the United States.

Graduate public writing fellow Kate Carpenter has been taking a lot of long walks while listening to podcasts and audio books to cope with pandemic stress. If you're doing the same, she recommends the Flash Forward Podcast, in which host Rose Eveleth uses scientific and humanities research to imagine possible distant and not-so-distant futures.
The CDH Newsletter is edited by Kate Carpenter, Princeton PhD student in the History of Science. Email her with newsletter suggestions or feedback.
Copyright © 2020 Center for Digital Humanities, All rights reserved.

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