"Startwords," an Experimental Publication from the CDH

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.

contextual notes and quotations from the first issue of "Startwords"

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.

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.”

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