This is the first of two posts about the innovative academic publication Fluid Matter(s), which was created with the storytelling platform Shorthand and published by Australia National University Press in 2020. In content, Fluid Matter(s), is a trans-cultural and comparative approach to fluids in histories of the body; in format, it presents eleven interactive, image-based essays—all organized around the central themes of “flow.”
Trained extensively in how to read written texts, academics are also becoming increasingly interested in non-written forms of communication. The success of Fluid Matter(s), which received more than 20,000 hits within its first six months of publication and has attracted attention beyond the science and technology and history of medicine communities, prompts new questions about the future of digital media in academic publications.
I had the great pleasure to speak with the principal organizers of the project, Dr. Natalie Köhle and Dr. Shigehisa (Hisa) Kuriyama, about how the project came together. We discussed the process of organizing participants for innovative formats of publishing, the new potentials of working with digital media like Shorthand, and the uses of image-based storytelling tools in classroom teaching. Shigehisa Kuriyama is Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard University. Natalie Köhle is a historian of medicine, culture, and the body and assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Bryce Heatherly (BH): The entries in Fluid Matter(s) began as a conference in 2017, is that right? What is Fluid Matter(s), and what motivated it?
Natalie Köhle (NK): Fluid Matter(s) came out of a conference on bodily fluids, which aimed to be a comparative history in different traditions of medicine. During my post-doc at Australian National University, I envisioned this as a conference with a hands-on workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to find strategies to discuss fluids in a different, and more immersive, way—to allow the conference participants to understand the materiality of fluids. It had always been part of the conference invitation to include this element, and we knew the workshop had to be something digital, something different than the conventional print format.
Because I had been trained in digital media with Hisa (Kuriyama), and because he has been working on digital media for so long, I invited him to be part of the process. We then began to envision the workshop element of the conference as a platform for interactive, digital stories. With the resulting publication, Fluid Matter(s), then, we wanted to use the format of digital storytelling to communicate serious academic content—you know, the idea that you can still talk about serious issues in a way that is immersive and attractive for readers. It was meant to be interdisciplinary and to make a contribution, not only in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of presenting academic content in a new medium that could be taken up by all kinds of different fields.
Shigehisa Kuriyama (SK): Yes, broadly the goals of Fluid Matter(s) were twofold. The first was to spotlight, in terms of content, the importance of fluids in thinking about the history of the body, as opposed to, let’s say, structures. For example, while humors are known to be an important aspect of the history of medicine, they have not sustained a lot of scrutiny and analysis. The second was about the format of academic narrative—to explore the possibilities of digital storytelling.
We’re in a period now where none of my students read paper newspapers, and they are reading fewer articles in paper-bound journals. Whether one thinks that is good or bad, it definitely brings up new possibilities for communication that have not been fully explored. For me, the attraction of a project like this was in thinking, what could a ‘digital book’ look like, as something more than just a digitized PDF of a paper book?
BH: So, the interactive, image-based storytelling aspect of the project was only realized after the conference. Natalie, you handled many of the practical aspects of publication through Shorthand, can you walk us through the creation of the project?
NK: Since the participants in the conference were chosen for their scholarly work and not for their capabilities with digital humanities, we wanted to find a platform that was easy for everyone to learn. Then came Shorthand—and this was really a chance discovery that I had found while reading BBC News. At the time, the platform struck me as integrating film, recordings, and images very successfully. It was new at that time, but it looked fairly easy to use.
In 2018, I was able to negotiate a deal with Shorthand. Although they have cheaper versions of working with their platform, those versions cannot be exported. But, because we wanted to publish with an academic press, we needed to acquire something that could be exported and that an academic press would actually accept. At the time, Shorthand was geared toward big publication houses, and were mostly adopted in Academia for marketing materials, not for communicating academic content.
Australia National University (ANU) Press, which prides itself on being an open-access press, it turns out, was interested in taking on a project like this. In early 2020, we went for it, and ANU was very receptive to the idea. I would like to caution people, however, about assuming that this process is something that can be taken on easily. Many people wanting to produce a similar publication will think that it is enough to just send the images and texts to a press, and they will put it together for you. Shorthand is very easy to use, but to put it together in a book was difficult because it had never really been done before. For example, there was no tool in the Shorthand interface to organize the series of essays with a ‘table of contents.’ And a lot of the designing or layout assistance that you usually get from a press was not available, because the format was so new.
BH: Once you negotiated a license with Shorthand, how did all the contributors take to using the platform?
NK: For the individual entries on Shorthand, we had people revise their papers from the conference. Then we had two rounds of peer review. Hisa and I had to work with everyone intensely for a period. Shorthand is beautifully easy to learn, but you still need to invest some time to understand how it works. One thing we wanted to communicate through the final product is that digital media like Shorthand is not just for the experts. It is for everybody.
During the publication process, we also discussed some formal requirements so that all eleven essays in the volume looked consistent and could be read by an interdisciplinary audience. We decided on a word limit of 3,000 words, with unlimited footnotes. And, by the way, Shorthand did not have a footnote function before our project, but they developed one for us—so we really have to thank the Shorthand team, who were extremely responsive to our needs. We also decided that the 3,000 words should be divided into three parts of 1,000 words each. Each of the stories should contain the words fluids and flow. And, finally, we decided that the closing sentence should be no longer than five words, to encourage brevity of expression.
The challenge, then, was to get the contributors to think about using images to tell the story, rather than just plugging the images into the text. Traditional academics, sometimes, are trained to read the text and focus less on the images. So, we all had to learn more about image-based storytelling—where the image helps to tell the story in some way or another. This is also why it was important to not outsource the design. Of course, when writing a story on Shorthand, you could send all your images to a designer to have the designer create the story. But for our purposes, we wanted people to write stories with the images in mind, thinking about what they wanted to do with images. Shorthand allows you to think like that—it ends up being stronger because there are a limited number of effects. So, the page never looks too crowded or gimmicky, but always professional. If you go through the volume with an eye for that, you can see that the contributors use the effects in very individual ways.
BH: Hisa, can you walk us through your experience with digital media and your introduction to Shorthand?
SK: I’ve been teaching at Harvard since 2005, and, since my first year, I had always been interested in new media storytelling. At the time, I was becoming interested in Mac. The Mac’s iMovie at the time was much simpler, and so, for a number of years, I had students make iMovies instead of writing final papers. My lectures, also, were always exploring storytelling, trying to do something cinematic or theatrical.
That’s what I liked about Shorthand—because it’s essentially like a Keynote presentation, but on a fixed page. One thing I especially like is the highlight effect, where you can spotlight certain regions of an image. That’s something that I’ve been teaching for a while. I think it’s a fundamental technique that everyone who gives presentations should know how to use.
At a meta level, I’m extremely interested in what it means to communicate. Particularly for presentations, one of the great challenges, I think, is getting people on the same page as soon as possible. You know a lot about a subject, but the audience doesn’t—and if you are just sending out information, there’s no way that people can fully absorb it. To get people on common ground, I think there are two good ways. One way is showing a picture; the other is telling a story, an anecdote. The ideal format for a presentation is that you tell an anecdote and show a picture—and, by the end of the presentation, people understand that very differently. They have a very concrete sense of having learned something.
BH: Natalie, what can you share about the process of creating entries through Shorthand, and your experience writing your entry, “Spirit, Sweat and Qi”?
NK: One thing about the Shorthand stories is that the movement is up and down, rather than a movie, which is left and right. It is a different way to think about images. Much like movies, it helps you to think about how images relate to one another, but happens in a very different way. This is why, for example, it is surprisingly difficult to integrate a video into an interactive text in a way that does not disturb the flow.
I think certain topics lends themselves particularly well to this format. In my entry, when I talk about the materiality of phlegm, for example, it was easy for me to talk about that with pictures. But once I got to talking about ‘the spirit’ and how the spirit goes in and out of the body, that’s when it started to become difficult because that’s not so easy to convey in images.
It was unusual to give people a platform like Shorthand, which they could use themselves to construct a story with images. Usually, multi-media projects involve a designer of some kind, who works with you. For me, what was nice about using Shorthand is that we could experiment with texts and images. When making a story, you don’t have to write the text first and then put the images in, or vice versa—you can try out different effects and see how they flow. Of course, in academic writing, people have writing styles, but working with Shorthand, you can also see the styles of different participants who are communicating their content in very different ways. With images, these styles come out so much more clearly.
Stay tuned for the second part of this interview, in which we continue this conversation and discuss the potentials of Shorthand in pedagogy.