As a literary comparatist who has attended many conferences, I have to admit that I am pleasantly surprised by the “vibe” here. I realize the actual conference hasn’t started, yet. However, those of us who are here taking advantage of the pre-conference workshops all seem very eager to learn about the many different digital tools available to us and there is a spirit of collaboration that is often lacking in the humanities.

Speaking of digital tools, here are the two presented at the workshops I attended:

1) Heurist – this tool has been around since 2005. It is essentially a database creator/organizer/manager that allows users not only to list things, such as bibliographical entries, images, and historical events, but also to create relationships between them. The example we analyzed during the workshop was a student’s project on medieval cookbooks. The student used Heurist to create a database relating three sets of data: menus, recipes, and ingredients. In turn, these provided hundreds of search capabilities, including looking at recipes by the types of flowers used and seeing what types of menus these were located (lower class, upper class, nobility, or clergy).

I was surprised by all this tool had to offer; however, I couldn’t help thinking about the question of time. Yes, this tool is awesome. Yes, there are all sorts of cool things to do with it. Yes, I could apply it to my own research. But… Who has time to upload all the data? Some faculty could probably have an assistant to do this. Me, as a graduate assistant myself, would probably be the one responsible for uploading someone else’s data.

2) Voyant Tools – As the name suggests, Voyant is not just one tool; it comprises a set of tools that are very useful for text analysis. The basic functions are also very user-friendly and don’t require much effort. All you have to do is paste a document(s) into the box on Voyants homepage and voila, you have a word cloud, word counts, trends, chronological organization and a graph indicating the text’s length.

The focus of the workshop was to present these tools to us and brainstorm ways in which these same tools could be used for teaching. With Voyant, it is possible to create word clouds, graphs, lists, bubbles, and many other visual representations for one or more texts.

To introduce us to the tool, the presenters gave us a word cloud that most of the people in the recognized as the works of Jane Austen. This word cloud, encompassing 10,000 words from each novel, indicated that the most common word was “Mr,” no matter how the words around it were configured. Another tool, composed of bars in different colors for each novel showed us that Austen’s longest novels were those she wrote in her “middle period.” Although we must keep in mind that data is not fact, it was fun and insightful to look at texts in this very analytical way; to be able to visualize the text.

Then, came the question of how to teach with these tools. One participant suggested the article “How Not to Read a Victorian Novel” by Paul C. Fyfe. In summary, how to analyze a book without reading it. Naturally, this created some contention because of “all the students will miss or analyze incorrectly.” I think, as did others in the workshop, that it would function as a great way to present a text to students, to prepare them for what they are about to read, and, after they have read, to generate discussion about their assumptions and conclusions.

Unfortunately, I could only attend these two workshops, but I will share the results of my DH tools exploration as the week goes on.


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