I thought I would share the description of a graduate course I’ll be teaching in Spring 2012. It’s targeted specifically at students in English literature. So instead of teaching an “introduction to digital humanities” as a whole, I’ve decided to focus on the parts of this research program that seem to integrate most easily into literary study. I want to help students take risks — but I also want to focus, candidly, on risks that seem likely to produce useful credentials within the time frame of graduate study.
I think the perception among professors of literature may be that TEI-based editing is the digital tool that integrates most easily into what we do. But where grad students are concerned, I think new modes of collection-mapping are actually more widely useful, because they generate leads that can energize projects not otherwise centrally “digital.” This approach is technically a bit more demanding than TEI would be, but if students are handed a few simple modules (LSA-based topic modeling, Dunning’s log likelihood, collocation analysis, entity extraction, time series graphing) I think it’s fairly easy to reveal discourses, trends, and perhaps genres that no one has discussed. I’ll be sharing my own tools built in R, and an 18-19c collection I have developed in collaboration with E. Jordan Sellers. But I’ll also ask students to learn some basic elements of R themselves, so that they can adapt or connect modules and generate their own visualizations. As we get into problems that exceed the power of the average Mac, I’ll introduce students to the modular resources of SEASR. Wish us luck — it’s an experiment!
ENGL 581. Digital Tools and Critical Theory. Spring 2012.
Critical practice is already shaped by technology. Contemporary historicism emerged around the same time as full-text search, for instance, and would be hard to envision without it. Our goal in this course will be to make that relationship more reciprocal by using critical theory to shape technology in turn. For example, the prevailing system of “keyword search” requires scholars to begin by guessing how another era categorized the world. But much critical theory suggests that we cannot predict those categories in advance, and there are ways of mapping an archive that don’t require us to.
I’ve found that it does make a difference: when critics build their own tools, they can uncover trends and discourses that standard search technology does not reveal. The course will not assume any technical background, although it does assume willingness to learn a few basic elements of programming and statistics. Many of the tools/collections we need are already available on the web; others I can give you, or show you how to cobble together. We will often take time out from building things to read theory — like Moretti’s Maps, Graphs, Trees (2005), corpus linguistics, and influential critiques of or definitions of the digital humanities. But we will not mostly be writing about digital humanities. Instead I’ll recommend writing an ordinary critical essay about literary/cultural history, subtly informed by new tools or new models of discourse. (Underline “subtly.”) Projects on any period are possible, although the resources I can provide are admittedly richest between 1700 and 1900.
By the way, it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that I’ve learned much of what I know about this topic from grad students, and especially (where methodology is concerned) from Benjamin Schmidt, whose blog posts are an education in themselves and will certainly be on the syllabus. “Graduate education” in this field is a very circular process.