18c fiction methodology

MLA talk: just the thesis.

Giving a talk this morning at the MLA. There are two main arguments:

1) The first one will be familiar if you’ve read my blog. I suggest that the boundary between “text mining” and conventional literary research is far fuzzier than people realize. There appears to be a boundary only because literary scholars are pretty unreflective about the way we’re currently using full-text search. I’m going to press this point in detail, because it’s not just a metaphor: to produce a simple but useful topic-modeling algorithm, all you have to do is take a search engine and run it backwards.

2) The second argument is newer; I don’t think I’ve blogged about it yet. I’m going to present topic modeling as a useful bridge between “distant” and “close” reading. I’ve found that I often learn most about a genre by modeling it as part of a larger collection that includes many other genres. In that context, a topic-modeling algorithm can highlight peculiar convergences of themes that characterize the genre relative to its contemporary backdrop.

a slide from the talk, where a simple topic-modeling algorithm has been used to produce a dendrogram that offers a clue about the temporal framing of narration in late-18c novels

This is distant reading, in the sense that it requires a large collection. But it’s also close reading, in the sense that it’s designed to reveal subtle formal principles that shape individual works, and that might otherwise elude us.

Although the emphasis is different, a lot of the examples I use are recycled from a talk I gave in August, described here.

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

3 replies on “MLA talk: just the thesis.”

Ted, Mark Vareschi and I did a very similar experiment — generated a dendrogram using ward clustering based on rhetorical categories (rather than word counts) — and came up with Evelina as our exemplary novel! Funny it’s still Burney! We should talk– we have a project with funding that would really benefit from your expertise. Email me at my wisconsin address if you can. Missed your MLA talk b/c we were interviewing, but my research partners and I are excited about talking to you. -Robin Valenza

Just wanted to say that I had the pleasure of being in your MLA audience, and I thought you made these 2 points quite well. I really enjoyed your talk and have been thinking about it a lot in conjunction with J. Stein’s. Thanks for a great panel!

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