Monday, November 19, 2018

5 Positive Possibilities of using ProQuest Dissertation database


If you've been following along on my blog, you've noticed I've had a lot to say about the ProQuest Dissertation databases. I've been using the blog to record some of my observations. I've noted pain points or drawbacks, but by and large I've been moved, almost overwhelmed by the positive possibilities. Here are my top 5 for now.

1. The size of the database -- Listen: "abstracts and indexing for approximately 4 million dissertations and theses, with full text (PDFs) for more than 2 million of those works." What else is there to say? It's really been something looking back over dissertations on African American literature produced during the 1940s, the 1960s and up through 2018. I've been studying African American literature for two decades now, and using this database has put me in touch with the thinking and writing of scholars in the field in new, powerful ways.

2. Discoveries on African American literary studies -- This point is related to #1, but the size of the database has made it possibilities for me to make all kinds of discoveries on the development of African American literary studies and chart the mentions and focus on large numbers of writers and historical figures.

3. The search options -- Having the abilities to search "anywhere," by title, by author, by advisor, by institution, and so forth as well as the chance to designate years and manuscript type are somewhat standard for databases, but it means so much when looking through such an expansive collection of dissertations.

4. Export capabilities -- The functions available for managing and exporting recent searches has been invaluable as I've worked to look for more than 100 writers on a single project.

5. The citation options -- It almost goes without saying how much time is saved by the option of simply clicking "cite" to have the citations produced in the format of your choosing.


Related:
A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

The trouble with "American literature" and "African American literature" as subjects on databases


I've been running hundreds of searches concerning African American literature on the ProQuest Dissertation database over the last week. I noticed that there's a "subject" tab that displays the multiple tags for a topic. For a search for "Toni Morrison" from 2000 - 2018, yields 6,518 dissertation mentions. The "subject" table shows:
American Literature (2,699)
Women’s Studies (1,360)
American Studies (926)
African American Studies (735)
African Americans (652)
[There are dozens more)
I'm curious who decides on the subject areas. I also noticed that "African American literature" is likely embedded within "American literature." That makes sense on the one hand, since African American literature is American literature. However, in English departments, there are in fact often differences and distances. I'm not sure how to account for that in a database though.

Also, if African American literature is embedded within American literature, why is it not embedded in African American Studies? Where do African American literature and African American Studies depart? And where do African American literature and American literature depart as subjects? When is a figure like Toni Morrison a Women's Studies topic and not an African American Studies one?

It would be helpful if database companies offered more information on the reasoning behind subjects and categories.

Related:
A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

Multiple searches as database pain point



So far, studies in the field of African American literary studies have concentrated on a few authors at a time. But what happens when searching for information on dozens or even more than 100 writers?  I wondered about that during a current project on approximately 150 while using ProQuest Dissertations -- a database containing 4 million documents.

I've had to search for writers one at a time. It's been something of a pain point or barrier that there is no way to do run multiple, comparative searches. For example, when searching for individual mentions of "Richard Wright," "Toni Morrison," "Ralph Ellison," "Zora Neale Hurston," and "Alice Walker," I can do five separate searches. But what if I could

I suspect the technology will change in coming years. We'll see something like Google Ngram Viewer where you could see representations of Wright, Morrison, Ellison, Hurston, and Walker mentions together.

Related:
A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

Names as pain points during database searches


One of the obstacles or pain points you'll encounter while doing searches on ProQuest Dissertations or perhaps any database for prominent African American writers and scholars involves names. There are sometimes a variety of ways to spell individual figures, and in some cases the names of the figures change.

There's of course, "W. E. B. DuBois." Or is that "Du Bois"? What about "Charles Chesnutt" vs. "Charles W. Chesnutt." Of course, literary scholars know that Amiri Baraka was once LeRoi Jones, but what might that mean for the searches that people new or unfamiliar to histories of names in the field?

The varied use of middle initials can lead you to miss things in searches. People filing dissertations have written "Charles Chesnutt" as well as "Charles W. Chesnutt." They've written "George Samuel Schuyler," George S. Schuyler," and "George Schuyler." There's "Martin Delany" and "Martin R. Delany." There's "Sterling Brown" and "Sterling A. Brown." Scholars have written "Frances E. W. Harper," "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper," and "Frances Harper."

All those various spellings and initials add up when pursing searches on databases.

Related:
A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Richard Wright, literary studies, and ProQuest Dissertations



My formal studies of African American literature as a field began in 1996, about 22 years ago, in a course I took on the author Richard Wright with the Wright scholar Jerry W. Ward, Jr. At the time, I didn't think of what I was doing as African American literary studies, but it turns out that the early, low-level bibliographic work I did on Wright led me to the kind tech-based explorations I'm doing on ProQuest Dissertations today.

"Richard Wright" is one of the more frequently mentioned black writers in dissertations, appearing in 6,341 dissertations completed between 1943 and 2018. Utilizing ProQuest Dissertations, the earliest mention of Wright that I identified was from Hugh Gloster's "American Negro Fiction from Charles W. Chesnutt to Richard Wright." Most recently, 120 dissertations filed in 2018 mention "Richard Wright."

Wright appears in the titles of 96 dissertations filed between 1943 - 2018. The authors of some of those dissertations are a "who's who" of accomplished scholars of African American literature. In addition to Gloster's work, there's:
• Keneth Kinnamon's "The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Literary, Biographical, and Social Study" (1966)
• John Reilly's "Insight and Protest in the Works of Richard Wright" (1967)
• Eleanor Traylor's "Wright's Mythic and Grotesque Settings: Some Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Richard Wright" (1976)
• James Miller's "The Struggle for Identity in the Major Works of Richard Wright" (1976)
• Claudia Tate's "The Act of Rebellious Creation: A Critical Study of Richard Wright's Heroes" (1977)
• Maryemma Graham's "Aesthetic and Ideological Radalicsm in the 1930's: The Fiction of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes" (1977)
• Jerry W. Ward's "Richard Wright and His American Critics, 1936-1960" (1978)
• Joyce Ann Joyce's "Richard Wright's 'The Long Dream': An Aesthetic Extension of 'Native Son.'" (1979)
• Valerie Ann Smith's "'The Singer in One's Soul': Storytelling in the Fiction of James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison (Afro-American Authors)" (1982)
• Virginia Whatley Smith's "Richard Wright's 'Tarbaby Series" (1988)
Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston are the only two black literary artists mentioned more in the titles than Wright, and that is largely due to the 1990s surge in interest in black women writers.

What really stood  out to me while sifting through Wright mentions in titles and the contents of dissertations was the extent to which he serves as a crucial connector. People producing dissertations concentrate reference Wright when focusing on those who followed the Harlem Renaissance. They mention Wright when noting key precursors to the Black Arts Movement, and Wright comes up in discussions of Southern literature. He's discussed in relation to Hurston, Willam Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Morrison, communism, Leftist writers, and black women writing in general.

Few black writers are discussed across as many topics and in relation to as many authors as Wright. He's a central node in various literary and cultural networks.  

What I'm enjoying about the explorations on ProQuest Dissertations, though, is taking a look at Wright's mentions over time and in different contexts of many then-graduate students.

Related:
A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses
A Notebook on Richard Wright

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The absence of "black men writers" in dissertations

One of the most widely viewed entries on my blog is "Black men writers and creativity, 1995 - 2016." The popularity of the piece has to do with the fact in part that there are relatively few projects that focus on the phrase "black men writers." I was reminded of this idea as I did searches on ProQuest Dissertations recently.

A search for "black women writers" reveals that the phrase is mentioned in 2,806 dissertations from 1974 - 2018. However, the phrase "black men writers" only appears 11 times during that same time period. The phrase "black women poets" appears in 128 dissertations, and the phrase "black men poets" does not appear in any.

People regularly cover Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and so forth. So I know that black men writers are studied. Yet, the phrase "black men writers" is rarely used.

There's apparently not been as much of a concerted effort to theorize and write about the connectivity of "black men writers" like we do with "black women writers" as a concept and group. I get it too, by the way with the historical erasure and downplaying of creative contributions by black women writers. Still, the absence of the phrase "black men writers" caught my attention.

Related:
A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

ProQuest dissertations and black women writers, 2000 - 2018

bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Patricia Hill Collins, and Audre Lorde

As I continued doing searches for keywords on ProQuest Dissertations, I ran searches of dozen black women writers, including novelists, poets, and scholars. I was curious about how many times those figures were mentioned in dissertations from 2000 - 2018.

Of the many black women writers I produced queries for, here's a look at a ranking of mentions and the top 25.



I was intrigued that 7 scholars -- bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Hazel Carby, Kimberle Crenshaw, Barbara Christian, Trudier Harris, and Michelle Alexander -- made the list. I understand why bell hooks appears more than Toni Morrison, but somehow I had not initially thought of her when I considered mentions. Seeing that she was the most frequently referenced figure led me on the searches concerning those other scholars.

It's worth noting that ProQuest is only tracking mentions and not necessarily how much the writers are discussed. I imagine, for instance, that dissertation authors mention various writers only in passing, while devoting far more concentrated and expanded attention to others.

As subjects, black women writers coincides with the field of African American literary studies witnessing large growth during the late 1990s.

Related:
A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

For the last couple of weeks, I've been doing searches on Proquest Dissertations &Theses Global -- an expansive database comprised of "abstracts and indexing for approximately 4 million dissertations and theses, with full text (PDFs) for more than 2 million of those works."

Here are a series of writings that I produced on my searches:
5 Positive Possibilities of using ProQuest Dissertation database
African American literary studies and ProQuest
ProQuest dissertations and black women writers, 2000 - 2018
The absence of "black men writers" in dissertations
Amiri Baraka, ProQuest, and dissertations 1960 - 2018
Richard Wright, literary studies, and ProQuest Dissertations

Pain points
Multiple searches as database pain point
Names as pain points during database searches
The trouble with "American literature" and "African American literature" as subjects on databases