Thursday, September 8, 2016

Three Principles for Digital Literary Studies

By Kenton Rambsy

This semester, I’m teaching two African American literary survey courses at the University of Texas at Arlington. “From Slavery to Hip Hop” and “Greatest Beefs” are also “unofficially” designated as digital humanities courses.

Many people often ask about the structure of my courses and how I fuse a traditional field like English with the emerging digital humanities discourses. Some have even wondered how I teach students how to use digital tools while also making students aware of major authors, literary periods, and theories in the field of African American literature.

Because the landscape of DH is still emerging and technology is changing at such a rapid pace, I focus more on a conceptual framework as a means of creating new points of entry for academic inquiry. Specifically, I emphasize three general principles proposed by Ted Underwood in “Distant Reading and Recent Intellectual History”:
1. Don’t Over estimate our understanding of literary history:
• "First, a negative principle: there’s simply a lot we don’t know about literary history above the scale of (say) a hundred volumes. We’ve become so used to ignorance at this scale, and so good at bluffing our way around it, that we tend to overestimate our actual knowledge" (Underwood).

2. Borrow from other disciplines:
• "Second, the theoretical foundation for macroscopic research isn’t something we have to invent from scratch; we can learn a lot from computational social science. (The notion of a statistical model, for instance, is a good place to start.)" (Underwood).

3. Create and Develop (and share) accessible data sources:
• "The third thing that matters, of course, is getting at the texts themselves, on a scale that can generate new perspectives. This is probably where our collaborative energies could most fruitfully be focused. The tools we’re going to need are not usually specific to the humanities. But the corpora often are" (Underwood).
In my digital humanities literature courses, we consider how metadata can be used to understand literary history and engage in interdisciplinary research. We collect data related to publishing histories, thematic content, and geography in order to assess relationships between various black authors, genres, and historical periods.

I would love to teach students how to use advanced topic modeling software like Mallet in my classes to explore connections between black slave narratives and novels. I would also enjoy demonstrating how to use GIS mapping software to examine migration patterns in African American literature; however, time constraints prevent me from doing so effectively at the moment.

It would be difficult for me to teach my students how to master the use of text-mining, topic modeling, and mapping programs while at the same time adequately exposing the students to African American literature produced over more than a century. Emphasizing these three general principles, however, facilitates my students gaining insight into African American literature, while also developing tangible skills and methods related to data collection and analysis.

Some Free Digital Software Programs and tools   

1 comment:

Will said...

Kenton, great breakdown. You model this new field so well. As far as the GIS stuff goes, have you messed around with at all?