Objectivity and Distant Reading


Recently I was in my colleague Ben Schmidt’s office and spotted a weighty tome I’d not seen before: Objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. Ben told me that the book has been the focus of much discussion in history of science circles over the past few years. History of science is not a field I’m well versed in, though I’ve been dipping into its literature recently, and so I ordered a copy of Objectivity and began (slowly, as other work allows) reading. Almost immediately upon beginning the book I began recommending it to colleagues and graduate students, so much so that a group of us decided it would make sense to start a summer reading group around it rather than all approaching the book independently. As we read and that group meets, I plan to document some of my thoughts about the book here, in large part because the book seems to be mostly unknown within DH scholarship. I recently asked NU Ph.D. student Gregory Palermo to help me determine how often the book has been cited in DHQ, for instance, and he found precisely one citation.

I was drawn to read Objectivity as part of my growing interest, following the work of scholars such as Lauren Klein or Jacqueline Wernimont, in pre-histories of computing: around ideas of information, data, programming, quantification, or visualization. I am drawn to such work because I believe deep historicization can help build a more robust and integrative digital humanities. In such a DH computation—and in this post that word is, admittedly, doing too much work, but—in such a DH computation would not be simply a powerful modern tool applied to the past or, equally simply, an impoverished neoliberal framework incommensurate with the nuances of the past. Instead, computation would be both subject and methodology, both of history and capable of dialogue with history. More robust historical contextualization can, I believe, assist on all sides of the DH debates, mitigating both the millennial and apocalyptic rhetoric swirling around the field.

Images and Objectivity

Objectivity attempts to trace the emergence of scientific objectivity as a concept, ideal, and moral framework for researchers during the nineteenth century. In particular, the book focuses on shifting ideas about scientific images during the period. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Daston and Galison argue, the scientific ideal was “truth-to-nature,” in which particular examples are primarily useful for the ways in which they reflect and help construct an ideal type: not this leaf, specifically, but this type of leaf. Under this regime scientific illustrations did not attempt to reconstruct individual, imperfect specimens, but instead to generalize from specimens and portray a perfect type.

Objectivity shows how, as the nineteenth century progressed and new image technologies such as photography shifted the possibilities for scientific imagery, truth-to-nature fell out of favor, while objectivity rose to prominence. There’s much to unpack in Daston and Galison’s description of this objectivity (and how it contrasts with earlier uses of that same word), but in this post I want to focus on what they call “mechanical objectivity,” which arises with new scientific tools and inheres in their ideas about those tools. I think there’s a salient point embedded here that might help us think through how recent computational research in the humanities has been discussed, and particularly in how an ideas about objectivity complicate those discussions, either explicitly or implicitly.

Consider Daston and Galison’s description of the virtues of nineteenth century machines, which I will quote at some length:

[I]t was a nineteenth-century commmonplace that machines were paragons of certain human virtues. Cief among these were those associated with work: patient, indefatigable, ever-alert machiens would relieve human workers whose attention wandered, whose pace slackened, whose hand trembled…In addition to the sheer industriousness of machines, there was more: levers and gears did not succumb to temptation…the fact that machines had no choice but to be virtuous struck scientists distrustful of their own powers of self-discipline as a distinct advantage. Instead of freedom of will, machines offered freedom from will—from willful interventions that had come to be seen as the most dangerous aspects of subjectivity (123).

In debates about the virtues of illustration versus photography, for instance, illustration was touted as superior to the relative primitivism of photography—technologies such as drawing and engraving simply allowed finer detail than blurry nineteenth century photography could. Nevertheless photography increasingly dominated scientific images because it was seen as less susceptible to manipulation, less dependent on the imagination of the artist (or, indeed, of the scientist).

It is this internal struggle to control the will that imparted to mechanical objectivity its high moral tone…One type of mechanical image, the photograph, became the emblem for all aspects of noninterventionist objectivity…This was not because the photograph was more obviously faithful to nature than handmade images—many paintings bore a closer resemblance to their subject matter than early photographs, if only because they used color—but because the camera apparently eliminated human agency. (187)

For scientists increasingly worried that their own stubborn wills would sully the truth of their findings, mechanical means of image production offered a way out. There are echoes here of original sin, a seeking for a tool that can circumvent human fallenness.

Objectivity and Distant Reading

I want to ask whether there is a version of this objectivity moral lurking in discussions of computation in the humanities, even when particular works disclaim objectivity as their goal. Consider Moretti in the article that coined the “distant reading” term:

the trouble with close reading (in all of its incarnations, from the new criticism to deconstruction) is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon. This may have become an unconscious and invisible premiss by now, but it is an iron one nonetheless: you invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter…At bottom, it’s a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously—whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them. Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems.

In this article and much of the related literature, computation is invoked as a solution to problems of will that are quite familiar from decades of humanistic scholarship. We all know that the canon of English literature was shaped as much by the identities of its gatekeepers as by the inherent virtues of the books it includes. Feminist, postcolonial, and other theoretical schools have taught us that our biases limit our critical horizons and result in atrophied canons that do not adequately represent human identities or literatures.

We might argue that methods such as distant reading or macroanalysis seek to bypass the human will that constructed such canons through a kind of mechanical objectivity. While human beings choose what to focus on for all kinds of reasons, many of them suspect, the computer will look for patterns unencumbered any of those reasons. The machine is less susceptible to the social, political, or identity manipulations of canon formation. There’s much to say about the role of the machine in this formulation, and the human beings that write its programs—both of which perhaps I’ll discuss in future posts. And I’m neither claiming that this ethics of objectivity is objective nor that it would be desirable for it to be so.

My aims here are more modest: simply to posit a rhetorical undertone informing discussions of computational humanities work.

I can point to my own writing about Viral Texts, in fact, as in my article in American Literary History:

The blinders of search access prove surprisingly crippling because they tend to reinforce existing suppositions—on, say, the dominance of a text that is canonical today—while leaving undiscovered more popular texts that might reveal precisely what we have failed to understand about popular opinion, readings habits, and public debate in the period…Repetition—and circulation is a kind of textual repetition with a difference—is a salient pattern that the digitized archive makes more readily discernible. If the primary challenge facing scholars interested in nineteenth-century reprinting is that the newspapers and magazines are “unindexed,” then an algorithm can help build indices useful for approaching these materials.

We might mark a tension in such formulations: while the problem of will motivating such studies often stems from thoroughly humanistic convictions, perhaps the appeal to mechanization (or automation or computation) necessarily invokes an ethics of objectivity. In my own case, I likely would have disclaimed objectivity as my ideal or objective—and still would—but perhaps at some level I must acknowledge its echoes. My aim here is not to disparage computational research—far from it. I do believe that the kind of pattern recognition we take up in Viral Texts, for instance, helps us expand our critical purview well outside the typical canon of nineteenth century literary study, and that such expansion is a generative and salutary outcome.

I would suggest, however, that understanding how computational criticism implicitly evokes objectivity even without explicitly claiming objectivity might help us advance conversations rather than talk past each other. I will certainly have more to say on this subject as our group reading of Objectivity continues through this summer.

A Larger View of Digital American Studies

The following is a short response article that will appear in Amerikastudien/American Studies 61.3 (2016). Thanks to their very generous copyright policy (in brief: authors keep rights) I am glad to share the piece here as well. Obviously I cannot reproduce Alex Dunst’s article, to which I am responding, on my personal research blog, but hopefully my general points of agreement and divergence will be clear enough to readers without access to Amerikastudien/American Studies. With limited space I could not be as capacious as I might otherwise be describing intriguing current research in digital American Studies. I restricted myself to more computational work not because I see it as constituting the boundaries of the field—as I hope this piece does make very clear—but instead to show that even within the subfields of computational text and image analysis we are seeing projects bloom that defy any dichotomy—offered in praise or condemnation—between empirical or theoretical analyses. Side note: for this journal I had to use in MLA style, which I haven’t done in awhile and feel weird about.

By abandoning our conception of the computer as merely a mechanical clerk suited mostly to repetitive routine operations, by learning to know its features, uses, limitations, and possibilities—its nature, in short—we shall be properly re-organizing our thinking for the new age. What the computer will enable us to do in our humanistic tasks has hardly been imagined yet. Even immoderate speculation tends to fall behind the new reality.

Louis T. Milic, “The Next Step” (1966)

The digital humanities are large; they contain multitudes: a rewriting of Whitman that can read equally as commendation or condemnation. To cite a specific example, it might surprise that scholars who devote their work to the textually minute processes of editing and encoding digital scholarly editions rightly consider themselves members of the same field as scholars who develop algorithms for classifying data across millions of works. Yet both of these things are digital humanities (DH). Continue reading

Network Analysis Workshop

I regularly run workshops on humanities network analysis. For participants, I’ve compiled some starting instructions, sample data files, and suggested reading below.

Recommended Reading

Tools for Network Analysis

There are many options at various skill levels for humanists interested in network analysis. Here are just a few:

  • If you’re looking for an especially straightforward platform for basic network analyses, you might check out Palladio which adapts the platform designed for Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project for other scholars’ use. Martin Düring’s tutorial at the Programming Historian focuses on extracting network data from unstructured text and visualizing it in Palladio, and Miriam Posner’s “Getting Started with Palladio” introduces the tool’s network functionalities (along with much else).
  • You can also create basic network graphs using Fusion Tables.
  • If you are running Windows with Microsoft Excel installed, Node XL aims to make generating network graphs from an Excel spreadsheet as easy as creating a pie chart. Unfortunately Node XL is incompatible with Mac versions of Excel.
  • And of course, if you’re comfortable with programming languages there are plenty of methods for generating network graphs by hand. Taylor Arnold and Lauren Tilton write about using R for network analysis in Humanities Data in R and Lincoln Mullen has a growing resource in Digital History Methods in R, including an in-progress chapter on networks.

This Workshop: Gephi

For this workshop, we will be using Gephi, one of the most widely-used tools for network analysis and visualization. You will need to download and install the application before we can get started. If you find it runs slowly (or not at all) you might need to update Java on your system.

Workshop Data

Sample data can be found in this folder. You can download them all as a zip file or download files separately as we need them.

What Has the Digital Meant to American Periodicals Scholarship?

Note: this is a peer reviewed, uncopyedited post-print of an article that appears in American Periodicals 26.1 (2016), which is now available at Project Muse. It is part of a phenomenal forum on Digital Approaches to Periodical Studies that includes essential pieces (in order of appearance) by Elizabeth Hopwood, Benjamin Fagan, Kim Gallon, Jeffrey Drouin, and Amanda Gailey.

What has digitization meant for periodical studies, and what might it mean in the future? We should first consider how the digital archive changes notions of access, both political and practical. James Mussell notes that “the conditions that permitted newspapers and periodicals” to become the central medium of discourse in the nineteenth century—“their seriality, abundance, ephemerality, diversity, heterogeneity—posed problems for those who wanted to access their contents” in print forms.[1] The periodicals archive is vast and largely unindexed. In ways so basic and fully transformative that we easily overlook them, digitization and its attendant technology, keyword search, have already changed periodicals scholarship entirely, allowing researchers to easily identify topics of interest across swathes of newspapers, magazines, and related materials, and to just as easily incorporate those media as evidence for historical, literary, or other claims. As Ted Underwood reminds us, “[a]lgorithmic mining of large electronic databases has been quietly central to the humanities for two decades. We call this practice ‘search,’ but ‘search’ is a deceptively modest name for a complex technology that has come to play an evidentiary role in scholarship.”[2] Though other forms of computational analysis will certainly influence periodicals research in the near future, the most dramatic methodological shift has already happened.

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‘Q i-jtb the Raven’: Taking Dirty OCR Seriously

The following is a talk I will deliver on January 9, 2016 for the Bibliography and Scholarly Editing Forum’s panel at MLA 2016. It is part of a longer article in progress.

On November 28, 1849 the Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer published one of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

The November 28, 1849 Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer
The November 28, 1849 Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer

The Lewisburg Chronicle’s “Raven” is one version among many printed after Poe’s death in 1849—“By Edgar A. Poe, dec’d”—interesting as a small signal of the poem’s circulation and reception. It is just such reprinting that we are tracing in the Viral Texts project, in which we use computational methods to automatically surface patterns of reprinting across nineteenth-century newspaper archives.

And so this version of the poem also becomes interesting as a digitized object in the twenty-first century, in which at least one iteration of the poem’s famous refrain is rendered by optical character recognition as, “Q i-jtb the Raven, ‘Nevermore’” (OCR is a term for computer programs that identify machine-readable words from a scanned page image, and is the source for most of the searchable data in large-scale digital archives). What is this text—this digital artifact I access in 2016? Where did it come from, and how did it come to be?
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Scale as Deformance

When I was ten years old my parents bought me a microscope set for Christmas. I spent the next weeks eagerly testing everything I could under its lens, beginning with the many samples provided in the box. I could not bring myself to apply the kit’s scalpel to the fully-preserved butterfly—which is intact still in the microscope box in my parents’ attic—but soon I had exhausted all of the pre-made slides: sections of leaves, insect wings, crystalline minerals, scales from fish or lizard skin. The kit also included the supplies to create new slides. I wanted to see blood—my blood. And so with my mom’s help I pricked the tip of my finger with a very thin needle, so I could squeeze a single drop of blood onto the thin glass slide. I remember how it smeared as I applied the plastic coverslip to the top of the slide, and I remember the sense of wonder as I first saw my own blood through the microscope’s lens. Gone was the uniform red liquid, replaced by a bustling ecosystem of red and white cells, walls and enormous spaces where none had been when I was looking with my unaided eye.

Looking at my blood through a microscope, I learned something new and true about it, but that micro view was not more true than familiar macro images. My blood is red and white cells jostling in clear plasma; my blood is also a red liquid that will run in bright-red rivulets from a pin-prick, or clot in dun-red patches over a wound. At micro-scales beyond the power of my children’s microscope, we could focus on the proteins that comprise the membrane of a red blood cell; at even more macro-scales we might consider a blood bank, organizing bags of blood by type for use in emergency rooms.

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Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers

This is a pre-print version of this article. The final, edited version appears in American Literary History 27.3 (August 2015). An accompanying methods paper co-written by me, David Smith, and Abby Mullen can be found on the Viral Texts Project site.

I. Introduction[1]

When Louis F. Anderson took over the editorship of the Houma Ceres in 1856, he admitted that he was “not…very distinguished as a ‘knight of the gray goose quill,'” but assured his new readers that “our pen will not lead us into difficulty” because “our ‘principal assistant,’ the scissors, will be called into frequent requisition—believing as we do, that a good selection is always preferable to a bad editorial” (June 28, 1856).[2] Thus, Anderson sums up a set of attitudes toward the production, authorship, and circulation of newspaper content within a system founded on textual borrowing. In the antebellum US context, circulation often substituted for authorship; the authority of the newspaper rested on networks of information exchange that underlay its production. “Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment,” Alexis de Tocqueville writes, describing circulation as a technology—like the rail and telegraph—compressing space and time, linking individuals around the nation by “talk[ing] to you briefly every day of the common weal” (111). In both examples, the newspaper’s primary value stems from whom and how it connects. Continue reading

Going Viral in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers

The following is an excerpt from my article “Viral Textuality in Nineteenth-Century US Newspaper Exchanges,” which is forthcoming in Vernoica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer (eds.), Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies, May 2015, Palgrave MacMillan. Reproduced with the permission of Palgrave MacMillan. The article draws on the findings of the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University.


In the Rossetti Archive, Jerome McGann seeks to represent the “social text” by including all editions of a given work in an online archive, rather than simply the “Reading Text” and “Variorum Text” of the standard critical edition. However, even the social text model remains focused on discrete works—books, most often, though also stories or poems—that can be collated and compared as distinct entities. Virality is messier, aligning fragmentary texts and textual echoes not only through books but also through ephemeral and hybrid media; the latter of these is exemplified by the nineteenth-century newspaper. The “viral text” of a particular poem would include official and unofficial reprintings, but also parodies, quotations, reviews, paraphrases, allusions, and more—what Julia Flanders has named “reception items.” A theory of viral textuality must wrestle with unusually capacious ideas of “the text,” including in its purview the continually shifting penumbrae of readers’ responses that testify to that text’s life within culture(s).

For this reason, virality proves especially useful for thinking about how texts circulated in the increasingly complex mass media ecology of the United States during the nineteenth century. During this time, newspapers and magazines proliferated, and this rapid expansion of the print sphere was accelerated by a system of content sharing among publications. The periodical press in the United States depended on “exchanges,” through which editors subscribed to each other’s publications (paying little to no postage for the privilege), and borrowed content promiscuously from each other’s subscriptions. Texts of all kinds were reprinted—typically without authors’ or publishers’ permission—across books, newspapers, and magazines. Content shared through the exchange system was not protected under intellectual property law. Instead, periodical texts were considered common property for reprinting, with or without modification—much as articles, music videos, and other content are shared online today among blogs and social media sites. And as is the case today, antebellum content creators reacted in disparate ways to these sharing practices. Some writers and editors compared reprinting to theft, decrying a system that popularized writers’ work without supporting them financially. Others exploited the reprinting system in order to build a reputation that could be leveraged toward paid literary employment.

The spread of “viral” content in nineteenth-century newspapers depended on a range of factors, from the choices of editors to the preferences of readers to the material requirements of composing a given day’s issue. The frequently reprinted listicle “Editing a Paper,” for instance, lays out the dilemma that faced nineteenth-century editors considering whether and how much to reprint:

If we publish telegraph reports, people will say they are nothing but lies.
If we omit them, they will say we have no enterprise, or suppress them for political effect . . .
If we publish original matter, they find fault with us for not giving selections.
If we publish selections, folks say we are lazy for not writing more and giving them what they have not read before in some other paper.
(11 July 1863)

The first reprinting of “Editing a Paper” identified by the Viral Texts project appears in the Big Blue Union of Marysville, Kansas, but even here an editorial preface claims that the list has been “going the rounds of the papers. If we knew in what paper it first appeared,” the editor continues, “it would afford us pleasure to give the writer due credit.” This piece and its preface illustrate much about editors’ and, presumably, readers’ attitudes toward reprinting, and how those attitudes might line up with modern ideas of viral media.

Considering nineteenth-century newspaper snippets as “viral media” allows us to frame their spread in terms of “rhetorical velocity,” a term first developed by Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss to describe online composition practices in which writers take reuse and remixing as a given and compose with an eye toward facilitating such reinterpretive acts. Such writers take as their primary assumption that a piece will be recomposed by others—reprinted or otherwise remediated. Ridolfo and DeVoss propose that “when academics uphold distinctions between author and producer, we are left in an uncomplicated, often acontextual space that does not provide the tools we need to best negotiate the ways in which production and authorship become more slippery in digital spaces and within remix projects.” They argue, “The term rhetorical velocity means a conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party.” In other words, “rhetorical velocity” posits “the text” through multiple dimensions, charting its uses and movements—both social and geographic—alongside its evolving content. What’s more, a piece need not be consciously crafted for a wide audience to have rhetorical velocity; if it is compelling, concise, and easily modified, then it can go viral with or without its creator’s knowledge.

While Ridolfo and DeVoss refer specifically to composing practices online, the frame of rhetorical velocity offers insight into widely reprinted newspaper content during the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century editors relied on the exchange system to provide engaging content, and they in turn composed (or solicited) original pieces with an eye toward their readers and those of the papers with which they exchanged. In the first post–Civil War issue of the Pulaski Citizen, for instance, editor Luther W. McCord apologizes for the sorry state of “The News” in the paper because “we have no exchanges yet, from which to make up our news items. Our readers can readily appreciate,” the squib continues, “the impossibility of making an interesting paper without something to make it of.” McCord then assures readers that they “hope to have a full list of exchanges by next week and, per consequence, a more readable number of the Citizen” (January 5, 1866). This apology echoes a common notion among editors in the period: newspapers that aggregated content from exchanges were of higher and more consistent quality than newspapers written entirely by locals. In other words, McCord assumes that his primary job will be selecting and propagating writing from elsewhere—contributing to the rhetorical velocity of content written for a distributed network, not for individual newspapers.

We must therefore assume that newspaper editors and writers were concerned with the rhetorical velocity of what they published; a newspaper whose content was regularly reprinted in other newspapers would soon be added to more exchanges, as editors further down the line sought the source of the pieces they encountered in intermediary papers. This would, in turn, increase the popular newspaper’s circulation and subscription fees. Indeed, when considering nineteenth-century newspaper snippets, we might speak of “composing for recomposition” in a more technical way, using “composition” not only in its modern sense, as a near synonym for “writing,” but also as a printers’ term of art. As scholars such as Ellen Gruber Garvey have shown, texts were reprinted in newspapers to help editors compose entire daily or weekly newspapers with small staffs. “By yoking together scattered producers who shared labor and resources by sending their products to one another for free use,” the network of newspapers sustained the proliferation of its medium. In other words, reprinting existed in large part to meet the material needs of publication. Many of the changes introduced into texts as they circulated through the newspaper network—a line removed here, two lines added there—were motivated by these practical considerations, as a given newspaper’s compositors shaped exchange content to fill empty spaces on a nearly composed page. It seems reasonable to presume that as a newspaper’s compositors prepared their pages each day or week, they expected—perhaps even hoped—that other compositors in their exchange networks would later recompose their texts, extending the texts’ rhetorical velocity to reach distant audiences.


To read the rest (along with fantastic work by other C19 scholars), preorder Virtual Victorians.

How Not to Teach Digital Humanities

The following is a talk I’ve revised over the past few years. It began with a post on “curricular incursion”, the ideas of which developed through a talk at DH2013 and two invited talks, one at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities in March 2014 and another at the Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship’s “Pedagogy and Practices” Colloquium at Case Western Reserve University in November 2014. I’ve embedded a video from the latter presentation at the bottom of the article. There is a more polished version of the article available in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016.

“À l’ École,” Villemard (1910)

In late summer of 2010, I arrived on the campus of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. I was a newly-minted assistant professor, brimming with optimism, and the field with which I increasingly identified my work—this “digital humanities”—had just been declared “the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time” by William Pannapacker in his Chronicle of Higher Education column. “We are now realizing,” Pannapacker had written of the professors gathered at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, “that resistance is futile.” So of course I immediately proposed a new “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course for upper-level undergraduates at St. Norbert. My syllabus was, perhaps, hastily constructed—patched together from “Intro to DH” syllabi in a Zotero group—but surely it would pass muster. They had hired me, after all; surely they were keen to see digital humanities in the curriculum. In any case, how could the curricular committee reject “the next big thing?” particularly when resistance was futile?

But reject it they did. They wrote back with concerns about the “student constituency” for the course, its overall theme, my expected learning outcomes, the projected enrollment, the course texts, and the balance between theoretical and practical instruction in the day-to-day operations of the class.

  1. What would be the student constituency for this course? It looks like it will be somewhat specialized and the several topics seems to suggest graduate student level work. Perhaps you could spell out the learning objectives and say more about the targeted students. There is a concern about the course having sufficient enrollment.
  2. The course itself could be fleshed out more. Is there an implied overall theme relating to digital technology other than “the impact of technology on humanities research and pedagogy”? Are there other texts and readings other than “A Companion to Digital Studies”? How much of the course will be “learning about” as distinct from “learning how to”?

My initial reaction was umbrage; I was certain my colleagues’ technological reticence was clouding their judgement. But upon further reflection—which came through developing, revising, and re-revising this course from their feedback, and learning from students who have taken each version of the course—I believe they were almost entirely right to reject that first proposal.

As a result of these experiences, I’ve been thinking more and more about the problem of “digital humanities qua digital humanities,” particularly amidst the accelerated growth of undergraduate classes that explicitly engage with digital humanities methods. In the first part of this talk, I want to outline three challenges I see hampering truly innovative digital pedagogy in humanities classrooms. To do so, I will draw on my experiences at two very different campuses—the first a small, relatively isolated liberal arts college and the second a medium-sized research university—as well as those of colleagues in a variety of institutions around the country.

As an opening gambit, I want to suggest that undergraduate students do not care about digital humanities. I want to suggest further that their disinterest is right and even salutary, because what I really mean is that undergrads do not care about DH qua DH. In addition, I don’t think most graduate students in literature, history, or other humanities fields come to graduate school primarily invested in becoming “digital humanists,” though there are of course exceptions. Continue reading

“Many Facts in Small Compass”: Information Literature in C19 Newspapers (MLA15 Talk)

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Ryan Cordell, Northeastern University

MLA 2015 | Vancouver, BC

Download talk slides.

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My remarks today will be drawn from my work on the Viral Texts project at Northeastern University. In brief, I’m working with a colleague in computer science to automatically identify the most frequently-reprinted texts in digitized archives of nineteenth-century newspapers. We have thus far drawn from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection, but are currently expanding the corpora from which we are drawing to include magazines, as well as a broader selection of American and transatlantic newspapers. We have identified nearly half a million reprinted texts from the LoC’s nineteenth-century holdings. The majority of these were reprinted only a few times, but a significant minority were reprinted in 50, 100, or even 200 newspapers from this one archive.

We went into this project in search of the literature, such as newspaper poetry, that flourished in a print culture founded on textual sharing and through a deeply hybrid and intertextual medium. In the broadest sense, I hoped to expand our ideas of which writers resonated with nineteenth-century readers and create new bibliographies of popular but critically-overlooked literature.

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On this front the project has been promising. For every reprinted Longfellow poem we find many more by authors such as Elizabeth Akers Allen, Isabella Banks, Charles Monroe Dickinson, Colonel Theodore O’Hara, Emily Rebecca Page, Nancy Priest Wakefield, or John Whitaker Watson—or, perhaps even more likely, by an anonymous author. Such poems circulated within a system of exchanges and selection—newspaper editors cut, pasted, and recomposed content from their exchange partners and sent their papers to be similarly aggregated elsewhere.

But recognizably literary genres have been only a small part of the project. One of the most dramatic outcomes of this work thus far has been to highlight the importance of understudied genres of everyday reading and writing within the ecology of nineteenth-century print culture. These species of writing include political news, travel accounts, squibs, scientific reports, inspirational or religious exhortations, temperance narratives, vignettes, self-help guides, trivia, recipes, and even, to borrow a modern Internet term, listicles, all of which juxtaposed with poems, stories, and news on the page of the nineteenth-century paper. As a general (and perhaps unsurprising rule), the most frequently-reprinted pieces are concise, quotable, and widely relatable texts that would have been easy to recontextualize for different newspapers and new audiences—and that could easily fit gaps in the physical newspaper pages, as editors and compositors needed.

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My remarks today focus on those genres we might categorize as “information literature”: lists, tables, recipes, scientific reports, trivia columns, and so forth. I want to separate these from news itself, which is certainly a kind of information genre, but which I would mark as stylistically and operationally distinct from the other genres I’ve listed. Here’s one example of information literature, a list of supposed “facts,” primarily about human lives and demographics, which was published under many names in at least 120 different newspapers between 1853 and 1899 (which is approximately one quarter of the nineteenth-century newspapers in Chronicling America). Continue reading