Stanford Literary Lab – Reflection 1

The internship at Stanford University’s Literary Lab began with a round-table discussion event I attended. The event explored, as Mark Algee-Hewitt, director of the Literary Lab phrased it, “the relationship between Literary Studies and the Digital Humanities, specifically that associated with text mining or quantitative analysis. In what ways have we been successful in integrating the two fields to produce new methodologies for studying Literary Criticism and History? Where do the fault lines between the fields still exist and what work might be necessary to synthesize the methodologies of close reading and computation? And are there fundamental incompatibilities between the humanistic study of literature and the Digital Humanities that we may not be able to solve? With four very different perspectives, our round-table participants will lay out the stakes of this compatibility and engage the audience in a larger conversation about the future(s) of the field.”

The discussion revolved around the democratic nature of the projects, the question of graphs and Ngrams analyzing language, and the practicality of it in literary criticism. For instance, the issue of close reading being possible replace or in some ways supplemented by a nonhuman analytical tool is a touchy subject of humanities scholars.  While many views and more inquires were raised, the answer were scarce in light of the proposed ideas. As this field continues to evolve, the methodologies of research, developing critical questions, the tools applied, and the emerging criticism are all subject to change and interpretation. In addition, one of the puzzling notions of the crossroad of DH and Literary Studies is the question of where it leads to and what possible answer can we gain from “studying” literature through these tools that haven’t been already considered. An additional missing piece of the puzzle is the interest and connection to the general public, which probes the democratic nature of Literary DH projects and how if at all they may reach beyond the academic realm of readers. As an intern, just beginning to become familiar with the mission and the projects of the Lit. Lab, the event held an impressively involved, intimidatingly intriguing approach to the function of DH in Literary studies.

A few days after the event, and following an introductory meeting with the Literary Lab’s director, Algee-Hewitt, assistant director, J D Porter, and coordinator Erik Fredner, I was able to attend a project meeting. While the Lab has several ongoing projects, I was lucky enough to sit in on the first meeting for the New Yorker Project. As I found out, when opportunity presents itself in a form of a corpus becoming available, DH enthusiast gather to brainstorm  possible analytical avenues and the methodologies through which these ideas may unfold and become visible representations. Thus, the New Yorker Project set out to examine 4, 695 issues of the magazine published between February, 1925 and July, 2017: 559,924 number of pages, 617,088,848 number of words. Some possible suggestions for the study of this corpus were:

  • how to identify fiction/poetry
  • breakdown by editors
  • predictable genre  in the New Yorker
  • examining page-level geography, XML
  • geography of ads
  • cartoon captions
  • viewed Vector analysis of the word “inflation”
  • What changed? What didn’t exist?
  • portion of ads in comparison to articles/fiction over time
  • short story index
  • Is there a New Yorker genre?
  • timeliness vs. timelesness
  • signals of the the sense of the century
  • comparison of cultural artifacts with literary focus
  • tracing gender pronouns
  • ethnic breakdown of names
  • readership: upper bourgeois vs. academia
  • literary titles over time
  • When did photographs come into the publication?
  • Vector model analysis of discursive span within: variation in the number of pages published – 1940-1960 top increase, largest volume 2/21/2000 (75th anniversary issue)

Th overall aim and result of the meeting was to share areas of interest in the research and analysis of the New Yorker and then break into focus groups. The upcoming meeting will begin in assembling the groups and begin tagging the corpus for markers of short story, poetry, reviews, text vs. non-text,

On the wall of the conference room, all present and future projects are listed, indicating the phase of each. I will try to attend the Microgenre project meeting to get an idea of the development of a given project and different stages of this “organic” collaboration in the Lab. The Migrant Discourse Project (examining migrations in South America and mapping literature along the way) also intrigued me, however, it does not have a set date for its first meeting, so it might be some time before it even begins.

As much as the focus of the Literary Lab is to examine various literature while applying computational criticism to the study of literature, I find an inevitable historical component in the process.

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