Adventures in Digital History

Thinking Computationally Towards Text Analysis

One of the things I knew we were going to do when coming into this class was that we were going to be exploring and/or reading literature with computers. I mean, that’s literally the name of the class. However, I have not taken many English classes during my time at the university and found myself lacking in the knowledge of what it means to engage in computational text analysis.

Voyant Tools was my first step into the world of computational text analysis. I think I had heard the term before, but never really put two and two together on what exactly it was. However, we had to read more about what computational text analysis was, as well as other forms of text analysis this week. I was assigned Stephen Ramsey’s “Algorithmic Criticism,” which was both informative and frustrating. Ramsey is obviously very knowledgeable and passionate about his topic, but at times I was presented with so much technical jargon and the inclusion of mathematical equations in literary studies that I sort of blanked. This just means it took me much longer to read this chapter and I’m not sure even now if I completely understand it.

Two of the other topic my group ended up discussing was distant reading and close reading. Distant reading is typically what we associated with computational text analysis. So, feeding Beloved through Voyant and connecting dots based on the data would be considered distant reading. However, closed reading is a closer, more thoughtful critical analysis of the text. It’s not necessarily the opposite of distant reading, but it’s much more involved.

Ramsey himself seems to want to combine distant and close reading computationally to create his own form of “algorithmic criticism.” Forgive me it I have interpreted this the wrong way, but it appears he wants use algorithmic methods to liberate our understandings of a text. It all sounds very fascinating and technical, and I’m afraid it makes my brain hurt.

Hopefully I’ll better understand these topics as we delve into our next book!

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