Applying Digital Humanities techniques to Genre Studies

I knew from the beginning of my Genre Studies class that I wanted to focus on young adult literature; however, with such a broad genre, I had to find a way of narrowing my focus.  Even though I chose a topic within YA Lit to investigate, I still ultimately had to choose a small sample of texts for my analysis.  This frustrated me; it felt disingenuous to make conclusions about a whole field of literature based on such a small sample.  I wondered, too, how much our sample choices really reflected the genres we were studying (especially, as we discussed, since we literary scholars tend to go for the texts which push the boundaries of genre).   Although I did find a method of text selection, my reading for the Digital Studies Colloquium provided me with a much more compelling option in the future: macroanalysis.

Macroanalysis, by Matt Jockers,  lays out a ‘big data’ approach to textual analysis, one that uses ‘distant reading’ (as Franco Moretti and Stephen Ramsay refer to it) in addition to the more traditional ‘close reading’ to come to conclusions about a large corpora of texts.  Jockers proposes that algorithmic tools such as concordances and topic modeling allow scholars to work not from example to generalization, but from the corpora as a whole when arriving at conclusions.  He is careful to note that such analysis still requires human interpretation–the computer merely acts as a gatherer of facts.  The benefit of using a computer to do the initial reading is that it “access[es] details that are otherwise unavailable, forgotten, ignored, or impossible to extract.  The information provided at this scale is different from that derived via close reading, but it is not of lesser or greater value to scholars for being such” (Jockers 27).  Jockers focuses mostly on the benefit of his approach to literary history, but he also lays out the case for its use in genre studies.

Among the list of the questions macroanalysis could answer, Jockers includes:

  • “whether there are stylistic patterns inherent to particular genres
  • the extent to which subgenres reflect the larger genres of which they are a subset
  • whether literature is evolutionary” (28)

Each of these questions refers to a key element of genre studies.  The first question focuses more on the formal aspects of genre, (which most genre theorists aren’t concerned about, since they consider genre to be social action (a la Carolyn Miller)), but it can reveal information about rhetorical moves made by different scholars or groups of writers within a genre system.  For example, topic modeling might have revealed the same differences in male and female anthropologists’ writing that Risa Applegarth noted.

The second question looks at genre systems, as Charles Bazerman terms the way sets of genres work within the systems of human activity.  While this question still puts more emphasis on genre as a classification system, it does have the potential to reveal how genres are used either by different actors or to appropriately address a different rhetorical situation.  For example, if I consider young adult literature to be the genre, I could use macroanalysis to look at YA romance or YA fantasy as subgenres and compare their female subject positions to the genre as a whole.

The last question, while explicitly referring to literature, calls into question the metaphor of genre change as evolution.  Used most notably by Carolyn Miller (see her Genre 2012 Conference keynote video), the metaphor of genre change as evolution provides a framework for understanding variation in texts of a single genre, the replication of generic forms, and the function of the genre.  The problem with this metaphor, as classmate Audrey Farley pointed out, is that it implies that newer, ‘evolved’ texts are better, when they may not be as appropriate for the rhetorical situation as older approaches.  Macroanalysis is a much better way of tracing change in genre than the sampling method because it can take into account the entire genre, not just the self-selected texts that might make a historical trend more obvious than it really is in the corpus as a whole.

Like any methodology, macroanalysis does have limitations.  A big one for my focus of YA Lit is that it is very difficult to get texts still under copyright in a suitable form for data mining.  However, I could see the utility in using it to examine the plethora of reader reviews left on such public websites as Amazon or Goodreads as a method of analyzing reader reactions to the book.  A quick and dirty example of a word cloud based on some reviews of Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn from each of those sites appears below:

Review Word Cloud from Wordle

Review Word Cloud from Wordle

While the common stop-words such as character names and title words would need to be removed to get a more accurate picture, you can see that many of the words listed are associated with traditional female gender roles as wife and mother: “baby”, “child”, “family”, “loving”.  Contrasting these reviews with those of a YA book that has a different subject positioning (The Hunger Games, for example) could reveal what readers saw as the emphasis of gender roles in each book.

I think macroanalysis could also be a good way to confront stereotypes about YA Lit, especially the accusation that the genre is full of violence and sex.  It would be interesting to use topic modeling to see how much of it really is, compared to the texts people who try to get YA Lit banned think are appropriate for adolescents.

While I don’t have enough time to experiment with macroanalysis for my current semester projects, I look forward to being able to use it in the future, and seeing for myself what the benefits and complications of using this method are.


This post sums up so much about why I want to get my Ph.D.–for those moments of clarity and inspiration that come from being around incredibly smart and talented people. In the comments, someone posts that the life you get afterwards doesn’t live up to the promise of the Ph.D. program, but I don’t think it’s true. Teaching high school was the same kind of grind that commentor mentioned, but you can still have those moments of cothinking with coworkers and students if you give yourself the space to have them.


Getting a Ph.D. is hard. It takes time. It takes energy. And, as I have told so many of my students, it forces you to encounter your intelligence. As you sit and read and try to write and try to think, you are encountering your intelligence, as though for the very first time. Not confirming it, as so much earlier training has done. But exploring its limits and its possibilities, learning how to learn again, as though for the very first time. If, like me, you work in the humanities, you learn, quickly, that those scholars whose work you dismissed so readily and easily in grad classes (how dare they not account for everything ever thought?) had accomplished the small miracle of articulating something coherent and meaningful: and you begin to envy the ability to make a small, articulate statement. This is learning. It’s the moment when you realize that…

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Collecting or Hoarding?

In preparation for our Intro to Digital Humanities class trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library to investigate archives (before we reimagine them!), we were to investigate various pages from the Library, including their Collection Development Policy.  The website mentions that the Library collects Shakespeare translations: “Major translations into German, French, Italian, Spanish; other languages as they become available (we have translations in over 45 languages including Klingon and Esperanto).”

Why Klingon and Esperanto?  Okay, maybe I can understand Klingon–ticked off Trekkies are dangerous–but Esperanto, a made-up language no one speaks?

To me, this calls into question the purpose of the collection.  If your primary function is to serve as a research facility, the inclusion of those translations doesn’t really help you (unless there’s a far greater demand for Shakespearean productions in Klingon than I realized).  If your goal is simply to collect every translation of Shakespeare that exists, then I guess it’s serving your purpose, but I wonder if it’s the best use of space.   I’m sure space is a premium, dictating the limitations imposed elsewhere in the collection, such as the decision not to collect objects.  So what’s the value of having something just to have it–especially when it’s just a transformation of an original text?

The Zombies are Winning

Playing with Google N-Grams

For my Intro to Digital Humanities class we had to watch this TED Talk about “What We Learned from 5 Million Books“, and were then encouraged to play around with Google N-Grams.  Since ninjas vs. pirates is a bit passe at this point, I decided to go with another clash I discovered in a bookstore over winter break:

Unicorns vs. ZombiesUnicorns vs. Zombies cover


I was not aware that there had really been any connection between the two, and indeed, a Google N-Gram search of all the English books from 1800-2008 (the latest year it would search for) indicated a clear unicorn dominance throughout history until 2002, when zombies take the lead.  Screen Shot 2013-02-13 at 3.54.32 AMI’m not all that surprised that zombie popularity has taken off in the last few years, with The Walking Dead comics coming out in 2003 and leading to such interesting approaches to the topic like Warm Bodies.  What the graph does have me wondering is what on earth happened around 1930 to reignite the popularity of unicorns?   A search of the books from that time period reveals such titles as Unicorn by Marguerite Steen (1932), The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shephard (1930) and the premiere issue of The Lion and the Unicorn: An American Review of the Arts (1934), but nothing that jumped out to me as creating such renewed interest–until I searched Google Web.

There, I discovered that Dr. W. Franklin Dove created a “unicorn bull” by artificially fusing the horn buds of a calf together in 1936.  Such an event would probably get a bit of media attention in the day, perhaps inspiring writers to return to the topics of unicorns, not necessarily as fantasy, but as potential fact!

Popular Science, 1936. “Bull with single horn is modern unicorn.”

Popular Science, 1936. “Bull with single horn is modern unicorn.”


Word Up!

I love books.
I love people who love books.
I love people who celebrate books.
I love people who recognize that books can change our lives for the better in all sorts of amazing ways–joining like minded people, inspiring debate, inspiring creativity, inspiring curiosity, fostering literacy, fostering a love of learning, and fostering community.
I love people who want to bring books into communities where it’s hard to get books.
And that’s why I’m reblogging this post–to support people who want to bring back a community bookstore.

Word Up Books

We are all the beneficiaries of this. It is an extraordinary covenant with the community, and with the future, and I have to tell you—to be in any way associated with this is a tremendous honor. It’s perhaps the best thing that’s gonna happen to me this year.
—JUNOT DÍAZ, at Word Up’s one-year birthday celebration


BOOKS MAKE LIFE BETTER, indeed. We’ve had a taste of what it’s like to have a community bookshop and arts space in the center of our neighborhood. We came together with neighbors of all ages, sexes, nationalities, races, classes, and religions to discuss ideas and what we want to fix in the world, surrounded by books, art, and welcoming faces. Now we want to bring back that space. We want to bring back Word Up Community Bookshop.

Since our lease was terminated at the end of August, the Word Up volunteer collective has been evaluating potential storefronts…

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Book Spine Mashup Poetry!

So someone on Twitter posted a link to Stan Carey’s Book Spine Mashup Poetry, and I immediately knew this was something fun that could distract me from research. In order to not take up all my time with this, I’m going to do one a day during Digiwrimo as a quick and easy way to bump up my word count in infinitesimally small amounts.

This is my wish for you.

This is my wish for you:
The common reader playing
in the dark
where the red fern grows;
illusions walking
a literary labyrinth
under the frangipani.

What does it mean to be a writer’s accomplice?

“Passivity is the pitfall readers must at all costs avoid.  Too seldom, [Woolf] believed, did they ‘ask from books what books can give…’  The chief reason for this is, or may be summarized here as being, their failure to give enough to the book, to the ‘complex art’ of reading.  That art is one of sympathising, of seeking to become the writer’s accomplice.”

–Andrew McNeillie, Introduction to The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf