Category Archives: Assignments to Try

Recent Scholarship in DH at the CC

2017 was a busy year for me and for DH at community colleges.

In January, I presented at the MLA on intersections between “minimal computing” practices in open access learning environments like community colleges. The chair, Jentery Sayers, shared the panel presentations here and here

Meanwhile, “community college” made it to the list of 60 digital humanities keywords in the MLA volume, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, edited by Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers. Working with Dominique Zino Jaime Cardenas, and Bethany Holmstrom, I curated the collection of assignments and artifacts that represent the history of digital pedagogy projects at community colleges since 1999. The hybrid publication project will be published in print  by MLA in 2018. 

Currently, I am working with Angel Nieves and Siobhan Senier on a collection of essays concerned with institutional infrastructure for digital humanities for the Debates in the Digital Humanities series entitled Institutions, Infrastructures at the Interstices. Since  access and infrastructure for supporting digital humanities at community colleges were issues that first got me into this field more than five years ago, I am honored to be part of this project. The open peer-review process will begin in February so stay tuned!



Weeks 9 & 10: Collaborating with COCC and NYPL “What’s on the Menu?”

DH at CC Course Poster

Spring 2017 DH at CC Course goes Live!

It’s hard to believe that it’s Week 10 of an 11-week term! I’m sure my online students are as breathless as I am.  Just as I had expected, there was no way we could fit everything into this term, and so as I wrote to my students with the final sandbox assignment of the term last night, I had to erase the sentence, “This assignment has two parts.” I had so wanted to ask my students to create digital editions of restaurant menus for this last week. Shawna Ross at Texas A & M had given a wonderful workshop on how to create “minimal computing” digital editions, and I was intending to assign this to my students. But I realized that it was too much mental load to expect students could research and curate menus in our area, then scan and OCR them, and then post them in Omeka.

So instead, I stuck with the original New York Public Library “What’s on the Menu?” crowdsourced proofing/reviewing project. While they won’t experience a “whole game” experience of creating digital editions and posting them in their archives as I had intended, they will experience the “whole game” of participating in the development of a world-class digital archive. 

Last week, students from Central Oregon Community College, under the care of Professor Annemarie Hamlin, collaborated with my students on a digital maps project. We had intended for that project to be hosted by the DH@theCC Commons, but we had trouble with the invitations in Buddy Press, so we relied on Google Docs and I have to say it didn’t work badly at all!

Here are the assignment sheets:

Week 9: Cross-Institutional Collaboration

Collaboration with Central Oregon CC Students 

Week 10: “What’s on the Menu?” Crowdsourced Review Assignment

What’s on the Menu Assignment


Week 1 of ENG 217: Reading, Writing, and Digital Culture

I feel very privileged that my ENG 217 course “Reading, Writing, and Digital Culture” (Intro to DH) not only “made” enrollment minimums but actually filled to capacity! If your department isn’t under enrollment pressures, then you wouldn’t understand. But, suffice it to say, I tried to offer this course twice before and it didn’t “make,” so I’m thrilled. 

It is now an online course. This means I have had to rethink it and really map out every single step for students, anticipating missteps and gaps in understanding. Many students take online courses because their lives are extremely busy, but their preparation for digital projects can be uneven and frustration can lead to disappearance–this disappearance is for me the biggest threat and worst result of bad online pedagogy.

So here’s Week 1. I’m posting my syllabus with this week’s “Sandbox exercises,” both of which have worked in the f2f classroom as versions of DH labs I’ve taught. Now that everything’s online, my hope is that these instructions are clear enough that everyone has fun, sticks around long enough to read and learn more.


In the spirit of open sharing, I am sharing here the blog I created to provide an example for students–so that they can see what I mean when I ask them to post this or that on their blog. In my Blogger I am not blogging to impress but rather to simply demo: “What would it look like to do this assignment?” 

So here’s the blog prototype. It may not be interesting to you except as an example of an example for students and it’s helpful for me as a record of this work.









Text from MLA 2017 Talk on DH Forum “Minimal Digital Humanities: Choice or Necessity?” 

This paper engages with Jentery Sayers’ and Alex GIl’s discussion of Minimal Computing on 


In April, I will teach what I believe will be the first stand-alone Intro to Digital Humanities course at a community college (CC) in the Pacific Northwest—maybe the first such course at a CC in the country. I call my course “This Digital Life: Reading, Writing and Culture in a Digital Age,” because my students don’t know what “digital humanities” is.[i]

In this course, I will introduce my CC students to a way of thinking about and comprehending the forces around them—the forces that Alan Liu calls the “great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate and global flows of information and capital” (Liu 491). Community college students’ lives are immersed in precarity wrought by these flows; only the grittiest of them will overcome the bleak economic for economic mobility in America. Articulating how those forces affect them is one of the most important learning outcomes of DH at the CC.

But what are the minimal computing coordinates for CC students? And where does open source fit in an open access environment? I hadn’t really thought of this before reading Alex Gil’s and Jentery Sayers’ definitions of “minimal computing;” I am unsure how to use Raspberry Pi and I can barely work with Markdown templates. I do use whatever tools are available and we’ll read whatever open educational resources we can find. Perhaps, following Gil and Ernesto Oroza, my community college DH course will follow a kind of “architecture of necessity.”

While the surface features of my course are not strictly “minimal,” they share structural affinities to the GO::DH values of maximum access and longevity: My students might read Gil’s and Sayer’s pieces but they will likely write about them using Google or Word on their laptops and email me using Outlook—transgressing minimal computing principles at every keystroke. I think that these definitions of minimal computing themselves point to a set of assumptions for humanistic computing that are worth considering in CC students’ digital lives. 

I’ve practiced not “minimal” computing but what Roopika Risam calls “micro DH.” Since 2012, I have embedded whatever I could invent or learn in all my courses, adopting and adapting from a generous DH Pedagogy Community and translating research so that my students can appreciate the cool factor of big data without slamming up against skill barriers to data mining; and then I send students to Wordle or Voyant so they can work the magic themselves. My students dive into archives and annotate texts using Google docs. Sometimes we “break” Google or Twitter because our computer lab is equipped with lame machines and the systems crash. The Computer Help Desk folks are so used to hearing from me about glitches during class that they respond immediately when I call; if I ever have a classroom emergency, it’s them I’ll call first, not campus security.

Reconsiderations and a Maturing Field

While minimal computing intends to create conditions for maximum inclusiveness, I fear that in practice it may exclude underprepared students in open-access institutions.

The minimalist turn registers the effects of uneven development in the academy. Community colleges are just beginning to recognize the term “digital humanities,” and faculty are just beginning to figure out how digital assignments fit into their courses. In many, although not all, cases, “minimal computing” assignments take maximal preparation–for CC faculty still untrained in the field and for unevenly prepared students.

Jentery anticipates the critique that minimal computing may produce different impacts to different agents in an unevenly developing field.  He asks, “what sort of expertise and decision-making [does minimization assume]” and how do “we define ‘we’ in relation to necessity and simplicity?” (“Minimal Definitions”). Necessary for what? Simple for whom? Under what constraints?

For community colleges, the purpose of humanities education is to empower students with as much mastery of as many tools as possible for full participation in civic and cultural life.  How we define “minimal computing” at the CC needs to support that purpose.  

For I’m not just talking about access to any particular set of digital tools—whether “minimal” or “maximal”–in this regard. Rather, it’s students’ transformed understanding that I am after—the crossing of a threshold from accepting a received cultural landscape to a deep reading of it. Open-access institutions may make use of “maximal” tools as a relay for critically engaging with the digital life they lead. In so doing, they may achieve ends that “minimal computing” principles intend.

Participation, writes Carpentier, is “strongly related to the power logics of decision making” (8).  Carpentier’s foregrounding of power relations and social capital helps us to situate values of minimal computing in an open-access CC context. Looking at Jentery’s comprehensive list of the features of minimal computing, we see that he is going for a maximalist model of participation in stewardship of the cultural record and in knowledge production and dissemination. The list helps elaborate the question that Alex Gil asks—that of “what do we need?” –and imagines a DH architecture of necessity that ensures scholars’ maximal role in decisions and maximal control of future use.

While community colleges share disciplinary affinities with their counterparts at 4-year colleges and universities, these affinities mask power differentials between CCs and their four-year counterparts. Carpentier’s focus on power provides language for recognizing the differences  between four-year institutions and CCs and for responding to those differences.[ii]  This power differential is visible in multiple spheres, but here are a couple of examples to illustrate how it impacts faculty and students at CCs: [slide 1]

  • First, graduate school doesn’t train most humanities graduates for the demands of CC teaching
  • Second, graduate faculty rarely maintain close professional ties with students who land jobs at CCs. I call this the “You’re dead to me” model of mentorship.
  • Effects of this dynamic on professional development have been to create an hermetic CC professional world cut off in important ways from developments in the larger field
  • This dynamic limited what should have been a much earlier diffusion of digital humanities methods into CC curricula.[iii]

Additionally, the role that contingency and precarity play in CC faculty lives cannot be overstated. Part-time/adjunct faculty represent nearly 70% of the instructional workforce of community colleges and 47% of humanities educators overall (“A National Survey” and “Traditional versus Nontraditional Humanities Faculty”). Many part-time or adjunct humanities faculty teach given syllabi or are limited in the texts they can select. Maximal equity in participatory decision-making in curriculum is harder for contingent faculty to achieve.

And what about CC students?

What might minimal computing look like for them and how might they practice it? Student diversity is the open access institution’s best asset and biggest challenge. [1]  Jentery raises the issue of time in relation to reduced consumption (“Minimal Definitions”); working class time orientation is characterized by “precarity”—a sense that struggles in and endurance of the present are more salient than investments in a future imaginary. You could say that CC  priorities are driven by a working class time orientation toward the “short now” and not the “long now” thinking required of the minimal critical movement (“Minimal Definitions”).

How else might “minimal” computing impact students’ full participation?  “Creative failure” and “generative messing around” may directly challenge an already profound sense of what Walton and Cohen call “belonging uncertainty.”  Experiences of failure that middle-class students may simply slough off disparately impact minority students’ sense of belonging and social “fit” in college. CC students are already “doing the risky thing” (Fitzpatrick)—they’re going to college. Trial—and especially error–around spartan and user-unfriendly interfaces can challenge even the most confident of lifelong learners.  Recently, I fell short of completing a Github pull request after many tries, and I had the humbling experience of standing on the wrong side of a threshold. Perhaps for CC students, commercial interfaces are the “architecture of necessity” (Gil)– the best way to ensure that they cross important thresholds when taking on digital projects.

When I was reading about minimal computing, the words “syntactic sugar” and “syntactic salt” popped up. This language of low-processing and elemental design pepper minimal computing definitions and put me in mind of the language of food politics–Whole Foods, organic produce, farmers’ markets and distributed pantry movements. Why is it, I wondered, that the advantages of bypassing the supermarket to ensure maximal autonomy are only realized by middle-class families with huge domestic square-footage and mini-vans? Do the conflicting urgencies of class and environment operate in minimal computing?

If they do, what kind of computing can help CC students comprehend and intervene in the high-speed, overprocessed environment of their “digital life”? Thinking of supermarkets led me to consider how McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and KFC leverage food deserts for profit. I looked up the Food Desert locator data visualization map posted by the USDA [Figure 1 “Food Desert Map”], and then quickly also found the Fast Food restaurant map [Figure 2 “Fast Food Locator”]. Then I went back to the GO::DH map that locates DH centers globally [Figure 3 “In a Rich Man’s World: Global DH”] and created my own DH at the CC data viz map using Google Maps to see what it might reveal. This was networked computing toward a local end [Figure 4 “The Only CC Digital Humanities Faculty in the PacNW Flies to the MLA”].

So I’m saying that “maximum” computing can serve “minimal computing” ends of inclusiveness and participation, but I do know I need to avoid creating conditions for CCs to become digital equivalents of food deserts. A sole diet of Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat et al. could play into a lifetime of dependence on overprocessed commercial platforms. Meanwhile CC students’ four-year counterparts at Honors Colleges and First Year Interest Groups tinker with their Tiny Linuxes, “healthy choices” and “whole foods” of Raspberry Pi. But for now, that’s where my staircase ends.






[1] CC Student facts: There are 992 public community colleges in the US, and community college students make up 46% of all undergraduates in the US and 41% of all first-time freshmen. Sixty-one percent of Native American college undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges; 52% of Black students and 43% of Asian/Pacific Islander undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges; 50% of Hispanic college students begin at community college. In the US, 59% of community college students are enrolled part-time, and 59% are women (American Association of Community Colleges, “Enrollments”). The SES data on CC students are well known (Adelman): 44% percent of low-income students attend community colleges as their first college out of high school as compared to 15% of high-income students (Community College Research Center). Sixty-nine percent of community college students work, with 33% working more than 35 hours per week; 22% are full-time students employed full-time; 40% are full time students employed part-time; and 41% of part-time students are employed full-time. And first-generation students make up 36% of community college student populations (American Association of Community Colleges, “Fast Fact Sheet”).


[i] I should have heeded Ryan Cordell’s advice about course naming


[ii] I want to acknowledge here the existence of many under-resourced four-year colleges and universities as well, and that we are talking about a complex system of power and privilege operating in higher education.  But CCs have an open-access mission and a lower-division or foundational focus, and this puts them at a singular disadvantage in terms of social capital—for students, for faculty within the profession.

[iii] There are some hopeful signs on the horizon in this regard: The University of Washington and CUNY Graduate Center have explicitly engaged with community colleges as a site for expanding public humanities, but the impacts of these initiatives remain to be seen.


Threshold Concepts and DH at the CC

DH at CC Course Poster

Spring 2017 DH at CC Course goes Live!

At the Community College Humanities Association PNW earlier this month, I discussed my development of “threshold concepts” for digital humanities as a way of bridging and scaffolding accessible DH work into community college courses–simultaneously teaching a “whole game” approach that is valuable to all students while also preparing transfer students for a 21st century humanities education. Powerpoint is here: this-digital-life

Actually I retrofitted threshold concepts onto course assignments I had already developed or am in the process of developing for my Spring 2017 Intro to DH course entitled “Reading, Writing and Culture in a DIgital Age.” I took a page from Ryan Cordell’s wise essay and chose a title that refers to concrete practices that novice humanities students and Gen Ed students alike would recognize.

Here are some of the assignments that I’m still tinkering with–some of them are in the process of being developed, some have already worked successfully. One assignment is adapted out of a lengthy and sophisticated assignment in Bruno Latour’s “Scientific Humanities” MOOC and another was inspired by Jena Osman’s Public Figures book and website to provide opportunities for students to practice humanities methods of observation, analysis and creative imagining in their daily lives.

Humanities Computing or Digital Humanities is…

—About the Book

…About how algorithms-organize-information-essay-wr122

…About anticipating questions anticipate-your-audience-faqs-assignment-sheet

…About glitches and breaking-stuff-write-like-gertrude

…About non-human subjectivities synthetic-selfies-and-monumental-subjects

..About how words-get-their-meaning-from-other-words

…. About building an audience for your cause writing-studio-exercise-awareness-object-artifact

Thirteen Ways of Doing DH at the CC

In anticipation of this week’s Community College Humanities Association national conference meeting, I am posting this compilation of assignments that I have developed over the past year. These assignments rely heavily on the educational sites that they link to. The procedural instructions are my main curricular contributions.

Check them out here: Thirteen Ways of Doing DH at the CC A Resource Packet

Thirteen Ways of Doing DH at the CC by ANNE B MCGRAIL is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at VARIED EDUCATIONAL .

Poetry Map Blog Entry for Women Writers

A collection of notes from my first hybird “digital humanities” class at Lane.I am teaching this introductory class MW in a traditional classroom, with Friday’s class in a computer lab. Several blogging assignments will encourage students to try out their writing in a public forum, and we will use the Friday class to look at other digital humanities projects, and encourage students to tinker and create digital projects that begin with what digital fluencies they have and build on them.

Here is the Poetry Map Blog Entry assignment that I started out the term with. We have returned to this assignment each week for a few moments in the lab, since some students have had trouble figuring out how to set up their blogs. Some are unused to commands such as “Ctrl V” and instead use their mouse. It has surprised me how many students don’t know about this command.


Introduction to Women Writers ENG260 Fall 2012

Doc McGrail

First Blog Assignment: Poetry Map Blog Entry


Post the URL to your completed blog entry in the Moodle assignment link that says “POETRY MAP BLOG ENTRY”. This is where your grade will show up in Moodle.


For this blog entry, you will be learning something about the poetry scene in one state in the U.S., and exploring the life and poetry of one of the women poets in that state.  You will then choose a single poem by that poet to write about.  You will post your work to your blog as a Poetry Map entry.  Use the title “Poetry Map: State of {xxx}. Poet: {xxx}

This assignment will probably take you 2 hours to complete, depending on how engaged you are with the assignment, among other things.  The blog entry has two parts. The written part has a short research component (I will direct you to the site) and also a literary analysis component (I will provide questions to guide your response/analysis).  You should plan to spend an hour browsing the website for your assigned state, choosing one of the poets on this site, and one of her poems to write about. You should plan to spend another hour writing up your blog entry about the poetry scene, where women seem to fit into it, and about the poet herself and her poem.



To begin, you should have a notepad or an electronic notepad open so that you can record your findings as you go.  It’s always best to write down anything interesting so that later you can write more formal paragraphs from your notes.  Remember that any information you get from any source needs to be documented by pointing to the site.  Here’s a resource for finding out how to cite a web-based resource:


First of all, scroll to the bottom of this document to find your name and your assigned state.  You will need this information in order to complete the assignment.


Next, go to the National Poetry Map on here:



Click on your assigned state. You will find a wealth of information about poets and poetry from that state.  Spend some time becoming familiar with the different links and resources on your page.  Concentrate on the poets who are women, since that’s what you’ll be writing about.


My advice is to create a draft in your word-processing program or on paper and then post your polished work on your blog as a final step. You will be creating a two-part blog entry (you can separate it with headings):


Give your Blog readers a sense of the “poetry scene” in your state by writing a paragraph or two in which you answer the following questions:

1. What is your assigned state?
2.. What are the names of the women poets from your state?
3.  What kinds of reading series, conferences, and literary festivals are happening in your state? What specific mention is made of women poets?


The second part of your blog entry is more detailed.  Choose ONE WOMAN POET from your state and read what the website has to say about that poet.  Take notes on things about this poet that interested you.  Then read some of that poet’s poems (there should be some links to poet’s poems on the site.)  Get a general feel for that poet’s style and subject matter.

Next, choose ONE POEM by that same poet.  You will write a brief (250-word) response/analysis of the poem using what you are learning in class to talk about the poem.

Here are some questions that can guide your analysis.  You can begin by first drafting answers to the questions and then use your answers to write your analysis/response in paragraph form.

1.  Who is the speaker of the poem? Is it an adult or child? Man or woman? Happy? Lonely? Puzzled? Other?  Remember that the speaker in a poem is NOT the same thing as the poet (the person actually writing the poem.) The speaker is a creation that the poet has

2.  Who is being addressed in this poem? Sometimes a speaker will address a specific audience, sometimes a more generalized group.

3.  What is the situation being described in this poem?

4.  What is the tone of this poem?

5.  What is the poem’s argument or main point?

6.  What are some remarkable features of the meter, rhyme scheme or line length/line breaks that you think are important for understanding the poem?

7. Is there something in the poem that makes you think about what you are learning in class about women writers in their social and historical context? If so, discuss that.

Once you have answered these questions, you can begin to develop your two-part blog entry, using the answers to construct your essay.

GRADING CRITERIA: (Satisfactory Grade Range: 70-80; Strong Grade Range: 80-90; Exemplary Grades 90-100)

  1. Follows instructions
  2. Blog entry demonstrates a thorough and correct if brief overview of the “poetry scene” in the assigned state (satisfactory). All sources are correctly cited either by linking to the site or by creating a works cited list at the end. Strong entries do all this and also make useful connections with course terms and course readings and discussions. Exemplary entries do all this and provide original or creative insight and/or connections.
  3. Blog entry demonstrates a general understanding of the chosen poet and the poetry posted on the site for that poet (satisfactory).  Strong entries do this and utilize course terms and work to discuss the poet and poetry. Exemplary entries do this and provide original or creative insight or connections about the chosen poet and course terms and discussions.
  4. Satisfactory blog entry provides a clear analysis and detailed response to the chosen poem, using literary terms and reading skills learned in the class. The analysis answers the questions. Strong analysis does this and provides depth and connections; exemplary analysis does this and uses the analysis as an occasion for an original or creative insight.
  5. Prompt posting assumed for all satisfactory grades. Late posts lose a 10% per day late.

YOUR ASSIGNED STATE: (list of students’ names and states here)

You should do this as soon as you can so you can begin working and ask questions if you come into difficulty.

  1. Get a gmail account if you don’t already have one. Go to and click on “Get Started.”
  2. Go to here and sign in with your username and password.
  3. You will find yourself on the “Dashboard”. Click on “Create a Blog.”
  4. Name your blog. Choose something descriptive. Your first name and Eng260 is easy to remember too.
  5. Choose a template
  6. Start blogging. You can begin by going to the “New Post” link at the top of the page.
  7. Go to “Design” to find the “Settings” tab. This is where you can set your privacy setting. To keep it private while still sharing it with your fellow students, you can upload the link to your blog in the assignment forum “Poetry Map Blog Entry.”
  8. Here’s my own beginning Poetic Anthology Blog, entitled “April is the Cruelest Month”….





Notes on First Digital Day in Women Writers

…In which the instructor’s careful planning is undermined by the brick and mortar realities of teaching in a classroom….

The best thing I did on this day: I wrote on the whiteboard:
Digital Humanities Rules of Engagement

Be courteous and generous at all times with each other. (I forgot to include “patient.”)

No texting, IMs, tweets, blogs, surfing except for ENG260


This text was accompanied by a mini-lecture to everyone that is indebted to what I’ve learned about DH in twitter and elsewhere: we are experimenting, we are doing something new, and we need generosity and courtesy in order to proceed fearlessly. It was lucky that I wrote this up on the board first thing, because the way things unfolded for the next 50 minutes, I ended up relying on these rules of engagement several times.


Our first class met in a really nice computer lab space. My goal was to get every student to establish a new blog for work just on our class, and to introduce them to our first digital assignment: The Poetry Map Blog Entry.

It was a comical start to my project, for all my careful preparations. After having loaded all of the instructions onto Moodle, I entered the classroom with my passkey, ready to open up the Moodle site in the sleek new computer classroom and carefully walk each student through the steps involved. However, I forgot the tiny key for access to the keyboard. A fatal error. By the time I came back to the classroom with the key, students were logged into Moodle and some of them were hopelessly lost. Some hadn’t used Firefox and so couldn’t access the page correctly. Some started to print out random pages, sending the printer into paroxysms of production in what should be a paperless session. Luckily, there were also some very generous and digitally fluent students who started helping others out, and I walked around the room trying to put out fires.

Then Moodle seized up entirely, kicking everyone off of the site and sending everyone in a panic. Sigh. I then scrambled to instruct 26 students, each at a different stage of creating their blog, in next steps

As the class descended briefly into chaos, I had to point to the white board a couple times….Some students were defiant: “I don’t do blogs. I hate blogging.” [To which I fearlessly had to reply, “You don’t have to like blogging, you just have to do it for this course.”] Why don’t we used Facebook instead?” Some were derailed by Google’s insistence on their adding friends to their G+ account (which gave me the opportunity to discuss online privacy).

Lessons learned:
Bring all keys
Ask students not to turn on their computers until everyone is on the same page.


Word Clouds and Harriet Jacobs

IN-CLASS WORD CLOUDS AND Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

(Note: After I had taught and wrote about this, Jacob Heil @dr_heil led me to Ryan Cordell’s more developed work with word clouds and Paul Fyfe’s “How to Not Read a Victorian Novel.” My next foray will benefit enormously from their work.)

Each Friday we have an hour in the computer lab. Today, we went to and spent half of the class selecting chapters from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to create “beautiful word clouds.” I am charmed by word clouds, and I think that they provide an engaging and unintimidating way to introduce data visualization–its affordances and its pitfalls–to students, even those who are struggling with how to use “Ctrl V” or who don’t know why we have to use Firefox as our browser.

I was guided by Ted Underwood’s blog on “Where to Start with Text Mining,” to introduce students to the purpose of text mining. I knew we wouldn’t go anywhere near the primary research he and his colleagues are working with. But getting students to have a sense of these categories of text mining helped them see what “big data” can do in the humanities. Underwood’s list pointed the way: Categorize documents.  Contrast the vocabulary of different corpora.  Trace the history of particular features (words or phrases) over time. Cluster features that tend to be associated in a given corpus of documents (aka topic modeling). Entity extraction. Visualization.

So we began with visualization. No one in the room had heard of “wordle”–which surprised me. And so we went went to UNC’s website where a full-text version of the book was available in a single page, and I asked them to select “all” and copy this into the wordle window.  The wordle we all came up with, more or less, looked like this:


We quickly saw that “Page” was not a word that would help us to interpret Jacobs’s book, and so this led us to a very clear idea of the methodological problems that might come up with text mining: all words in a book don’t “mean” the same, and so finding ways to filter those words out is key.

I walked them through the quick process of “find” and “replace” in Word, such that we got rid of the offending “Page,” and a new wordle emerged:


A wordle using the text of _Incidents_ with the word “Page” removed 297 times.

Everyone now saw that “children” was the most frequent word in the book. While “Flint” and “master” and “slave” were also prevalent, this word “children” supported our discussions all week about the book: that Jacobs had a rhetorical purpose in mind: she wanted to build a bridge between herself and her audience, and being first a child and then a mother helped her to do this with her white audience.

I then asked students to spend the rest of the class selecting portions of the book–chapters that had intrigued them or interested them–and see how creating a wordle supported their initial interpretations. We all wrote up our comments in the live forum in our LMS.

During class, one student went and found a text by Sojourner Truth and created a wordle and reported on the prevalence of “God” (smaller in Jacobs’s text).


A wordle from Sojourner Truth’s narrative.

I think that I will use this wordle exercise again–and maybe extend it to the ngram viewer so that we can look more closely at relationships among words over time.

Definitely a useful introduction–very small steps, just enough to intrigue the students but not overwhelm them. Something to build on this term.


Walt Whitman–Drafts and Revisions

Adapted from Ed Folsom’s Classroom Electric: Dickinson, Whitman and American Culture


Read the instructions below and then post your response to the Moodle forum. If you have time, respond to your peers and begin a conversation about Whitman and how his poetic device of cataloging can help us become better readers and interpreters of American Literature.

For today’s Digital Humanities Lab, your job is to explore this “e pluribus unum” work of “Song of Myself” and think about the mechanisms of continuity, unity, fluidity in Whitman’s manuscripts alongside the discontinuities, deletions, substitutions and redirections that run through the surviving drafts of his poem.

  1. Go to the Whitman Archive page “Whitman Manuscript Drafts of Song of Myself” (1855) here. Read what author Ed Folsom says about the collection of manuscript drafts of the poem.
  2. Next, open a second tab and go to one completed version of “Song of Myself” online (this one from University of Illinois’s Modern American Poetry site–a really useful one to bookmark).
  3. To complete your perusal, you will spend some time toggling between these two sites. Start with the original draft manuscript fragments located in the left frame and find lines that interest you.Select just a short phrase that you think might have found its way into the final form. (If you choose too large a phrase, it may be hard to find.) Click on the example below to enlarge:
  4. Then see what you can find in the final draft form that matches the draft phrase or words. To locate words or phrases that you find in the drafts in the final form, go to the final poem and type “Control F” and a box will open on your screen. Type in those words and see if they are in the final poem. Click on the example below to enlarge:
  5. Click on the DIGITAL HUMANITIES LAB RESPONSE link in Moodle to post your responses.


  1. EVERYONE ANSWER THIS QUESTION: A question of composition:  What scraps and patches of poetic drafting eventually find themselves in Whitman’s final poem?  What does this collection of digitized manuscript fragments—and their subsequent scattering in four archives—tell you about the composing process?


  1. A question of formal devices: The poetic device of cataloging that Whitman uses here and throughout his ouevre provides a dynamic model of inclusiveness, as if the goal of his poetry is to collect everything under a single “roof” of poetry. What are the advantages of this device? What are its limitations?
  2. A question of poetic nation-building: What aspects of Whitman’s fragments and final poem “Song of Myself” situate the poet and poem in larger themes of American literature and culture—the sense of a “boundless dream” and hunger for new beginnings?
  3. A question of comparison: For those of you familiar also with Emily Dickinson: compare Whitman’s sprawling freedom with Dickinson’s tightly bound intensity and talk about how they are both somehow “American” by talking about the emerging national literary characteristics or persistent themes, tone, concerns, focus etc.
  4. Which of the scraps (“the cocktail napkin drafts”) in this collection are most interesting to you and why?
  5. If you’re interested in the printing/publishing aspect of literary enterprise, you may want to read the entire article by Ed Folsom, University of Iowa. What does he say about the value of the “HRC manuscript” to literary scholars and why?
  6. Think about your own writing and thinking and revising process. What is the significance of this collection of fragments to you?