Digital Redux

This past weekend, I attended THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy, a really wonderful gathering of like-minded teachers and tinkerers that gave me a better understanding of how doing DH at the CC can get done.

First of all, the tortured humanists stayed home or kept their torment as a sidebar.  The prevailing attitude could be summed up as, “Ok, so what can we make or do? How can we do it? What would be cool? What would work?” Intellectual work embodied in the Google doc, the tweet, the map, the mini-MOOC, the astronomy tool (you must visit the astronomy tool). Brainy, humanistic fun with a fully engaged group of young and not-so-young (ahem) scholars.

Not that Polly Anna was present–in fact, I really could feel the frustration and worry from those up and coming scholars whose core work is collaborative and hasn’t yet fit into the byzantine tenure metrics that were never that straightforward anyway but are a few years from acknowledging the intellectual labor of DH through tenure and promotion. But still. The work.

I still intend to revise the Google doc we developed during our session on how we might bring DH to community colleges and SLACs (as I was to learn that day small liberal arts colleges). In that session, Jesse, Meg, Keri, Tony, Mary and I brainstormed how we might collaborate to build a curricular path to DH at the lower-division levels and scaffold into four-year degrees, working in both directions.

But what I really came away with from that weekend was how so much of what folks are doing in hybrid pedagogies with DH tools is really not far from what some of my CC colleagues are already doing in brick-and-mortar, including my own offline teaching.  So I took out my (f2f) Shakespeare class “box assignment” menu that I hand to all my literature students at the beginning of class, and I quickly thought through how I might digitally redo them.  I posted my ideas  in a Google doc here. Of course, now the hard part comes–teaching these and developing the real step-by-steps, but that will come.

HT to Peter Rorabaugh for suggesting I post this and that other Campers do the same. Take your classroom practice and flip it, DH-style. And see what turns up. And share it. What can we make or do? How can we do it? What would be cool? What would work?


Close and Distant Reading of Student Work

DIGIWRIMO 2012: Close and Distant Reading of Student Work
Yesterday a colleague talked about the importance of teachers seeing the “Big Picture” of student success–of understanding not just what they were doing in the classroom, but also how what they were doing in the classroom connected to something larger–the student’s life before they got there and the student’s story after they left.

This makes me think of Franco Moretti and “distant reading”–how his methodology promotes a way of reading not just the local text but the local text within a vast context of all that was being thought and said–not just (Arnold’s) “best that has been thought and said.”

So this theme emerges then and a tension within it: when we read, we must choose what to read. And when we teach, develop expertise, study, write, we must choose where our focus will be. How can one do close reading and distant reading too–of texts and of students? When we know one small datum about a student–that they failed math twice last year or that this is their first term in college–what does that really tell us? When we read that “battle” is a word that is far more likely to be written in texts by American men than American women until the peak battles of the Civil War, what are we really reading? What are we finding out? I like that Ted Underwood reminds us that when we discover some such pattern it is only the beginning of  a question and not actually an answer.

Still, the tension between close and distant work with students–between reading up close what they have written, commenting on it up close, meeting with them in our offices–and reading about how few of the students who succeed in one’s own class will actually complete their degree–it reveals a problematic lack of correspondence between our efforts as teachers and the effects of those efforts–a lack which is rather demoralizing.

Perhaps that’s why institutions have traditionally separated out this work of close and distant reading. That institutional research reports gives the report cards to ed boards and faculty give the report cards to students. [499 words]


Winding Down DigiWriMo 2012

This month I have written up quite a few digital text, some of which I’ve posted on this blog, some of which is emails and other documents, some of which is on my LMS.

I created a Survey Monkey survey here that has lots of words and got lots of responses. ; )

Been Stewing on the Goals of Digital Literacies–a Zero-Sum Game with Older Forms?

For the past eighteen months or so a dear friend and fellow Buffalo grad school alum and I have been having an extended sporadic conversation about the value of blogs, tweets, facebook, digital tools in general for teaching community college students literature and composition. Yesterday in our most recent conversation, she and I came to a new place in this conversation. [this continues the topic of my first blog post on this blog which engages with Mark Sample’s idea that “serial concentration is deep concentration.”]

How to Help 21st Century Students See the Value of their Own Contributions in a Global Sea of Information
We started by talking about plagiarism, and I shared with her the recent conversation I had with a student about an assignment I’d given. I’d asked my Women Writers students to go to’s poetry map and produce a mini-research blog entry on the state of poetry in one of the states on the map, with particular attention to women poets. One student said to me, “But why do you want me to write about this—someone already has and it’s already on the site.” I smiled and said that yes, someone has given her some information about the poetry scene in the state of Iowa, and listed six male poets and perhaps one female poet in that state. Her job was to read the site and follow the links and come to some conclusions about our course thesis which extends Virginia Woolf’s in A Room of One’s Own.  A lightbulb went on at that point as this student realized that she had something to contribute that went beyond the reports on the site: that she could in fact be a critic of the site in the way that Woolf is a critic of English literary history.

Back to my conversation with my friend: I told her how this student’s response to was new, something that we didn’t share when we were in college and grad school. To my student, if information was already “out there” and freely available, then why would she take the time to summarize that information? Something that had been a cornerstone of our education—to do literature reviews and demonstrate everything that we’d read and retained—had been outsourced to the cloud and the web, in this student’s view. This student only saw value in the assignment when she understood how she was being asked to actively manipulate it. The value that we hold for summary was elusive to her.  During the DH lab, I explained to her that the info was up there, but it was up to her not only to summarize what was there but to summarize in the service of understanding and evaluation. For example, there was one state in where only one female poet was featured. What did she think about this? Did she really think there was only one female poet in that state? How did what Virginia Woolf tells us in Room of One’s Own pertain to this fact? These are the questions that she was being asked. After this explanation, the student came up with a very strong blog post.

My Buffalo alum friend and I continued our conversation about plagiarism, and I told her that in some ways I have found that digital engagement, while on the one hand encouraging cutting and pasting wholesale can also encourage a kind of manipulation and sense of entitlement to the text that fosters creative and critical thinking.

We talked quite a bit about the role of the traditional literary essay in my lit class, and I said that none of my assignments fit that form, and yet I felt that my students were achieving the outcomes set out in the course, and also some other outcomes that aren’t explicit in the course syllabus—namely, collaborative problem-solving and document production; some basic digital literacy skills such as signing up for accounts and maintaining their passwords, posting and revision online.

We continued the conversation later, and started talking about the value of the sustained analysis involved in writing a literary analysis paper, the importance of the form, etc. And then we thought about the form of the lengthy, sustained analysis paper, and we allowed ourselves to imagine for a moment that maybe the sustained concentration involved in writing a literary analysis paper is perhaps a fiction after all. That perhaps a literary analysis paper, like the kinds of projects that we are talking about in our DH labs, is actually serial concentration too—and what is actually sustained is the paper itself, strung together in an artifact that is labeled as a single, continuous whole. But when you really think about it, any lengthy essay is put together through serial concentration: finding quotes, taking notes, stops and starts and fits of production and writer’s block. Perhaps the only sustained concentration involved in many of the traditional essays that we’ve been requiring for decades is the ½ hour of focus that the teacher spends in grading it.

Of course, many students may in fact spend several hours focused on writing a final paper, and I know that I did while writing my dissertation. But some of the projects that we’re working on in the DH lab take a different kind of deep concentration.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Yesterday’s class we engaged with Fun Home by Alison Bechdel for the last time of the term. I began by showing students Scott McCloud’s dense and quick (too dense? Too quick?) TED talk on Understanding Comics. There is much to be mined from his talk, and next time I use it I think I’ll use it with at least parts of the book as well. Since this is a women writer’s class, though, I only wanted to give students a quick intro to the many stylistic/generic features of Bechdel’s work and the work of comic artists in general. What I really liked about McCloud’s piece is that it very efficiently set the stage for establishing the comic/graphic novel form as an art form with deep historical roots, as worthy of serious inquiry and analysis as Bronte or Dickinson or Woolf’s written forms.

For the next time I teach it, I’d really like to figure a way to use the graphic organizers that McCloud introduces as a way to graphically engage with Bechdel. Even in the short time we had, students were able to identify segments or features of Bechdel’s work that drew on Classicist, Formalist, Animist and Iconoclast values.

Figuring out how to feature this in a DH context is my next challenge. I think it may involve using some form of free cartooning software, and perhaps thinking about McCloud’s discussion of how comic artists create forms that represent something essential about a character or moment in time. I also like how he talks about time and space in comics—this could be something that a timeline could be used for. Or maybe his discussion of abstraction and representation. I’m not sure yet, but I’m sure that for the next time we can perhaps work out a way that students can create a comic strip—maybe a few panels—out of what we’ve read earlier in the term using some of McCloud’s discussion and Bechdel as a “monstration.” Hmmm….NCTE has this resource or Mashable’s list. I’ll have to check back next time around. I do think that students can get some of the feel for the “classicist/formalist/animist/iconoclast” forms by creating a few panels of their own—they might even be able to discover which style they lean toward….


DigiWriMo 2012: Stanley and Stephen and Stommel and Me

One thing that I’ve discovered with DigiWritMo is that I do a lot of virtual writing—that is to say, reading and thinking—in my research into DH at the CC. My daily discipline in this past year has been to go to my DH list and see what scholars are tweeting about, to find something substantial and read it and then to tweet about it. So in a given day I might read 5000 words and tweet 140 characters. That discipline has suited me just fine in this past year, as the 140 word count is a surprisingly good mnemonic tool. Coming up with some kind of a tweet about something I’ve read, even if it’s an MT of someone’s original tweet, provides a focus for reading, and I think I have developed a broad understanding of some of the major DH work being done currently and some of the debates in the field. I ’ve observed important continuities with the theoretical frameworks that I studied intensely in grad school (cultural studies, feminism, etc.), and also seen genuinely new turns.

Reading Jesse Stommel’s post today on “The Horrors and Pleasures of Counting Words” prompted me to return to Stephen Ramsay’s “Stanley and Me” from yesterday (which I had merely retweeted, which isn’t very disciplined of me—but I had nothing useful to say. So I just went back now to tweet this quote that I loved “Is there a humanistic way to generate and understand data that licenses the kind of leaps we want to make?”)

What I thought when I read Stommel’s post on DigiWriMo and NaNoWriMo is that both of these word counting events fit snugly and well into the discursive formation of DH that Stanley Fish and Stephen Ramsay are debating at the theoretical level.  I enjoy watching this emergent field reach this critical stage: Seeing words as data and mining texts for patterns prompt new interpretive questions and even new practices. Reading Stommel’s breezy post about the purpose of word counting led me back to Ramsay and then back again to my own word counting. Digitally prompted textual interpretation seems to gall Stanley Fish and delight Ramsay.  What characterizes Ramsay’s response but not Fish’s is a generosity of spirit and self-reflective public intellectualism that is not just refreshing (to say that would be, as Ramsay would put it, “pompous”) but a genuine and necessary rhetorical balm. As DigiWriMo and Stommel illustrate, DH is a field that relies on collaboration and welcomes failure for its untapped discovery, and that was simply not true of literary or humanistic study in the past—even if human collaboration and failure through the ages have always been central topoi in humanities research.

Back to word counting: so those of us trying to reach 50,000 words by November 30th are participating in the same discursive practice that Fish and Ramsay are. I find this exhilarating—to be producing word piles that we can then churn through the tools of our trade. Like Stommel, I see that we’re all also participating in the same practice that we’ve asked our students to dutifully participate in for decades, pre-DH—that is, counting words as a measure of completion/adequacy/depth/achievement. How many student essays have we returned to students unmarked for rewriting because they were under the word count by some arbitrary percentage? I know in my 20 years of teaching it’s been many—and I’ve always counted myself as kind for not simply giving F’s.

Like the Christmas bird count , DigiWriMo isn’t really about the count itself, but what that count can tell us. The ritual of paying attention for one month—or one day—to words-in-numbers allows for us to ask interesting questions. I really like the word-processing that Stommel takes his October word production through—counting emails, tweets, retweets and looking at the emotional valences therein.  Concluding that one probably writes 50,000 words a month anyway—but not intentionally, just as part of one’s automaticity in the workplace of intellectual and pedagogical life—this conclusion and the month of intentional counting that follows, can ironically be a pause that refreshes.

Stommel quotes Elizabeth Kate Switaj who has a “problem with NaNoWriMo.”  She suggests it puts too much pressure on artists to produce numbers, turning art into production. For those of us who are language workers but not necessarily writers, writing is always production.

What I have enjoyed about DigiWriMo at the almost mid-way point, is my raised consciousness about the purposes of writing and the choice of reading over writing and the role that writing plays in reading. While I really want to get to 50,000 (and believe me I’ll be cutting and pasting emails into WordCounter too at the end of the month), I have made conscious decisions over the last two weeks to read rather than write. I have to ration my discretionary reading and writing time, because so much of my reading and writing is for “production” as Switaj puts it; it’s part of my “knowledge work.” So the “play” for me as a community college teacher, is finding what others—those, perhaps, whose teaching and service schedules gives them more time, or whose production work is explicitly DH work—have to say.

Some of this reading is easy and fun, as with Jesse Stommel’s “horror and pleasure” of word counts. Some of it stretches me and I have to constantly make decisions about how much I need to understand about the history of computational stylometry, for example, to fully comprehend what Ramsay is getting at. I work hard to not be a dilettante, but at the same time I am not in grad school and my community college work puts light emphasis on faculty developing new knowledge (we count things such as FTE, asses in seats, etc.). And so I try to both be scholarly and strategic.

Speaking of which, I must now take my son to the park before he explodes with five-year-old energy, and so for now, 990 words will have to do.



DH for College Now



Anne McGrail’s Googlepoint presentation about DH for College Now
For College Now teachers interested in getting their feet wet with digital humanities:

Germinal article by Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities and What is it Doing in English Departments?” more recently published in Matthew K. Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities which I highly recommend but which is a tome that takes some time investment (well worth it, but I’m not through it yet!)

Alan Liu’s wonderful essay, “Where is the Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”

Text Mining: Ted Underwood of UIllinois Urbana provides a very useful overview of text mining.

Pedagogy/Assignment Ideas

Process Checklist for Integrating Digital Humanities into Courses by Rebecca Frost Davis of National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE).

An assignment to try: “Collaborative Annotation Assignment” of primary texts from the Women Writers Project at Brown University.

One of my favorite DH bloggers, Mark Sample, whose assignment here on reading Frankenstein aloud and then voting on “the sentence or phrase most pivotal or rich with interpretive potential. Peter Elbow would call it “the center of gravity” of the paragraph.” Not really digital, but sets the stage for a new way of looking at texts.

A “voice from the gaps” project from University of Minnesota which will be one of the end-of-term digital project options for my Women Writers class this Fall.

An ambitious and untried resource that I am still tinkering with: I think it would be fantastic for history projects with primary or secondary sources, and especially family history projects.  However, given my students’ skills at this point and the goals of my Women Writers class, I’m not going to try it yet. But if you’re interested, especially if you have the same students for a year, I highly recommend reading ProfHacker’s series on “Teaching with Omeka.


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?