Dipping a toe into Digital Humanities: word clouds

The term “digital humanities” has always confused me. When I first heard it, I assumed it was what I was already doing – applying digital approaches to humanities research and teaching.

But no. Digital Humanities seems to be about applying certain elements of computer science to the humanities, with emphasis on quantification. At least, that’s how I’d put it. Wikipedia says, “the systematic use of digital resources in the humanities, as well as the reflection on their application”. Stanford University says, “Digital humanities foster collaboration and traverse disciplines and methodological orientations, with projects to digitize archival materials for posterity, to map the exchange and transmission of ideas in history, and to study the evolution of common words over the centuries.”

[I am treading carefully here, since the term is now used by people who have professionalized the subject. Like most new disciplines, it’s already questioning itself.]

When I come across the term, it usually involves word counts, tallying the number of times a word or words is used in a text. I think that makes Wordle one of the first digital humanities tools. Wordle was an applet created by Jonathan Feinberg ten years ago. It counted the number of times a word appeared in a text, and created a tag cloud, with more frequent terms in larger text.

So using another progam, Jason Davies’ Word Cloud Generator, let’s see what happens.

For example, here’s the Declaration of Independence using 400 most-used words:

 

There are many uses for such an approach. I can compare it, for example, to Magna Carta.

where there is far less about the people.

Even without a word cloud, one can use a basic word search of one can get a whole document in a browser window. So if I have the declaration here, and I do a “find” for the word people, it tells me it’s there 10 times.

So today (stand back!) I’m going to apply this method to HG Wells’ autobiography.

The 19,332 words that result after removing the table of contents and the index took 7 minutes to process (with all words counted):

Hmmm. “Peace” is big, and “Nazi” is small. “Work”, “world”, “now”, “man” “life” are all big. “New” and “still” are the same size. There is no representation of the personality of the piece, which is part of the purpose, except in the words themselves. But really, not very helpful. What if I limit results to the top 25 words?

A little better, but hardly revealing.

Fiction, however, often fares better. That’s why it’s digital humanities, not digital biography. Taking The Sea Raiders by HG Wells at 25 words, we get:

Tentacles! Creatures! Well, that’s more fun, anyway.

Given the current environment in social discourse, digital humanities techniques are being used to ferret out trends in speeches, maps, and censuses, to demonstrate sexism or racism. So the use goes far beyond word clouds.

But I’m still sad. No digital humanities grants for me.

Historical correction (and Ruskin)

Over two years ago I wrote a post that got no comment nor many readers. It was one of the only posts where I shared my discomfort with today’s identity politics.

Then this week, I received an announcement of some workshops at the college designed to engender “cultural sustaining pedagogies”. I wrote a five paragraph response to the ideas contained within this concept, explaining my views supporting universal principles over the perceived needs of particular groups, be they racial, age-based, cultural, gender, or otherwise. Having spent several hours writing, I realized there was no one to whom I could send it, and nowhere I could post it, without endangering my job and quite a few working relationships that were important to me. At the same time I realized that this was what was wanted, my refusal to engage, because the entire pretext is that I am not worthy to discuss any of these issues.

But when one attacks history, however, as a discipline, I do feel a professional responsibility. I did some reading about culturally sustainable pedagogies (cuz I’m always in for good pedagogy), and at one point was led to this article on How Racism and Patriarchy is Taught at School, published just a few days ago. It was about truth versus distortion in history textbooks and class materials, and cited as heinous examples phrases like black slaves were people “who came to work on plantations” and “[s]ome slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly”. Now the first of these is distorted enough to be an untruth: slaves did not “come” to work — they were forced and they were brought. Factually, they did not “come to work on plantations”, either — they were sold for whatever the buyer wanted them for. But the second quotation is not factually incorrect. Some slaves did report that their masters treated them kindly. There are primary sources where they say so, and I assign them. I then discuss with my students why they might have said so, what influences there might have been on their perceptions and testimony. But the truth is that they did report this kindness. So we are not replacing lies with truth. We are replacing nuanced views requiring discussion, with untruth.

The article mentioned how teachers should use the website Teaching Tolerance to teach “the truth” of the past. So I went to the site (which is sponsored by the ever laudable Southern Poverty Law Center), and it recommended a “formative assessment” for students. I link it here. Several of the questions are loaded or misleading. For example:

In the Declaration of Independence, what percentage of enslaved people were included in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You are supposed to answer 0%, or you’re wrong. This question demonstrates the same sort of oversimplification argued against in the article, just to the other side. Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, were intellectually and morally conflicted by slavery, but stated in a number of places that men may be created equal, but were then subjected to unequal environments, treatment, birthrights, intelligence, etc. Some included women in “men”, while others did not. 18th century intellectuals argued the many sides of these issues. The “line” about equality was likely written by one man, approved by a committee of five, and agreed to and signed by the 2nd Continental Congress. Some had slaves, some didn’t, some had never owned slaves, some made money off the slave trade, some had vowed to release their slaves within a year, others had promised to release them upon their death, and many worried about slavery in its various impacts, discussing its moral, economic, and intellectual problems. To say that slaves were definitely included would be false. To say that they were all excluded would also be false.

The included Teacher Guide says: “The promise of equality and liberty in the Declaration did not extend to any enslaved people. ” But the passage from the Declaration does not promise equality or liberty. It declares them as natural rights. In fact, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t promise anything to anyone — it lays out an argument and justification for breaking away from Great Britain.

Later on the quiz there’s this question:

Which was the reason the South seceded from the Union?

To preserve states’ rights
To preserve slavery
To protest taxes on imported goods
To avoid rapid industrialization

You’re supposed to answer “to preserve slavery”. Yes, indeed. But the reason? The only reason? The main reason? There are no historical events with only one cause, and even the extremes of post-modern historicism admit to multiple explanations if not causation.

The Teacher Guide to this question says, “Every secession document cites slavery as the main reason the southern states seceded.” I have not reviewed every secession document, and I’m not sure whether this means official documents from the states, or whether it also includes letters, diaries, etc. Quite a few both official and unofficial documents also talk about states’ rights, but not always in those terms. A great many talk about freedom and independence, particularly in the context of the American Revolution. Preserving slavery was often discussed within a context of property and ownership, even by people who didn’t own slaves or didn’t care for it as an institution. To not understand and discuss these complexities is to commit presentism (the application of the values of ones own era to the circumstances of the past). Presentism, although increasingly popular, does not actually lead to a rational understanding, but rather a “stand”.

The article also says that our country was “quite literally founded on the slaughter, colonization, enslavement, segregation, and ongoing systematic oppression of millions of indigenous peoples and people of color”. Yes, indeed. But it was also founded on ideals, some of which are worthy discussing and defending. We might want to start with representation, open debate, or any of the rights listed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

So none of this is really about truth. It’s about correction. It’s about grievance. It’s about telling the other side, because it isn’t being told. A worthy goal, certainly. Telling the stories that haven’t been told is a main responsibility (and joy) of historical work. It’s why we’re here. But the goal isn’t to replace Storyline A with Storyline Z. It’s to understand how both storylines interact, to whose benefit one side takes precedence, and to what extent evidence supports the stories.

But lest we think these issues are new, I’ve also encountered them in reading today about the man I cannot avoid in my work, although I don’t like him: John Ruskin. In Judith Stoddart’s article* on his Fors Clavigera, I learned about Ruskin’s push to develop cultural literacy in working people with whom he admittedly not only had little in common, but didn’t know very well as individuals. What he did know, however, were big social and political trends, and what he saw was a lower class that was forming into groups to create solutions for their grievances.

In brief, Ruskin saw a grievance culture, and radical groups loosely based on socialist ideals without actually examining them (he was likely thinking of the Paris Commune, for example). Their grievances focused on class-based social hierarchy, even though that was not, to Ruskin, the root of the problem. The problem was moral, not structural. Some people may have more of some things in society, and others less, but the people with less simply taking the things from those who have more does not create a moral system. In fact, it just puts the lower classes into the immoral position that the upper classes had occupied. The problem of capitalist, industrial exploitation cannot be solved by the exploited becoming the exploiters. It is solved by doing away with exploitation.

Ruskin thus had just as much sympathy for the conditions of working people as 19th century radical politicians did. Education was the solution, but it was moral education that was needed. This was not “character education” or brainwashing, or even Christian education (though Ruskin himself was pretty darned devout). Subjects like music, astronomy, and botany, for example, could teach that things in life have an order that can be understood (p53). Understanding the universal concept of order could thus underpin the planning of political action. Basic principles could then be applied in a rational way according to the needs of both society and the individual. Ruskin aimed to “replace class consciousness by cultural consensus” (p45). Movements that engaged in action without any philosophical underpinnings were dangerous, because they displaced morality, elevating the same greed and selfishness that had been protested against in the first place.

Even before Stoddart began comparing Ruskin with Alan Bloom’s ideas of cultural literacy midway through the article, I saw connections to today. We have political and social movements, on both left and right, that are not based on moral philosophical underpinnings, except in their insistence that they are. The oppressed may become the oppressors, claiming their own truth and the inadequacy of all other truths, but that does not solve the problem. It is oppression itself that must be eliminated. The problem of people being silenced necessitates eliminating silence, not applying it to those who speak. Kindness, goodwill, and understanding are universals, not privileges withheld from some groups and given to others. It is not only unnecessary to prevent talking about incomplete ways of understanding the past, it is essential that we encourage such talk to make the historical picture more complete.

If one is trying to create Ruskin’s cultural consensus, then the intention of education should be to examine views based on what human beings have in common. The elements that bind humanity together should be openly available to discuss and to use. These elements may change over time, but to abandon a search for larger truths in a headlong drive to redress grievances will be of no more help now than it was in the 1870s.

 

*Judith Stoddard, “The Formation of the Working Classes: John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera as a Manual of Cultural Literacy”, in Culture and Education in Victorian England, Patrick Scott and Pauline Fletcher, eds. Lewisburg: Buckness University Press, 1990.

Trails of research: Lord Salisbury

This morning’s activities demonstrate some of the difficulties of “rabbit hole” research. This is searching that starts from a single point, and ends up going off into different trails. Sometimes it leads to enlightening information or interpretations. Other times it doesn’t.

This began with (Chrome! Show full history!) an email announcing new history book reviews in Cercles: Review Pluridisciplinaire du Monde Anglophone (that’s me, unfortunately). In particular, this review caught my eye: The Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by Sir David Cannadine, reviewed by Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho of New York. In the last paragraph, the reviewer says that near the end of the book

“…Sir David brings the reader to the late Victorian era, in which the dominant political figure was Lord Salisbury, whose important essay in the Quarterly Journal in 1883, suitably titled ‘Disintegration’, the author explicates for the reader as providing a leitmotif of the entire era: one in which the one-time certainties and confidence of the high-Victorian period no longer seemed to be true…”

Well, this sounded like something I should read, a leitmotif for the entire era I’m studying. Damned handy, I thought.

So I tried a search for “disintegration salisbury” on DuckDuckGo and Google search. Only two links, one to an article in The Spectator, but I couldn’t access it because I’m not a subscriber (more’s the pity, but it’s too expensive to post to the U.S.). The other was a reference, so I tried Google Scholar with “lord salisbury disintegration 1883”) and got the full reference from another paper:

Salisbury, Lord, ‘Disintegration’, Quarterly Review, Vol. 156, 10 1883, p. 594

but not the paper itself. Two more articles referencing it were also blocked by paywalls. I tried my college library, EBSCOHost and JSTOR, and only a couple of articles referenced it, neither of which had a better citation than this.

One reference said the article is in another book, Paul Smith’s Lord Salisbury on Politics. Tried Google Books. It was here but there is no preview, search, or ebook. Tried Amazon to Look Inside. Nope, on this one you cannot look inside.

So I tried my old standby for old journals, Hathi Trust, and found several sets of full-text listings. I tried the first one, 1883. Not in the first one, then I realized that was only through summer, and ended before page 594 anyway. “10” might be October. Tried the second one, found an item that included page 594 and was October 1883. It said “Disintegration” at the top. But then I went up to the first page of the article (dreading that it was so long since once can only print one page at a time). Here’s what I found:

 

Well, that doesn’t say Lord Salisbury. Was his name W.E. Forster? Who is that?

No trace of a W.E. Forster by Googling or on DuckDuckGo. Tried another set of Quarterly Review for 1883. Same thing.

So I started tracking down Lord Salisbury. His name was Robert. Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, aka Lord Robert Cecil and at one point Viscount Cranborne. He would become Prime Minister two years after this article. In photos he looks rather humorless. According to Wikipedia, Paul Smith’s book describes him as depressive, neurotic, and competitive, among other quirks. Everyone said he wrote “Disintegration”. Except my primary source.

So I tried The Spectator again. In the flash of the article before it was blocked by the paywall, I saw something that suggested that there is no doubt that Salisbury wrote it. That might imply there should be some doubt. How frustrating!

So I tried a trick. I got my screen capture program ready, then clicked again on the article and took a quick snap before the paywall came up. So devious. I got:

Ridiculous. Deceitful. I feel so bad. Not.

Soooo…it looks like the W.E. Forster is a deceit. Rather, conceit. I do love Victorian writers, but in periodicals important people (or not very important, like HG Wells writing as Septimus, or complainers about Cambridge writing as Cambridgensis) often use assumed names.

Back to the article. It’s very long. It has things in it that might be useful to my research, and even more useful to our current times, such as “Hack phrases are a dangerous snare to an age too hurried and too busy to think” (p. 566). Salisbury was conservative, but liked America: “The Constitution of the United States was framed by men, deeply mistaken, as we think, in that they were hostile to monarchy, but yet fully sensible of the dangers that attended the democracy that they chose…” (p 568). He liked the empire, and was fearful that elements in England at the time, including the expansion of the franchise and political solutions for Ireland, would end it entirely.

He thinks educating the working man was dangerous, at least as it was being done (p 358):

I would certainly put the invention of “race” as a calm teaching of science that corresponds with dangerous passions.

But for me, what’s here is not so much a lietmotif of the era, as one for the Tory position of the era, clearly articulated but not of much help. I keep my tracking, so if I do suddenly need a Tory explication of empire and conservatism by a future PM I know where it is.

And that’s a morning doing research. Many times, things are not what one expects. And sometimes it’s quite difficult to follow the rabbit.

 

History of Education: finding out about a sub-field

For the subjects I’m researching, in addition to knowing more about Victorian Studies, I also need to look into the sub-field of the History of Education. Victorian Studies is arguably a sub-field of Literature (see previous post), and I thought History of Education would be a sub-field of History. But after looking around, I’m starting to suspect it’s more a sub-field of Education.

First I looked at the organizations that study this sub-field. There are two groups of scholars that call themselves the History of Education Society. One is in the U.S. It publishes the History of Education Quarterly, and belongs to the International Standing Conference for the History of Education (ISCHE). To find out more about their perspective, I looked at the current list of officers. Their degrees are primarily in Education and Educational Leadership, although a couple have History B.A.s or M.A.s.

The other History of Education Society is in the U.K., out of the University of Glasgow. Their committee has full biographies posted at their website, so finding out about them was easier, but unlike the Americans they don’t tend to list their degrees. For those I could find, the pattern seemed similar: History first or second degrees, Education for the PhD. They publish History of Education (making it difficult to separate from the American History of Education Quarterly in a database search) and History of Education Researcher.

Then I looked at the journals themselves. For the British contingent, History of Education journal is published by Taylor and Francis, one of those publishers who does not provide open access. I am, however, able to access most articles through the EBSCO database at my college library. 

The American History of Education Quarterly is published by Cambridge University Press, and also available through EBSCO. 

More information is revealed by the content and focus of the actual articles, of course. In addition to seeing articles from such journals pop up when doing subject searches, I like to browse the contents of journal issues. It is usually possible to read the titles of all articles at the website of the journal publisher, even if it’s hard to access the articles themselves. I could tell that for the British History of Education, there are a number of articles focused on British educational history, some on adult education, and several on methodology, which is helpful. So I’m subscribing to the new content announcements so I can keep up (many journal publishers let you do this). The History of Education Quarterly seems mainly focused on American educational history.

Any articles I cannot get through the library’s subscription databases, I can often acquire through our wonderful interlibrary loan librarian, who can get me almost anything! I can often discover in WorldCat who might have a particular item (there are two universities within an hour’s drive). I recently spoke with a student who didn’t realize that students may use interlibrary loan, but they can — that’s what it’s for, whether at community college or university. When I was an undergraduate, I used it all the time. Books came to me at the library after about a week, and photocopied articles came in the mail (nowadays you can often get emailed an electronic copy). I needed some pretty strange stuff back then, as I do now, often from British articles. But the brilliant librarians at Cal State Bakersfield got me those too — they printed them out on the teletype machine. In graduate school at UCSB, these old tomes would arrive at the ILL desk and I would lug them over to the photocopy machine. These days I can walk a few steps to the scanning machine at the college library. But I do miss the sound of the teletype…

 

Sidenote: Teaching students to do research is a daunting task at a community college. There are few History majors and no methodology classes. We also need to teach the many other skills required for basic historical thinking and analysis. Part of my sabbatical is to create posts that detail my historical research work as a way of demonstrating the process. I’m still working on how to index all this…

Victorian Studies

To begin my work on Victorian England, I need to examine the field of Victorian Studies. Unlike History, area studies of all kinds are newer disciplines, and I often have difficulty figuring out what they’re trying to do. Every discipline has its own methodology and its own literature – that’s what makes it a discipline. Now that I’m moving away from working with online pedagogy and educational technology, it’s necessary to make sure I am aware of the milieu in which I’m operating.

Although by no means intended as an introduction to the subject, Martin Hewitt’s “Victorian Studies; problems and prospects?” from 2001 has nevertheless provided me a good entrée. Noting the expansion of books and graduate programs in Victorian Studies, the article nevertheless critiques the lack of interdisciplinarity on which the field is supposedly based. Hewitt notes several other concerns, including historians uncomfortable with the word “Victorian” and the dominance of presentist topics (gender, women, imperialism) that use the Victorian era just for examples. But a bigger issue is the fact that historians and literary studies have not really combined in an interdisciplinary way, even while conference panels may be multi-disciplinary. Apparently the most comfortable and useful pathway for Victorian Studies has been the “cultural history” of the 1980s and 90s, although it took awhile to shake off the perception that it was elitist. This was interdisciplinary because it used methods like Foucault’s analysis of culture (p. 141). 

But cultural history does not create a disciplinary field that is consistent and has an “agreed focus” (p. 142). The result is that there is no common scholarship, and Hewitt notes a lack of “key texts” (p. 144). This helps me because I couldn’t figure out what those key texts were when I was looking for a way into the historiography of Victorian Studies. Hewitt sees the historiography as fragmented, limiting the impact of important works. Previous historical works also tend to limit biography to a few “semi-canonical” men, such as Carlyle, Mill, and Ruskin (p. 145).

In literary studies, Victorian Studies has become a “sub-field”, and the many journals of Victorian Studies tend to be dominated by literary analysis . When I subscribed to Victorian Studies journal and Nineteenth-Century Studies, I noticed immediately that the editors were almost all from university English departments. As I read the articles, I kept rolling my eyes as the authors seem to plumb the text of Victorian novels for meanings that were obscure, presentist, imaginative, or all three. I found most striking Hewitt’s point that such studies focus on the reading as it takes place in the current reader’s timeframe (ours). The articles use the present tense, as if the characters in the novels are here with us now, while a historical article would use past tense (p. 148).

History, Hewitt notes, is constructive and materialistic, while literary and cultural studies are idealistic and interpretive (p. 149) – I would say “imaginative”. Focusing on the text ignores the history. This is why I dissuade students from constructing theses that seem to show the text as possessing causation (“propaganda led people to hate the enemy”) – we cannot prove such a thesis historically, although it is possible to prove that the text might have been meant to do something, or that something might have caused (or influenced, more likely) a work to be written.  

Hewitt’s agenda includes developing a solid historiography, and creating new research based on larger ideas. His prescription for historians (he’s one too) is to broaden the field to include more ideas and their production, combining more approaches. Since the context and environment of the era is embedded in the text, the process is one of sense-making. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying – he loses me when he talks about “syncretic hermenuetics” (p. 153). His focus seems to be on creating intertwinings of text and practices to create something truly interdisciplinary, where the “text becomes means rather than object” and the focus is on the impact (and reproduction) of the text (p. 154).

In determining which texts have been underutilized, Hewitt notes many that I am engaged with, including essays, lectures, and newspapers – forms of communication not intended to be high culture. His ideal Victorianist study combines elements from history, anthropology, ethnography, literary criticism, sociology, and art history (p. 155).

I believe that the goal here is to provide a more well-rounded, thorough, and (by implication) realistic understanding of the Victorian era. I am at a loss, however, to explain why it is necessary to do this through the methodologies of disciplines other than history. I don’t think I realized that I am a history snob until I began reading Victorian Studies journal, and finding myself enjoying it while at the same time becoming exasperated with the lack of evidence beyond popular texts. The field strikes me as similar to steampunk: an enjoyable romp through Victoriana to fulfill present (and presentist) needs by drawing imaginative connections. (I feel the same way about the new genre of “creative non-fiction”, about which I will write more later.) I in no way believe that the historical method can provide as accurate a portrayal as going back in a time machine, but history is adaptable enough to take on the perspectives, if not the methods, of other disciplines and use them effectively. I think I would have understood a plan for a new Victorian History better than I understand a plan for a more cogent Victorian Studies. 

  

Hewitt, M. (2001). “Victorian Studies: problems and prospects?” Journal of Victorian Culture6(1), 137–161.