Data Across the Curriculum: Qualitative Literary Analysis in the Humanities

This semester, students in Professors James Lee and Erik Simpson’s special topic seminar, “Milton, Blake, and Frankenstein,” will use NVivo, a software for qualitative literary analysis, to create word trees visualizing the use of the word “sublime” in Milton’s work. This is an outgrowth of teaching that Lee began in 2013 when, as DASIL’s first Faculty Fellow, he designed a seminar on Shakespeare and Renaissance literature that used NVivo to investigate first the corpus of Shakespeare’s work and then over 20,000 documents from the Early English Books Online (You can see previous DASIL blog posts written by Prof. Lee about this research here and here).

Lee’s classes use NVivo to visualize data and generate descriptive statistics about datasets that can be exported to other programs, such as Tableau (another software for data visualization). These programs are particularly useful to students because they provide a user interface, allowing students to manipulate data easily, without having to learn a new programming language.

Lee’s personal research incorporates some of the same methodologies that he teaches to his students in class. His current project, the Global Renaissance Project, is partially funded by a “Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry” grant from the Mellon Foundation. It uses network analysis and topic modeling to examine discourses surrounding race in Renaissance texts. The figure below is a still of the prototype for the topic modeling aspect of the project, which identifies clusters of words with a disproportionately high probability of occurring together in text.

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So far, the project has revealed that Renaissance representations of race were centered on cultural, geographic, and commercial factors; race as a biological or physical concept emerged as a justification for English imperialism after the Renaissance. Lee currently collaborates with professors at the University of Iowa on a “linked reading” project that combines two databases to discover how networks of printers and publishing houses contributed to the Renaissance discourse on race.

For Lee, the biggest challenge presented by the integration of digital analysis into classes is changing his students’ mindsets. He observes that humanities students are often used to classes in which students and professors develop ideas through discussion. In contrast to discussion-based classes, working with the digital humanities can mean that students exert effort in a particular line of inquiry that doesn’t yield any concrete results.

The iterative process of data analysis can be frustrating, especially since students often don’t anticipate undertaking it in their humanities courses. Professor Lee hopes continuing to integrate digital humanities into classes like the seminar he is co-teaching this semester, will help to convert students’ frustration into a “tinkering mentality” so that students come prepared to continually adjust their hypotheses based on their analysis and visualization of the data.

To explore the Global Renaissance Project prototype, click here.

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Data Across the Curriculum: Using Qualitative Data Analysis in Teaching Spanish

When Spanish Professor Pérez incorporates NVivo, a qualitative research tool, into her teaching of Spanish, she sees it as a way to prepare her students for their future careers. Based on the trajectory of the field, she believes that “the digital humanities are here to stay.” While she realizes that not every student that studies Spanish plans on a career in academia or as a Spanish teacher, she hopes that working with digital technology will prepare her students to adapt to a variety of digital research tools in a wide range of fields.

After learning about NVivo, Professor Pérez decided to try using the program in her own research on festival books. Her initial project included only a small number of texts; however, with NVivo’s capacity for large-scale comparison between digital texts, her project has expanded to include around 700 texts.

Once she was familiar with NVivo, Professor Pérez decided to include a short assignment using the program in her Spanish seminar focused on Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, Don Quijote.

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SaraSanders ‘14, the 2014-15 DASIL Post-Baccalaureate Fellow, gave an introductory workshop in the class, and Professor Pérez assigned three chapters of the Quijote to each small group of students to analyze digitally. Students then produced reports that included their analytical findings and reflections on NVivo’s usefulness.

So far, Professor Pérez has noted differences in how students respond to NVivo: the majority of her science-major students critiqued the program, wishing that it included detailed quantitative analysis, while humanities majors were usually complimentary. Eventually, she hopes to share further observations about the connection between digital technology and pedagogy at conferences and in a published article. As one of the first professors in Grinnell’s Spanish department to utilize digital analysis in her classes, she also hopes that her experiences with the developing field of digital humanities will facilitate other professors’ explorations of new technologies.

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This past summer, Professor Pérez received a Steven Elkes Grant to develop the use of technology in a new course.  With the help of her research assistant, Alex Claycomb ’18, she is in the process of designing a course entitled “Designing Empire: Plazas, Power and Urban Planning in Habsburg Spain and its Colonies,” which integrates two new NVivo assignments as well as work with GIS and mapping.

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