Recasting the humanities through ‘distant reading’

Nov. 28, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
The Stanford Literary Lab conducts its research through 'distant reading,' a process which analyzes volumes of text at a time. (Eric Kofman/The Stanford Daily)


Hidden away on the fourth floor of Margaret Jacks Hall is the Stanford Literary Lab, filled not with microscopes and Bunsen burners but instead computers, whiteboards and a large table.


In this laboratory, English professor Franco Moretti and English lecturer Matt Jockers collaborate with students to examine and analyze literature using a technique that they call “distant reading” or “macro-analysis.”


As opposed to “close reading” of a text, “distant reading” allows the Lit Lab researchers to analyze not just one or two books but thousands of them at a time. This exploratory project is made possible by a vast reservoir of computing and library resources in addition to those working in the Lab.


The Lab evolved from a workshop that Jockers conducted in 2006 to a class he taught in 2009 that was dedicated to the study of digital humanities and literature in a larger archive.

“The course description said something like: ‘in this class we will have 1,200 assigned novels, but students won’t read any of them,’” Jockers said with a smile. “We did end up reading some of them but not in the way that you would traditionally read novels in a literature class.”


The class focused on computationally analyzing their archive of books, finding out whether there is a “signal,” or a specific word or phrase, in the books that reveals information about their genre.


But when the quarter ended, students had become so invested in their projects that they wanted to continue their research. The group formed an ad-hoc seminar that evolved into the lab-like working environment that exists today.


In the spirit of the Lit Lab’s origins, students contribute to a lot of the research. One such individual is English graduate student Ryan Heuser M.A. ’14 Ph.D. ’14, a full-time staff member working in the Lit Lab as a humanities research programmer. Heuser, who has been a part of the Lit Lab since it was founded, has a clear idea of its purpose.


“The first goal is the actual research: to do literary, historical work in a way that doesn’t presuppose the object of study,” Heuser said. “The second goal is to convince the literary discipline that research of this kind is possible.”


Though he studied literature in graduate school, Heuser said that he was almost a computer science major and that he has always enjoyed programming as a hobby.


“[Jockers’] class inspired me to put the two [disciplines] together again,” Heuser said.


Students are not the only ones interested in this endeavor. The success of the Literary Lab also depends on the enthusiasm of staff like Glen Worthey, a digital humanities librarian at Stanford who is heavily involved with the Lab.


“People have been using digital approaches to humanities for years, but this is the first place that I know of that is doing literary analysis on that big of a scale,” Worthey said. “While others have analyzed the complete works of Shakespeare or Thomas Aquinas, none have analyzed, for example, an entire century’s worth of novels.”


Worthey said that the Stanford librarians are thrilled that Stanford’s decades of investments in digital resources are paying off in such a tangible way.


“I think the library was really forward thinking in believing that owning all this [data] would be important,” Worthey said. “That’s really heartwarming for me; it’s kind of a real justification that we’ve been doing the right thing.”


Worthey added that the “distant reading” the Literary Lab conducts is in no way meant to be a replacement for “close reading” and traditional humanities but instead supplements it.


Worthey said that the Lit Lab is providing scholars with a way to deal with the books we’ll never read, literature that Moretti calls “the great unread.”


“In order to truly understand a single text, one must understand what else people were reading at that time and what else was relevant and important,” Worthey said. “The Lit Lab takes the full literary landscape into consideration.”


Data and pamphlets aren’t the only things that the Lit Lab has to offer to the community. Just as important is the lesson those working in the Lab have learned.


“There’s no such thing as a division between ‘fuzzies’ and ‘techies,’” Heuser said. “There’s a way to do the humanities in a scientific, empirical manner.”

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