FGSDH Summer Reading Group—Jockers’ Macroanalysis

Now that we’ve had some time to wind down from the Spring semester and settle into Summer, I would like to announce formally the selection for the FGSDH Summer Reading Group: Matthew Jockers‘s Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (U. Illinois Press)


At the Digital Classics Association conference in Buffalo this April, I was lucky enough to share a panel on “Literary Criticism and Digital Methods” with Prof. Jockers. My paper was about studying patterns of alliteration in Latin poetry and his about sentiment analysis in Irish-American literature, but both talks discussed the importance of using “distant reading” techniques (to use the term that Franco Moretti coined as a challenge to the literary critical commonplace of “close reading.”) That is, we both dealt, for the most part, with techniques which use algorithmic means of textual analysis, leveraging the power, speed and efficiency of computers to treat vast amounts of literary data.

Dealing with literature on this sort of scale is becoming more and more common and opens up for scholars new research opportunities and interpretative possibilities. As Moretti points out in Graphs, Maps, Trees, a student of 19th-century British novels *cannot* possibly read the 20-30,000 novels (so he guesses) published during this time: “…Close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so.” (4) *Macroanalysis* offers a challenge to literary criticism’s “disciplinary habit of thinking small” by demonstrating both the technology available for dealing with literature on a previously unimaginable scale as well as examples of what sorts of research questions—and subsequent interpretation—this technology makes possible. When literature can be seen from the macroanalytic perspective, “the very object of analysis shifts from looking at the individual occurrences of a feature in context to looking at the trends and patterns of that feature aggregated over an entire corpus.” (24-25)

In a recent Inside Higher Ed review, Scott McLemee characterized these sorts of algorithmic criticism, i.e. Jockers’ “macroanalysis”— as “either promising or menacing.” Such polarizing potential makes the book a perfect introduction to the technical possibilities and critical issues in the cutting edge of digital literary methods as well as a great follow up to our Spring Reading Group’s selection, Prof. Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines

Our Summer Reading Group will be a virtual and distributed—that is to say, we will each read the book on our own. (That said, feel free to get together and discuss the book, comment below, tweet your thoughts, etc.) We will schedule a discussion of the book for our first meeting in the Fall. I am also putting together a practicum for the Fall that will allow each of us to learn and practice some macroanalytic skills. Enjoy the book, enjoy the summer. See you in the Fall for what I’m sure will be a lively discussion of Jockers’ book.


FGSDH Meeting, Ramsay Reading Group, 3/6/13

For our next meeting, I will be leading a discussion of Stephen Ramsay’s book, Reading Machines, on Wednesday, March 6 from 2-4PM in Dealy 115. The book offers provocative ideas which challenge how we think of ourselves as readers and interpreters of texts in the digital age.

Introducing: The Jesuit Hacker

“The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.”

E. S. Raymond’s insight kept popping into my head this past Wednesday when I had an opportunity to sit in on the most recent Jesuit Pedagogy Lunchtime Discussion. It was an opportunity for faculty and graduate student instructors to talk about effective practices for teaching in a Jesuit environment. Among the many threads in the discussion was the role of creativity as a pedagogical tool. Participants offered examples of creative projects being used to great success in the classroom. My mind, however, wandered very easily from creativity to creation. I can appreciate the mental exercise at work in imaginative assignments, but what are we building from them? What will we do with them? One of the participants at the discussion expressed dissatisfaction with “research qua research” in the classroom. I’m not sure I’m more satisfied with creativity qua creativity. Look at how much talent we have in the classroom. Let’s use this creativity to make something. Let’s work together to solve some “fascinating problems.”

Solving fascinating problems is the first element of the “hacker attitude” as defined by Raymond in his essay “How to Be a Hacker.” The essay is freely available (not an unimportant point, as we will see in future posts) online at: http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html. Raymond’s essay contains practical wisdom for coders and people interested in computer work. It also has much practical wisdom for graduate students and instructors, particularly, I would argue, those of us in Jesuit surroundings.

For the moment, I will simply introduce Raymond’s five aspects of the “Hacker attitude.” Before I explain what each of these has meant to me in a Jesuit context, I think it would be a good idea for readers to reflect on whether or not these ideas readily map onto whatever they think the corresponding “Jesuit attitude” would look like.

Raymond describes the aspects of the “Hacker attitude” as follows:

  1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
  2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
  3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
  4. Freedom is good.
  5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

The required reading for you—and only a blog post on Jesuit pedagogy would begin with required reading—is Raymond’s essay. Over the next few posts, I plan to explain what we, as graduate students and educators at a Jesuit institution, can learn from computing culture and I will start by elaborating on each of the five points above. I think there will be real benefits from us all adopting, at least in some part, the role of “Jesuit hacker.” It is my suspicion that Raymond’s essay, in addition to other foundational works on hacker culture which I plan to discuss in future posts, will be unfamiliar to average graduate student in the humanities. I hope that this interdisciplinary clash inspire new ideas and approaches and lead to a deeper understanding of the “digital” side of digital humanities.

Prep for Markup Basics Workshop

I’m really looking forward to next week’s workshop: “Markup Basics: Build an Online CV in 45 Minutes”. We will be meeting Tuesday 10/23 at 3:00pm in Walsh 047.

In order for us to get our CV marked up in 45 minutes, it will helpful to have a few things taken care of before the meeting. The workshop assumes that everyone will be working on their own laptop, but it is not a necessity. If you want to work on one of the lab computers (or do not wish to install any software), that’s fine. Some (relatively minor) parts of the workshop will not be available, but you will still be able to markup your document and leave with an HTML/CSS-based CV.

Note that this is a markup workshop aimed at complete beginners. That said, if you have HTML/CSS experience but do not have a formatted CV, consider using the 45 minutes to get this done. Your shared expertise will no doubt also be appreciated by those sitting around you.

Bring to the workshop:

  • Your current CV. A .doc or .pdf might save you a bit of time, as you will be able to cut and paste.
  • Your laptop. I will be using a Mac but the workshop will work for any platform. You will need to have a browser installed (e.g. Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) and a text editor (e.g. TextEdit for Mac, Notepad for PC, etc. but see below)

Before the workshop:

As mentioned above, these are not required, but I plan to share a few time-saving hints that take advantage of their features. NB: I will be using a Mac with TextWrangler and Chrome.

See you next Tuesday. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.—Patrick

Notes on Paperless Teaching

Patrick Burns
Thanks for all the insightful comments and positive feedback on my talk at Tuesday’s meeting, Eliminating the Handout: Paperless Teaching and the Less-Paper Reality. One things that came through is that we’re in a transitional period and eliminating the handout probably isn’t entirely practical yet. But five years from now—perhaps sooner!—the volume of paper that many of us still deal with on a regular basis will seem extremely old-fashioned. As we embrace this transition, here are a few things worth keeping in mind:

Will having a paperless classroom make your life more difficult?
Paper is a tool and often a very useful one. While I might cringe a bit if an instructor regularly passed out stapled, 30-page, one-sided readings, the occasional handout is not going to hurt anyone. For me, it was a matter of making my teaching style fit better with the rest of my workflow and that meant avoiding paper wherever possible. It also meant that I had many other parts of a rock-solid paperless system already in place. Accordingly, wholesale change might not be practical when you have all of your other teaching responsibilities to take care of. For now, perhaps it would be best to simply become more conscious of your paper needs by asking yourself before heading over to the copier: why do my students need this and why do they need a paper copy?

Are you ready to make your classroom computer friendly?
Based on several conversations I’ve had recently, laptops and tablets are for the most part still an unwelcome guest in class. The main reason given is that they are distracting. It is hard to argue that a student who spends class time on Facebook, or texting, or playing games, or [fill-in-the-blank] is not going to be distracted, or worse, distract other students. That said, I have found that making the laptop or tablet a focal point for in-class work seems to reduce these temptations. (I’m not delusional—I said reduce, not eliminate.) Of course, if the technology makes you uncomfortable, the benefits of a paperless classroom are never going to outweigh the negative impact on your teaching style. Paperless teaching is not a goal in itself, but a strategy for making the best use of your time, energy and resources as a teacher. Make no concessions that do not serve the main goal.

Are your students ready for a computer-friendly classroom?
Of course they are, or so I thought heading into this semester. This one surprised me. I can’t imagine doing seriously work without my laptop and I assumed my students felt the same way. As it turns out, they are in a transitional period too. We are starting to see a handful of students in each class fully committed to taking notes on their laptops and reading articles on their tables, but there many more who instinctively reach for pen and paper. It appears that many of them are open to computer-centric study habits, but for whatever reason—perhaps the no-device policies of other instructors or anxiety about experimenting with a new workflow mid-semester—are slow to adopt them. I have no doubt that this will change and perhaps change quickly. In the meantime, be aware that despite your best efforts at keeping paper to a minimum, you may need to deal with some resistance.

Are you comfortable with online assessment?
With my intro and intermediate language classes, quizzes are the biggest paper burden and finding some other way for regular assessment and feedback is very appealing. I’ll be honest though—I’m not there yet on this one. Still I am willing to experiment. This semester, I’ve begun to administer quizzes through Blackboard. It is too early to report the results of this experiment, but I can say that so far I’ve been happy with two things specifically: 1. quizzes no longer take up valuable class time and 2. I no longer have to manage the non-stop administer-collect-grade-return cycle. I will jettison this experiment in a second if I think that my students are learning less Latin. Again, too early to tell. Look for a future post about what I discover.

I aspire to a paperless lifestyle outside of the classroom. Moreover, I’m at the point where my laptop and my phone are with me at all times. That’s where I do my much of my reading and where I jot down all of my notes. It would feel disingenuous to run my classroom with different priorities. My experiments are going well on the whole and I’m dealing with setbacks in turn. I think it is important for all of us to maintain an open discussion of successes and failures as we adopt the tools and strategies of digital pedagogy. Keep me posted on your own paperless progress in the comments.

—Patrick J. Burns