What would it mean to turn a class of undergraduates – one of the most important emerging digital humanities communities – loose on a text analysis puzzle unintentionally created by England’s poet laureate? This poster presentation will report on the process, outcomes, successes, and failures of an original research project for those just learning about the possibilities of humanities computing.
Carol Ann Duffy was named the poet laureate of Britain in May 2009, the first Scot, woman, and openly gay person to hold this position. While this choice signaled a desire for diversity and inclusiveness on the part of the crown, the most important criterion for her selection was her poetry itself. Tackling traditional themes of love along with less conventional ones such as sport, what most sets apart Duffy’s poetry from many of her contemporaries is its style, which, on the occasion of her appointment, Sarah Lyall in The New York Times described as ‘deceptively simple’ and which ‘produce[s] accessible, often mischievous poems dealing with the darkest turmoil and the lightest minutiae of everyday life’ (Lyall 2009).
Perhaps Duffy’s style is best exemplified by her 1999 volume, The World’s Wife, in which she presents short dramatic monologues from the women married to famous men throughout history, mythology, and literature. She presents the stories of ‘Mrs. Darwin’, ‘Mrs. Sisyphus’, and ‘Mrs. Quasimodo’, among others. Clever, humorous, and filled with poems that even rhyme, The World’s Wife sold tremendously well and began to be used regularly in classrooms. Yet critics felt that the collection was of substantially different quality when compared to her three previous, prize-winning collections. As Jeanette Winterson reported in a profile on Duffy, The World’s Wife prompted reactions that had critics ‘ask[ing] questions about whether Duffy had lost her balance. Had she stopped writing poetry and slipped into verse?’ (Winterson).
While Duffy did not comment publicly on such evaluations of her work, undergraduate students in my Spring 2009 poetry class discovered evidence that she was aware of a difference between The World’s Wife and those volumes that had preceded it. While exploring her recently acquired papers (http://findingaids.library.emory.edu/documents/duffy834/) in Emory University’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), the students found an undated letter from Duffy to the publisher of her previous volumes. She writes that she will be publishing The World’s Wife with another press: ‘…this book is not a “normal” poetry collection by me – it’s closer to popular entertainment, if you like’ (Duffy). So while Duffy later told Winterson that the question of perceived differences in her volumes doesn’t concern her (Winterson), her letter makes it clear that she perceives real differences prior to the publication of The World’s Wife.
This discovery by my students in a 2009 became the seed for the capstone project in my current course, ‘Introduction to Digital Humanities’ (http://www.briancroxall.net/dh): we are testing Duffy’s own words to see whether The World’s Wife truly does differ from her ‘“normal” poetry collection[s].’ To this end, we are reading The World’s Wife alongside her previous volume, Mean Time (1993), which won both the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize and Whitbread Poetry Award. Initially, students wrote essays that employed close reading to make an argument about whether or not there are differences between the two volumes. The class then turned to less traditional modes of analysis. Each student was assigned a number of poems from each volume to transcribe, preparatory for analysis in the suite of Voyant (http://hermeneuti.ca/voyeur), formerly Voyeur (Rockwell 2011), designed by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell. Students used different facets of Voyant to explore possible shifts in Duffy’s language between the two texts: word frequency, the number of unique words, word collocation, and more. With other tools, we tested the relative line lengths between the volumes and the readability scores of Duffy’s language. Students worked in teams on the different modules to understand and interpret their results. The class also turned to the archives and Duffy’s notebooks to determine (anecdotally) the rate of changes and corrections between particular poems in the different volumes. Finally, inspired by Stephen Ramsay’s arguments that ‘Digital Humanities is about building things’ and Mark Sample’s suggestion that digital humanities is ‘about sharing’, the students built interpretive arguments about their findings and shared them via the course website.
As mentioned, this poster reports on the processes of designing a digital humanities research project, the process of making those findings public, and the exposure of undergraduates to some of the basic tools and methods of textual analysis. It incorporates not only the results of textual analysis, but also feedback from students about their experience learning new tools and approaches, including a strong emphasis on collaboration – a rarity in most humanities coursework. The presentation continues the trend to discuss the intersection of pedagogy and digital humanities; multiple panels on this subject are being convened at the 2012 Modern Language Convention, for example, and the 2011 Digital Humanities conference at Stanford featured posters by Katherine D. Harris and Beth Bonsignore et al. on the subject (Croxall & Berens 2011; Harris 2011a, 2011b; Bonsignore 2011). This presentation in particular builds on Harris’s work on the necessity of uncertainty when designing opportunities for ‘ play ’ by presenting students with a research assignment in which the outcomes are not yet predetermined by the instructor (Harris 2011b).
While reporting on original text analysis research, this presentation simultaneously examines how undergraduates and pedagogy are important facets of the increasingly diverse community of practice that is digital humanities.
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