For Students

This is a workbook about text analysis. Many of you are probably used to analyzing texts in one form or another, whether that be by carefully considering the parts of a literary text or thinking about the words in a historical document. But even though we’ll be doing both those things, we are using the phrase “text analysis” in a slightly different fashion: to talk about how we can use computers to help analyze texts in new ways.

Text analysis is often understood as one of the methodologies of the digital humanities, alongside other activities like creating digital exhibits and online mapping. We’ll talk a lot (and you’ll read a lot) about digital humanities in class. Essentially, this refers to how we are using computers and new technology in the humanities. Laura Mandell offers one helpful definition of what the digital humanities are in an interview with the LA Review of Books:

But the best definition of the digital humanities, I think, is bringing digital methods to bear on humanities research and then interrogating the digital humanities by humanities research.

In the same interview series, Ted Underwood describes digital humanities as “a vague interest in technology.” We will keep a kindred definition in mind as we move forward: the digital humanities involves using technology to think critically and thinking critically about technology. We will use new tools to think about old texts and we explore the applications, perils and pitfalls of these new methods.

You may have heard of the term big data to describe how scholars, businesses and governments are using vast amounts of data to understand the complexities of human behavior. What you will do in this class is learn about how you can use texts in these same ways. But at the same time, we want to introduce you to some of the ways that seemingly objective “facts” and “findings” can be misleading and the product of prejudice, error and/or flawed design. Humanities students are often very good at understanding the biases and assumptions of a text. You might not necessarily be as versed in doing the same with statistical models or charts and graphs, but we hope this class will give you some experience in doing so. You will get some exposure to working with textual data and also learn about what you can contribute to these conversations.

You may be wondering: what is this thing called the humanities? At one level, this is just a group of disciplines or fields of study, one that often includes literature, philosophy, history, art history, and religion, and is distinct from the social sciences (politics, economics, psychology) and the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics). If you search the internet, you can probably find thousands of different definitions of what unites the students and scholars in these different fields. One that we particularly like is from Daniel Boyarin and Michael Nylan (in religion and history, respectively). They propose that the humanities examines:

the different ways that human beings have chosen or been able to live their lives as human beings.

They also suggest that what unites the humanities is a common methodology:

The primary method for the study of humans through the investigation of their cultural products is interpretation….I would say that the greatest difference, as far as I understand scientific method, is that for us hypotheses emerge from the data as we study and interpret, and are constantly being modified and corrected, while the natural sciences seem to begin with hypotheses that they test.

This class is taught by an English professor and a History professor. You’ll probably notice that we have slightly different approaches and knowledge bases and occassionally use a somewhat different terminology to describe the same things. But fundamentally, we work in many of the same ways: reading and analyzing texts and thinking about meaning and cultural context. You do too, whether you realize or not, and this class aims to help you do so in different ways.

For Students in History 211

We suggest that you read this coursebook online as opposed to downloading it as a PDF, Mobi or ePub, since some of the embedded material will only show up online. Additionally, we may make changes to the book during the course of the term, so you want to make sure you are reading the most up-to-date version of this book.

Further Resources