Reading Literature with Computers: Week of January 10

One week into Reading Literature with Computers, I’m feeling very excited for the course! This is in some ways a familiar course to me as a digital studies major – I’ve dabbled in text analysis tools for DGST courses here, done some preliminary research on stylometry back in high school, and once spent a self-absorbed but undoubtedly illustrative four hours putting years of my own diary through Voyant Tools. In some ways, though, it’s a very out-of-the-box course for me as a senior seminar in English rather than a digital studies course – my primary areas in literary studies are literary modernism and postmodernism or American studies-adjacent courses. I’ve not often encountered computational literary studies, and when I did, the context in which they were presented to me left me fairly skeptical. Obviously I’d already come into the course with an intellectual curiosity about its primary methodology, but I still very much appreciated Dr. Whalen’s introductory lecture on Wednesday and his analysis of the phrase “distant reading,” which was definitely first presented to me in a “forget close reading, some people say what we need now is distant reading” kind of context.

As for Beloved, I haven’t read it before, though I do know the broad outlines of the plot. (Unfortunately for me, I was my Quiz Bowl team’s Designated Literature Guy in high school, which meant Sparknotes-ing half the canon in preparation for tournaments.) That said, I have read Paradise for Dr. Haffey’s Postmodern Women Writers course, and Sula for a “choose your own book and write about it”-type final paper in senior year of high school. I loved both – Sula especially, as the last book I’d ever read for a high school assignment, felt to me like my transition from the Scarlet Letters and Great Gatsbys of my high school English classes and into being a ‘real English major.’ On a personal level, it’s nice to know there’s another Morrison novel incorporated into my second senior spring. I’m expecting to be horrified and enthralled and moved in equal measures and for very good reasons; I’m expecting to be challenged, and hoping to rise to it. I’m expecting also to have some trouble reconciling my past experiences with text-analysis (which were, as I mentioned, rather frivolous experiments in self-examination) with the seriousness and weight that Morrison’s work holds in my head.

As I mentioned in the Discord server I missed the entire gubernatorial election due to being busy gadding around the UK at the time. (Maybe it’s not ‘good citizenship’ to check out of American political discourse to such an extent, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the break.) I hadn’t, though, wholly evaded the controversy surrounding banned books that emerged in Spotsylvania County last fall – in fact, I woke up one morning to find that a friend of mine who lived in Brazil was tweeting about my college town’s nearby county, which was fairly surreal. I bring this up because I think issues of readership and school curricula in Virginia are deeply interconnected, and have certainly impacted both my frustrations with high school and my gratitude to the English major at UMW. I spent two years of high school in the Nashville, Tennessee school system and two in that of James City County, Virginia. In those four years, I was assigned one novel by a person of color in the classroom (Things Fall Apart), and two novels by a woman (To Kill a Mockingbird and Wuthering Heights).

This (as Dr. Whalen said in class, an act of reading at a thousand-yard-distance) is all just to say that reading and understanding matters, questioning established structures matters, and intellectual curiosity about new ways to read and new ways to understand matter, too. And that’s to say: I’m excited to see what we learn from the rest of the semester!

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