English 203 as a Macro-system for Measuring the Impact of Digital Humanities

Thesis:

In order to gain the most from any piece of literature when using digital tools, a balance needs to be reached. The reader needs to present both the quantitative results given from a digital tool, and the qualitative thoughts from personal readings in a balanced argument.

Introduction:

In the past we’ve seen several distinct disciplinary fields as a critical or central point of study within the humanities. New-historicism, post-structuralism, political theory, feminine and identity-based theories have all had moments in which each respective discipline has been the main focus at a post-secondary institution. This is especially true when considering canonical texts such as Shakespeare’s works. While it is common now for Humanities departments to focus on inter-disciplinary studies, should the digital humanities become a prioritized discipline, critical reading skills may become a thing of the past. The likelihood of this isn’t all that surprising, considering the Digital Humanities does not, itself, offer any new area of critique, but rather is supplementary to other critiques.  Simon Tanner is interested in measuring the impact that digitized resources can have on particular applications. He questions, “How has the digital resource delivered a positive change in a defined group of people’s lives or life opportunities?” Negative impact is important to consider as well, although it is a cynical view on the digital humanities. In this blog, I’m presenting my personal results from the English 203 course as a measurement of the impact of digitized resources on the humanities – specifically, on literary studies and analysis. I feel that my experience will outline that although the digital tools have a place in literary studies, they need to be carefully introduced and regulated to ensure critical reading and deep thought are maintained within the humanities.

 

Important Considerations:

  • TaPOR – there are strengths and weaknesses of the tool I personally used. While it may not be the best tool to produce a blanket statement on the digital humanties, it was nonetheless what I became most familiar with during the semester so my post will focus on it.
  • Focus on Hamlet – the depth of study that has already gone into a canonical text such as Hamlet certainly affects how much unique analysis digital tools can pull out of the text.

 

Initial hesitation with the Digital Humanities:

Like many of my fellow students in English 203, the first few weeks during phase 1, I had a certain stubbornness that led to hesitancy in embracing digital tools to analyze Hamlet. My fellow TaPOR ‘expert’ Kira summed up how I was feeling perfectly in her first blog post: “the tool is pulling my focus away from the text I am analyzing.” With this in mind, I made a concerted effort to use TaPOR sparingly and combine it with actual deep reading of Hamlet. The result was that during phase 2, I found a much healthier relationship between digital tools and the text itself.

 

Act 2 as an area of focus for Hamlet:

            One of the most fortunate aspects of having this digital humanities class in the winter semester was that I was able to study Hamlet in the English 205 class during the fall semester. The result was the ability to connect themes/ideas discussed and brought out by close-reading and critical thought from English 205, with the quantitative results that are given anytime a digital tool is used.

I discussed in my first blog post for phase 2, the word “know” caught my attention when I first uploaded Act 2 into TaPOR and ran the go-to List Words tool:

The connection of the pursuit for knowledge with “know” lead not only myself, but other group members in phase 2 (all of which focusing on their distinct digital tool of expertise) to narrow our analysis to the theme of surveillance. The theme of surveillance was, in this case, illuminated by quantitative results given by digital tools: the fact that “know” was written 14 times within act 2. Yet these quantitative results, on their own, are nothing but numbers. It was the human connection of “know” to the theme of surveillance that was most engaging and fruitful. Throughout phase 2 I found myself returning to knowledge I had gained in English 205. Whether it was re-reading notes and papers I had written from the previous semester or re-watching a clip of David Tennant as Hamlet, essentially I was going back to knowledge presented through lectures or close reading of physical, un-digitized text and re-envisioning it to fit with results TaPOR had given.  I felt most inspired in phase 2 during the moments I was connecting the vague results TaPOR gave, to my prior knowledge of the text itself.  Reflecting upon this implicates a question: was TaPOR providing me with useful quantitative analysis of the text, or was I just stretching information TaPOR gave me to fit with my prior knowledge of the text?

 

Qualitative vs Quantitative Results:

Consider the following results TaPOR gave on the lines in which “know” is uttered in Act 2:

While I posted this image in my second blog for phase 2 I did not notice certain options the TaPOR results gave me until I had looked at them for a second time. If we look in particular when Hamlet states to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “I know the good / king and queen have sent for you,” (Hamlet 2.2.244-45) we see a resulting question that TaPOR is unable to answer: Why does Hamlet use the word “good” to describe the king? Sarcasm is the most likely answer, but there are a few ways to approach it:

  • Hamlet is sarcastic, and his friends are aware of and understand his sarcasm.
  • Hamlet is sarcastic but his friends are oblivious to it
  • Hamlet is simply using a respectful term to mention both Claudius and Gertrude, and it says nothing about either his relationship with Claudius or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Whichever answer is chosen, it is important to address because it says something about a relationship between characters. It is through small moments like this that TaPOR was able to direct me into a spot in the text I may have glossed over before.

            Another example of this occurred when I used the CAPS finder tool in TaPOR on act 2:

With the theme of surveillance in my mind, TaPOR was able to direct me to the allusion to Pyrrhus at Priam found near the Acts end when the players are reciting: “Unequal matched, / Pyrrus at Priam drives, in rage and strikes wide” (Hamlet 2.2.395-96). Using the quantitative result TaPOR provided of the allusion, I could qualitatively connect the reference to the Trojan horse with the deception that occurs within Hamlet.

There were moments, such as those mentioned above, in which I had reached an effective balance between the digital tool and critical/deep human reading. These balances seemed to always occur when the quantitative results (the digital results given in unarguable quantities) were then qualitatively (tone, qualities, and connections based on personal readings) linked to a theme, character, or opinion. It is in this manner that I found textual analysis with digital tools to be most beneficial.

 

Measuring Impact for Digitized Resources:

Simon Tanner discusses in his blog the need to measure the impact digital resources have. He defines “impact” as: “the measurable outcomes arising from the existence of a digital resource that demonstrate a change in the life or life opportunities of the community for which the resource is intended.” From the use of digital tools in English 203, I found a change in the way I engaged with the text. Although it didn’t always feel like a positive engagement – in the academic sense – once a balance of digital humanities and, for lack of a better word, ‘old fashioned’ reading was met, the change (from humanities to digital humanities) became productive.

But how can this impact be measured?

This class itself is a way to measure the impact of digital resources on the humanities. Tanner discusses social impact assessment as an assessment that “looks more closely at individuals, organisations and social macro-systems.” The individual blog posts, and the academic community that followed from class/group discussion and online discussion in English 203 is itself a “social macro-system” for the digital humanities as a whole. In order to measure this particular social impact assessment, a simple reading of all the blog posts (in particular the final blog posts in phase 3) would suffice. The blogs could be categorized into positive and negative reactions to ultimately measure how positive or negative the impact of digital tools was on literary analysis, and ultimately on the humanities.

Conclusion:

The impact of digitized resources on the humanities based on my interaction during this course was, overall, positive. Again, this is due to the balance of qualitative, close reading and analysis of the text itself with the quantitative digital results of TaPOR.

Although close/deep reading and critical analysis was still a part of my experience in the digital humanities, I mentioned in the introduction my concern for the potential elimination of these skills. I’ll end this post with a point for reflection:

As mentioned above, it is important to consider TaPOR itself. Technology will undoubtedly improve (or perhaps in other tools, it already has) beyond the limitations I sometimes found when applying TaPOR to Hamlet. In the future canonical texts, such as Hamlet, may have been extensively incorporated into digital tools to such an extent that those tools have the ability to produce qualitative results. For example, the tool could have suggestions for why the word “know” is said as many times as it is in Act 2, or that Hamlet is, perhaps, sarcastic in mentioning Claudius as a “good” king.  If this is the case, those using the tool may not question the qualitative results and simply accept them. I personally never questioned the quantitative results given from TaPOR, yet still incorporated them into my analysis. If qualitative results can be given through a digital tool, where is the need to do any close reading? The text will, through the digital tool, have a defined reason or answer within it, and no further analysis will be needed. The relationship between the reader and the text would become hollow and unengaged, and the digital tool will have entirely pulled the reader away from the physical text being analyzed. All answers will, in a sense, be coming from outside the text itself.

It is because of this that I am most hesitant to proclaim the digital humanities should be a discipline that can be central to literary studies. If the balance between digital and personal interaction with the text can be maintained, as I was able to do during this course, then it is certainly a positive impact on the humanities. Considering technologies constant and constantly accelerating improvement, it seems unrealistic that future students in English 203 will be able to reach this balance as easily as I did.

Through a personal impact assessment of my interaction with digital tools and Hamlet in English 203, I was able to take a positive stance on the digital humanities because I found a balance between the digital results and my own readings. With the constant improvement of the tools being used in the digital humanities, will this balance be attainable in the future?

 

 

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Robert S. Miola. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2011. Print.

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