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You Already Know How to Do This: Natively Digital Victorian Studies

2013 October 21

By Shawna Ross, Arizona State University

AShawna Rossre you a Victorianist for the texture? For the alterity of antiquation, the distance from cell phones and computer screens, the grainy look of moveable type, the strange dimensionality of lithographs? If the charm of analog transfixes you, it may seem that the the digital may be not just alien but positively antagonistic to the values and preferences that drew you to the field. Or you may also draw back from the digital humanities (DH) due to a (probably inflated) sense of your lack of computing finesse. But, as my title suggests, I’d like to give you three reasons why you are already, practically, doing digital humanities.

First of all, the kind of global, systemic thinking generated by reading the vast and deliciously wordy, deliciously visual archive of Victorian literature and culture is suited to the go-to methods of DH. From data visualization and data mining to network analysis and quantitative criticism, all of these techniques require a certain archival perspective that any neo-Victorianist possesses simply from comparing David Copperfield to Bleak House or from assembling a sufficient collection of 1870s French fashion plates to formulate a thesis or from adding onto a syllabus just the right excerpts to create the most suggestive set of descriptive coordinates for “Darwin.”

Perhaps it is this native—by which I mean passive or lucky—parallelism that explains why some of the earliest examples of literary digital humanities projects are Victorianist: the William Blake Archive (http://www.blakearchive.org/), the Rossetti Archive (http://www.blakearchive.org/), Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), even our Old Reliable, the Victorian Web (http://www.victorianweb.org/). Neo-Victorian approaches in particular, with their emphasis on interdisciplinarity and visual culture, encourage skills that are quite desirable in the image-dominant platforms of DH projects. There may be, in digital humanities circles, some (reductive) pitting of “tool users” against “tool builders,” but underneath this sparring is the collaboration necessary for gathering the diverse array of skills engaged by any DH project.

In other words, even in digital humanities, no man is an island—not even a programmer. It’s easy to lose sight of this mutualism (perhaps we have been trained by the film industry to prefer the perversely glamorous image of the scrappy, knowing, loner hacker), but it is because of this collaboration and sharing that any given neo-Victorianist can engage in digital humanities-inflected projects. As a largely copyright-free domain, we are free to upload virtually any text or interpretable object and subject it to a variety of computational processes. With this reduced barrier to entry for engaging in digital humanities both in research and in the classroom, Victorian studies literally incurs a lower cost for high tech than many other fields.

See through the aura of expertise that surrounds digital humanities, whose practitioners maintain ad-hoc, playful, and welcoming attitude toward digital analysis. The digital humanities mindset is already yours as a neo-Victorianist. Spend half an hour dabbling in a few tools, whether by surfing Project Bamboo (http://dirt.projectbamboo.org/) or trying these low-barrier-to-entry tools:

  1. Google Ngram Viewer: Trace the popularity of any phrase(s) over time by assessing its frequency in GoogleBooks’ assets.
  2. Word Clouds: Input text to create a visualization of word usage through sites like Wordle. Works great as a classroom exercise.
  3. Voyant: Upload a digital text—you can use your own current writing project or grab some from Project Gutenberg if you do not have a chunk of text ready—to discern the unusual qualities or patterns in the uploaded selection.
  4. Juxta: Select versions of a given text to streamline (and share) comparisons.

Shawna Ross completed her doctorate in English Victorian and Modernist Literature at Pennsylvania State University in 2011. She is currently a Lecturer at Arizona State University. Her book manuscript investigates the mutually reciprocal relations between the growth of modernist narrative and of modern leisure institutions (including hotels, spas, and cruise ships) during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She has published on Elizabeth Bowen, Henry James, and Katherine Mansfield, and her other research interests include economic critique, spatial theory, and the digital humanities.

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