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Debating the Methods in Matt Jockers's Macroanalysis

On September 3rd we had our second meeting of the Stanford Digital Humanities Reading Group, in which we discussed Matt Jockers’s new book, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History. Because Jockers is a former colleague, a co-founder of Stanford’s Literary Lab, and a friend to several people in the reading group, I went into this meeting anxious that we might all be too happy with his book to sustain ninety minutes of conversation. I was very wrong. Jacqueline Hettel, whose Ph.D. research focused on text analysis of domain-specific language using corpus linguistics, prompted a vigorous debate about the methods Jockers uses in Macroanalysis. Hettel’s primary critique is that the statistical methods behind topic modeling, word frequencies, and other methods that undergird the book’s chapters are heavily dependent upon a set of assumptions common to NLP, Chomsky, and other primarily American approaches to understanding language.

ORBIS Design Challenge

Since its launch in May 2012, ORBIS has always been very popular. This is in spite of breaking some fundamental web design rules, such as placing the key interactive element on a non-descript tab rather than the opening page. But the capacity to calculate travel times and cost for oxcarts and armies in the Roman world is still a "killer feature" and traffic to ORBIS remains steady.

Kindred Britain Techniques 1: Permalinks on a Graph

Kindred Britain has a handful of patterns and functions that are rather novel in their creation or deployment. In this series, I'll be exploring the methodology and motivation for them, as well as go into some technical detail as to how they work. The first feature I'd like to focus on is the use of rich permalinks for sharing Kindred Britain. These direct links to particular states of Kindred Britain mean that when you share a link like this:

http://kindred.stanford.edu/#/path/full/none/none/I17722/I17760/

..it doesn't just open up Kindred Britain, but rather it opens up a very particular view of Kindred Britain, in this case the genealogical path from General Robert E. Lee to President Zachary Taylor.

Genealogical path from Robert E Lee to Zachary Taylor

Kindred Britain and Scholarship

Redundant as it may seem to say, Kindred Britain is a project that spans generations. Not only the generations of the database’s inhabitants, spread over the last thousand or so years as they are, but the more recent and less distinctly segregated generations of scholars. As an undergraduate research assistant, I was fortunate enough to be one of two people to work on Kindred Britain who was born after the Internet.

Kindred Britain did not, simply on premise, impress me. I’ve read articles for months -- on my personally tailored RSS feed -- about the rise of data visualization and interdisciplinary projects on university campuses. I got my email address at age eight. I can barely remember a time when “Googling something” for the answer was not an option.

It took a little discussion with my superiors for me to fully grasp -- and even now, I’m not sure that someone of my age can -- the significance of a project like Kindred Britain. The professor from whom the project sprang like a regular Athena, Nicholas Jenkins, was trained as a scholar in the ‘90s, roughly around the same time that the commercialized Internet and I made our way into the world, one of us with slightly more impact than the other. He was educated in a world where the spheres of the humanities and technology simply did not touch, nevermind overlap to create a data visualization project integrating traditional scholarly narratives.

Kindred Britain: A sign of our times

Today marks the public release of Kindred Britain, a new interactive scholarly work that explores the role of family in British culture. Integrating geospatial, temporal, and network information visualization, this project attempts to demonstrate the genealogical interconnectedness of the British elite. In doing so it expands the notion of Britishness, and the notion of society and culture in general, such that through family ties we can see George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Sigmund Freud, and Kevin Bacon all included among these kindred British. To achieve this took significant effort not only in writing code, but in envisioning how to present so much information of so many different kinds in a way that did not overwhelm a reader. I want to stress the concept of the reader here, rather than a "user" since to create a site like this one has to move away from the stereotype of the user with their short attention span and incapacity to grasp complexity. It doesn't pay to create works for users, and buy into the myth that no one reads anything on the Internet and that a website has to be designed for someone with a ten-second attention span. Works like Kindred Britain and ORBIS not only include much flashy and interactive content, but vast quantities of text.

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