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Seven ways humanists are using computers to understand text


[This is an updated version of a blog post I wrote three years ago, which organized introductory resources for a workshop. Getting ready for another workshop this summer, I glanced back at the old post and realized it’s out of date, because we’ve collectively covered a lot of ground in three years. Here’s an overhaul.]

Why are humanists the usage of computer programs to trace textual teach at all?

Section of the level of the phrase “digital humanities” is to yelp facts technology as something that belongs in the humanities — no longer an invader from some numerous topic. And it’s upright, humanistic interpretation has continuously had a technological dimension: we organized writing with long-established books and concordances before we took up keyword search [Nowviskie, 2004; Stallybrass, 2007].

But framing new examine opportunities as a particularly humanistic walk known as “DH” has the downside of obscuring a better relate. Computational methods are remodeling the social and pure sciences as exceptional as the humanities, and they’re doing so partly by creating new conversations between disciplines. One amongst the critical ways computer programs are altering the textual humanities is by mediating new connections to social science. The statistical fashions that relief sociologists trace social stratification and social replace haven’t in the previous contributed exceptional to the humanities, because it’s been sophisticated to connect quantitative fashions to the richer, looser arrangement of evidence equipped by written documents. But that barrier is dissolving. As new methods form it less complicated to signify unstructured textual teach in a statistical mannequin, a range of tantalizing questions are opening up for social scientists and humanists alike [O’Connor et. al. 2011].

Briefly, computational prognosis of textual teach is no longer a particular new technology or a subfield of digital humanities; it’s a extensive-launch conversation in the gap between several numerous disciplines. Humanists in overall come this conversation hoping to rating digital instruments that can automate acquainted tasks. That’s a real situation to launch: I’ll point out instruments you probably can also spend to execute a concordance or a be aware cloud. And it’s wonderful to forestall there. Extra involved forms of textual teach prognosis stop launch up to resemble social science, and humanists are below no duty to dabble in social science.

But I ought to aloof additionally warn you that digital instruments are gateway medicine. This ingredient known as “textual teach prognosis” or “a long way-off reading” is de facto an interdisciplinary conversation about methods, and if you occur to get drawn into the conversation, you probably can also merely rating that it’s top to test up on a range of issues that aren’t packaged but as instruments.

What can we if truth be told stop?

The image below is a design of a few issues you probably can also stop with textual teach (impressed by, though numerous from, Alan Liu’s design of “digital humanities”). The root is to offer you a loose sense of how numerous actions are linked to numerous disciplinary traditions. We’ll launch in the center, and spiral out; right here is upright a come to arrange dialogue, and isn’t essentially meant to counsel a sequential work float.


1) Visualize single texts.

Text prognosis is every so frequently represented as a part of a “new modesty” in the humanities [Williams]. Usually, that’s a weird and wonderful thought. Most of the methods described in this put up diagram to thunder patterns hidden from particular particular person readers — no longer an extremely modest project. But there are a few forms of prognosis that can also merely depend as ground readings, because they visualize textual patterns that are launch to yelp inspection.

For instance, folks treasure cartoons by Randall Munroe that visualize the plots of acquainted movies by exhibiting which characters are collectively at numerous aspects in the legend.

Detail from an xkcd cartoon.

Part from an xkcd comic strip.

These cartoons display mask little we didn’t know. They’re fun to in discovering in part since the narratives being represented are acquainted: we get to rediscover acquainted cloth in a graphical medium that makes it straightforward to zoom to and fro between macroscopic patterns and tiny print. Network graphs that connect characters are fun to in discovering for a identical motive. It’s aloof a topic of debate what (if anything else) they display mask; it’s essential to love in tips that fictional networks can behave very differently from real-world social networks [Elson, et al., 2010]. But folks are inclined to rating them attention-grabbing.

A concordance additionally, in a means, tells us nothing we couldn’t learn by reading on our like. But critics however rating them worthwhile. In uncover so that you can form a concordance for a single work (or for that topic a whole library), AntConc is a real tool.

Visualization solutions themselves are a topic that can also deserve a whole separate dialogue.

2) Take care of parts to signify texts.

A scholar enterprise computational prognosis of textual teach needs to acknowledge to two questions. First, how are you able to signify texts? 2d, what are you going to forestall with that representation if you’ve bought it? Most what follows will focal level on the 2nd quiz, because there are a range of equally real answers to the first one — and your resolution to the first quiz doesn’t essentially constrain what you stop next.

In be aware, texts are in overall represented merely by counting the a range of phrases they like (they are handled as so-known as “baggage of phrases”). Because this representation of textual teach is radically numerous from readers’ sequential journey of language, folks are inclined to be bowled over that it works. But the diagram of computational prognosis is no longer, despite everything, to breed the modes of determining readers like already finished. If we’re attempting to thunder extensive-scale patterns that wouldn’t be evident in long-established reading, it might probably per chance also merely no longer if truth be told be well-known to retrace the syntactic patterns that situation up readers’ determining of train passages. And it turns out that a range of extensive-scale questions are registered on the extent of be aware desire: authorship, theme, model, meant viewers, etc. The recognition of Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that folks in overall rating be aware frequencies attention-grabbing in their like real.

But there are a whole bunch numerous ways to signify textual teach. You need to possibly per chance depend two-be aware phrases, or measure white space if you occur to treasure. Qualitative facts that can’t be counted can also additionally be represented as a “categorical variable.” It’s additionally doable to love in tips syntax, in uncover so that you can. Computational linguists are getting somewhat real at parsing sentences; many of their insights had been packaged accessibly in initiatives treasure the Pure Language Toolkit. And there will indubitably be examine questions — though-provoking, as an illustration, the theory that of persona — that require syntactic prognosis. But they’ve an inclination no longer to be questions that are appropriate for folks upright starting out.

3) Name distinctive vocabulary.

It could also additionally be somewhat straightforward, on the numerous hand, to make worthwhile insights on the extent of diction. These are claims of a form that literary students like long made: The Norton Anthology of English Literature proves that William Wordsworth emblematizes Romantic alienation, as an illustration, by asserting that “the phrases ‘solitary,’ ‘by one self,’ ‘alone’ sound by way of his poems” [Greenblatt et. al., 16].

Of course, literary students like additionally learned to be cautious of these claims. I squawk Wordsworth does write “alone” loads: however does he indubitably stop so better than numerous writers? “By myself” is a overall be aware. How stop we distinguish real insights about diction from specious cherry-selecting?

Corpus linguists like developed a desire of the way to title locutions that are indubitably overrepresented in a single pattern of writing relative to others. One amongst essentially the most on the total archaic is Dunning’s log-likelihood: Ben Schmidt has explained why it works, and it’s without enlighten accessible on-line by way of Voyant or downloaded in the AntConc utility already talked about. So if you occur to could if truth be told like a pattern of 1 author’s writing (yelp Wordsworth), and a reference corpus against which to distinction it (yelp, a collection of numerous poetry), it’s indubitably somewhat straightforward to title phrases that typify Wordsworth relative to the numerous pattern. (There are additionally numerous ways to measure overrepresentation; Adam Kilgarriff recommends a Mann-Whitney test.) And if truth be told there’s somewhat real evidence that “solitary” is amongst the phrases that distinguish Wordsworth from numerous poets.

Words that are consistently more overall in works by William Wordsworth than in numerous poets from 1780 to 1850. I’ve archaic Wordle’s graphics, however the phrases had been selected by a Mann-Whitney test, which measures overrepresentation relative to a context — no longer by Wordle’s like (context-free) arrangement.

It’s additionally straightforward to flip outcomes treasure this right into a be aware cloud — in uncover so that you can. Folks form fun of be aware clouds, with some justice; they’re scrutinize-catching however don’t give you a range of facts. I spend them in weblog posts, because scrutinize-catching, however I wouldn’t in an editorial.

4) Receive or situation up works.

This rubric is shorthand for the extensive desire of numerous ways we can also spend facts technology to arrange collections of written cloth or orient ourselves in discursive space. Humanists already stop this your total time, after all: we depend very heavily on web search, as well to keyword browsing in library catalogs and whole-textual teach databases.

But our contemporary array of solutions can also merely no longer essentially display mask your total issues we want to rating. This can also additionally be evident to historians, who work extensively with unpublished cloth. But it indubitably’s upright even for printed books: works of poetry or fiction printed before 1960, as an illustration, are in overall no longer tagged as “poetry” or “fiction.”

A element from Fig 7 in So and Prolonged, “Network Prognosis and the Sociology of Modernism.”

Despite the truth that we believed that the duty of merely discovering issues had been solved, we would aloof need ways to design or situation up these collections. One attention-grabbing thread of examine over the previous couple of years has involved mapping the concrete social connections that situation up literary manufacturing. Natalie Houston has mapped connections between Victorian poets and publishing properties; Hoyt Prolonged and Richard Jean So like shown how writers are linked by e-newsletter in the identical journals [Houston 2014; So and Long 2013].

There are after all a whole bunch of numerous ways humanists can also want to arrange their cloth. Maps are in overall archaic to visualise references to locations, or locations of e-newsletter. But any other evident come is to community works by some measure of textual similarity.

There aren’t motive-constructed instruments to toughen exceptional of this work. There are instruments for constructing visualizations, however in overall the bigger a part of the enlighten is discovering, or setting up, the metadata you’d like.

5) Mannequin literary forms or genres.

For the period of the the relaxation of this put up I’ll be speaking about “modeling”; underselling the centrality of that belief seems to me the critical oversight in the 2012 put up I’m fixing.

A model treehouse, by Austin and Zak -- CC-NC-SA.

A mannequin treehouse, by Austin and Zak — CC-NC-SA.

A mannequin is a simplified representation of something, and in belief fashions can also additionally be constructed out of phrases, balsa wood, or anything else you treasure. In be aware, in the social sciences, statistical fashions are in overall equations that relate the chance of an affiliation between variables. Regularly the “response variable” is the ingredient you’re attempting to trace (literary arrangement, vote casting habits, or what like you), and the “predictor variables” are issues you squawk can also relief point out or predict it.

This isn’t essentially the most attention-grabbing come to come textual teach prognosis; historically, humanists like tended to launch up as a alternative by first selecting some component of textual teach to measure, and then launching an argument in regards to the importance of the ingredient they measured. I’ve carried out that myself, and it will work. But social scientists take to sort out issues the numerous come round: first title a theory that you’re attempting to trace, and then strive to mannequin it. There’s something to be said for their bizarrely systematic come.

Constructing a mannequin can relief humanists in a desire of the way. Classically, social scientists mannequin concepts in uncover to trace them greater. While you’re attempting to trace the incompatibility between two genres or forms, constructing a mannequin can also relief title the climate that distinguish them.

Students can additionally frame fashions of fully new genres, as Andrew Piper does in a contemporary essay on the “conversional unusual.”

A very simple, imaginary statistical model that distinguishes pages of poetry from pages of prose.

A truly straightforward, imaginary statistical mannequin that distinguishes pages of poetry from pages of prose.

In numerous cases, the level of modeling will no longer if truth be told be to train or point out the theory that being modeled, however very merely to acknowledge it at scale. I learned that I wished to get predictive fashions merely to rating the fiction, poetry, and drama in a collection of 850,000 volumes.

The stress between modeling-to-point out and modeling-to-predict has been discussed at measurement in numerous disciplines [Shmueli, 2010]. But statistical fashions haven’t been archaic extensively in historical examine but, and humanists can also merely well rating ways to spend them that aren’t overall in numerous disciplines. For instance, once now we like a mannequin of a phenomenon, we can also want to quiz questions in regards to the diachronic stability of the pattern we’re modeling. (Does a mannequin expert to acknowledge this model in a single decade form equally real predictions in regards to the next?)

There are a whole bunch application capabilities that can relief you infer fashions of your facts. But assessing the validity and appropriateness of a mannequin is a trickier industry. It’s essential to utterly trace the methods we’re borrowing, and that’s at wretchedness of require a little bit background reading. One can also launch by determining the assumptions implicit in straightforward linear fashions, and work up to the more advanced fashions produced by machine discovering out algorithms [Sculley and Pasanek 2008]. In particular, it’s essential to learn something in regards to the enlighten of “overfitting.” Section of the motive statistical fashions are becoming more worthwhile in the humanities is that new methods form it doable to spend a whole bunch or thousands of variables, which in flip makes it doable to signify unstructured textual teach (those baggage of phrases are inclined to love a range of variables). But extensive numbers of variables elevate the wretchedness of “overfitting” your facts, and also you’ll want to understand how to lead clear of that.

6) Mannequin social boundaries.

There’s no motive why statistical fashions of textual teach want to be restricted to questions of model and arrangement. Texts are additionally involved on all forms of social transactions, and participants social contexts are in overall legible in the textual teach itself.

For instance, Jordan Sellers and I like recently been discovering out the history of literary distinction by coaching fashions to distinguish poetry reviewed in elite periodicals from a random desire of volumes drawn from a digital library. There are a range of issues we can also learn by doing this, however the cease-line outcome’s that the implicit standards distinguishing elite poetic discourse flip out to be somewhat trusty across a century.

plotmainmodelannotateThe same questions will probably be framed about political or positive history.

7) Unsupervised modeling.

The fashions we’ve discussed to this point are supervised in the sense that they’ve an train diagram. You understand (yelp) which novels bought reviewed in favorite periodicals, and which didn’t; you’re coaching a mannequin in uncover to perceive whether there are any patterns in the texts themselves that can also merely relief us point out this social boundary, or sign its history.

But advances in machine discovering out like additionally made it doable to prepare unsupervised fashions. Right here you originate with an unlabeled collection of texts; you quiz a discovering out algorithm to arrange the gathering by discovering clusters or patterns of some loosely specified kind. You don’t essentially know what patterns will emerge.

If this sounds epistemologically volatile, you’re no longer substandard. For the explanation that hermeneutic circle doesn’t allow us to get something for nothing, unsupervised modeling does inevitably involve a range of (train) assumptions. It could possibly possibly however be extremely worthwhile as an exploratory heuristic, and every so frequently as a basis for argument. A family of unsupervised algorithms known as “topic modeling” like attracted a range of consideration in the previous couple of years, from both social scientists and humanists. Robert Okay. Nelson has used topic modeling, as an illustration, to title patterns of e-newsletter in a Civil-Battle-generation newspaper from Richmond.


But I’m inserting unsupervised fashions on the cease of this record because they’ll also merely nearly be too seductive. Subject modeling is perfectly designed for workshops and demonstrations, since you don’t like to launch with a particular examine quiz. A community of folks with numerous interests can upright pour a collection of texts into the computer, accept round, and in discovering what patterns emerge. Usually, attention-grabbing patterns stop emerge: topic modeling can also additionally be a plucky tool for discovery. But it indubitably could be a mistake to pick this workflow as paradigmatic for textual teach prognosis. Regularly researchers launch up with train examine questions, and for that motive I suspect we’re in overall going to take supervised fashions.

Briefly, there are a range of contemporary issues humanists can stop with textual teach, ranging from new versions of issues we’ve continuously carried out (form literary arguments about diction), to modeling experiments that pick us somewhat deep into the methodological terrain of the social sciences. All these initiatives can also additionally be crystallized in a push-button “tool,” however some of the more plucky initiatives require a little bit of familiarity with an facts-prognosis ambiance treasure Rstudio, or per chance a programming language treasure Python, and more importantly with the assumptions underpinning quantitative social science. For that motive, I don’t quiz these methods on how to change into universally diffused in the humanities any time at the moment. In belief, everything above is equipped for undergraduates, with a semester or two of preparation — however it’s no longer preparation of a form that English or Ancient previous majors are guaranteed to love.

Usually I hump away weblog posts undisturbed after posting them, to doc what took situation when. But issues are altering by shock, and it’s a range of labor to fully overhaul a in discovering put up treasure this every few years, so in this one case I will also merely preserve tinkering and at the side of stuff as time passes. I’ll flag my edits with a date in square brackets.


Elson, D. Okay., N. Dames, and Okay. R. McKeown. “Extracting Social Networks from Literary Fiction.” Complaints of the 48th Annual Assembly of the Affiliation for Computational Linguistics. Uppsala, Sweden, 2010. 138-147.

Greenblatt, Stephen, et. al., Norton Anthology of English Literature Eighth Version, vol 2 (Original York: WW Norton, 2006.

Houston, Natalie. “In opposition to a Computational Prognosis of Victorian Poetics.” Victorian Studies 56.3 (Spring 2014): 498-510.

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Speculative Computing: Instruments for Interpretive Scholarship.” Ph.D dissertation, College of Virginia, 2004.

O’Connor, Brendan, David Bamman, and Noah Smith, “Computational Text Prognosis for Social Science: Mannequin Assumptions and Complexity,” NIPS Workshop on Computational Social Science, December 2011.

Piper, Andrew. “Unique Devotions: Conversional Reading, Computational Modeling, and the Contemporary Unique.” Original Literary Ancient previous 46.1 (2015).

Sculley, D., and Bradley M. Pasanek. “Meaning and Mining: The Impact of Implicit Assumptions in Recordsdata Mining for the Humanities.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23.4 (2008): 409-24.

Shmueli, Galit. “To Bellow or to Predict?” Statistical Science 25.3 (2010).

So, Richard Jean, and Hoyt Prolonged, “Network Prognosis and the Sociology of Modernism,” boundary 2 40.2 (2013).

Stallybrass, Peter. “Against Thinking.” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1580-1587.

Williams, Jeffrey. “The Original Modesty in Literary Criticism.” Myth of Higher Education January 5, 2015.

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