Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Historian Reads Macroanalysis

When I first became involved in digital humanities in the summer of 2011, I was surprised at the relative lack of historians compared to lit profs (at least in the twittersphere) and somewhat bemused that people originally mistook me for an English professor!  In April of 2012 I did an analysis of #twitterstorians v #digitalhumanities to try to understand how historians were present on Twitter.  I also blogged about why I didn't want to see digital history* (always) subsumed under the broader digital humanities and how I saw digital tools allowing historians in particular to do what we do.  As I'm somewhat older than many digital historians, I also often see historical parallels between the 1990s and now in terms of relationships between various groups within academia.  All this is to explain why this has been such an exciting week for me in terms of a distinctive community for/of digital history, particularly the discussion and emergence at ThatCamp Prime of, a group created by Sharon Leon.  

I often find myself sorting through the ‘big” books of digital humanities in search of digital history as I did recently, when I read Matt Jockers Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History.  While Jockers is a lit prof, as his subtitle indicates, he engages in historical analysis of literature.  There are plenty of references to digital historians, including Cameron Blevins workon Martha Ballard’s diary, which was done in a course with Jockers, and Sharon Block’s collaborations with David Newman using topic modeling (here, here, and paywalled here).

Some of Jockers’ questions are similar to those historians might ask.  His chapter on shifting trends in the titles of novels addresses a central question of history how/do things change over time. The chapter on authors of “Irish” literature in the U.S. will probably be of most interest to historians as the questions he seeks to answer are influenced directly by historians’ work.  The tools and methodologies used here could be adapted easily by historians.

While I found the book thought-provoking, Jockers is not a historian and the ways he pursues his inquiry differ from the route a historian might take and for different ends.  The chapter on Austen for example left me, a historian of gender, incredibly frustrated.  I longed for a broader historical consideration of the digital analysis of Austen’s writing (for example, she uses a smaller vocabulary.  How can we relate that to the restrictions on/of a woman of her class in this historical period and locale?).  Obviously this isn’t a fault of Jockers’ who set out to show how literary history can be enriched by the digital, but it is to say that I want to see monographs of history using digital methods and tools!

I find myself extremely excited at the recent developments among digital historians to connect and to collaborate, but most of all, to discuss how the practice of making history in particular, involves the digital.

For a critique from linguistics standpoint, which I also share as an AntConc user, see Debating the Methods in Matt Jockers's Macroanalysis

*I’m not much interested in defining or limiting, but I generally like the explanation by the peeps at Princeton's Digital History Lab  Trevor Owen's offers a four point definition, using digital tools to create history, to present history, to archive history, and programming specifically for history.  

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