The Problem with Distant Reading: The Digital Romanticist

At a lecture for the Office of Digital Humanities and the Humanities Center, English professor Ted Underwood of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discussed the role distant reading and digital humanities play in changing preconceived notions about literary analysis.

Ted Underwood fixedPROVO, Utah (Mar. 5, 2015)—When Romanticist Ted Underwood first started working as an English professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had never even heard of digital humanities.

Underwood first became involved in digital humanities when a faculty member at the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science invited him to participate in a digital humanities project that he was undertaking as part of a grant. Fifteen years after the fact, Underwood now enjoys a career in the field of digital humanities, examining literature in ways he never would have imagined previously.

In a lecture entitled, “The Problem with Distant Reading; or, How I Lost My Understanding of Literary History,” Underwood addressed the importance of digital humanities in literary analysis today and how changing conceptions of literature through distant reading can enhance the meaning derived from it.

Underwood began by approaching texts through analyzing culture, history, syntax and the meaning of words, the way any good Romanticist would. He discovered, however, that digital humanities would require him to completely rethink the process of analysis.

As an English professor in the field of digital humanities, Underwood had to learn how to approach texts through social science, programing and statistics—a process of looking at literature that required him to resituate his methods of reading, questioning and meaning-making from his previous methods of literary analysis.

Underwood explained that digital humanities significantly changes literary studies and the way reading and analyzing is approached. It requires professors of literary studies to rethink preconceived notions of the texts they are examining through close reading techniques and accept the concrete evidence that digital humanities can reveal about texts.

He cited specific examples of how digital humanities requires those studying literature to reconsider assumptions about literature based on close reading techniques. For example, there is a common trope that Wordsworth enabled poets to use more prose and everyday language in their writing, and that after Wordsworth the way people wrote poetry began to change.

However, through distant reading Underwood was able to demonstrate that language became even more unique and separate from prose and everyday writing than literary critics had previously thought. Processing thousands of novels, poems and newspapers, Underwood was able to use data to graph and demonstrate evidence of how the language of poetry had changed.

Ted Underwood 2Underwood also discussed a project he is doing that looks at the terminology of money and wealth and how it appears in literature from 1830 to 1930. His question is to see if the ways that people were writing about cultural institutions like capitalism and economics changed in literature over a particular time period.

In terms of language specifics, Underwood came across interesting findings. For example, word choices that one would think to appear in a certain era never actually appeared to the extent that people had previously thought they did.

He used the 1920s as an example, suggesting that those who study literary history might say that certain words would continually appear when actually the scope they were looking at was too narrow. When looking at it on a greater scale, however, as opposed to one particular novel, he was able to show that even other patterns were present as well.

Underwood’s argument was that we need to stop taking things at face value. Rather than being abstract and inductive in literary analysis, it is also beneficial to use deductive reasoning, which is an important aspect of literary analysis that digital humanities can provide.

Underwood was clear that though distant reading is not necessarily any better than close reading, it does provide a quantitative approach to literature studies that should not be discounted. There is room for everything, and the more distant reading and quantitative technics are used in literary analysis, the more everybody will benefit.

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English ’17)