Teaching DH

Miranda Marraccini, PhD student in Princeton’s Department of English, was a CDH Graduate Fellow in 2017-2018, and has received several CDH grants for her project, Victoria Press Circle . In this post, Miranda talks about her experience as a DH teacher.

Christina Rossetti’s “ Goblin Market ” (1862) is a juicy poem, which is why I chose it for the first day of Virtual Victorians, a Princeton course I co-taught with CDH Faculty Director Meredith Martin in Spring 2018. The long poem tells the story of a pair of sisters who are tempted by a group of goblins selling enchanted fruits—and it’s even weirder than it sounds.

In class, we read Rossetti’s poem out loud, stanza by stanza. Then I opened up Voyant, an online tool for analyzing literary texts. On a large monitor, I copied the text of “Goblin Market” into Voyant, and we looked at how Rossetti used different words over the course of the poem. Gradually, my nervous, quiet students began to speak up. One student noticed that Rossetti’s use of similes was inversely related to her descriptions of the goblins. Maybe, they speculated as a class, the goblins are a type of physical threat within the poem that figurative language can’t overcome. The exercise provided a way to ease the self-consciousness that comes with a first meeting or a first reading, especially when students aren’t English majors.

Digital humanities tools help students look at history and literature through different lenses in new, varied ways. In their final projects, my students have used techniques like group annotation, timelines, galleries, and mapping tools. One student designed an educational computer game based on the dramatic imaginary world of Emily Brontë’s Gondal poems, set on a fictional island in the North Pacific. He incorporated archival materials into the game, including Brontë’s hand-drawn maps and personal letters. He envisioned an immersive understanding of the poems, where readers could move through the text as a virtual environment.

In addition to helping students pursue their own research through digital tools, I also want them to see what’s already out there. In class, we critique existing digital humanities projects to assess what they add to the scholarly conversation and how these insights have held up over time. We talk about how hard it is to maintain grant-funded projects when grant money runs out. We ask deeper questions about the way scholars use interfaces, what is lost and gained through digitization, and what gets included in online archives.

Today, online repositories hold millions of pages of digitized text, with differing degrees of accessibility. In one class session, I asked each student to create their own corpus of texts from those available in the public domain in the HathiTrust digital library. Then, the class used tools from the HathiTrust Research Center to understand their collections. One student tried Hathi’s InPho Topic Model Explorer to find how authors in her collection used words related to religion. She found that for the texts that she chose, authors associated Christianity with descriptions of childhood: words like “angel” and “prayer” appeared in clusters with “infant” and “girl.” We talked about possible explanations for these associations, and about ways we could use the observation as a jumping-off point for an essay about nineteenth-century religious experience.

At this point, there is a whole galaxy of digital tools for understanding literature, historical communities, and social networks. Although I’ve used only a few in teaching so far, I believe in this diversity, in offering students as many ways of reading as possible, so that each one of them can find something new in an old text. Using the full array of analog and digital tools available to us, we read carefully, closely, and with an open mind—just as we've always done.

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