The next respondent was Matthew Jockers of the University of Nebraska and faculty fellow at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. You can read Matt’s full post here. I’ll just summarize some of the main points.
Matt’s role in bringing quantitative approaches to literary study are by now legendary. As he tells the story it began when he assigned 1,200 novels for a class at Stanford. It’s a really funny point if you put it in context: we have these internal debates all the time about making our syllabi — should I go with 12 novels this year (roughly one a week) or the more realistic six or maybe I’ll compromise at 8…When you multiply that by 100 (or now 1000) it’s really a different conversation altogether.
Matt’s most moving point was the fact that 13 of 14 students in the class continued to work on their projects after the semester was over. This was Stanford. They’re as grade hungry as anyone. And yet they continued working when there were no more grades to give. That is a powerful testimony for this kind of work to appeal to our students’ best instincts.
The other aspects Matt prioritized in his remarks were the basic rules of the road for the lab once it got started (lab actually meant a dark room with old furniture):
- it had to be quantitatively driven;
- it had to be collaborative;
- it had to be experimental so that failure was a key part of the process;
- and the outcome was more narratively driven than argument based — a lab report on process over product.
One of the things I really like about Matt’s contribution to this whole issue is how unapologetically literary it is. Instead of thinking about the lab as a humanities catch-all it can also be a way of profiling disciplinary excellence. Quantitative reading is some of the most intensely language-based I’ve ever engaged in. It allows me to tap into that side of my brain that loves words. I’m not saying this in a retro, let’s throw out the theory and the cultural studies kind of a way. But I am appreciative that it foregrounds what is for me one of the core aspects of our discipline and shows how it can be of value in a broader epistemic shift taking place in the world.
Literary study can think of itself as technologically informed, out in front, and still provide a critical mirror to ourselves and our society, much like many of the writers we study and admire.