Digital Tools and Google nGram

In Chapter 3 of his book Unflattening, Nick Sousanis writes (and illustrates), “Languages are powerful tools for exploring the ever greater depths of our understanding. But for all their strengths, languages can also become traps. In mistaking their boundaries for reality, we find ourselves, must like flatlanders, blind to possibilities beyond our borders, lacking both the awareness and the means to step out. The medium we think in defines what we see” (52). He uses the term “flatlander” to describe those who are unable to look outside of their immediate reality to see alternate possibilities and understandings. The emphasis of the word “flat” conjures images of 2-dimensional print texts that humanists have been forever tied to. Sousanis insists that to employ our whole mind and to expand our ability to understand and analyze, we must think outside of the flat, 2-dimensional world.

Digital humanities is both the awareness and the means by which to step out of the flatland, and this is precisely what the digital humanists are working towards. This is made apparent as I work my way through the tools listed on our class blog. I had such a fun time trying out different approaches to text and being able to visualize a story in different ways.

In her article “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine” (and in the accompanying video), N. Katherine Hayles explains the concept of the zone of proximal development, proposed by child psychologist Vygotsky: “[I]f the distance is too great between what one wants someone else to learn and where instruction begins, the teaching will not be effective” (65). If we want students to learn how to analyze a text, we have to start somewhere or with something that is familiar to them to be able to build that scaffolding into which acquired knowledge can fit. If young people are spending so much time manipulating digital data, then that is a good place to start. Additionally, the theory of multiple intelligences explains that students learn in different ways, so visualization of text can be an excellent starting point for visual-spatial, logical-mathematical, and verbal-linguistic learners.

DH Tools

The digital humanities offers humanists a wealth of tools to use to visualize text. This week, I am teaching Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” in my freshman English class, so I used that story to try out some of the tools. I really enjoyed using Voyant, which offers two different types of text visualization: a word cloud and a graph of trending terms. In this way, students can begin to better understand the text. When they click on Document Terms above the trending graph, you can see not only how many times Miss Emily is called “old,” but exactly when in the story that word is used. Since the story is not written chronologically, a tool like this can help piece together the order of events.

Sousanis explains the difference between “two distinct kinds of awareness – the sequential and simultaneous” and how they correspond with each hemisphere of the brain (63). Things like word clouds and graphs allow readers to see the two kinds of awareness together. These visualizations take the sequential – the story itself – and make it simultaneous. The entire story is working together to create one image or graph. “The very fabric of our experience emerges from the interaction and integration of each hemisphere’s separate means of perceiving these different ways of knowing held in relationship at one time” (Sousanis 63). This pushes our brain into realms of understanding that were previously unattainable, which the digital humanities rendered possible. So while Hayles argues that digital reading is changing our brain architecture and ability to analyze text (67), Sousanis believes that it is essential to push ourselves outside of the flatlands.

I also checked out Genius, which is such a great way to emphasize the importance of close reading. Hayles explains that close reading is not exactly pertinent in the digital world, but a tool like Genius reminds readers that there is merit in going line-by-line to analyze meaning in a text. Most sentences in “A Rose for Emily” are highlighted in Genius and commented on, and the visualization stresses the importance of every single sentence and word.

The common theme seems to be ease of use. Last week, we spent some time discussing the importance of (or unimportance of) learning how to code and program as a digital humanist. It’s true that someone, somewhere created these sites to begin with, but for casual users, there are some many options out there, which makes me feel a bit more comfortable with venturing into the digital humanities.

Google ngram

I then moved onto the main assignment and checked out Google ngram. I used Google ngram to track the usage of the word “feminism” from 1850 to 2008:

From 1850 to 1906, it seems the word didn’t exist. The first jump of use seems to be around 1907, and it stagnates a bit from 1914 to 1967. After 1968, the usage of “feminism” rises exponentially, which makes sense since it coincides with the second wave of feminism and an increase in feminist propaganda. There seems to be a steady decrease from 1996 to 2008, which is the latest the ngram goes up to. This surprises me because this time period includes the third wave of feminism, which apparently did not make much use of the word. This could be a result of the stigmatization of the word “feminism”. Women and men who believe in equal rights for women are wary of the word because it has become mis-defined as a word implying man-bashing and bra-burning, which may be why they were less likely to use it. But if I had to guess, I would assume that the frequency of the usage has begun to increase again since 2008 to today as women once again begin to take ownership of the word and continue the fight for equal rights.

I then plugged in the word “women” for the same timeframe, 1850-2008:

From 1850 to 1915, the word “women” in texts increased slowly and somewhat stagnated from 1915 to 1932. This aligns with the fight for women’s suffrage, and it makes sense that the word would have been used steadily during those years. After 1932, the word drops slightly until 1964 when it begins a steep incline. This again aligns with the second wave of feminism. The usage of the word “women” peaked in 1996 and has decreased since then, but, again, I would guess that if ngrams tracked more recently published texts, the word usage would be on the incline.

And then, of course, I had to try the word “men”:

Now this surprised me the most. Clearly, “men” was in very, very high use from 1850 to 1918 (higher than women and feminism ever reached). But it seems that around the time of women’s suffrage, the use of the term began to drop … and hasn’t really ever recovered. From 1918 to about 1987, the word usage steadily declined, and there has only been a very slight rise in usage from 1987 to 2008. In 2008, the word “men” was used in texts half as much as the word “women.”

I really enjoyed trying out Google ngrams, and this is a tool that I intend to return to again and again to track trends and chart popular usage of terms, theories, and ideas.

Works Cited

Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 62-79. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015. Print.


4 thoughts on “Digital Tools and Google nGram

  1. I love the fact that you were able to take a text that you are teaching and look at it anew with some of these tools. Do you think you will share these with your students? I know you mentioned that Genius might be too much of a crutch for them, but perhaps voyant or some other tool might give them added insight into the reading (you could do a before–good old fashioned close reading–and after–tool assist 🙂


  2. Cristen, your Google Ngrams are totally fascinating. Its so interesting to think about the use of the terms “men” and “women” in relation to each other, as well as the use of “women” instead of “girls.”

    I also really like how you (along with Sousanis) focus not on what digital reading obscures, but what it reveals. Tools like Genius do allow us to read not only more broadly, but more deeply as well. And I love how you are already implementing DH tools to teach “A Rose for Emily”! How did the students respond to that technique?


  3. Cristen,

    This is a great post!! First of all, you picked great quotes from the assigned readings that I’m sure we’ll discuss tomorrow when Raquel and I present on the texts. Second, I too think it’s really neat that you tied in this assignment with the material you’re currently teaching. I had already known about Genius, but I’m glad you tried out Voyant…it seems very helpful, so I’ll have to test it for myself soon!

    Your Ngram search was clever and much appreciated. The decline of the use of the word “feminism” makes me sad, but didn’t totally surprise me. Like you said, many people are almost afraid of that term; actually, many of my female friends back home (who undoubtedly want equal rights) will actively deny being “feminists” because they think of feminists as being furious psychopaths or something. Oh well. I agree with you that the term has been back on the rise as a good thing again, so maybe if/when Ngrams updates we’ll see that reflected on this chart.

    Lastly, I thought it might be good to look at the terms “men” and “women” side by side. Pretty fascinating stuff.

    Again, great job! Thanks for the mental stimulation.


  4. I found Unflattening to be a more engaging piece to look at compared to Hayle’s – as it mention within itself, the visual aspects of it are seen as a whole and then on a fine tuned level when the text is observed and the details of the image are focused on. Sousanis emphasizes that looking at a flat point of view narrows our ability to understand – this contradicts Hayle’s point of view in discussing the damaging affects of digital literature. Digital tools are effective in capturing a text on a wide-scale level, as you pointed out how often Miss Emily is called old in “A Rose for Emily”. This is the exact use of tools such as ngram when it comes to looking at the details of a text as a whole. I also found that digital tools such as Genius emphasizes that meaning can be found, and express just how relevant textual details are, as well as texts of the past. How do you think student may use sites such as Genius in a positive manner in order to expand there understanding of a text, rather than just copy the information?



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