How to Not Read a Victorian Novel

This exercise in distant reading or “not reading” uses a set of accessible and freely-available text analysis and visualization tools on the web to encourage students to build their own methods of interpretation. It is structured as a paper assignment, but essentially works like a humanities lab report. Students are given a defined set of steps to locate, manage, visualize, and analyze a text file of a novel that they have never read before. While the exercise can work for just about any electronic text students can access, I use “the Victorian novel” as an object of inquiry because it is in the public domain, it is often long, and it exemplifies a genre about which students may have preconceptions (or hypotheses). Actually running the exercise turns out to be alternately fun and frustrating, causing students to rethink their basic interpretive approaches and to imagine new ones. The end results of their papers are not stable claims about knowledge, but self-conscious reflections about the limits, contingencies, and opportunities of alternative modes of interpretation. In other words, students are invited not only to play with some entry-level tools of the digital humanities, but welcomed into the heady disorientation or productive alienation that several notable digital humanists have claimed as its most distinguishing intellectual characteristic.

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