DHSI — and back again

I’m sitting in the airport about to return from the Digital Humanities Summer Institute: the friendliest, most energizing, most enthusiastic (un)conference/summer school/nerdfest ever. I was nervous about taking the time to go — what with the dissertation looming over my head — but I am so very glad I did.

We talked about phylogenetic trees, alternative evolution, artificial intelligence, designing DH courses, and creating visualizations with Gephi. Students made and designed their own 3D printer (and then printed a shark); created mobile apps; mapped the geographies of medieval texts; learned TEI, XSLT, 3D modeling and SEASR; created digital editions — and even made “pre-digital” books. We ate and drank and knitted and walked and did yoga on the lawn.

I wanted to take All The Courses, but as they run simultaneously, I had to choose just one. I went with David Hoover’s “Out-of-the-Box Textual Analysis.” As someone who has never taken a statistics class, the endless Excel was initially a little challenging, but David has designed a series of amazingly complex macros that perform magical spells on vast quantities of text and reveal some pretty interesting results.

After cleaning up many, many .txt files, I took 24 Zola novels — the entire Rougon Maquart cycle plus Thérèse Raquin and the Trois villes series — and ran them through some of David’s spreadsheets to see which grouped together thematically. It turns out Zola was remarkably consistent in terms of chronology (with the exception of Le Rêve), and I suspected that this consistency was related to increased conservatism. I then tested the frequency of certain terms that reflected conservative fin-de-siècle values and fear — famille, Dieu, population… choosing them mainly because I suspected they reflected Zola’s concerns towards the end of the century. The word that increased most in use from 1867 and 1898? Dieu — followed closely by words relating to population and the family.

The work, of course, has only just begun. Now I have to return to the texts and try and work out when those words are used and why, to formulate a thesis. And that, I’m afraid, will have to wait until after the dissertation is done.

DHSI, you’ve been a wonderful experience and a wonderful break. But my flight is being called, and once I board that plane, it’s back to the grindstone.

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