University of Virginia: From Language to Data
What do we gain when we transform language into data? What do we lose? This course not only engages questions from fields like digital humanities and computational linguistics, but also practical questions of everyday life. For example, Google became powerful and ubiquitous by transforming language into data. What does better understanding that process teach us about how we live today?
By showing how absurd power can be, satire suggests that our world can be otherwise. In this course, we read major US satirists writing from the nineteenth century to the present. Students will learn about these texts and their contexts, focusing on how form and content conspire to produce satirical effects. Víktor Shklovsky famously argues that literature “defamiliarizes” us with the world. Perhaps no mode is more committed to Shklovsky’s sense of defamiliarization than satire.
Computational methods have made it possible to analyze literature in new ways and at new scales. This course trains students in theories and methods of computational literary studies. It requires no background in computer programming or literary criticism. We begin with fundamentals of the Python programming language before moving on to computational analyses of literary texts. Our analyses will be informed by critical readings.
Among many other things, literature tells us about what it is like to be alive. Reading the literature of the past can help us see that question in a historical sense: “What was it like to be alive then?” But it also makes possible another question that readers ask themselves as they try to relate to literature today: “Is this still what it is like to be alive?” This class reflects on these questions by reading epics, tragedies, religious texts, narrative poems, and novels about people struggling to understand their world and themselves.
Perennially invoked by politicians and pundits, declared “divine” by Walt Whitman, the “average American” has been one of the United States’ most important fictional characters for well over a century. But do averages tell us anything about the individuals from whom they are derived? And who benefits when we use the “average American” as a way of saying who represents the U.S.? The logic of the average resonates with American self-concepts of democracy, equality, and scientific rationalism, yet the same data can be used to suppress difference and dissent. How does the novel propagate and problematize this idea of the representative individual? As we move between close and distant scales of reading, we will ask how numbers and texts attempt to represent American personhood.