Seeing the Trees in the Forest

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“Seeing the Trees in the Forest: Teaching Literature With Data Visualization Techniques.” Journal of the Liberal Arts & Sciences (2008).

Abstract: While recent scholarship examined the use of hypertext and other technologies for the teaching of writing, it has rarely taken up the study of conventional linear textual modes—the kind of literature still most frequently studied in college classrooms across the globe. Literary texts are often seen by students as complex, overwhelming, and emphatically closed systems. What practical methods exist for generating the kind of close, self-aware, deliberate literary analysis we want to see from our students? How can we help students see the trees, as it were, within the forest? This essay draws on a variety of freely available electronic tools for data visualization, a set of methods using computers visually to represent abstract data, to model an approach to teaching a sample survey text, Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze (1725). By providing a skills-based handhold on complex textual systems, such technologies can help students attend more closely to the details of the text, its nuances, and its patterns of imagery, motif, symbol, and discourse.

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