Digital Tools for Rhetorical Analysis

Over the last few years, I have integrated a series of digital tools into my first-year writing course to stimulate students' interest, to engage them on digital territory, and to allow them to conceptualize texts in new ways.

While I might not have always envisioned my pedagogical play as a "digital humanities project," instead thinking of it as just some cool things to try in class, now I see it as exactly the kind of work that a broadened definition of Digital Humanities can accommodate.

In "A Letter to the Digital Humanities: DH Will Not Save You," Adeline Koh argues that big data has been a privileged way of defining the field and calls for a recentering of the humanities. She suggests that DH integrate pedagogy as a central concern as well as theoretical issues of race, gender, sexuality, and ability--crucial questions of the humanities. She adds, "Let’s open digital humanities research to people who don’t have the time and resources to learn a programming language, but are happy to use Wordle as an entry into literary texts as data."

The programs I describe below, including Wordle, present varying degrees of user friendliness, but none require students to learn a programming language. They do importantly require, though, a humanist researcher to ask the right questions and to evaluate patterns identified in texts.

Jacob Heil, Mellon Digital Scholar for the Five Colleges of Ohio Consortium, suggests that these types of tools work against the fear that DH might replace humanistic interpretation. The programs give readers ways to visualize and group texts, but they can't tell you if these groupings are significant or why they matter. That level of reading still depends on the individual scholar.

Ultimately, when it comes to DH, I believe that we can accept two simultaneous truths, each coming out of one half of the "digital" + "humanities" alliance. Everything is data and at the same time everything is text.


Training VideoWordle Tutorial

Function: Wordle maps the frequency with which words appear in a text through size. The larger the word, the more times it appears in a text.

Pedagogical Use: If all you want out of a digital tool is for students to visualize key repeated terms in a text, then Wordle, or some word cloud tool, is for you. It creates interesting data for examining literary texts. With Frankenstein, for instance, you see how important the term "father" is. (If you like Wordle, and you're looking to take it a few steps further, jump down to my description of Voyant.)

Once students have a list of recurring terms and have picked out more key words they identified in the text, I have them look them up using the OED, the next tool I describe.



Oxford English Dictionary: The Definitive Record of the English Language


Training Video: Oxford English Dictionary Online: A Short Guide

Function: The online version of the definitive English language dictionary, the OED, documents past and present definitions of terms, histories of usage, and etymologies.

Pedagogical Use: The OED allows students to gauge multiple definitions and valences of terms. In my class, students look up words--and this is important, even when they think they already know what the word means (as this lesson demonstrates)Students often discover new meanings or leanings for a word that they didn't know before.

For example, one of my students discovered for herself that the term "renegade" had religious connotations, when before she only thought it meant rebel. She was rhetorically analyzing Douglass Rushkoff's "They Called Me Cyberboy." The religious meaning showed how highly Rushkoff thought of his own innovation and coincided with a more general pattern of religious allusions in the text.

Under the words there is an upward shooting arrow from a line chart

Training VideoDownloading Data from Google Trends (only need first 5 minute)

Function: Google trends shows the popularity of particular search terms since 2004.

Pedagogical Use: With google trends, students can see how often and where people search for particular terms. One of my students used this tool as one piece of evidence to gauge American fears about Ebola as she analyzed American media coverage of the 2014 outbreak. Another used it to determine when the term #foodporn became popular as she analyzed the intersections of food and sex in social media.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has famously made use of Google trends in a series of articles for The New York Times including: "How Racist Are We? Ask Google," "How Many American Men are Gay," "Google, Tell Me, Is My Son a Genius?," and "What do Pregnant Women Want?"

In "Google, Tell Me," Stephens-Davidowitz found that parents were "two and a half times more likely to ask 'Is my son gifted?' than 'Is my daughter gifted?'"

One thing to keep in mind when analyzing any results is that an increase in searches since 2014 could be expected for many terms simply because newer technologies like smart phones allow people to search more.




A lexical database for English

Training Video: 20 - 2 - WordNet and Other Online Thesauri -NLP-Dan Jurafsky & Chris Manning

Function: Word net gives definitions and synonyms for terms, but more uniquely it clusters words with its related terms, listing hyponymys and meronymys. A hyponym is a more specific instance of a thing, it is an instance within a larger category: as a spoon is a hyponym of eating utensils. A meronym is similar to a metonymy, in that it is a part of a larger whole: a face is a meronym for person.

Pedagogical Use: Students can use Princeton's Word Net to see relationships between words. Once you look up a word, the key is to click on each "S:" which will "show synset (semantic) relations."

The value in this tool is that it reveals the relationship between a thing and the larger categories of thought that it exists within. For example, a chair is a piece of furniture, and an arm chair is a specific type of chair. It presents information that one might see in an "Abstraction Ladder," like the one that appears in S.I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action.

When my students get stuck organizing their papers, I have them play around on this site to try to figure out the relationship between their key ideas. Determining ways to group text can also be enhanced with the following DH program.



Seeing things through text. Inside the O in Voyant is an emoji style owl.
Training Video: Voyant Tools Tutorial

Function: Voyant is a text-mining tool that includes a word cloud, concordance, and frequency chart. Voyant Short General Tools Overview provides concrete descriptions of the various parts of the tool. More videos go into depth about how to deal with keywords in contextCirrus panelsummary tool, and word trends tool. There are also other tools associated with Voyant that can be accessed here.

Pedagogical Use:  The word cloud can help students visualize the major terms/themes of a text, and students can make observations based on how many times and where certain words appear in a text. Here's an example on Moby Dick.

In my class, students first employ the tool as we rhetorically analyze a single example text: Andrew Sullivan's "Society is Dead: We Have Retreated into an iPod World." I walk students through using voyant on a single text to show how we can analyze single terms that occur frequently or look at co-occurrence of terms.

When we move to the research paper, students are compiling many texts and trying to determine language patterns. At this stage, Tulane librarian Sean Knowlton instructs the students on how to build a corpus of multiple texts, information also covered quickly in Voyant Loading Texts. Sean modeled how a student might research all New York Times articles that address ISIS in 2015, for example.

If considering co-occurrence of terms is what excites you most about Voyant (for instance, how often Muslim and terrorist occur together), then it might be time to step up to a more complex data-mining program like Mallet.



Before the word storify are abstract quotation marks that resemble a yin and yang configuration. The logo is blue.

Training Video: Storify Demo: Social Media Journalism (5:17)

FunctionStorify is a digital space to "curate and make stories," a place to gather together online sources.

Pedagogical Use: As you can guess, Storify's ability to gather sources makes it a great tool for a research project.

Students in my class don't write a traditional research paper in which they make an argument about an issue. Instead, they write an argument about the language used to discuss an issue. So, instead of arguing that football is too violent and that the NFL should consider new rules, one student argued that there is a recurring use of war language in football and that as a result, the American public is more accepting of the rampant violence associated with the sport on and off the field.

Storify provides an easy place to document such language patterns in tweets, sports news coverage, and opinion pieces.


If you're looking for more classroom digital tools, not just for textual analysis, check out Web Resources for English Classes





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