By Heidi Kaufman and Matthew Hannah
For today’s review, we thought we’d turn to a fun, easy-to-use digital tool that works well for classroom projects and scholarship alike. Developed by a Canadian team led by Stéfan Sinclair (McGill University) and Geoffrey Rockwell (University of Alberta), Voyant Tools enables users to visualize and study the frequency of words used in a given text. Reformatting a text to a list of the most frequently used words provides a useful and easy method of textual analysis.
Have you ever wanted to analyze the frequency and placement of words in a large text but did not have time to methodically read? Have you ever wondered what William Wordsworth meant by “nature” in his sonnets or whether sixteenth-century women writers used the word “nature” differently from their male counterparts? Or, perhaps you are interested in understanding the context in which a philosopher like Immanuel Kant theorized nature? Questions such as these demand careful attention to the textual and contextual appearance of a word over time, and readers must spend inordinate amounts of time finding, marking, and comparing these words in a large text.
As its subtitle demonstrates, Voyant allows users to “see through the text.” This way of “seeing” allows users to focus entirely on the most frequently used, presumably important words in a particular text. One challenge to textual analysis is seeing through the vast mesh of words separated by formal divisions such as pages, chapters, and stanzas. Voyant removes these formal divisions so scholars can focus on the word frequencies. Users can visit an online archive such as Project Gutenberg to access a plain text copy of a work they want to study. Once they find the source text they can copy and paste it into Voyant’s textbox to create a “wordcloud” in which the most repeated words appear separated from the rest of the document, and the program sizes these words according to the number of times they appear in the original text. This kind of “visualization” or computer drawn image of the text’s repetitions, is accompanied by data to help users interpret what they see. In this way, Voyant provides a simple and useful tool for researchers, teachers, and students to practice seeing through the text. Or, put more familiarly, it enables a form of careful, close reading of texts, which would otherwise be impossible with the naked eye.
This wordcloud represents the semantic frequencies in an American poetry collection of the Fugitive school, edited by William Pratt, which we read last year in the Modernist Reading Group. Known for their investments in agrarian Southern culture, the Fugitives were founded at Vanderbilt University in 1922 by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, among others. Their poetry was marked by attention to formal techniques and a thematic focus on Southern life.
Uploading a plain text version of this collection to Voyant reveals that the poets in this collection seem preoccupied with some specific themes represented by specific words: old (77), land (33), time (41), long (48), men (37), man (31), dead (28), love (23), and rivers (29). Many of these seem likely for a collection of poetry celebrating Southern agrarianism and culture. Time, death, masculinity, love, and the land seem right at home here, but, if we want to follow up, we can click on a term in the wordcloud to generate more results (I’ve included a link here, which opens my data, if you want to follow along). Selecting the word “dead” produces a new window with a box called “keywords in context.” This provides a list of all the uses of the word “dead” in the original context, and clicking on the little plus signs by the example expands to show some surrounding text as well. Doing this allows me to track the appearance of the word in its context, revealing some interesting results such as these lines from “Necrological”: “The people were dead — it is easy he thought to die — / These dead remained, but the living all were gone.” We can see that, as we might expect, the “dead” refer to passing generations and a sense of identity loss, which are key themes in Southern literature.
But, some information perhaps surprises us. For example, the number of color words: black (26), green (27), white (33), and blue (25). What might the predominance of these particular colors suggest? Intriguingly, blue appears eighteen times, but the word “gray” does not appear at all, despite the Fugitive’s investments in Southern culture and the Civil War. Poems such as “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” which are canonical poems, have very little impact on the cloud as “Confederate” and “gray” do not appear at all. Also surprising are some of the words that do appear in the cloud but have a smaller presence: blood (19), remember (14), lost (17), and great (22), which all seem to refer to a sense of loss and lineage, appear less than sensual, emotional, and social words like said (50), come (41), came (29), heard (18), look (19), and love (23). Although it is clear that lineage and loss are key themes of the collection, this wordcloud suggests that there are other themes that take up more space than we might expect.
Voyant is easy-to-use right out of the box, making it a great tool for classroom projects. I (Matt) have used this in my composition classes. When working on peer review, I asked students to upload a copy of their peer’s essay and analyze the contours of their partner’s paper. These assignments require students to think through the gap between their intended argument and the words they use in constructing that argument. Voyant offers a unique tool for such innovative classroom assignments in textual analysis. Comment below and let us know how you have used Voyant tools in your own teaching or scholarship.
We will be holding a workshop in winter term on using Voyant tools if you want to learn more. Anyone interested in learning how to use this simple digital tool and discussing ways of implementing it in classes aimed at close reading or attention to writing should save the date: Wednesday, Feb. 10th, 3-5 p.m. in McKenzie 375.