Ways of Reading: Women Writers in Review, Word Tree, and Digital Humanities Praxis

Ways of Reading: Women Writers in Review, Word Tree, and Digital Humanities Praxis

By Jason M. Payton, Sam Houston State University

Note: Jason M. Payton is a pedagogical development consultant for the WWP. He will be joining the faculty of the Department of English at the University of Georgia in the fall of 2018.

During the Spring 2018 semester, my early American literature survey course completed a two-phase assignment sequence designed to familiarize students with the broad aims of Women Writers in Review and to introduce them to digital humanities tools and practices.

The first phase of the assignment sequence offered a general orientation to Women Writers in Review. During this phase, students examined the architecture of the site and considered the implications of its use of metadata for their reading of the reviews housed in the archive. The assignment sequence for this phase can be found here. An analysis of its outcomes during its initial Spring 2017 running, including student reflections, can be found here.

The second phase of the sequence focused specifically on the use of the Word Tree tool designed by Jason Davies and available here for free use. This tool allows readers study the function of specific words or phrases in a particular text by offering a visual representation of its connection to other key words and phrases in that text. Davies’s site offers several examples of the tool’s utility, ranging from this view of the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to this view of President Obama’s inauguration speech. These visualizations allow readers to begin to discern the deep structure or texts by rendering frequently used words and phrases in larger font and by delineating a unique branch for each specific context in which the search term or phrase occurs. The tool works both in forward and in reverse directions, as this image of President Obama’s Iraq War speech shows.

Because the Word Tree tool works for larger corpora as well as for individual texts, and because it is free and low-tech, it offers an ideal opportunity to bring the kind of work being done within the Women Writers Project’s Word Vector Analysis research project to the undergraduate classroom. It also allows students to explore the relevance of telling words and phrases in individual reviews for the archive as a whole. Students notice immediately, for example, the presence of gendered terms such as “fair” or “authoress” within individual reviews, and the Word Tree tool enables them to gauge the importance of these terms to the grammar of the archive.

To acclimate students to the tool and its use for their reading of the archive, I asked students to read all reviews of Elizabeth Benger’s works. I chose Benger’s reviews because they generated the most interest among members of the Spring 2017 class in which I piloted the introductory assignment linked above. Benger, who authored, among other works, The Female GeniadMemoirs of Anne BoelynMemoirs of the Life of Mary Queen of Scots, and Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, was reviewed in ways that bring the issue of gender and authorship into high relief. A review of Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, for example, presumes the author, named only “E. Benger” in the work itself, to be a man, noting that “In such a case of doubt, the ambiguous person ought to be supposed of the nobler sex.” Another reviewer remarks that, while Benger’s Memoirs of the Late Elizabeth Hamilton shows “good sense” in its focus on the domestic life of Elizabeth Hamilton and her performance of traditional gender roles, Benger’s unpublished writings on the Revelation of St. John show poor judgement for its temerity in hazarding an interpretation of this “difficult book” “without sufficient consideration, and apparently without a proper acquaintance with the labours of others upon it.” A third reviewer observed of Benger’s Memoirs of Anne Boelyn that the excellence of her writing has firmly established her place among “the female ornaments of the times.”

These and other reviews of Benger’s works acclimate students to gendered discourses of authorship in the nineteenth century and invite consideration of the specific mechanisms by which language produces ideas about gender difference and gender roles. Students began their consideration of these mechanisms by writing a brief synopsis of Benger’s reviews that focused on patterns of language. They then chose a telling word or phrase to study using the Word Tree tool. Using a text file of all reviews within the Women Writers in Review archive provided by Sarah Connell, students were able to study the place and role of their chosen word or phrase within the archive as a whole. Using this meta-perspective, students were asked to identify the most common words and phrases associated with their search term across the database and to reflect on what these associations might teach them about gender and authorship in the nineteenth century. Students then contextualized their meta-observations by reading the full text of three to five reviews associated with their search term in the Word Tree tool. This exercise asked students to see if the patterns they discerned at the macro-level held at the micro-level. Their final task was to write a brief synopsis reflecting on how their understanding of review culture and of gendered discourses of authorship changed as a result of the very different experiences of reading enabled by the Word Tree tool.


One of the most useful outcomes of the Word Tree tool exercise for my students was the realization that there is no substitute for close, contextualized reading. Though tantalizing, Word Tree images only represent the beginning of an inquiry into the place and function of specific terms within the archive.

Students also found the move from close reading to distant reading and back a useful lesson in the ethics of digital humanities scholarship. The Word Tree tool was able to do important analytical work in identifying things like usage frequency and use-cases for particular search terms. It was not, however, able to determine whether search terms had the same semantic function in each use-case. Its prosthetic function brought the relationship between digital humanists and their prostheses into high relief and encouraged students to consider critically the relationship between texts and the reading technologies that mediate textual encounters.

Sabrina J. was interested in how the term “domestic” was used in the archive as a whole. Finding that “domestic” was “unsurprisingly connected with words like ‘her,’ ‘life,’ and ‘habits,’” Sabrina opted to consider its obverse: “public.” This choice revealed “public taste” and “public opinion” to be the most common phrases associated with her search term and suggested the intimate connection between gendered notions of authorship and literary consumption on the one hand, and the creation of nineteenth-century publics on the other. Sabrina found that “public” was not often used to describe “woman’s venture into the public eye,” as she had guessed initially. Rather, reviewers seemed to be using the notions of “public” opinion and taste to give their own assessments of women’s writing an air of universality. For Sabrina, the use of “public” in reviews of women’s writing raised questions about how “public” might function in reviews of men’s writing and its review culture.

Emily H. studied the term “sex” and found that it was attached—not surprisingly—either to the pronoun “her” or to some other, similar marker of female identity. At the level of the individual review, Emily noted that “sex” served a taxonomizing function, leading reviewers to “preconceived idea[s] about these works before even reading them because they were written by women.” A reviewer of Benger’s Memoirs of the Life of Anne Boelyn, for example, noted the author’s “judicious” arrangement and “solid” reasoning, while also noting the “simplicity” of the prose style. To mitigate the force of this criticism of Benger’s style, the reviewer suggests that readers “must treat the sex with the consideration which is due to it, and pause before [they] venture to impeach as blemishes the luxuriance and prodigality of a female pen.” For Emily, review-level analysis bore out the assumptions generated by the Word Tree tool about how her term functioned, illustrating that women’s writing was viewed through the lens of gendered ideas about authorship.

Serena H. researched the term “ornament” after noticing a reviewer describe Benger as “among the ornaments of the times. “The Word Tree tool showed “ornament” to be connected to various forms of the phrase “ornament to the female sex.” This macro-level view of the term suggested for Serena a pattern of objectification in the use of her search term. Upon closer scrutiny, however, Serena found greater nuance at the level of individual reviews than she had initially surmised. A reviewer of Lucy Aikin’s Epistles on Women praised Aikin for her work and noted that her treatment of Madame Roland, whose “excellent understanding directed to noble purpose, rendered her an ornament to the female sex.” The use of “ornament” in the context of this review of Aikin’s work suggests a civilizational role for women that exceeds the connotation of superfluity commonly associated with the term. Madame Roland, for example, played a crucial role in the French Revolution. After Aikin’s treatment of her well-applied genius, readers encounter similar descriptions of Queen Elizabeth, whose patronage of Spenser, Bacon, and Shakespeare rendered her a central figure not just to the history of the English monarchy, but also to the histories of English literature and science. Aikin therefore encourages her male compatriots “to promote the mental improvement of females, and to treat them as friends, not as inferiors.” This close reading of Aikin’s review illustrated for Serena that her term could be used to describe women as “an intelligent asset to the female community,” though “ornament” still invariably underscores the “sense of inferiority” that characterized men’s reviews of women’s writing.

The conversations that emerged from students’ use of the Word Tree tool and the WWiR archive meshed well with ongoing conversations within my survey course. I situated this assignment within a unit on gender and sexuality that included readings from Sor Juana, Bradstreet, Wheatley, and Foster. These canonical authors raise issues of domesticity and publicity, sex and gender difference, and forms of objectification and commodification in ways that make the inclusion of WWiR reviews a seamless fit. The inclusion of WWiR reviews within the survey course had the additional benefit of helping answer some of the questions that invariably arise when reading these canonical early American women writers about how male readers received their work. Critical editions of canonical works traditionally treat the question of reception, but these treatments are necessarily selective and highly curated. Working with WWiR allows students to study review culture directly and formulate a more robust understanding of the role of print culture in negotiating early American ideas about gender and authorship than is often possible when working with traditional materials such as anthologies and critical editions in the survey course.

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