Anouk Lang: Developing methods for analysing and evaluating literary engagement in digital contexts

This project, Developing methods for analysing and evaluating literary engagement in digital contexts, begins from the starting point that the rapid rise in the amount of user-generated content produced on the internet, especially on social media sites, offers an extraordinary opportunity to study human interaction in a format that lends itself easily to multiple kinds of computational analysis. From the perspective of scholars of reading and reception, this growing body of data is particularly exciting, given that it is not just time-consuming to interview individual readers, carry out surveys and conduct focus groups, but also problematic to draw conclusions from artificial contexts where it is difficult to know the extent to which the answers being given have been influenced by the unequal relationship between reader and researcher. Although data derived from the internet has plenty of limitations of its own—the fact that users of a particular site or service may not be a very representative sample of the general population, for instance—it is still the case that born-digital responses to texts, other readers, and literary events offer researchers the tantalising possibility of grasping aspects of reading that have been previously inaccessible. Not only are there much larger amounts of material available than in the past, but also digital reception data often involves readers voluntarily recording their thoughts in the context of a community to which they feel a sense of belonging, rather than reporting them to a stranger.

The challenge for researchers who work on reading and who do not have large amounts of technical background knowledge is twofold. First, how can they access these rich bodies of data, and second, how can they carry out analysis of digital materials alongside their established methods of working with non-digital reception data? A scholar with experience in interpreting marginalia – comments written in the margins of books – is well placed to bring her skills to bear on digital forms of annotations, for instance, but might not know how to get hold of this data nor how to process it when the sheer amount of material available exceeds the capacity of a single human reader. Other disciplines have addressed these issues—corpus linguists have established methods of constructing and analysing large textual corpora, for instance, and computer scientists have developed techniques such as sentiment analysis which can process large numbers of statements to determine whether they are broadly positive or negative, while various other approaches are being taken by scholars across the digital humanities—but for scholars of reading without the technical background to scrape data from websites, or set up a Twitter archive, there are significant barriers to engaging with this data.

The aim of this project is to lower these barriers, by reporting on three different kinds of approaches that can be taken with digital reception data that are within the grasp of reception researchers without specialist digital humanities training. First, it examines the thematic content of the textual data that individuals generate when they engage in online discussions about the value of books or literary activities. Second, it investigates what can be learnt from the chronological information attached to these discussions, for example the timestamps on social network posts or tweets. Third, it considers the role played by place in online conversations about reading, using digital mapping tools to visualize the geographic information attached to social media posts. The project will produce a report setting out what kinds of information can be learnt about the cultural value of reading in the digital age from these three angles, and will supply guides for a number of digital tools which can be used to work with these three kinds of data.

The two types of social media on which the project centres are the micro-blogging service Twitter and the literary social network LibraryThing. Because the focus of the project is the value that reading and book-related activities brings to individuals, I have chosen books and authors that have won or been shortlisted for high-profile prizes such as the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize, and that have featured in literary competitions with considerable cultural cachet. Using timestamped data from the Twitter API, for instance, will allow me to examine such things as how the content of discussions about a shortlisted book change in light of prize announcements, or how the progress of a literary competition might influence the way LibraryThing users position themselves in relation to a particular book as they go about their interactions with other readers on the site. Geography, too, can be considered: as people across a country or around the world take to Twitter to express their opinion about an author who has just won a prize or a competition, what kinds of patterns is it possible to discern from the spatial distribution of tweets? Previously, it was difficult for scholars of reading to access the when and where of reception data with such precision, and so—especially in light of the large amount of material that is now available online about readers’ preferences and responses to books—it seems an opportune moment to reflect on the methodological opportunities and limitations of this kind of digital work on the cultural value of reading.

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Philip Davis: Assessing the intrinsic value, and health and well-being benefits, for individual and community, of The Reader Organisation’s Volunteer Reader Scheme

Some of the results from the Built Environment Group

Some of the results from the Built Environment Group

Most Mondays, three, four or five of us sit together in front of a computer screen. We are watching video-recordings of reading groups. They are not what conventionally goes under the tile of reading groups when a group of people, mainly women, mainly middle class, decide upon a novel they are going to read in advance separately (usually a contemporary novel), and then meet to discuss it afterwards in one of the group-members’ homes. The groups we are watching are established on a quite different model. They are set up by The Reader Organization under its scheme of Get Into Reading. That means that the works – poems, short stories, even novels over a period of months – are read aloud in the group, live and shared, with time and space for re-reading and comment. The project involves a wide range of participants in terms of age and background, including people who have suffered recently from some sort of trouble, sometimes described and even treated in terms of ‘mental health issues’. Our task is to see the value of the shared reading model, compared with other forms of group activity (in this case, in a cross-over design, a group discussing the built environment with particular relation to The Reader Organization’s re-opening of Calderstones Mansion in Liverpool as a Centre of Reading and Well-Being).

We have done audio recordings before, with transcripts, but never video-recordings as now. It is impressive that the participants assented to it, and it is extraordinary to watch these groups – making little collaborative communities – in live action around a text of deep human presence. The teams of researchers watch them reading from John Clare’s poem of mental distress, ‘I am’, written in the mid 1840s from inside a lunatic asylum– ‘I am: but what I am none knows or cares./My friends forsake me like a memory lost /. . . And yet I am . . .’ Then the final stanza:

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

After a while – after people have wondered how desirable or desperate this state is, and how close to a sort of death or paradise – one member says, ‘I don’t know what it did, it did something in me.’ The linguist in our research team has got interested in how many times, over many different sessions, the participants refer to literature directly doing something, as if it were both an active and (for all its language) unnaming presence, instead of the usual professionalized definitions, medicalized diagnoses, and second-hand paraphrase of ‘themes’. She is also interested in the regular but unpredictable shift of pronouns – I, me, it, he, we – in course of group discussion, across text, individual, group. But this time our linguist notes the phrase: ‘It did something in me – not to me’. She is reading the participants as carefully as they are reading poetry, working out (later with the use of linguistic markers and software analysis) how much the vocabulary and syntax becomes inflected by the poetry itself – how much the group-members are themselves in their way becoming a little more like poets.

Meanwhile one group member keeps coming back to why ‘Untroubling’ comes ahead of ‘untroubled’ in the poem. She hints – just a little – about causing trouble involuntarily in her own family through her own troubled state. That last stanza, says one group member, ‘is not paradise, just ordinary life without its pain, illness . . .’

5.1

So it is that, for all our micro analysis of the process, there is also, always, this larger personal level of meaning. Often, someone will quietly say something like the usually slangy ‘I’ve been there’ – but here as though the poem were a real mental site or place in the human world. Personal stories come out, in fragments – about a lost beloved in a mental institution, or one’s own sense of dereliction, or an aunt asking her nephew (as one of the men in the group recalls) ‘Am I dying?’ We do not know for sure yet whether to describe these accounts as ‘relevant’ to the text or not, as part of the intrinsic value of the reading group or only (as a purist might say) of ‘instrumental’ value in relieving or reliving past memories. But we do know that we do not see or hear such responses in the other group where they are (still imaginatively) considering the built environment.

We also know that we will not be coming up with a clear abstract dividing line between relevant and irrelevant, or even perhaps between intrinsic and instrumental. The two may be messily closer than we prefer. We are thinking of other terms. For instance. The built environment group-discussion is manifestly proceeding on the basis of everyday relevance: it is clear when someone crosses the invisible line and is (as we say in Liverpool) going off on one. But the reading groups works within a sort of created circle of resonance, going to and from the text at its centre – until or unless the bubble (as it were) is burst.

Soon, as another new move in the research, we shall be showing excerpts from this footage to the participants themselves, to see what they make of what happened. As the phrase goes, we are working on it, and it is – this watching of people themselves working together in intimate social collaboration – a privilege. The reflective individual and the engaged citizen: those AHRC things are there together and alive in this setting.