Rachel Sagner Burrma (English, Swarthmore College) speaks on the Victorian novel, realism, and machine learning. Her lecture, "“The Preparation of the Victorian Novel and the Preparation of the Topic Model," is part of the Material Texts Colloquium of the Textual Studies Program.
Abstract: In this talk I draw together the research practices of Victorian novelists with the research practices of digital humanists to ask what we might learn by seeing them both as part of a longer history of literary research. Following Roland Barthes’s approach in “The Preparation of the Novel,” I first ask how understanding novelists’ note-taking systems, personal knowledge organization technologies, and self-archiving practices can help us rethink our ways of knowing the Victorian novel. Taking prolific and almost-forgotten Victorian novelist Charles Reade as a case study, I offer illustrations drawn from the hundreds of volumes of notes and clippings he amassed over the course of his career. I then turn from Reade’s research practices to topic modeling, a method of unsupervised machine learning popular with digital humanists. Briefly introducing the theory and practice of topic modeling, I show why it makes sense to see the computational modeling of corpora of novels as a contingent way of imagining novels’ origins rather than as a more literal analysis of their contents.
Rachel Sagner Buurma works on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and print culture, the history of the novel, twentieth-century Anglo-American literary criticism, and literary informatics. Current projects are on the history and theory of literary research, especially practices of knowledge organization like indexing and note-taking, pasts and and presents of collaborative work, and the intersection of literary-critical inquiry and information science. With Laura Heffernan, she is at work on a project that retells the history of English literary study from the perspective of the classroom. She directs the Tri-Co Digital Humanities Initiative.