How to notice things in an English class: Word clouds

A few days ago I posted a low-tech way to notice more details in an English classroom; here’s a more web-friendly way.

Assuming you have an electronic version of your text–generally (though not always) a safe assumption for my Victorian lit classes; less frequently true when I teach cyberpunk–then word clouds are your friend.  I’m partial to TagCrowd, but you can’t swing a cat without hitting a new word cloud tool these days.

What’s nice about a tool like TagCrowd is that it lets you test your assumptions about what a work is about against the words being used.  To a certain extent, if your thesis doesn’t line up with the language of the text, then you either need a new thesis, or a clever rhetorical strategy for explaining away the absence of such evidence.

I frequently use TagCrowd in teaching as a way to complicate things when a class is hell-bent on a particular reading.  My favorite example of this is Mary Shelley’s story, “The Parvenue.”  After a trip to the dictionary to look up “parvenue,” students will often race to assume that it’s primarily a story about the class conflict between a husband and wife.  And certainly that’s an important part of the story.

When you have TagCrowd work its magic on the story, though, you quickly see one word jump out: mother.  From there one might remember Mary Shelley’s other works that have fraught accounts of maternity, or remember the tragedy of Shelley’s own biography.  One might even remember that, from time to time, spouses project onto their partners arguments that they really should be having with one’s parents.  Maybe none of those things is relevant in this story–but the site immediately provides a clue for going back and looking at the story again.

(Really unready for class tomorrow!)

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