The Augmented Criticism Lab’s Sonnet Database

This is the text of a short paper I delivered at the Digital Humanities 2019 conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands on 12 July 2019. The Augmented Criticism Lab’s Sonnet Database is in beta release.

To keep to my 10 minutes, I’ll be as focused as possible. My aim is to raise a research question, and then to describe my methods for answering it.

My question is:

Is the sonnet a form or a genre?

My method for answering it is:

A database of sonnets for text-analysis.

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Text-Analysis Unconference: Treating Texts as Data

REGISTER NOW for this event at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Family Digital Library

If texts – from survey transcripts to Shakespearean drama to social-media posts — are the objects of your research, you might benefit from using a computer to extend your analysis. Benefits include counting words, identifying topics, or analyzing sentiments. Text analysis is complex, but you don’t need a degree in statistics or computer science to use its tools. For instance, they can do simple comparisons between texts, like comparing the most frequent words in one text to those in another.

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The Virtues of VHS

I remember the day in the early 1980s when my father unboxed our family’s first VHS player: a wood-grained Panasonic Omnivision with a top-loading tape bay that was like a machine from the future. Soon our trips to the video-rental shop were a regular event, even though the shop had just five shelves that were mostly empty. A bead-curtained alcove at the back was for adults only. And all we would rent, I remember, were repackaged Disney cartoons and Roger Moore-era James Bond movies — which are my favourites to this day. Continue reading “The Virtues of VHS”

Iter at 20: A Look Forward

This is the text of my paper delivered at a New Technologies in Renaissance Studies panel at the 2019 Renaissance Society of America meeting in Toronto.


Despite my title, I am not a futurist. I am a born optimist who looks forward to many things, but more in the aspirational more than the predictive sense. As the great Wayne Gretzky used to say, I try to skate where the puck is going, rather than where it is.

So in this paper I’ll take a brief look backward at Iter’s history, and its organization of information that becomes knowledge that becomes wisdom about history. Then I’ll look forward to its future in the conjoined realms of discovery and dissemination, and in the realm of collaborative “spaces for possibility and play,” in Liz Grumbach’s words this morning.

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John Donne and the Sonnet Problem

What makes a sonnet? For most early modern examples, the answer is clear: a 14-line rhyming poem, its form either Shakespearean (three quatrains and a couplet) or Petrarchan (an octave and a sestet). There are exceptions to those formal rules, but most sonnets meet them.

Formal rules are the conventional answer. And that answer works for conventional sonnets, which are the vast majority of sonnets.

But if you enforce formal rules too rigorously, you encounter a few interesting problems. These are the problems that my project is investigating. Moments’ Monuments: The ACL Database is collecting as many sonnets as possible, so I can get a more definitive answer to this question: Is the sonnet a form or a genre? The trouble is, you need to decide first what qualifies as a sonnet.

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Homepage of Yore

Back in the olden days of 2006, I was applying for tenure-track jobs. I spent every available minute on those applications: anxiously revising my letter of application or preparing talking-points for the campus visit. (“Oh yes, I’d walk over hot coals to teach Old English homilies…”)

I also made time to create this web site — which looks like a blog, but actually isn’t. It’s a glorified CV/teaching dossier/Tumblr-esque compilation of thoughts, syllabi, quotations, and images. Reading it now I see the online persona I was projecting, as someday I will when I read through this WordPress archive.

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The OED maketh an exact man

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” So writes Sir Francis Bacon in his essay “Of Studies” (1597). What exactly he means by this three-part aphorism is unclear, so let’s focus just on the middle part: “conference [maketh] a ready man.” We’ll have to determine the meanings of at least two words: ‘conference’ and ‘ready.’

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”The Past is a Foreign Country…”

“… they do things differently there.” So goes a very quotable aphorism by the otherwise obscure novelist named L. P. Hartley. There are things about its people, their mindsets and habits, that seem utterly foreign: like alchemy, or absolute monarchy. But we measure their distance also by things they did that we can’t do, like building temples or writing epic poetry.

Their poetry is also, paradoxically, where we can find familiarity. Sure, past writers use antique formulations and words, but their underlying emotions can be human in a transcendent, trans-historical way. We can feel their urgency.

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