Monthly Archives: November 2016

Talk: Unnatural Language and Natural Thinking

I’m giving a talk on the University of Calgary campus (in SS 1015) on Friday December 2, 2016 at 3:15pm.


Unnatural Language and Natural Thinking: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries


Critics of computational text-analysis tend to perceive its focus on language patterns as a flattening of qualitative texts into quantifiable patterns. They’re right. But a text’s linguistic operating-system deserves close scrutiny when it reveals features of the text that a human reader can’t perceive, or when it flags evidence beyond our capacity to gather. The Augmented Criticism Lab has developed algorithms to detect features of repetition and variation in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries (starting with drama, namely the Folger’s Digital Anthology). We’ve begun with features like rhetorical figures that repeat lemmas (heed, heedful, heeding) or morphemes (heeding, wringing, vexing). We use natural-language processing to gather evidence of these unnatural formulations, to ask whether they signal natural habits of thought. The interpretive payoff is our ability to make more definitive arguments not just about these figures, but also about underlying cognitive habits.

This paper describes our process and our corpus, and presents a range of our results with this initial corpus before we expand to the billion words in the EEBO-TCP corpus (1473-1700).

For more information about the Augmented Criticism Lab, visit < >.

Ten Ways to Teach without Lecture Notes

(Prefatory note: I’m writing this as a university professor of literature, but most of my observations should apply to other subjects at other levels.)

In a hypothetical alternate universe, imagine that you have to teach a class in ten minutes and just finished reading the book. You favour “just-in-time” teaching methods – out of habit, if not principle – so you tend to lecture from a list of ideas, quotations, questions, and classroom exercises, accompanied by a good slideshow. But today, as I said, you just finished the reading and teach in ten (now seven) minutes. What do you do?

First, let’s drop the alternate-universe fiction. Over the years my lecture notes have thinned considerably. I used to go in with every word scripted, in mortal fear that I would run out of material. But I’ve come to realize two things: students retain far more from interative knowledge-creation than from knowledge-delivery; and each class gives you an opportunity to make knowledge together, in ways you can only do together. In your limited time, in this room, with these minds, what knowledge will you produce?

Read More

An Open Breakup Letter to American Politics

This week made me nostalgic for the 2000 Presidential election: for a recount in Florida shut down by the Supreme Court, and for the victory of George W. Bush. At least W. won under circumstances that called his legitimacy into question.

Whereas this week’s victory for Donald Trump was decisive, in state after state after state. Despite his claims, it seems the system isn’t so rigged.

So I’m out, America. You and I need some time apart.

Read More