Better Questions, Better Answers: Frontloading Concepts in Full-Text Search

Full-text keyword search might be, pedagogically speaking, the new close reading: a pragmatic exercise to help students focus on the language of a text. Here, I reflect on a subtle but transformative change of emphasis in how I structure full-text searches in class. The assignment, familiar enough, asks groups of four to (1) choose the most important word in a novel—in my case, Robinson Crusoe (1719)—and (2) trace that word through the online Gutenberg text or Google Books.  Part (2) is useful because reading for countable things is a simple way to gain a more comprehensive view of the text while seeing it more closely. Dealing with a set of specific examples helps students focus their thinking about unwieldy texts, and also helps students see how concepts develop across a text. 
 

What I wish to call attention to, however, is the value of (1), the discussion that precedes the search.   In the collaborative research on style I've done with the Stanford Litlab, the arguments were profoundly shaped by the way we designed our experiments (a larger theme in digital humanities--a great discussion of this by Ted Underwood here).  In consequence, the last time I taught this assignment in my seminar "The Self in the Novel," I began by asking each student (individually, in writing) to defend which word was the “most important,” taking into account course readings by Georg (György) Lukács, Ian Watt and Margaret Cohen, as well as the novel itself.  By the time the groups had chosen their words, each had developed a clear rationale for why their focus (“business,” “slave”) was especially important to that novel.  Shifting the balance of class time from the final list of “hits” to the process of project design helped students practice the fundamental argumentative skill of developing intelligent questions.  
 

Simple digital search is open-ended: a word might be interesting because it occurs only twice, or because it occurs far more often than you might think.  The purpose of this assignment is not for students to prove or disprove an initial hypothesis, but to enable them to develop their understanding of a central concept in relation to the larger novel.  I believe the combination of conceptual grounding and openness that precedes full-text search makes students more sensitive to patterns and also to surprises in the results. By stating their rationale for the search up front and then choosing one word to pursue, students worked together to design a project, an experience they could carry into other disciplines and outside the academic context.  This assignment is an opportunity for students to integrate the "slow" work of reading and writing with the instant gratification of digital search.

 

Sarah D. Allison, Loyola University New Orleans

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