Yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article by Marc Parry about the work we are doing here in our new Literature Lab with “big data.” It’s awfully nice to be compared to Lewis and Clark exploring the frontiers of literary scholarship, but I think the article fails to give due credit to the exceptional group of students who have been working with Franco Moretti and me in the Lab. Far from being the lab “grunts” that Parry calls them, these students are the lifeblood of the lab, and the projects we are working on spring from their ideas and their passion for literature.
I understand how such a confusion of roles could happen: in the science lab, students often work *under* a faculty member who has received a grant to pursue a particular line of research. Indeed, the funding of grad students in the sciences is often based on this model; the grant pays for the work they do in the lab.
Our literature lab is nothing at all like this; it is a far more egalitarian enterprise and there are no monetary incentives for the students. Instead, the motivation for the students is pure research, the opportunity to push the envelope and experience the excitement of discovering new territory. Yes, Moretti and I serve as guides, advisors, and mentors in this process, but it is important to emphasize the truly collaboration nature of the enterprise.
Moretti and I do not have the answers nor do we necessarily make up the questions. In the case of the most recent work, in fact, all the questions have come directly from the students themselves. A recent article by Amanda Chang and Corrie Goldman (“Stanford Students Use Digital Tools to Analyze Classic Texts“) captures the student’s role quite accurately. Our lab is based on the idea that any good question deserves to be pursued. Students or faculty may pose those questions and teams evolve organically based on interest in the questions. The result, of course, is that we *all* learn a lot.
As a teenager, one of my favorite films was The Magnificent Seven , a remake of the Seven Samurai with gunslingers played by Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and other marquis names. The basic idea is that these gunslingers hire out to protect a small town being ravaged by bad guys. The excitement of the film comes as Brynner assembles his team of seven gunslingers, each with a special talent. They then train the local residents how to defend themselves and as they do the villagers and the gunmen develop a deep sense of respect and admiration for each other.
Working with this group of students in the lab has been a similar experience (without the guns). The work quite literally could not be done without the team and each member of the team has brought a unique talent to the project. One student in the group is an accomplished coder, another has read most every key book in the corpus, another has a penchant for math, another loves research. They are the magnificent seven, and I have never had the pleasure of working with a more talented group: yes, they are students but for me they are already colleagues. I trust their judgements and have a profound respect, and sometimes awe, for what they already know.
Parry’s article contains bits and pieces of an interview he conducted with Yale Professor Katie Trumpener. Speaking of our work and of Moretti’s notion of “distant-reading” Trumpener apparently said the following:
But what happens when his “dullard” descendants take up “distant reading” for their research?
“If the whole field did that, that would be a disaster,” she says, one that could yield a slew of insignificant numbers with “jumped-up claims about what they mean.”
“Dullard”? Really? I do hope that Ms. Trumpener’s comment was somehow taken out of context here and that she will very quickly write to the Chronicle to set the record straight. Otherwise I fear that some less forgiving souls might conclude that Ms. Trumpener is one herself. . .
UPDATE: Over the weekend I received a clarification via email. Ms. Trumpner writes: “I was referring to Moretti’s potential methodological “descendants”–ie. those coming after him, even long after him, not his current team-mates.” Ms. Trumpner notes that when she was interviewed the discussion was not about our Literature Lab at Stanford, but about Moretti’s approaches and general matters of how she and Moretti approach the study of literature. Her comments were made in that context and not in the context of a discussion of the current work of the lab.