In recent years, teachers in the humanities have begun to see the importance of incorporating technology into our research—if only to make our lives a little bit easier. This change in the way we conduct research has also extended into our classrooms. I aim to adapt my classroom so that it mirrors how students are interacting with the world today, and a large part of that adjustment includes making use of current technology. At times, this has not been an easy evolution, as we all too often teach in the way that we ourselves learned. But not every student we encounter shares our innate love for literature. This means that we must do the best we can to make literature both accessible and interesting to students of the 21st century.
Because I am using Voyant for my CHI fellowship project, I also intend to use this tool in my classroom. This summer I will teach an Integrated Arts and Humanities course online. Largely intended for non-majors, the course title is, ‘Literature and the Environment: Self, Society, and Nature’. I’ve been brainstorming the ways in which this tool might benefit or otherwise engage non-majors in this subject. Here are some of my collected thoughts on using Voyant in the classroom:
The use of Voyant helps me integrate my research with my teaching. Students using Voyant are engaging in the same type of research in which I engage. And students new to literary studies see that they can engage in collaborative, digital, and visual methods of literary research. They see that literary studies is not limited to the solitary act of reading, with a professorial figure largely directing the meaning of what they read the night before. Instead, students using Voyant can look for patterns or uncover interesting facets of the text themselves—creating a truly student-centered learning experience.
Students might track the use of a particular term (or a set of related terms) over the entirety of a novel or play. Perhaps students are asked to locate and then visualize the use of seasonal terms throughout a text; does the use of these terms change in frequency or in terms of specific seasons; how might particular uses draw our eye to pivotal passages within a text?
Or, students can relate texts to one another over the course of a semester by tracking and then visualizing the same terms over a variety of texts. There is potential for finding surprising connections or conversely, locating defining differences between texts. Using Voyant in this way may initiate conversations regarding the connectedness of texts; students see how texts from different authors, time periods, genres, etc. are similar or different.
One of the benefits of Voyant is its accessibility. It is extremely user-friendly and the visualizations users create are easily exportable. Students can use Voyant just once (no log-in or download required), for a simple homework or in-class individual or collaborative assignment. Further, this assignment can be extremely student-centered if students are allowed to pursue their own curiosities. Using this text mining and visualization tool to provide proof of the significance of their interest, students learn the value of evidence in forming a thesis. Lastly, of course Voyant may be used as a formative assessment in support of a larger assessment like a traditional research paper.
Voyant might be especially useful for helping students engage with poetry—a genre that demands attention to detail, sometimes at the level of a single word. Or, for example, students might track the use of pronouns throughout a poetry anthology as a way to reflect upon the speakers and/or subjects.
Lastly, Voyant might be used for non-literary texts. News articles, blog posts, or journal articles could be tracked visually. And perhaps the most interesting use of Voyant might be for students to track their own writing. This would be especially useful as an end of the term project as students reflect on the papers they completed for class. This assignment would allow students to see what their engagements with the texts were, allowing greater insight into who they are as scholars.
The limitations to this tool are slim, but should be considered. Texts must be uploaded to Voyant; therefore the text must be in a digital format. Also, I’ve used Voyant in some sophisticated ways, tracking dozens of terms through thirty or so texts and in this way, I’ve reached some of the limitations of the tool; but these are less likely to occur in semester-length student assignments. Lastly, with the use of many digital tools, accommodations might need to be made for students with special learning needs.
It is my view that Voyant is an excellent tool for reaching students, especially those new to literary students, or students new to the digital humanities. Visualizations can start conversations, they can be created collaboratively, or analyzed collaboratively. Further, Voyant can be used in the face-to-face, hybrid, or digital learning environments. I encourage humanities instructors to use this tool and to cater it to their individual interests, or better yet, their students’ interests.