Building a Better Humanities Toolbox Using Data Sets and Statistics

By Stacey Greenberg ’94

Traditionally, the words Wordsworth, Blake, and data sets do not roll off the tongue together. But in innovative scholarship, they do. Assistant Professor of English Seth Rudy scours data and statistics to analyze word usage in eighteenth-century Britain. His targeted review of the language reveals critical aspects of the era’s search for knowledge.

Rudy arrived at Rhodes from New York University in 2010 after receiving a PhD in English, with a focus on eighteenth-century British literature and romanticism. To supplement his class assignments, which incorporate close and critical readings of texts, Rudy weaves in digital humanities for his students.

Today’s students are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet, he explains. They live in a time when information materializes via small, rectangular devices tucked away in pockets and purses—or Google glasses perched on their noses. Rudy observes that, while students naturalize certain technologies into their daily lives, they aren’t always critical thinkers. “It’s the job of the teacher to step in and make sure they know how to use technology rather than get used by it,” he says.

Rudy’s students need look no further than his own research to see that he practices what he teaches. He is obsessed with encyclopedias and recently wrapped up his first manuscript, titled Literature and Encyclopedism in Enlightenment Britain: The Pursuit of Complete Knowledge. “It’s not light reading,” he says with a laugh. “At a moment when Google seeks ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,’ my book tells the story of long-term aspirations to comprehend, record, and disseminate complete knowledge of the world—first in ancient epic and then in a wide range of literary and non-literary works from the early modern era and British Enlightenment.”

Rudy’s research suggests that the drive to capture and convey complete knowledge resulted in the creation of categories of knowledge, such as what we think of as “high” knowledge and “low” knowledge, among others. To draw his conclusions, Rudy mined the English Short Title Catalog for appearances of five key words relevant to his work and then, with the help of a colleague, statistician Dr. Jeff Hamrick, did time series analysis to denote trends and point him toward areas for closer study. “Hamrick taught me what questions to ask, and the data confirmed things I suspected, which helped me focus my research,” he says.

The course London Calling: Eighteenth-Century Poetry and Prose, which focuses on literature written in and about London, gave Rudy the opportunity to integrate digital humanities directly into his classroom. Using ECCO, an online archive of many eighteenth-century texts unlikely ever to be in print again, he had students build an online glossary and annotated bibliography in Moodle, a learning management system used by Rhodes. Each class has its own Moodle site so that students and professors can share information relevant to the class.

Rudy logs into Moodle to give an example and lands on “The New Art & Mystery of Gossiping,” which dates to 1770. “The point of sending students out there is so that they become interested in things they didn’t even know were there to become interested in,” he says. “They see what others are interested in and how these wonderfully esoteric things that have fallen out of view connect to other texts still in print.”

Although he is introducing new methods from the digital humanities, Rudy is quick to point out that these methods are what allow him to excel in traditional literary study and analysis. “It’s not either/or,” he says. “A small college like Rhodes allows me to maximize the benefits of a traditional model while supplementing it with new tools. The more tools I have in the toolbox, the better the toolbox.”