New English faculty bring expertise in digital humanities

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Dec. 5, 2019

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Professors Dan Sinykin and Lauren Klein are pioneers in the emerging field of applying quantitative methods to literary analysis. Their work uses computers to help spot patterns in massive amounts of literature, unearthing never-told stories.

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Novel research has a double meaning for two faculty members who joined Emory College of Arts and Sciences’ English department this fall.

Working well beyond the narrative fiction historically associated with the department, Lauren Klein and Dan Sinykin are pioneers in the emerging field of applying quantitative methods to literary analysis. Their work, using computers to help spot patterns in massive amounts of literature, is unearthing never-told stories and new accounts of the past.

Along with Benjamin Miller, a senior lecturer in writing and computational analysis of rhetoric, they are helping position the department as a leader in the digital humanities. 

Their interdisciplinary work also strengthens a partnership with Emory College’s Department of Quantitative Theory and Methods (QTM), which requires students to select a liberal arts discipline to anchor the program’s advanced data science coursework.

“QTM is proud of our groundbreaking partnership with English,” says Cliff Carrubba, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Political Science and Quantitative Theory and Methods and chair of the QTM department. “We believe quantitative humanistic inquiry will be a signature part of what we can offer our students and more broadly the intellectual life of the College.” 

Klein and Sinykin will teach courses in quantitative methods – including Klein’s inaugural course in text analysis this fall – as well as literary analysis and digital humanities. The combined skills will help students ask, and answer, questions in their disciplines as well as open career pathways in a variety of fields, from academics to IT to business strategy.

“We are integrating the critical thinking skills needed in the humanities with the technological skills that allow us to ask questions on a scale that was all but impossible without computation,” says Benjamin Reiss, chair of the Department of English and the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of English. 

“What we study, what we teach, is valuable beyond the traditional humanities and opens up a broad path of careers for our students,” Reiss adds. 

Using data for deeper literary insights

Klein, an associate professor in English with a joint appointment in QTM, focuses her research on the literature and culture of the early United States. 

The era’s materials are notoriously incomplete, written at a time when only specific documents were deemed worthy of saving, and before our current sense of “literature” had stabilized.

But Klein, a software developer before attending graduate school, says computational methods are ideal to examine such fragmented and “messy” data. Such methods can help spot patterns that can point to untold stories about the past.

That is what she did in her forthcoming book, “An Archive of Taste: Race and Eating in the Early United States,” which tells new stories about the range of people, from the nation’s first presidents to their enslaved chefs, who helped establish a cultural foundation for the United States. 

She is applying similar techniques in a new project that examines abolitionist newspapers from the 19th century United States. Her goal is to challenge the prevailing narrative that white abolitionists led the movement to end slavery. Klein plans to involve students in both the quantitative and historical dimensions of the research.

“Using computers allows us to conduct literary research at new scales of analysis,” Klein says. “And quantitative methods help us identify new communities, new actors and new paths of influence in the story we tell about abolition.” 

Sinykin, an assistant professor of English, is a traditional literary historian interested primarily in how the consolidation of the publishing industry has affected literature and which books make it to market. 

By developing computational models to examine digitized books – available for scholarly use from an organization called the HathiTrust – Sinykin already found that nonprofit publishers do publish literature that is more “literary” than what is published by their corporate counterparts.

Sinykin recently secured a partnership with the HathiTrust to dive deeper into its data, the largest compendium of digital literature in the world, and set up machine learning that will open the information to other researchers.

Among the ideas to investigate is how authors navigate the constrained conditions in corporate publishing. Sinykin is teaching a course this fall on the two hybrid forms he sees emerging from those conditions – autobiographical fiction and lyrical essays – that incorporate literary traditions with techniques that satisfy financial patrons. 

“People sometimes don’t see contemporary literature as historical,” Sinykin says. “Understanding how books exist in time brings to life what an author does creatively to work in the industry.” 

Such research may overlap with the department’s nationally ranked Creative Writing Program, which this fall added three new faculty members whose work draws from and informs literary scholarship.

Poet and nonfiction author Heather Christle joins as an assistant professor of English and creative writing. Poet Robyn Schiff has been hired as a professor of English and creative writing, and poet/novelist Tiphanie Yanique joins as an associate professor in English and creative writing, with an emphasis in Caribbean studies. 

“It’s a very exciting time for our department,” Reiss says. “Our conversations now are about where we can go next.”