Every job I’ve had–in education, the corporate world, or bureaucratic administration–has relied heavily on work done by teams of employees. None of them has organized those teams in ways that look much like the “group work” many of us foster in college classes. Is teamwork the opposite of group work?
Ted Underwood responded to my post on Jane Austen’s style–pointing out the prevalence of adverbs, “to be” constructions, and terms of certainty–by raising the issue of baseline comparisons: “I’d like to know whether this is something about Austen in particular, or whether it’s a characteristic feature of a period/genre. I don’t intuitively know which is more likely.”
Let’s explore! I’m again using Ted’s corpus and software, comparing a given author’s work to the whole corpus. This file is a transcript of the commands and output I’m interpreting below.
I thought the most conventional guess of an author to produce results similar to Austen would be Maria Edgeworth. Here’s the list for her:
WORDS OVERREPRESENTED BY MANN-WHITNEY RHO 1 understand 0.937 271 2 recollect 0.923 309 3 talking 0.916 127 4 know 0.916 523 5 could 0.913 754 6 provoking 0.912 41.9 7 nonsense 0.911 62.3 8 perfectly 0.905 119 9 explain 0.903 192 10 continually 0.889 95.4 11 tired 0.888 76 12 going 0.888 205 13 do 0.884 586 14 dear 0.88 792 15 sorry 0.879 79.5 16 satisfied 0.879 93.8 17 yesterday 0.879 48.9 18 liked 0.875 48.1 19 spoiled 0.874 19.6 20 directly 0.869 77.2 21 quite 0.869 136 22 please 0.868 182 23 you 0.868 2467 24 repeated 0.868 233 25 decide 0.866 101 26 afraid 0.864 148 27 repeating 0.862 52.7 28 thank 0.862 115 29 manage 0.86 44 30 guess 0.86 97.8 31 sure 0.859 290 32 ashamed 0.857 35.4 33 put 0.856 140 34 admiration 0.855 90.5 35 disappointed 0.855 44.8 36 surprised 0.855 75.6 37 tiresome 0.853 37.2 38 especially 0.853 76.3 39 not 0.853 802 40 reading 0.853 80.1 41 dressing 0.852 9.04 42 said 0.852 2783 43 formerly 0.851 50 44 understanding 0.851 103 45 possible 0.85 157 46 because 0.85 261 47 really 0.85 125 48 any 0.85 632 49 saw 0.85 183 50 think 0.85 173
My unsystematic eyeballs see no forms of “to be” and far fewer adverbs than populated Austen’s list. Terms of cognition seem especially prominent:
WORDS OVERREPRESENTED BY MANN-WHITNEY RHO 1 understand 0.937 271 2 recollect 0.923 309 4 know 0.916 523 9 explain 0.903 192 25 decide 0.866 101 30 guess 0.86 97.8 44 understanding 0.851 103 50 think 0.85 173
What about Charlotte Lennox? Her list has “extremely” and “wholly” in the first and sixth places, but only one other “-ly” adverb (“instantly” at #29). Lennox’s vocabulary emphasizes the dynamics of sociability. Highlights:
WORDS OVERREPRESENTED BY MANN-WHITNEY RHO 2 civility 0.97 117 7 amiable 0.959 353 8 accompany 0.959 55.8 11 conversation 0.957 258 12 behaviour 0.954 419 13 mortified 0.949 34.6 14 mortification 0.948 113 15 received 0.945 119 18 amusements 0.939 32.3 19 entreaties 0.937 54.9 20 apprehensions 0.937 89.4 21 attentions 0.936 70.9 27 conduct 0.929 195 28 insisted 0.928 80.6 29 instantly 0.927 209 30 countenance 0.925 123 31 situation 0.924 260 33 visit 0.923 107 35 arrival 0.922 83.5 36 acknowledged 0.92 53 37 reception 0.92 46.8 38 circumstance 0.919 98.7 41 relations 0.917 84.3 42 letter 0.916 312 43 politeness 0.916 110 44 shocked 0.914 89.2 45 accident 0.913 74.1 46 inform 0.913 74.8 47 acquaintance 0.912 131 50 ordered 0.91 66.6
Walter Scott’s list of 50 (using only his fiction for the sake of comparison) includes only three adverbs, none in his top 30, and the highest-ranking is an adverb of action: “hastily.” Scott’s list evokes military contexts and especially hierarchies of authority:
1 answered 0.958 2519 4 warrant 0.944 501 8 risk 0.93 263 13 permit 0.914 247 14 trusty 0.913 169 19 weapon 0.905 235 22 boot 0.902 127 23 followers 0.898 505 27 domestics 0.897 122 30 commanded 0.895 222 32 courtesy 0.894 262 33 quarrel 0.893 183 34 kinsman 0.892 432 35 assistance 0.892 248 37 saddle 0.891 109 43 displeasure 0.89 123 44 attendance 0.889 162 47 willingly 0.889 170
Hannah More’s list (again, using only her fiction) is unsurprisingly packed with religious terminology, and I see little overlap between her list and the others.
If you want motion in your novel, open your James Fenimore Cooper:
WORDS OVERREPRESENTED BY MANN-WHITNEY RHO 1 movements 0.979 903 3 movement 0.97 576 4 direction 0.961 579 6 commenced 0.958 374 8 companion 0.952 645 18 distance 0.915 552 20 quest 0.913 190 21 returned 0.913 829 27 companions 0.902 268 37 disappeared 0.894 137 38 preparations 0.893 93.3 39 placing 0.893 74.7 40 position 0.892 168
At this point, I think we have at least a preliminary answer to our question: the prevalence of adverbs and so forth in Austen’s works is indeed characteristic of Austen herself, rather than her period or genre.
This little exploration was great fun for me, as the results returned a mix of new insights–particularly about Austen and Edgeworth–and reassuring common-sense confirmation that the tool identifies the characteristic thematic emphases of Scott and More. In a follow-up post, I’ll offer some quick thoughts about other uses of this kind of word-frequency analysis, from the perspective of a beginning user with a pedagogical emphasis.
I’m on leave this semester to do work in the Digital Humanities, so I’ll be posting a lot about that. My interest in DH is not–or has not been–quantitative, but I am expanding my range by dabbling in quantitative methods, currently with the help of Ted Underwood’s wonderful introduction to the topic.
At the end of Ted’s post, he provides a dataset and a program he wrote to find groups of words that form something like stylistic signatures in authors and genres. I’ve been playing with the program, with fascinating results. I’ll share one here. This is the list of overrepresented words in Jane Austen’s works according to one of the measures Ted uses:
WORDS OVERREPRESENTED BY MANN-WHITNEY RHO 1 very 0.985 3283 2 wishing 0.984 154 3 staying 0.982 176 4 satisfied 0.977 188 5 fortnight 0.975 152 6 herself 0.973 1553 7 agreeable 0.973 350 8 be 0.971 2645 9 smallest 0.971 182 10 any 0.971 1112 11 really 0.968 555 12 acquaintance 0.967 462 13 excessively 0.967 91.8 14 nothing 0.967 639 15 assure 0.965 268 16 settled 0.964 261 17 marrying 0.964 196 18 much 0.964 841 19 attentions 0.962 212 20 encouraging 0.961 51 21 directly 0.96 290 22 deal 0.96 329 23 warmly 0.96 96.3 24 must 0.96 1141 25 sorry 0.958 198 26 certainly 0.957 323 27 not 0.957 2023 28 tolerably 0.957 95.9 29 handsome 0.957 136 30 quite 0.956 765 31 been 0.956 899 32 exactly 0.955 248 33 invitation 0.955 194 34 being 0.954 699 35 obliged 0.954 280 36 seeing 0.954 206 37 always 0.953 470 38 pleasantly 0.952 37.8 39 delighted 0.951 107 40 talked 0.95 342 41 perfectly 0.949 283 42 distressing 0.949 61.5 43 solicitude 0.949 89.7 44 comfortable 0.948 167 45 walking 0.948 129 46 continuing 0.947 39.1 47 engaged 0.945 120 48 enjoyment 0.942 122 49 dislike 0.941 86.7 50 talking 0.941 194
The list is interesting in many ways, especially in comparison to the corresponding lists for other authors, but I want to emphasize a side point. “Very” tops the list, and it may also top the list of words I discourage my students from using in their papers. (Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”) And that’s not all: I push students to minimize adverbs, intensifiers, terms of certainty, and “to be” constructions. Such words infuse Austen’s list:
WORDS OVERREPRESENTED BY MANN-WHITNEY RHO 1 very 0.985 3283 8 be 0.971 2645 11 really 0.968 555 13 excessively 0.967 91.8 21 directly 0.96 290 23 warmly 0.96 96.3 26 certainly 0.957 323 28 tolerably 0.957 95.9 30 quite 0.956 765 31 been 0.956 899 32 exactly 0.955 248 34 being 0.954 699 37 always 0.953 470 38 pleasantly 0.952 37.8 41 perfectly 0.949 283
I’ve thought many times about writing a handout on style that outlines the conventional guidelines of modern, essayistic style with counterexamples from great literature. (What would Hamlet do without “to be”?) But this list encourages me to take such thinking a step further: Austen’s case alone could become the foundation of a unit on voice, style, and convention.
Here’s a question that has bugged me for a long time: how can we teach research skills at the introductory level? Or, even trickier, how can we teach research in a non-disciplinary skills course at the introductory level? This semester, I’m trying out a new answer: teaching research by having students research papers they’ve already written.
Every first-semester Grinnell student takes a class we call the Tutorial: a content-based introduction to college-level skills in writing, reading, discussion, presentation, information literacy, and more. (The course is famously overloaded with priorities.) My versions of the course emphasize writing skills, and in the past, I have chosen not to do much with research beyond quotation and citation skills and an introduction to our library facilities; that is, I have covered information literacy rather than independent research skills, leaving the latter to upper-level courses. In thinking about adding a research component for Tutorial, I have always gotten stuck on the problem of assigning research when students cannot read enough to get a strong sense of a research field. Under such circumstances, how can I avoid turning the “research” into the reading of a few semi-random sources, chosen for their vague relationship to a developing paper topic?
This semester, I will try a new approach: building research into the revision of papers. The students will assemble annotated bibliographies of secondary sources for the course’s final portfolios, and they will choose the readings based on issues that arise in my initial responses to their papers. Because the course is portfolio-based, we can identify areas in which secondary sources would help amplify and refine a given argument. The students’ research will thus have a sense of purpose often lacking in preliminary bibliographies: they will go to secondary sources to solve specific problems. Here is the assignment. Comments are most welcome. If this approach works well, I will work to generalize its application to other introductory courses.
Charles Baxter came to Grinnell and, in addition to his reading, did a roundtable discussion for students yesterday. It was terrific. He talked about his realization that many pieces of fiction gain their momentum from a “request moment,” an interaction in which one character asks another character do so something urgently or within a limited time, and the second character either accepts or refuses the request. As soon as you hear this idea, you’ll see it everywhere. One of the first examples it brought to mind for me was this:
STANWYK: “I want you to murder me.”
How’s that for getting a plot moving?
Then I read Coleridge’s “Christabel” for today’s class. Bingo: the action takes off when Geraldine makes a request of Christabel: “Stretch forth thy hand . . . And help a wretched maid to flee.”
Baxter said that his insight into this pattern came from Shakespeare, for example in Hamlet’s ghost coming to make requests of Prince Hamlet, and that comment made me realize how thoroughly the play is driven by request moments:
[pre-history] Claudius asks Gertrude to marry him, though she knows it’s too soon.
[pre-history] Claudius asks some of the men of the castle to stand guard, though they don’t understand why.
The guards ask Horatio to come talk to the ghost.
Laertes asks Claudius for permission to leave the country.
Hamlet asks Claudius for permission to leave the country; Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet to stay.
Polonius and Laertes ask Ophelia (more or less) to break up with her boyfriend against her will.
THEN the ghost asks Hamlet to avenge his father.
Hamlet asks the other guards to swear their secrecy and allegiance.
Polonius asks Reynaldo to spy on Laertes; Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet; Polonius asks Ophelia to set up an observation of Hamlet, etc.
Holy moly. I’ve said to my students for years that the key phrase of the play may be Laertes’ description of Hamlet: “His will is not his own.” In these request moments, we can see why that phrase is so important: the characters’ wills are never fully their own, as they are always inflected and constrained by the demands placed on them by others, and the others often have a lot of structural or emotional power.
What other request moments come to mind for you? Or, I should say: Will you tell me—and soon!—of other request moments in fiction?
Some people have started to notice how weird it was to have Kenneth Branagh, in the garb of a Victorian industrialist, speak in the voice of Shakespeare’s Caliban during the London Olympics’ opening ceremonies. Columbia professor James Shapiro, for example, noticed the “odd choice,” but he does not even attempt to explain it: “The lines are quite beautiful, and I guess they wanted to rip them out of context and talk about how magical a place the British Isles are.”
I admit that I had the same reaction to the passage at first: Caliban as a costume-drama oppressor, pounding out his speech in smiling ignorance? Seriously? And this after opening with “Jerusalem” by William Blake, England’s great poet of the double edge?
But as the ceremonies went on, I saw that Danny Boyle had been many steps ahead of Shapiro and me. The ceremonies were about protest and dissent, as Alex Woolf argues in a perceptive Sports Illustrated piece. With a pointed celebration of the NHS, a tribute to suffragism, even a Beatles-linked nod to 1968, Boyle used the occiasion to turn the pageantry of the Beijing ceremony against itself: “he outstripped the previous Olympic host city by flaunting what the Chinese actively suppressed.”
Woolf is right, but Boyle’s work also involved a presentation of British cultural history that embraced the double-edged weirdness of Branagh’s Caliban moment. I’ll return to that.
The opening song, the anthem “Jerusalem,” takes its words from William Blake’s Milton. It’s at the bottom of this page. Often pounded out as if a resolute celebration of the “green and pleasant land,” it is a poem of questioning and longing, of uncertain truths and hopes unlikely to be realized in the contemporary England of “dark Satanic Mills.”
The darkness of Blake’s words give substance to another recent, celebrated London theatrical production: Jez Butterworth’s wonderful Jerusalem, which likewise opens with a haunting rendition of the anthem. Butterworth’s hero, Johnny Byron, a force of chaos who limps like his poetic namesake, faces down real-estate developers by drumming and chanting an appeal to ancient forces of the British woods.
Boyle’s piece, too, involves a drummer (noted for her physical disability, even) unleashing drumbeats that resemble and oppose the machinery tearing up the wilderness and wildness of British myth. And in this context, Boyle’s emphasis on labor as well as protest—the nurses of the NHS, those Victorian workers who gave the forging of the Olympic rings a Blakean darnkess—the use of Caliban’s speech makes sense.
Caliban celebrates his island’s music to protest Prospero’s land grab. Productions and criticism of The Tempest have for centuries supported readings of Prospero as a benevolent reformer or as a cruel imperialist, Caliban as a force of nature and authenticity or of crude violence needing external government. Putting Caliban’s words in the Prospero-like form of the Victorian industrialist adds another layer: is Branagh’s businessman a clueless appropriator of words as well as labor? Or does Branagh’s blank smile mask his knowing, ruthless suppression of the bleak truths of industrial progress? Either way, the invocation of Jerusalem and The Tempest places the 2012 Olympics in a history of wealthy men’s machinery reconstructing the places claimed by British citizens and colonial subjects.
(And was it also a devilishly clever takedown of Branagh as a popularizer of British cultural heritage, or was Branagh in on the joke? I can’t tell, and I love the ambiguity.)
Then Rowan Atkinson entered to provide Boyle’s most playful set piece, the parody of Chariots of Fire. As you’ll remember, the scene was centered on Atkinson’s dream of beating the Chariots of Fire runners in a beach race, a victory enabled by some foul play and the use of a motorcar. The moral of the story, as I take it, was this: British beach-training doesn’t win running races anymore, but cleverness, humor, and the odd elbow might achieve some victories.
The first part of the ceremonies then wrapped up with the relentlessly referential song-and-dance sequence surrounding the aggressively brainless story of young love and a lost cell phone. “How does finding a girl’s cellphone enable you to call her?” you might have asked. I sure did. But there was a clever answer: you can call her, or do pretty much anything you want, if you have Tim Berners-Lee behind the curtain creating the magic, his technology altering the nature of the scene as fundamentally as Rowan Atkinson’s car.
The sexiness, drive, and visual slickness of the big performance really come not from the notably ethnic young people and their electric grins but from the middle-aged nerd with a fast computer and a net worth of $50 million. Are we supposed to receive that sequence as silly or devastatingly clever? Fabulously multiracial or uncomfortably controlling, with Berners-Lee a modern Prospero? About British ingenuity or big-money Big Brother?
Such questions create the unsettling, self-undermining effects of Boyle’s opening ceremonies, which used the tools of art to wriggle free from simple nationalist celebration and pompously Olympian self-congratulation. They culminated with rings of fire echoing the Victorian millwork, as the torch was lit to the tune of “Caliban’s Dream,” an angelically innocent song by a band called Underworld. I think Blake would approve. I know I do.
When I took one of the newly offered online Stanford courses last fall, I had no idea that they would become central to a highly charged debate about elite institutions of higher education and online learning–not to mention a key locus of the debate over the forced resignation of my alma mater’s president. I simply wanted to sharpen my command of MySQL. Now, the Stanford courses—or, strictly speaking, courses offered by Stanford faculty but not Stanford courses but part of “A Stanford School of Engineering Initiative” (got that?)—have been cited by the columns read by the anti-Sullivan faction at UVA: one by David Brooks, one by John Chubb and Terry Moe (“Stanford, for instance, offers a free online course on artificial intelligence that enrolls more than 150,000 students world-wide”), and one by Ann Kirschner (“Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun’s free course in artificial intelligence drew 160,000 students in more than 190 countries”). UVA alumnus and donor Jeffrey Walker cited “the hugely successful online course at Stanford” in an email to Visitor Mark Kington (who has now resigned his position), who sent it along to Rector Helen Dragas.
Therefore, I want to reflect on the online course I took, Introduction to Databases. First, about those amazing enrollment numbers: though I have done some searching, I have not found a count of how many students completed the artificial intelligence class. For my databases course, I remember hearing initial enrollment numbers in the 80,000-90,000 range; the professor, Jennifer Widom, later wrote, “This past fall my enrollment was a whopping 60,000. Admittedly, only 25,000 of them chose to submit assignments, and a mere 6500 achieved a strong final score.” When seeing statistics from these courses–and it’s clear the anti-Sullivan faction saw them repeatedly–we should keep in mind that the number of students completing a given course might be smaller than the number of enrollees by an order of magnitude. And in most educational environments, anything like a 10% retention rate for one semester is far from “hugely successful.” I don’t mean that in a snarky way (if you want snark, see this tweet) but rather to note how weird our current thinking about “success” is when courses with substantial costs, no revenues, and little ability to keep the students they attract become the go-to model for emulation by elite universities.
That said, the Stanford course was successful for me, and I’m grateful for it. I was motivated to succeed in the course: it offered almost exactly the skill set I wanted to develop; I needed those skills to accomplish larger goals for my job; I did not need Stanford-backed credit; and I enjoy situations where I am given information and am left to work through it on my own, at least in the introductory stages. The course’s online lectures and quizzes, the latter cleverly designed to be repeatable with variations, along with a well-produced discussion board for peer-to-peer interactions, allowed me to work on roughly my own schedule. That freedom was constrained by generous but real deadlines and aided by (usually) well-calibrated discussion board tips from fellow students.
Those comments from fellow students were crucial to the functioning of the course. A handful of talented students became, in essence, volunteer TAs, combing the discussion board to find flailing fellow-students and helping them out. Like almost everyone else in the class, I was a consumer rather than a provider of this help. The helpers’ spirit of volunteerism fit well with the tone Widom set for the course, which she described as a grass-roots experiment in online education. I wonder how well these voluntary peer interactions would function in the venture-capitalistic frameworks now being developed for online courses.
I see other challenges as well. There are the obvious ones: I don’t see a way for this model to work for humanities education, except in a very basic way, and even in technological fields, advanced undergraduate work requires a kind of interaction with peers and mentors that my course did not attempt to offer. I came out of my course with no peers with whom to work (or study, or joke about the course), no faculty with whom to hash out ideas for new projects, no mentor to write a letter of recommendation.
Credentialing will pose a deeper challenge as well. My course would have been extremely easy to cheat in, as Widom occasionally pointed out. But cheating was not a big problem because the stakes were low: Stanford gave no credit for the course, and I doubt many organizations counted it for much, either. If these courses become means of awarding credits in a way that trades on the reputation of the sponsoring school, however, cheating may become a huge problem; for the introductory skills courses that work best online, back-channel networks can easily distribute answers that will earn credit, and such cheating could quickly devalue the credential, thus removing the incentive to pay for courses.
My conclusions come very close to those recently attributed Theresa Sullivan: I see the best near-term potential in encouraging incremental, grass-roots efforts to test the potential and limits of online learning. Contrary to some of the rhetoric surrounding references to the Stanford courses, the best parts of the course I took embodied that spirit of grass-roots creativity.
This concerns the third of the three documents supporting the view of online education that contributed to the forced resignation of Theresa Sullivan as president of UVA: “Higher Education’s Online Revolution,” by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, in The Wall Street Journal on May 30th. Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas emailed this piece to fellow Visitor Mark Kington and then commended it to alumnus and donor Jeffrey Walker, in response to Walker’s email about online education. Walker asked, “How might [online education at UVA] lower our costs, improve productivity and link us to a group of students we couldn’t afford to serve (maybe more kids from the state to please the legislature)…maybe more second career grads?”
Chubb and Moe do present online education as a major disruption to higher education, and, like Brooks, the put forth a fundamentally optimistic view. They also address the uncertainties and drawbacks of the current initiatives, however: they note that the Harvard-MIT edX initiative has no revenue stream, is paid for by $60 million in university funds, and has no business plan going forward.
Their acknowledgement of the limitations of online courses leads Chubb and Moe to envision a blended model of higher education:
In this way, college X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world—and do locally what it does best, person to person.
As I said in my last post, there were three key readings supporting the view of online education that contributed to the forced resignation of Theresa Sullivan as president of UVA. The second of these was David Brooks’s “The Campus Tsunami” of May 3rd.
Brooks says that the key recent shift in online education is the entrance of elite schools into the online arena:
[O]ver the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.
Brooks presents an optimistic view. Note that, like Kirschner before him, he cites Clayton Christensen to make his point:
In a blended online world, a local professor could select not only the reading material, but do so from an array of different lecturers, who would provide different perspectives from around the world. The local professor would do more tutoring and conversing and less lecturing. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School notes it will be easier to break academic silos, combining calculus and chemistry lectures or literature and history presentations in a single course.
Brooks implies that elite universities will gain from online education but only by changing their practices dramatically; his is the sunnier articulation of Kirschner’s gloomy take on the status quo. Brooks closes with this:
My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever.
I am not ready to hazard many guesses about the future of elite institutions, but I would take the other side of a bet on Brooks’s first proposition. The deployment of high-quality introductory courses online will make it very much harder to be “a terrible university on the wide-open Web” and for that matter to be a community college or other institution other than the most selective. The more the education you deliver is about building skills rather than establishing credentials, the more of a challenge the new model will be. I will explain this opinion in light of my experience with the Stanford online course: stay tuned.