I teach an interdisciplinary humanities seminar for first-year college students. It’s a GenEd class and students often struggle to read the long, complex texts they are assigned. Still, as most of my students are majoring in business and other ‘practical’ subjects, they usually have an easier time with nonfiction; long novels with many characters and multiple plot lines are what they find most difficult. I don’t want students to run into the welcoming arms of SparkNotes, so that means I need to find ways to help them overcome their difficulties on their own.
I always assign at least one substantial novel, often two or three, and I ask students to use Voyant to graph the novel in different ways (word cloud, bubble lines, etc.) and experiment with graphing different terms. This semester I am teaching Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, as it’s a good text to get students to think in new ways about education, the ways experiential or practical learning can be problematic or misused, and the ways that humanistic and narrative approaches can be used to effect real social change.
This graph shows what words appear most frequently in the novel after eliminating such common words as a, an, and the. Students might discuss what it means that you features so largely and reflect on the ways that characters speak to each other as well as on the ways that Dickens speaks directly to readers. Students might also discuss why Squeers is so prominent, despite the fact that the Squeers family is mainly present at the beginning of the novel.
Once students have experimented with graphing the novel in various ways and we’ve discussed the limitations of these graphs as well as issues raised by serial publication, students have the option to create their own graphs and write a paper that details their findings as part of crafting an argument about the novel that takes its structure into account.
This assignment interests students because it’s different from anything they’ve done before. It gives them a way to keep track of different characters and plot lines and to literally see the novel in a more comprehensive way, instead of getting bogged down or stymied by the difficulty of reading long sentences. It also teaches them that lists of “themes” they find online are subjective, and that they can make their own lists of themes and concepts from any novel. Once they have a tool to keep track of the big picture, students are better able to read select passages and to construct close readings of the text.
Anna Peak, Temple University