Professors analyze how reading has evolved with technology

By JAMES SCHARF | February 28, 2019

The Department of Comparative Thought and Literature hosted its biannual graduate student conference titled “Ways of Reading: Beyond, Beneath, and Beside Theory” on Friday and Saturday. The conference explored various methods of reading literary texts and featured speakers from universities across the country. 

The first keynote speaker was Heather Love, an assistant professor of literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She gained fame in the world of literature after writing a widely cited piece about Bruno Latour’s approach to the concept of critique and its application to the field. Latour argued for giving greater “ontological weight” to fictional literary works, saying that literary narratives are no different from those in real life. 

Love’s keynote focused on how critique should be applied to literature and also highlighted the differences between Latour’s views on the limits of critique and traditional customs in the field.

“Critics have been thinking about the ethics of reading. How should we think about what we owe to the text? What is the best way to pay attention to it?” she said. “When you take apart a book for being racist, or sexist, or [being] part of the history of colonialism, what relation does that bear to the way that we still might get things out of the text or love it?” 

Love noted that the introduction of new digital and quantitative methodologies has recently sparked a resurgence in discussion and debate over the ways of reading a text. 

She further explained that digital humanities is transforming how people interact with texts. 

“Of course computers now can tell you how many times a word was used in all digitized texts in a particular year or century,” Love said. “Mostly what people are referring to is the use of this computing power to do computational work on what are usually called literary corpuses. Once you make texts machine readable, then you can do all sorts of stuff around them.”

Although computers and new technology have opened up new avenues for literary criticism and analysis, Love noted that there are drawbacks to the use of this technology. 

She explained that the introduction of computing to the field has created a dilemma among academics who are used to more traditional, non-quantitative methods of reading a text. This has sparked controversy over methods of critique in the digital age. 

“What’s more valuable – to give your students an encounter with one poem, or to get your computer to tell you how detective fiction developed across the 19th century by reading thousands of texts? So it’s created a crises around literary value and around the kind of utility and value of small scale given that people can go out and do global modelling and find out lots of big facts,” Love said.

According to Love, departments that focus on such small-scale critical investigations are being closed due to lack of funding. 

In addition to the keynote speaker, there were four panels featuring scholars from the University of Chicago, University of Maryland--College Park, Emory University, Brown University, the University of Alabama, the University of Virginia, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Rochester, Stanford University, Columbia University, Princeton University, New York University, Yale University and Williams College.

The fourth panel featured Bellamy Mitchell, Lizzie Mundell Perkins and Daniel Dominguez.

Mitchell, from the University of Chicago, focused on ways that apologies and apologetic form have come into existence. In religious and theoretical contexts, an apology is a justification or defense of belief. She examined the usage of the word “whereas” in contexts relating to indigenous history to explain how a word’s meaning can have different implications depending on its context.

“The state of affairs that the apology circumscribes explains the ‘special legal and political relationship that the Indian tribes have in the United States’ from the apology and the years of official degradations for which the Congressional offer to resolve the apology,” Mitchell said. “It is shaped by a litany of 21 ‘whereas’ statements followed by semicolons, which create a chain of chronology and causation.”

On the other hand, Lizzie Mundell Perkins, of Yale, talked about the meaning of public confession and focused on an example that Rousseau provided in his book, Confessions. She postulates that his thought process went from one marked by desire, to shame, to desire for shame and finally concluded in his confession. 

She feels that there are many consequences of reading Rousseau’s text. 

“In the postgressional moment we find ourselves with a renewed awareness and appreciation for the range of orientations we, as interpretive readers, may assume towards textual meaning along with the qualitative distinctions and implications of these positions,” Perkins said.

Dominguez, a PhD student at Princeton, talked about the implications of recently released John Green books which mimic smartphones. These books are about the size of a phone and are read horizontally, with the spine at the top.

“They advance the state of bibliotechnology. They make the acrobatics of urban reading, standing on the subway, stashing the book in a pocket, slightly easier…. The format is much closer to the cellphone experience than other books,” he said.

Several attendees discussed the relevance that these kinds of conferences and studies in the humanities have for STEM students. 

Elvin Meng, an undergraduate attendee studying English and Mathematics, argued that this conference teaches STEM students about a skill that is useful and applicable. 

“Of course, everyone reads in a number of ways and mediums. Sometimes STEM people forget that they’re reading a very human artifact,“ he said. 

Alyssa Vann, an attendee who majored in Literature at Stanford, talked about the virtue of studying the humanities from a broader perspective. 

“What being in literature and the humanities can teach you is how to look into the world with very focused attention. And I think that even if you are thinking of pursuing a career in STEM then you need to look with attention at the decisions that are being made and the work that you are doing and how they’re affecting society,” she said.

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