March 24, 2015
English Professor Scott Kleinman has been awarded a Digital Humanities Start-up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant of $60,000 will fund two years of research and development on the Lexomics Project. The awards were announced officially on March 23.
The Lexomics Project began at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, in 2007 as an attempt to explore the potential of statistical techniques used in bioinformatics to analyze stylistic patterns in Old English literature. Kleinman joined the project in 2010, working on the development of its research techniques, and, especially, the design of software tools to support the research. As one of the Principal Investigators on the latest grant, Kleinman will join his collaborators, Professors Michael Drout and Mark LeBlanc at Wheaton, in ongoing research and the development of new functionalities for the project’s innovative Lexos text analysis software.
Lexos is designed to provide easy entry to computational text analysis, especially for scholars and students in the Humanities, who may not have the time or resources to learn sophisticated coding techniques. “While Lexos allows you to perform complex functions without having to write code, such ease of use comes at a price,” says Kleinman. “The methods themselves can become opaque and the tool can become a ‘black box’, disguising the complexities of our texts, the decisions we make in analyzing them, and the ambiguities that we value as spaces for interpretive freedom in the Humanities. We hope to highlight these issues in the design of the Lexos interface, rather than letting them recede into the background or to discussions in supplementary literature.”
The Lexomics group hopes to address the tension between quantitative and computational approaches to text analysis and the traditions of theoretical and cultural criticism that typically dominate the Humanities. “The growing ease with which we can manipulate texts computationally,” says Kleinman, “is likely to increase this tension and will require us to examine closely our premises about the relationships between source materials and the results of computational experiments.” The Digital Start-up grant from the NEH will enable the Lexomics team to open a space for discussion of these issues by developing an “In the Margins” component embedded directly in the Lexos interface. “In the Margins” will contain documentary and video commentaries by experts about the best practices and challenges of applying computational methods for study in the Humanities. The tool itself will become the medium for discussion and debate about the potential and pitfalls of applying these methods to different types of texts and how we can best use them to complement traditional methods of analysis.
“The beauty of Lexos,” says Kleinman “is that it allows even beginning to students to quickly and easily generate complex and provocative analyses of texts in ways that challenge their perceptions of the literature they read. At the same time, they come away with a critical understanding of the way computational and data-driven processes affect our understanding of the language and society.”