by Jessica Porter, Office of Educational Technology (eTech)
Whether you teach literature, history, or another text-heavy course, your students may benefit from the use of digital tools that enable them to dig deeper into a text and visualize its patterns and trends.
Voyant Tools offers a suite of web-based tools that allow you to upload texts and perform basic text mining functions. The most popular item in the Voyant toolkit is Cirrus, a word cloud generator that displays words according to their frequency in a given text. The words that appear most often are larger and more prominent than less frequent terms, and you have the option of selecting a list of “stop words” to exclude from the cloud (e.g., you can hide articles like “the” and “an”).
This tool is particularly useful for comparing similar short texts or analyzing longer works, like novels or historical documents, where frequent terms may reveal intriguing patterns or themes. It is also great for uncovering subtle rhetorical shifts that would be difficult to glean from close reading.
For example, if we upload the most recent State of the Union address and enable English stop words, the cloud will reveal the most prevalent topics in that corpus: people, work, America, and the economy. We can then look at specific instances of a single term and how it is deployed in relation to other words or phrases in the speech.
If we were really curious, we could then compare this address with that of another year by uploading them to Cirrus as separate links or Word documents. Doing so would combine them into a single cloud, and we could choose to view them separately or side-by-side, evaluating changes in word trends over time.
Voyant also offers a number of freestanding tools that allow you to look closely at individual words or links between characters in a work of literature. TermsRadio and the Type Frequencies Chart, for example, compare word usage across texts, looking closely at the most common shared terms in each.
RezoViz, on the other hand, represents the most frequent terms in a text as a web, which could be useful for examining character networks in a novel or story, like this sample from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Alchemist: Whatever your aim, Voyant likely has a tool to help you accomplish it, and because the tools are free, students can access them anywhere, anytime — even in class.
If you are interested in teaching with Voyant, check out their workshops and examples gallery for assignment ideas and support. You may also wish to consider one of the many resources on text analysis with digital tools from UPenn Libraries.