Playful Visualizations at Work, Working Visualizations at Play

Liz – Archived

Hello and welcome to my corner of the blog. I’m Liz, a first year Ph.D. student in UCSB’s English department. I came out here after two years at NYU, from which I emerged with both a Master’s in English Literature and a love for the Digital Humanities.

As I am still only a neophyte, at least in the graduate student hierarchy, I do not yet have a dissertation topic in need of exploration and see our current project as a chance to explore the multitude of possibilities that data/text visualization opens up. Broadly speaking, I am interesting in reading practice and the psychology of reading; I want to use the technology developing in the digital realm to explore the question of what happens to us when we read and how and, if I’m very lucky, why. For this project, I am thinking about how visualizations might influence our reading, not to mention how we might want them to.

So here are my three questions:

  1. What exactly makes a literary visualization useful? This question is twofold, as it’s an excuse for me to wonder both about the practical applications of these kinds of visualizations and about where they are best deployed. Though the stereotype of the digital humanist as one who dumps a text (or texts) into some sort of text analysis program and then turns the results into a pretty poster is both simplistic and wrong, there is a certain serendipity that comes from playing with texts rather than doing “serious scholarship” (whatever that may be). This playing around can provide discoveries that are, in the end, serious scholarship, but is that the definition of usefulness?
    What does it mean to “play”? I find it extraordinarily difficult to tell when I am playing with a text. There are certain activities that I know are work (they certainly feel like it), but I find myself puzzled by the moments when I create different forms of visualizations, not simply to see what will happen, but because I have a hunch, or half a hunch, that there has to be something interesting in there.
  2. On a related note, is it possible to create a boring visualization? Ugly—certainly, Difficult to read—undoubtedly, but useless? At the end of the day, play always slides its way into process for me and that means I (and, of course, the culture I am a part of) need to think about this strange dichotomy that serves as the title for this project: the difference between work and play.
  3. Do my visualizations need to be pretty? Or, to translate into academese, to what degree does the aesthetics of the visualization influence its use-value and does an aesthetically pleasing visualization create its own value merely by being so? Is it worth spending twenty minutes agonizing over the shape of the word cloud and do the color of the bars on the bar graph really matter? Don’t they?

For my own convenience, I will probably be dealing with these questions individually and only really drag them together at the end to see where I’ve ended up and what I’ve learned about visualizations along the way.

The victim…I mean text I am working with is George Eliot’s last finished novel, Daniel Deronda. I chose DD because its narrative structure lends it to being studied as an entire text and as a text divided in two according to whose story is being told. I also chose DD because it’s one of my favorite novels and I wanted a chance to reread it. As a former professor of mine once said: Never work on an author you hate.

Wise words and I’ll leave you with them.


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