Welcome to the Pre-Conference Conversations for the New England American Studies Conference. We're writing about the things we'll talk about the conference--join the conversation!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mapping the American West

    Our project, “Mapping the American West: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” is conceptually indebted to Matthew Wilkins’ “Maps of American Fiction,” which has so far data mined around 300 American novels from the Wright American Fiction Project at Indiana and mapped those locations in an attempt to examine cultural investment in regionalism and internationalism. The scope of our own project is, I think, both more and less ambitious than Wilkins’. Using the same open-source data mining software - Geodict - and ArcGIS, we have so far data mined and mapped locations from two books of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Unlike Wilkins’ project, ours is much more limited in scope. However, to our knowledge, our project is also the first which attempts to synthesize big data processing techniques with close reading. This is the sense in which I believe it is ambitious, as we are working without the guidance of precedents. Some of the difficulties that we have encountered are also emblematic of the problems that graduate students and faculty working without the benefit of digital humanities centers or initiatives at their institutions face when trying to enter into what has been called the “spatial turn” in American Studies.

            Daniel and I had never before attempted to use the tools that we employed in this project. We were offered assistance by a close friend who has a degree in urban planning and a deep familiarity with ArcGIS. Together, we were able to experiment with ArcGIS. Unsure of what we would discover along the way, we hoped to be able to offer a critique of both traditional scholarly readings as well as the methodologies for data visualization that are becoming increasingly popular in this field. We wanted to turn our lack of knowledge of these tools and our limited data sample into an advantage, hoping that we might be able to offer some insight that more seasoned DH-ers lack. Though our results are still preliminary, what we have found so far is that from an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be an advantage in using data analysis on small samples where close reading is also possible. In Wilkin’s project, for example, references to locations outside the U.S. are construed as evidence of global awareness; close reading of similar passages reveals them to largely concern immigrant origins as they pertain to Euro-American population composition. The initial purpose of our project (and an ongoing aspect) involves generating new spatial tools that allow a comparison between U.S. expansion in literary texts and the types of infrastructural expansion that allowed its real counterpart.   Our most valuable conclusion thus far, however, is that spatial tools are only as good as the theory behind them—without knowing the right questions to ask, the answers are not forthcoming.

We're looking forward to discussing our project with you in October!

Heather Duncan
SUNY Buffalo

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