Finding Words, Creating Data

After reading Moretti and a bit of Manovich, I was inspired to create my own data set. As I’ve mentioned in class, I’m having trouble finding a foothold into the Crisis. I’m going to go forward with examining how the magazine uses the idea/image of lynching to argue for civil rights and against Jim Crow. But even this doesn’t help too much. At least, I don’t feel solid or focused going forward.

Process: So I thought about how I could use data and a “wide view” of the magazine to help me find a foothold. Here’s what I did: I started with volume 12 (the first in a series of arbitrary decisions, but one that essentially takes the Waco/Jesse Washington lynching as a starting point) and tallied up the number of times the word “lynch” appears. My thinking was that “lynch” accounts for the verb as well as the gerund, lynching. There are downsides to this, however. It also picks up on names: John A. Lynch was a regular contributor and Lynchburg, VA pops up quite a bit. To make my data more reliable I toggled through the front and back matter to eliminate the times when “lynch” hits as a name. I should admit that I didn’t account for where names would appear in editorial content. I also searched “mob”—with a space after it. One pattern I noticed before collecting data was that the magazine connected the act of lynching with the image of the mob. I wanted to see how often the magazine used both terms and where they appeared together. I did this through volume 16 (took about 45 minutes to download each issue, search my terms, and record the number of hits in each issue).

Reflection: As I went through, I uncovered magazine issues where there were spikes and dips with the use of each term. I now have a big question mark with Crisis 13.4 as “lynch” appears 65 times, way above the average. Also, volume 13 includes that word the most by far of the 5 volumes I searched through. Why is this happening months after the Waco/Jesse Washington lynching? How is it being used? This is a great breakthrough. I can also, in line with Moretti, start thinking about dips in the data. For instance, what is it about volume 14 wherein “lynch” appears considerably less often than other volumes? What is the magazine focusing on instead? Another lead.

Idea I’m left with: first, the feeling that I’m charting a path through this data that is limited. I’m not sure exactly what to look for, so I’m roughly following the path of someone else (others have written over lynching and the Crisis). The path that I’m following isn’t especially refined, either. Chasing the connection between “mob” and “lynch” is interesting, but it doesn’t capture the idea that I have: the Crisis using lynching as a justification for a militant response from the black community. But what terms can I search to better pinpoint this thought/reading of the Crisis? I’m not sure. Searching the terms I did was an arbitrary decision. And, as I went through each issue, I looked at the black spaces on my excel spreadsheet. I could search anything if I wanted. Any word, any concept. Just add it into the search process. But I couldn’t think of what else to look for. In this open field of data collection, I can’t help but consider how limited my thinking is and thus how much I’m missing.


Daniel, I think you're right to feel this path can be limiting when you're not sure how to direct it. I have entered items into digital tools before and felt like I have an overwhelming amount of information with little understanding of how to use it. However, I found it fun to puzzle out these bits and pieces. I entered in a Shakespearean play into Voyant, and it was so interesting to see how many times "man" and other gendered words pulled up. In a sense, it broadened my perspective to consider ideas in the play I hadn't before--but also was exciting for me to consider if there WERE new ways to explore Shakespeare (this, of course, was after I had felt incredibly discouraged on if there was anything new under the sun in regards to the Bard's plays and poems). I suppose this is not much help for charting new paths, though I do hope you might consider how starting without an idea and using these tools can be, in some ways, far more enlightening than starting from a specific intention.