The Computational Literary Studies Debate: Thoughts from the Fall 2019 Class, Writing in Digital Humanities

Back to Basics: Traditional Literary Scholars Seem to have Forgotten the Purpose of Their Field with the Introduction of Technology


The Digital Humanities, in its most general form, is the application of computational methods to the humanities disciplines. Computational Literary Studies (CLS) is a subset of the digital humanities in which computational methods are applied to literary texts in order for scholars to draw their own conclusions from it and extrapolate general trends. In CLS, there is a debate about whether or not the field’s computational methods of extrapolating data are actually valid. On one side of this debate, there are traditional scholars who claim that the entire field is invalid because it over-simplifies literature, like the academic Nan Z. Da did in their piece “The Case Against Computational Literary Studies.” The other side argues that new conclusions can be drawn like Ted Underwood in their piece, “Dear Humanists: Fear Not the Digital Revolution.” It is clear that traditional literary scholars like Da have begun to misconstrue the meaning of the humanities when they make a claim about reductionism in CLS and they close off the humanities field to new discoveries when they invalidate its methods.  



Da makes clear in their piece that she believes CLS to be an invalid field of study and that several of the techniques introduced to carry out the work of the field have their own individual flaws. According to Da “Patterns are too difficult and abstract to code and define far too few texts for machine learning to successfully code even one such appearance in a handful of texts. Therefore, all the things that appear in CLS …are just fancier ways of talking about word frequency changes,” (Da 607). In these sentences, Da conflates several CLS methods as complicated ways in which one would count words. This categorization of these methods the Da argues, are foundational to the field delegitimizes CLS on the whole. Da also states that the entire concept of CLS - the concept of applying computational methods to literature - is a paradox. As she stated in the sixth section of their piece, “CLS’s methodology and premises are similar to those used in professional sectors … but they are missing economic or mathematical justification for their drastic reduction of literary, literary-historical, and linguistic complexity... ” (638). This statement is a very poignant critique that gets to the heart of the digital humanities conversation. Da is insinuating that the goals of computation and the goals of literature studies run counter, which works to discredit the field of computational literary studies more so than attacking individual methods of analyzing text.

"Da comments on reductionism in a technical sense but here critique is also a more broad, philosophical statement on the purpose of literary studies. While Da never defines reductionism, the working definition for this paper will be a general tendency to simplify complicated and nuanced information. The thing about this definition is that, when used to combat CLS,  it misses the main purpose of the literary studies."


Da also critiques CLS for a technique she calls reductionism. According to Da, “In literary studies, there is no rationale for such reductionism; in fact, the discipline is about reducing reductionism,” (638). In this statement, Da is expanding on their earlier claim that CLS is “missing... justification for their drastic reduction of… complexity,” (638). Here it is clear that Da is poking holes in the data collecting methodology of CLS. It seems that their analysis of data collection in the field is fundamentally at odds with actual CLS scholars. Underwood writes, “Researchers have learned that it can be safe to include thousands of variables in a model, as long as you also add a degree of blurriness that prevents the model from memorizing or "overfitting"... A theory of modeling that reflects explicitly on the value of imperfection... has built a new kind of bridge between quantitative and qualitative descriptions,” (2019). Underwood’s explanation of the methodology used in CLS invalidates the reductionist claims that Da says invalidates the entire field of CLS. Instead of a mass reduction of a significant amount of text at all CLS scholars actually keep track of thousands of variables. When it is considered that these articles were published within months of each other, there is an obvious disconnect between traditional scholars and CLS scholars that has emerged. Da comments on reductionism in a technical sense but here critique is also a more broad, philosophical statement on the purpose of literary studies. While Da never defines reductionism, the working definition for this paper will be a general tendency to simplify complicated and nuanced information. The thing about this definition is that, when used to combat CLS,  it misses the main purpose of the literary studies. According to the editors of the Aarhus University Press, the purpose of studying literature is to understand the desires and beliefs of others (12). It is possible to determine the desires and beliefs of others from a singular piece, but in the broader context of humanities, it is much more common to form a narrative and draw a conclusion from similar pieces of information. Da herself has done this in their piece “Transnationalism as Metahistoriography: Washington Irving's Chinese Americas,” where she cites eight Irvings works and forms a narrative about transnationalism in relation to Chinese Americans. In order to form a much broader narrative about humanity over a certain period of literature one would need to condense several texts and draw conclusions from it; in essence, perform reductionism over a body of texts. It is clear that, although in different ways, both literary scholars and CLS methods aggregate texts and come to broad conclusions, whether it be on the transnationalism of Chinese America or The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction, one of Underwood’s studies.

By closing the field off to other fields, literary scholars close the field off to new discovery. Underwood understands this concept; in their piece he admits “While scientists usually do a better job if they work in collaboration with humanists, it must be admitted that today they can often make genuine contributions to a historical understanding with or without our assistance,” (Underwood 2019). Here he is making the case for CLS. With this statement, it is clear that Underwood interprets the findings gleaned from CLS as useful even if they are relatively unconventional in the field of literature. This assertion works to legitimize CLS as a legitimate subfield that will exist with or without the input if traditional literary scholars and insinuate the field will continue to make impacts with or without their input. If literary scholars continue to fight to invalidate the field, then many of these contributions and their implications will be lost. The generalization ability of CLS is also something that its scholars see inherently valuable to the field of literature, even if the field traditional scholars do not. In their discussion of the book “Quantitative Analysis of Culture in Millions of Digitized Books,” he admits CLS “may not have created a new field called culturomics, but it did (in collaboration with Google) help produce an interactive website that journalists and schoolteachers still use to understand linguistic trends.” In this quote, Underwood admits that CLS may not be impactful in an overtly profound way, but that its generalization ability is still able to make great contributions. If traditional literary scholars had their way, analysis of this kind would not even be conducted, and tools used to educate and enlighten people from all sorts of groups would not be created. Other contributions to the field also come from  “More recent publications go far beyond graphing the frequencies of words. Sociologists have theorized the function of ambiguity in literary criticism; cognitive scientists have used information theory to describe historical change...” (2019). The work of sociologists and cognitive scientists using the mathematical theory of communication that are described here requires data that could only come from applying computational methods to literature. Such direct examples provide a direct example of the contributions that CLS can make to the field. Without the computing methods used in CLS, it would not have been possible for these specialists to make such claims and contribute as much as they have to field.



There is a fundamental disconnect between CLS scholars and traditional literary scholars. The cause for this disconnect is that the introduction of computers into literary studies had made traditional scholars forget what the central purpose of literary studies is which has caused them to write off the field of CLS entirely. This aversion to new methods of analyzing text, which mirror traditional ways in a manner that is methodologically sound jeopardizes the creation of new knowledge and threatens all of the contributions that CLS has made to the broader field of literary studies in these last few years. 


Alber , Jan, et al. “Why Study Literature? .” Why Study Literature, 10 Nov. 2011, pp. 1–25., study literature&ots=kPXPYvwOrh&sig=Ch4l-AY0jmmIKK9mY66VRtgCgQk#v=onepage&q=why study literature&f=false.

Da, Nan Z, “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies”, “Critical Inquiry” Volume 45, Issue 3, University of Chicago Press, March 2019, pp. 601-639, DOI, 10.1086/702594

Tuckwell, Graham. “Presented Here Are the Nibs of Traditional Pens with a Robotic Hand in between Them to Represent the Integration of Technology into Literary Studies. .” Financial Times,

Underwood, Ted, “Dear Humanists: Fear Not the Digital Revolution”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 27, 2019 Source:

“Culturomic Analyses Study Millions of Books at Once.” Science Magazine, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 14 Jan. 2011,

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