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

The Rising Potential of CLS

Computational Literary Studies (CLS) is a newly-emerging field that has caused an abundance of controversy. CLS involves the quantitative study of literature, art, and the humanities. Its existence has generated a lot of discussion about whether it is beneficial or detrimental to the analysis of the human experience. Those who are opposed to CLS claim that computers can never understand art and literature like humans can, as they cannot feel emotions. They also claim that the human experience cannot be quantified, as every single individual experiences something different and is raised in a different culture, so it is impossible for a computer to synthesize the infinite number of perspectives on a singular piece of work. While this is true, CLS does not have to focus on analyzing literature in the same exact way as humans, because there are humans to do that. Instead, CLS could offer a new glimpse into analyzing literature that was not previously utilized. The Humanistic studies are on a downward slope, while STEM fields are trending upwards. CLS enhances both fields and can improve research for humanistic studies when put together.

Most tend to think that STEM fields and the humanities are mutually exclusive, but that is not the case. They have the potential to expand horizons in each others fields if they were applied together. While CLS has this potential, some see it as poisonous to the humanities. Nan Z. Da, professor at Notre Dame, feels strongly against CLS. In her piece “The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Studies,” she argues that human experience and creation cannot be broken down into code and understood by computers, and that CLS either yields false conclusions or no conclusion at all. Da also expresses disdain at the sizable amount of funding CLS receives for the poor quality of work it produces. She states, “It only took one laptop to recreate almost all of the works here, and a single smartphone could have supplied the computing power, which begs the question of why we need ‘labs’ or the exorbitant funding that CLS has garnered”(Da 2019). The amount of funding and attention CLS receives is something that Da feels could be used better elsewhere. She also questions the worth of CLS, because if a smartphone could perform the same task, is all this spending paying off? As an English professor, she has experienced firsthand the struggles that ensue from. As it is, English majors are declining rapidly as the world becomes more technologically advanced and centered. 

The potential of computational data on literary studies is illustrated in the study "The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction" by Ted Underwood, David Bamman, and Sabrina Lee. In their particular study, they wanted to figure out how the representation of men and women has changed over time in literature. To do this, they used a pipeline called BookNLP to analyze 104,000 works to study a variety of questions. One of these questions was how much space and how many words authors devoted to characterizing men and women (Underwood, Bamman, Lee 2018). The results of this study were that the average number of words used to describe female characters has gone down over time (Underwood, Bamman, Lee 2018). This study is just one of many that has benefitted from using computational data to study literature. CLS has the potential to enhance current areas of study, and open new ones. By being able to study hundreds of thousands of works at the same time and compile and cluster data, we can observe trends in literature, such as the one studied here, that broaden our understanding of literature and time.

"Description of women, as a percentage of characterization in fiction" (Underwood, Bamman, Lee 2018)

In his article, “The Decline of the English Department,” William C. Chace describes how now more than ever, education is centered around getting a job. People tend to think that STEM fields yield more lucrative and practical jobs than English and the Humanities, so students gravitate more towards STEM and business majors. Another reason for this decline, he states, is that:

“Although many public institutions have had an interest in teaching the humanities, their prime role has always rested elsewhere: in engineering, research science, and the applied disciplines”(Chace 2009).

Public universities are growing rapidly, and private universities at a much smaller rate. More and more students are attending public universities where STEM and business are where all the money and resources go, and private universities that focus more on the liberal arts and humanities are growing much slower. A cause of this could be the affordability of public universities in comparison to private ones. Students attend public universities for a lower cost, where the main focus is STEM and business. The predicament at this time is that the English department is facing a crisis, and CLS could offer a solution.

Money plays an increasingly pivotal role in a student’s decision on what they want to study. Chace states: 

“With the cost of a college degree surging upward during the last quarter century—tuition itself increasing far beyond any measure of inflation—and with consequent growth in loan debt after graduation, parents have become anxious about the relative earning power of a humanities degree.”(Chace 2009).

Financial strain weighs on the mind of most college students, causing them to focus more on the job they’ll need straight out of college rather than learning and experiencing their years at university. With this mindset, a lot of people tend to think that the humanities are not valuable majors, and that there’s no job security. STEM and business majors have a more straightforward and stable career path, whereas the humanities is more unsteady and cloudy. While the world around them advances and new jobs are formed to accommodate new technology and the growing world, English stays the same. Students don’t have the time and security to explore what they’re passionate about when they’re already tens of thousands in debt. 

The English department, in the wake of their decline, has a question to answer: is it better to change and adapt to the environment around them or stick to what the field has always been? It seems that their reluctance to change is steering people away and towards STEM and business, the fields of innovation and ever-changing subject matter. CLS is an opportunity for the English department to draw in science-minded people into the study of art and literature. Computers may never be able to understand works in the same capacity that humans can, but that does not have to be the goal. CLS offers a new perspective that could enhance research. There is something to be gained from both the humanities and STEM fields. In terms of analyzing art and literature, there will always be a need for the human perspective, but CLS can help add to the conversation around humanities and english, not take from it.

Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Studies”. Critical Inquiry 45, Issue 3. Spring 2019. Pg. 601-639.

Chace, William M. “American Scholar:The Decline of the English Department”. The American Scholar. 1 September 2009.

Bamman, David, Lee, Sabrina, and Underwood, Ted. "The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction." Journal of Cultural Analytics. February 13th, 2018.