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Archive for August, 2012

By text-mining the classics, UNL prof unearths new literary insights

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Mark Twain once said that all ideas are second hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources. Oscar Wilde put it more bluntly when he said that talents imitate, but geniuses steal.

Matthew Jockers has assembled a way to quantify the spirit of those sayings, particularly when it comes to certain authors and the impressions they left on other writers. And in doing so, he’s opened a new door for literary theorists to study classic literature.

Jockers, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, combines programming with text-mining to compare 18th- and 19th century authors’ works with one another based on their stylistic and thematic connections. The process, which he calls macroanalysis, crunches massive amounts of text to discern systematically how books are connected to one another – from each work’s word frequency and word choice to its overarching subject matter.

“We’ve known for some time how to search these works electronically, and how to look for things we already know are out there,” said Jockers, a fellow at UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. “But the question became ‘How do we mine them to find something we don’t already know?’ What became apparent was that the next frontier was analyzing large amounts of text to learn new things (about the books), and this is a way to do just that.”

Using macroanalysis, Jockers processed digital versions of nearly 3,500 books from the late 1700s through 1900 – everything from giants like Jane Austen and Herman Melville to lesser-known writers such as Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant. The process affixed each book with its own unique “signal,” allowing it to be plotted graphically near other books that it was closely related to, but farther away from books exhibiting more dissimilar styles and themes.

The result was a stunning graphical distribution that displays connections, insights and trends both obvious and perhaps not so obvious about the period’s literary world. The systematic method found that, unsurprisingly, the books of Austen and Sir Walter Scott were highly original and influential; and that Melville’s “Moby Dick” was an outlier from much of the literary network of the period while still being related to several works by James Fenimore Cooper:

And, though gender was not included in the comparison data, the program plotted a large majority of the period’s books by female authors in very close vicinity of one another. The purple dots represent female writers:

Another insight: On the map, habits of theme and style were seen to evolve chronologically, and most authors throughout the period huddled into clusters, from left to right, on the map near their chronological peers:

Jockers said the process of macroanalysis isn’t intended to be a computerized replacement for literary theory – rather, it’s a complementary method that, in the hands of theorists, can help them read and study classic authors’ works in new ways.

And he’s careful in his use of the word “influence,” as well: While measuring and tracking true influence, either conscious or unconscious, isn’t really possible, Jockers said macroanalysis enables theorists to use measures of stylistic and thematic affinity as a clear indicator of an author’s influence.

“Literary scholars are very interested in influence – and this is a kind of quantitative measure of similarity, as a proxy for influence,” he said. “This doesn’t take into account things like plot, or form. But the data we’ve mined is a legitimate way to judge similarity between different texts.”

Jockers presented his work in July at the international Digital Humanities Conference in Hamburg, Germany. It also will be included in a book he’s now completing called “Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History.”

At the macro scale, it’s clear that the most recognizable and well-read books from the era are not isolated books, he said during his Hamburg presentation. It’s also clear that Macroanalysis can be a powerful tool for literary theorists to collect new information about both familiar and unfamiliar works.

“The canonical greats are not necessarily outliers, often they’re similar to the many orphans of literary history that have long been forgotten in a continuum of stylistic and thematic change,” he said.

“Macroanalysis provides one method for studying the orphans and the classics side by side – a way of sifting through the haystack of literary history, of isolating and then studying the canonical greats within the larger population of less familiar titles.”

Contact: Matthew Jockers, assistant professor of English, at

Coverage: WIRED | NBC News | New Scientist |

UNL in the national news: July 2012

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

National media outlets featured and cited UNL sources on a number of topics in the past month. Appearances in national media included:

Ken Bloom, physics, was mentioned in a July 4 story in The Courier and Mail of Brisbane, Australia, about the highly anticipated announcement regarding the “discovery” of the Higgs Boson particle.

Sarah Browning, extension horticulturist, appeared in a July 8 article by The Associated Press about the origins and disease-resistant qualities of heirloom plants. The story appeared in dozens of media outlets around the country.

Beth Burkstrand-Reid, law, was quoted in a July 13 article at about potential legal challenges in Mississippi aiming to close the state’s lone abortion clinic.

Kwame Dawes, English, was featured in a July 20 blog post at the New York Daily News’ Pageviews books blog about the newly formed African Poetry Book Series. He also was a daily contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog, posting daily poems about the 2012 Olympic Games.

Sarah Gervais, psychology, debuted as a Psychology Today blogger on July 9. In the final week of July, her research into the differing cognitive processes our brains use to perceive men and women appeared in hundreds of media outlets around the world, including NBC News, Forbes, the Daily Mail (UK), United Press International, the Huffington Post and Jezebel.

John Hibbing, political science, was quoted in a July 10 story in the Washington Times about Nebraskans’ reactions to a joke by U.S. Senate candidate Bob Kerrey’s wife.

Bob Hutkins, food science and technology, appeared on NPR’s Talk Of The Nation with Ira Flatow on July 6 to discuss the science of the barbecue.

David Moshman, educational psychology, penned a July 10 op-ed for Huffington Post regarding Israel, Palestine and the teaching of history.

The National Drought Mitigation Center at UNL was in the news regularly in July as extreme drought tightened its grip on the continental United States. NDMC staffers Brian Fuchs, Michael Hayes and Mark Svoboda were quoted by hundreds of media outlets across the country, including the Kansas City Star, The Huffington Post, the Orange County Register, Discovery News, PBS NewsHour with Gwen Ifill, U.S. News & World Report, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Bloomberg News, CNN, MSNBC and The Associated Press.

Reece Peterson, special education and communication disorders, appeared in a July 11 article in Education Week about a Senate hearing on special educators’ use of restraints and seclusion.

Josephine Potuto, law, appeared in a July 2 Yahoo! Sports story about potential NCAA punishment at Penn State. On July 24, she penned an op-ed for The Chronicle of Higher Education in reaction to the severe penalties handed down by the NCAA.

Karl Reinhard, earth and atmospheric sciences, had his research into the link between ancient Natives’ diets and their modern susceptibility to diabetes featured by a number of national media outlets in late July, including NBC News, The Huffington Post, Discovery News, and the International Business Times.

Dean Sicking, civil engineering, and director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at UNL, appeared in a USA TODAY article about the 10-year anniversary of the use of SAFER technology at NASCAR facilities.

William Thomas, history, appeared in a July 9 story in the Kansas City Star about the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act.

Eric Thompson, economics, appeared in a July 21 article by Associated Press on the UNL Bureau of Business Research’s two-year economic forecast. The story ran in dozens of media outlets across the nation.

Matthew Waite, journalism, appeared in a July 2 Kansas City Star story about the advent of drones in various U.S. industries. He also appeared in a July 2 Washington Times story about newly released guidelines for unmanned aircraft.

Timothy Wei, dean of the College of Engineering, appeared in a video produced by NBC and the National Science Foundation about fluid dynamics and the sport of swimming. The segment ran on dozens of NBC affiliate stations around the country. On July 22, he appeared in a Fox News story on the same topic.

Ted Weidner, former assistant vice chancellor for facilities, appeared in a July 17 story in The Chronicle of Education about aging facilities workforces on campuses.

National media often work with University Communications to identify and connect with UNL sources for the purpose of including the university’s research, expertise and programming in published work. Faculty and administration appearances in the national media are logged here.

To offer suggestions on potential national news stories or sources at UNL, contact Steve Smith at or 402-472-4226.