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Working in the Lab, Part 1

Ena Alvarado; Dec 7, 2016

On my first day of work, I looked up the term "operationalize" in the dictionary. A mixture of curiosity and sheer pragmatism led me to do this; after all, the project I was about to embark on aimed to "operationalize time." More specifically, the ultimate goal was to create a computer program that might track the progression of time in fiction (that is, in novels and short stories). I thought it wise to have at least some sense of what this actually entailed. To my utter dismay, however, what I found online was not of much help. According to Merriam-Webster, the transitive verb means "to make operational." (Boy, was that instructive!) I did learn a fun, random fact, though: in terms of popularity, "operationalize" is in the bottom 30% of searched words. Filled with both frustration and excitement, I decided to heed my project leader's advice and read a Literary Lab pamphlet written by English professor (and Lit Lab founder), Franco Moretti. His fifteen-page paper, titled "'Operationalizing': or, the function of measurement in modern literary theory," clarified my doubts tremendously. (Also, an important lesson was learned: always follow older and smarter people's advice.) Here is the general gist:

"Operationalizing means building a bridge from concepts to measurement, and then to the world. In our case: from the concepts of literary theory, through some form of quantification, to literary texts." (Moretti, 1)

"Taking a concept, and transforming it into a series of operations." (Moretti, 2)

Armed with a better understanding of "operationalize," I was ready to start tagging my first work of fiction. I read Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers." This is an excellent story, but before I dive into the process of tracing its advancement of time, allow me to restate, in more detailed terms, the look and feel of my research. The process is fairly straightforward: choose a novel or short story. Break it up into discrete scenes (e.g. a conversation between two characters would be separate from the description of a house). It helps to imagine what a film adaptation of the given fictional piece might look like---that is, what set of actions would constitute a single shot or a related series of them. Lastly, ascribe a time duration to every single scene, in units of minutes. Alright, now back to Hemingway. I am extremely glad his story was the first one I got to tag; the experience proved to be quite enjoyable. The narrative was linear, meaning there were no unexpected flashbacks or flash-forwards to consider. In other words, I could easily partition the tale into standalone scenes. In order to figure out the durations, I read aloud the dialogue between the characters and timed myself with my cellphone's chronometer. Unfortunately, the next stories I read---William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" and Henry James's "Jolly Corner"---were not as simple to tag. In the case of Faulkner, the difficulty came from the fact that most paragraphs were expository; they read as descriptions (of settings, for instance, or characters' backstories) as opposed to plot advancements. Would a paragraph indicating the look of a living room account for any time in a movie? Probably not, since the living room could just be shown instantly, in a shot. The reason James's story was tricky was the abundance of Spencer Brydon's thoughts. After all, how long does a thought (or a chain of thoughts) last? More often than not, I went with my gut when tagging these works of fiction. I read Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. For both of these novels, the breakup of scenes part was easy, while the assignment of time durations was not. Still, I am glad I took part in the experiment. As Erik Fredner pointed out to me: "not only is precision impossible in this context since texts are imprecise in their timing," but "precision isn't even the goal."

Ena Alvarado is a Stanford junior from Caracas, Venezuela studying English. She may love reading and writing a little too much.