This was my sophomore summer with the Literary Lab. I started the summer ready to capitalize on my veteran knowledge and pick up where I left off. I did just that when I spent the the first weeks of summer working on what we in-house called the Identity Project, but what is officially known as “Representations of Race and Ethnicity in American Fiction, 1789-1964”. My fellow RAs from last year and I were part of the project’s nascent stages. We helped gather the 193 texts for the project’s handpicked corpus (this process included more OCR-ing than I’d ever like to do again). But, the idea for the project was fascinating and I was excited to see how it would develop. Some of my primary academic interests are investigating race in the context of American society, media and history. When I returned this summer, the project had developed significantly. We had already garnered — no exaggeration — hundreds of thousands of collocates for our twelve ethnic groups. The next phase of the project, which I was primarily involved with, focused on examining how the discourse about characters who embodied our ethnic groups may or may not have differed from the general discourse surrounding these groups. My task was to read novels and tag certain black characters for collocate analysis. I personally read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son.
While my task was at times painstakingly repetitive (replacing ambiguous pronouns for specific characters with a unique ID can only be so riveting), I was excited to see the results of my work and engage in the analytical process. I sat in on my first results meeting at the lab and got a peek behind the curtain to see more of what goes into producing high level scholarly work. It was fascinating to sit in and listen to the kind of discussions that came about, like why “minstrel” was a specific collocate for “ethiopian” or how the Eastern European target group collocates consisted primarily of orchestral-related and political terms. It was also reassuring to see how the principal investigators were just as overwhelmed with the scale of results we produced as I was. The data from this project is fertile enough to produce years and years of scholarly work. Ultimately, that’s what I’ll take pride in the most: weeks of my effort helped to create this incredible set of information that can be a starting point for so much diverse and intriguing academic inquiry.
It’s actually kind of funny; when I initially applied to work at CESTA [the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis], I applied for a specific spatial history project, but I instead found my way to the Literary Lab. I had some reservations; I was worried about being the only non-English major, woefully under-qualified to work at a literary focused group. But, with this project and my overall experience with the Lit Lab, I’ve really learned that humanistic inquiry, in all its forms, is something that I have found and will always find captivating. I look forward to where the Lab takes me next!
Asha Isaacs is a junior in the psychology department at Stanford, and is fascinated by all forms of humanistic inquiry.