The Hip Hop Word Count, as detailed in this week’s New Yorker, offers a great encapsulation of the basic ways in which algorithmic methods have and will become central to the study of language and literature. This database of rap and hip-hop lyrics, the brainchild of artist and academic Tahir Hemphill, compiles thousands of songs to allow for tracking, analysis, and comparison. Hemphill shows how, for example, the word “bling-bling” enters rap in 1993 and then expands across the genre, or how the influence of Southern rap has emphasized slower verses with fewer words and less linguistic sophistication. The database is, of course, a great resource for anyone studying contemporary music, but it also points to how these kinds of large-scale, quantitative models can help to build or confirm arguments about literary history. I think it will become more and more common to see literary critics combining traditional methods of close reading and interpretation with these quantitative methods—and, hopefully, revising their arguments if the numbers don’t fit the perceived “trend.”
As a TA for NYU’s British Literature II survey this semester, I’ve been encouraging students to consider printing history and the material qualities of texts in order to understand the complex literary and social satire we’re encountering. Over and over again—in works from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Swift’s Tale of a Tub, Addison and Steele’s Spectator, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones—we’re finding that eighteenth-century authors spend inordinate amounts of time discussing their own processes of writing, reading, editing, and printing. I almost always include images and objects in class, but this semester I decided to turn the students into archivists as well. Each week, a few students research the publication history of that weeks reading, choose an interesting archival material, and post an image and description of the material on our class blog. So far, their findings have ranged from Robert Boyle’s 1692 treatise on A General History of the Air to a 1929 review of a new one-volume edition of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana. Check out the results at the BritPub.