Tuesday, February 09, 2021

A Response to Frank Gunter's "Myths About Poverty"

Professor Frank Gunter’s YouTube video, which was originally posted on the Lehigh College of Business’ official YouTube channel, has generated considerable debate, especially among Lehigh’s student body. (Get the full background, including a sampling of reactions, by reading this Brown and White story)

Responding to the controversy, Prof. Gunter says, “Attack my data, attack my analysis, but attack me? You don’t know me.” Fair enough: my goal here will be to challenge Prof. Gunter’s data and analysis. Admittedly, I am not an economist; I teach in the English Department. But I believe the real problem with Professor Gunter’s slides is a matter of how he frames his arguments and the language he uses, not necessarily the data itself. Let’s look at each of his three main points in turn.

1. “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race”



Let’s start with Gunter’s first Myth, “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race.” Prof. Gunter appears to be deriving his data here from a U.S. Census study, which has statistics for 2019 that closely align with the three data points given in the slide above.


Just for reference, here is a more detailed summary of Prof. Gunter’s main arguments 
from the Brown & White:

“Are (Black people) disproportionately represented? Absolutely, but what if we looked at the 2019 data and the numbers were reversed? What if we found that 80 percent of Blacks were below the poverty line and three-fourths of the poor in America were African American,” Gunter asked. “What would be the policy implication? If that was what the data found, I would say we have a severe racial problem in this country that is as bad as it was during Jim Crow in the 1930s and 1940s, but what conclusions can be made with the information we have, that 18.8 percent of Blacks are poor and 24 percent of the poor are Black? There is probably a racial element there, but race can’t be the whole answer because the majority of the poor are white.” (link)


Gunter’s citation of these statistics is highly selective. Most problematically, he neglects to mention the relative size of the Black population against the total U.S. population. “Blacks make up 24% of [the] poor” in the U.S., yes -- but given that they make up about 12% of the total population that is quite clearly not the whole story. This is actually a pretty elementary statistical mistake, and frankly, I’m a bit surprised someone with my colleague’s credentials and experience would make it.


Moreover, the very same U.S. census study that is the source of these claims also clearly points to a continued correlation between race and economic status. Take a look at this chart:

As of 2019, 18.8% of Black Americans and 15.7% of Hispanics lived in poverty. Meanwhile, 7.3% of Asians and Whites were in poverty. There is clearly a correlation between race and economic status; Professor Gunter’s slide title, “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race,” is simply not supportable.


All of that said, the general trend line -- again, as of 2019 -- appears to be a good one. The poverty rate for Black Americans is down from 40% in 1965, around when the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were put into law, and down from 87% in 1940.


If we want to discuss how and why that improvement happened -- and how we can continue to reduce the correlation between race and poverty, as well as poverty rates overall -- that might be a productive conversation to have. In the meanwhile, it remains true that there is a correlation between race and economic status, so Gunter’s statement that “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race” is not accurate.


(Incidentally, careful readers might note that this data runs through 2019; 2020 was, needless to say, an epic disaster of a year, including for the economy. It's very possible that poverty numbers and trendlines will all look very different when we start to see the full data from last year.)

2. “Poverty is Not a Generational Trap”

Here is Prof. Gunter’s second major point: “Poverty is Not a Generational Trap.”



I am not going to nitpick this data, though again Prof. Gunter’s use of statistics seems selective. (I am also unclear exactly where he is deriving this data from, though just Googling some of these numbers leads to this story from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which in turn derives its data from a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. I have not at this point looked closely at the study's methods or underlying data. It might be interesting to do so.)

First, generational poverty is a well-established phenomenon that has been widely studied by social scientists: a good place to start might be this study by the National Center for Children in Poverty; that study shows a strong correlation between poverty experienced in childhood and the likelihood of experiencing poverty as an adult. The correlations between race and generational poverty have also been widely studied and discussed in more formal academic studies; a good place to start might be this study by Chetty et al. (2018). Indeed, this study (shared on Twitter by Prof. Dominic Packer) suggests that if anything Black Americans remain highly likely to fall down the economic ladder, rather than rise up.

Incidentally, one of the studies I linked to above was unpacked and explained in detail by the New York Times here. The Times produces some nifty visualizations and animations to drive home the point; here is one I particularly like, because of 1) how it shows how poverty is passed down generationally, specifically for Black men, and 2) how it introduces another variable we haven't been talking about, namely gender: 


(source
Note that the chart on the right above does not show that Black women and white women have earning parity; rather, it suggests that white women with poor parents and Black women with poor parents are likely to reach the same outcomes. Whereas Black boys and white boys have a huge gap. 

Would anyone say that it’s impossible to move out of poverty across generations? No -- but that would be what we English teachers call a “straw man” argument. A more salient question might be: if we accept the vast array of data that shows that intergenerational poverty is real -- and that race is an important part of that story -- what are effective strategies for combating it? Are there other countries that have done this better?

It's probably also worth mentioning at this point that the focus on the poverty line obscures other ways in which economic status and race are passed down generationally. If we look at generational wealth transfer, the gap between white and Black is pretty stark. The Brookings Institute has, for instance, this stunning chart showing median net worth by race. While the poverty rate numbers mentioned above appear to show improvement, this data shows little to no improvement at all; if anything, it shows a growing wealth gap.  

3. “Three Choices Critical to Avoiding Poverty”



Here, Prof. Gunter tells us explicitly where he’s getting his data from -- a Brookings Institute study (Haskins and Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society [2009]). 

Again, I’m grateful to Prof. Packer for pointing us to a helpful Vox.com account of this study and the way it’s been misleadingly cited by conservative economists. I won’t go deep into the numbers, but framing these three behavioral “norms” as choices is misleading. Whether or not you graduate from high school has a lot to do with the kind of school district you are in; whether or not you can work full time depends a lot on underlying economic conditions (and more and more Americans find themselves as gig workers or ‘independent contractors’ who are denied full-time status); and when people have children is, again, often not always entirely under their control.


At the end of the story above, Dylan Matthews writes:


The truth is that low high school graduation rates in poor black communities are in part a legacy of systemic racism. Joblessness in poor black communities is in part a legacy of systemic racism. Single parenthood and family instability in poor black communities is in part a legacy of systemic racism. To say this isn't to reject the idea of free will. It's to acknowledge that if you're actually serious about solving these problems rather than waving them away, you need to tackle structural causes. Reasonable people can disagree about how best to deal with those causes, but just running around telling people to work hard and get married isn't a serious proposal. (link)

 

Overall Takeaways:

I believe Professor Gunter’s YouTube video uses data misleadingly, though the real source of the visceral reaction many students have had to his arguments probably comes from his language and rhetoric. 

If his first slide had said “U.S. Census Data Suggests Poverty Rates are Declining for Black Americans,” instead of “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race,” frankly, I doubt we would even be talking about this. So the first takeaway is: how you frame arguments and the language you use matters. 

Second, for all of the topics covered, both Prof. Gunter’s comments and my reactions to them should probably be seen as the beginning of a conversation, not the definitive endpoint. I would encourage both students and faculty at Lehigh to continue to have those conversations with one another -- respectfully. 

More broadly, Professor Gunter’s entire presentation aims to suggest that government policies and systemic actions are less important than individual choice. Most historical evidence would say the opposite: the reason poverty rates in the Black community have gone down has much more to do with changes in American law and public policy than changes in personal behavior: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, Affirmative Action, and so on. If we accept that, it might be easier to see that fixing the problems we still have will surely again demand concerted institutional efforts; we cannot simply turn it over to the “free market” (the real Myth that needs Debunking, if ever there was one). In this YouTube video, Professor Gunter’s approach seems to suggest that the problem isn’t serious, and whatever problems we do have are not “our” concern; people affected by poverty should just fix themselves. As educators -- and as colleagues -- I think we can and must give better answers.




Monday, February 01, 2021

Spring 2021 Teaching: Toni Morrison -- the Art of Storytelling

Brief Introduction:

Toni Morrison (1931-2019) is the Nobel-prize winning author of eleven novels and several important works of literary criticism. This course will be a deep dive into her life and career, starting with her earliest novel (The Bluest Eye) and continuing through her later career. We'll study the evolution of Morrison's style and thematic interests, and consider whether Morrison's explorations of American history constitute a unified method. We'll also consider the impacts of Morrison beyond the world of English departments, considering theatrical and filmic adaptations of some of her key works. What is Morrison's status in African-American literature, in American literature, and World literature? How did Morrison expand the market for fiction by African-American women? Likely texts include: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, A Mercy, and God Bless the Child


In a Little More Depth:

It’s considered a bit old-fashioned these days to do a whole seminar on a single author; it would be more common to teach a course called something like “Fiction by African American Women,” and include Morrison as well as peers like Gloria Naylor, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, and Octavia Butler, as well as notable predecessors like Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Frances Harper, and Pauline Hopkins. Another version could be a more general contemporary “African American Fiction” course. Think: a combination of the above-named writers along with male writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ishmael Reed, and so on.

Those other courses that I just described are necessary and valuable, though unfortunately with the staffing in the current Lehigh English department there are not many folks who are likely to teach them. Morrison wrote in dialogue with a broader Black tradition in American literature, and indeed, in dialogue with white writers as well (her Master’s thesis at Cornell was on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner -- and we can see traces and ideas from both of those important modernist figures in her works). If any of you want to get started reading other contemporary Black authors on your own (perhaps over the summer), please let me know and I can give you a reading list as a starting point.

That said, there’s also something special that can happen when you do a deep dive with a single author. For one thing, you can trace the evolution of a voice and a literary sensibility. As a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as nearly every other major literature prize, Toni Morrison is easily the most celebrated Black author of the past 50 years. Her books straddle the divide between popular fiction--her most successful books have sold millions of copies--and serious literary fiction; she is a household name. But what makes her so special? How did her interests and technique evolve over the course of a long and storied career that included eleven novels (of which we’ll read seven), two published plays (one of which we’ll read one), several books for children she co-authored with her son Slade (sadly not on our syllabus), and an impressive amount of literary and cultural criticism (some of which we’ll read)?

Morrison first novel, The Bluest Eye, is a powerful coming of age story -- it’s really centered around three girls growing up in Ohio roughly contemporaneous with when Toni Morrison herself grew up there (in the early 1940s). This a novel that is often ferocious in its anger at what racism does to young Black girls, especially dark-skinned girls; it is painful to read and sometimes narratively challenging, owing to its unconventional structure (we really see the influence of writers like James Joyce on Morrison here). The Bluest Eye was rejected by many publishers, and even once it was published, it wasn’t especially well-received at the time (Morrison has written that “the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread”). I should underline that this first novel of Morrison’s, which we’ll start discussing today, goes to some very dark psychological places. That said, they aren’t all going to be like this: starting around the time she published Beloved, Morrison starts to inject more emphasis on hope and possibilities for the future of her characters even as she continues to grapple with heavy topics.

(And I should also add that even with the heavy stuff, there’s humor and laughter in all of Toni Morrison’s works. Also engagements with popular culture -- music, the movies, current events. Even the stories that are tragic have upbeat moments. And I think one of the key lessons of Morrison's writing is that even people who have dealt with horrific challenges in their lives continue to try and find laughter, continue to feel hope, and continue to have desire -- including sexual desire.)

What really made Morrison rise to a different level as an author is a set of four novels she published in the middle of her career -- Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. Together, these four books earned her her highest and most consistently positive reviews. They were bestsellers, often helped by Oprah Winfrey’s book club (which was an undeniable force in American publishing in the 1980s and 90s -- and actually continues to be one even today). These books had a massive cultural impact.

Morrison’s writing reflects a level of craftsmanship, literary invention, and sophistication that’s effectively unique in modern American literature. As a result of that success, Morrison transcended what might have been a marginal status and a limited readership -- i.e., the world of “Black women’s fiction” (the “Black Authors” section of the bookshelf) -- and became what we call a Canonical figure: someone who is widely and regularly assigned in general American literature classes as well as more specialized classes.

Morrison has managed to do this while also insisting on writing primarily about Black people and with a sense that Black readers are her primary intended audience. There’s a great quote she gave in an interview once that speaks to this:

“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girt in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but l am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. It is good—and universal —because it is specifically about a particular world. That's what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say "people," that's what I mean. (New Republic, 1981. Link to original)

I especially like this quote because of the unassuming way she marks her space within the culture. I don’t think too many of us today read this and find it controversial, but when she said it (in 1981), it was not at all a commonplace thing to say. Writers who focused exclusively on Black culture (and who saw themselves as addressing primarily Black audiences) were frequently marked as “Afro-centric.” White readers (and other non-Black readers) often steered clear of this material, thinking it wasn’t for them. But that’s not how Morrison is framing it, and I think it’s important that non-Black readers engage with her work & learn to hear her voice. Even if she is not necessarily thinking of us as her first intended audience.

Content and Language Warning. One thing I should say right off the bat is that the topics covered by these novels frequently involves direct and frank experiences of racism and misogyny. There are characters who are referred to by others using the “n-word” in these books -- not to mention countless other instances of hurtful language. I will not use that word aloud in this class, but it will definitely be in the readings. In my view, we cannot hide from the racism that impacts the characters in these novels: it is an important part of American history, and it is central to Morrison’s voice and vision as a novelist. If directly engaging with representations of racism in stories centered around a Black feminist perspective makes you uncomfortable, you might wish to consider another class.

Another content warning -- Morrison’s novels also depict sexual violence, including in rare instances the rape of children. It is never gratuitous and it is always integral to the story she’s trying to tell. I will try to approach these topics carefully. However, if you find reading about or discussing these topics too difficult, you might wish to consider taking another course. 

* * *

Though I’ve been teaching at Lehigh for a long time, this is the first time I’m teaching this class, so there are likely to be some bumps on the road; please bear with me if so. I see the teaching of literature at an advanced level as a space where we can open up the voices of authors and make texts accessible to students -- who will ultimately interpret those works for themselves. It’s not my job to dictate an interpretation or to be the final Authority. Rather, I am approaching these novels with humility and as a learner myself. With each text, my goal will be to elucidate some key historical and cultural references you may not have encountered before, but then to step back and invite you all to offer your thoughts and interpretations of the texts.


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Few Things from 2020: Teaching Notes, Digital Projects; "Survival is Insufficient"

Obviously, a wild year. 

The main thing I am really proud of this year is actually parenting. My work as a professor -- teaching, advising, administering the English graduate program, doing digital projects -- all continued by remote, more or less, but for much of the year that work took a back seat as the urgency of the need at home presented itself. 

With respect to work, everyone reading this knows how difficult it was to get new writing and research done this year -- with libraries closed, conferences canceled, kids at home, and of course the generalized state of anxiety and distraction.

Somehow during the summer, I began to find ways to get a few things done here and there. Preparing for a new version of a graduate Digital Humanities course, I worked on two textual corpora. That work has also catalyzed some new projects that I'm excited about (and you'll probably hear more about them in the future). 

While my usual conference travel dried up after February, I was happy to attend MLA in Seattle in January. One blog post that came out of that was this account of some panels on Postcolonial Ecocriticism I was able to attend. Another theme for the year was a series of events related to Graduate Studies and the future of the Humanities. I was on a workshop related to that topic at MLA in Seattle, then another panel on that topic for the (virtual) National Humanities Alliance conference in October. And I'll be doing another workshop on that as a pre-conference event for the virtual MLA in January 2021. 

I also did some Zoom keynotes and virtual talks this fall -- not quite the same as regular talks, but not bad. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

#MyNameIs as a Return to Identity Work: #Hashtag Activism in 2020

[I've been compiling a small collection of Tweets using the #MyNameIs hashtag. The following are some preliminary reflections on what I've been finding along the way.]

What does it mean to be "Brown" in 2020? By and large, it seems to mean: putting the question on hold. The Trump administration has been an extremely difficult time for thinking about new and emergent identities, for doing what we might call "identity work": the work of defining emergent communities, finding language, and earning recognition in public life.


For many, the Trump years have been a period of frustration and retrenchment, where the President’s ever-multiplying race-related outrages and insults have left us very little space to think and reflect with any degree of nuance about our relationship to identity. Why does it matter what “Brown” might mean when there’s a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx Americans; when there are children in cages; when the President is trying to build a wall on the southern border; when there’s Charlottesville; when he says “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”; when there’s George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others; when there’s a Muslim immigration ban that’s been upheld by the Supreme Court; when African countries and nations like Haiti are referred to as “Shithole” countries -- and on and on and on? Identity does not feel that important when all of this is going on: what matters is resistance. In times of crisis, allyship comes easily; we can think about terminology and concepts later.


But sometime soon, it may be possible to make some headway with this conversation again. I see the recent hashtag #MyNameIs, which emerged on Twitter about ten days ago, as a fresh start in a long-running series of conversations about emergent Brown identity. As the young folks say, “it gives me life.” We have more work to do here, and I think many of us are ready to start doing that work again.  



Monday, October 19, 2020

#MyNameIs Compilation; Twitter Developers API for dummies

I applied to get "Developer" privileges to be able to access the Twitter API, after realizing that Twitter does not allow public scraping using simple Python scripts. The API does allow this sort of thing, though it's fairly involved and difficult to do.

The main goal of course is to set up a structure for the students in my Digital Humanities class -- to help them gather data related to hashtags they themselves might want to research. We'll see if that's actually possible -- and assess their interest in stuff like this -- when we start a unit on social media next week. 


Friday, September 18, 2020

Announcing: a Digital Edition of the Poems of Henry Derozio

I've been happy to collaborate with Professor Manu Samriti Chander on a digital edition of the poems of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, the first Indian poet to write in English. 

It is essentially finished, though some additional copy-editing and proofreading probably remains to be done (if you see any typos or other errors, please contact me!). I edited it and built the collection, so any glitches you find are my doing. It's completely appropriate that Manu wrote the Preface to the project, for reasons I'll explain. 

Derozio published two books of poems in 1827 and 1828, and had an intense, impactful, but brief career as a professor at Hindu College in Calcutta. He died of cholera in 1831. 

I learned about Derozio through reading Chander's Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century. Among other things, Chander's account of Derozio convinced me of his importance both as a Romantic poet -- and Derozio was intensely interested in and engaged with the writings of British and Irish poets of the 1810s and 20s -- and as a key figure in the emergence of modern Anglophone South Asian literature.

Derozio was criticized by English reviewers even during his life of "imitating" English Romantic poets. And while there is no doubt that he did borrow heavily from the form and style of writers like Byron, Thomas Moore, and others, he also applied his own, distinctly Indian sensibility in his writing. As Chander puts it in his preface to the Digital Edition:

Far from simply following in the footsteps of such popular figures as Lord Byron, Thomas Campbell, and Thomas Moore, Derozio uses their work often as a point of departure or as a signpost on his own poetic journey. Indeed, Derozio inaugurated his own tradition in India, inspiring his students to form the Young Bengal Movement. These liberal thinkers and activists were sometimes referred to as “Derozians,” and they carried their teacher’s ideas forward even after his death in 1831. (link)

For more on Derozio's relationship to Romanticism, I would recommend readers to Chander's book, or the books and essays of Professor Rosinka Chaudhuri, who has also edited the Oxford University Press scholarly edition of Derozio's works. 

This digital edition is not meant to supplant Chaudhuri's volume, but rather to provide a convenient point of access to Derozio's works for a broad readership. Among other things, I hope people teaching literature courses -- including specialist courses on Romantic poetry, but also literature surveys, courses on South Asian literature, and others -- will consider assigning Derozio. To faciliate that, I've put together a "Teaching Resource" page on the Scalar site, along with a downloadable PDF with some suggested selections from Derozio's poetry (this might make for a lively one-day unit on Derozio). 


Thursday, August 20, 2020

Fall Teaching: "Decolonizing (Digital) Humanities"

I'm teaching a grad seminar on Digital Humanities this fall. It's the first time I've taught this material formally since Fall 2015, when I co-taught an Intro to DH class with my colleague Ed Whitley. It's a whole new group of students, of course, but also almost an entire turnover in terms of scholarship. 

I'm structuring most of the hands-on work around two Text Corpora I've been developing, one on African American Literature, and the other on Colonial South Asian Literature

If the Canon has been the defining structure of traditional literary studies, in the DH framework the starting point is the Corpus. You can do a lot with a group of texts structured this way -- from Text Analysis, to Natural Language Processing, to thinking about Archives and Editions. As with the Canon, the questions you can ask and the knowledge you can produce are strongly determined by what's included or excluded from the Corpus. 


Course Description: 

This course introduces students to the emerging field of digital humanities scholarship with an emphasis on social justice-oriented projects and practices. The course will begin with a pair of foundational units that aim to define digital humanities as a field, and also to frame what’s at stake. What are the Humanities and why do they matter in the 21st century? How might the advent of digital humanities methods impact how we read and interpret literary texts? Some topics we’ll consider include: Quantifying the Canon, Race, Empire & Gender in Digital Archives, and an introduction to Corpus Text Analysis. Along the way, we’ll explore specific Digital Humanities projects that exemplify those areas, and play and learn with digital tools and do some basic coding. The final weeks of the course will be devoted to collaborative, student-driven projects. No programming or web development experience is necessary, but a willingness to experiment and ‘break things’ is essential to the learning process envisioned in this course.

More after the break...

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Text Corpus: Colonial South Asian Literature

Recently, I announced a Text Corpus I had put together, of African American Literature from 1853-1923. 

I've also been putting together a Corpus of Colonial South Asian Literature from roughly the same period.  

The link to that folder can be accessed here. I'll also be posting the files on Github soon.

This has been a much harder Corpus to compose. Whereas with the African American literature we have bibliographic lists of published works to serve as a guide (such as the one posted at the History of Black Writing at Kansas), there does not appear to be an equivalent list with respect to Colonial South Asia. 

Choices Made in Producing this Corpus:

1. Nationalities

I decided to include British as well as South Asian writers in the Corpus. Many of the writers were clearly in dialogue with one another; South Asian writers were clearly reading people like Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster, and Katherine Mayo. It's a little less clear which South Asian writers British and American writers were reading other than Tagore (and this itself might be studied). The publishing industries also overlapped to a considerable extent; while some South Asian writers published their works with publishers based in India, many aimed to publish with houses based in London. 

One possible line of inquiry with this material might be to try and compare fiction, poetry and drama by British authors with South Asian output in English. Such inquiry could either be historical and thematic (i.e., comparing the way British and South Asian writers reacted to historical events like the Sepoy Mutiny or the Famine of 1876), or it could be connected to matters of language and style. To do that it makes sense to have writers from different backgrounds represented in the Corpus. 

I knew there was a fair amount of interest in colonial India in the U.S. at the time -- from the appreciation of Kipling to the American feminist fascination with Pandita Ramabai. However, while doing this research I was surprised to come across a large number of Pulpy Indian adventure novels by an American writer named Talbot Mundy.  

In the metadata file, I list the nationalities of the authors. Besides a few Americans in the collection, I would draw readers' attention to B.M. Croker (an Irish woman who lived in India and wrote many Romance novels based in colonial India), and Sara Jeannette Duncan (a Canadian woman who also lived in India and wrote prolifically as well).  

In addition to the nationality question, with South Asian writers who moved abroad there is also the question of destination. Cornelia Sorabji (who eventually moved to England) is of course pretty well known. Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who moved to the U.S. in the 1910s, is mainly known for his memoir Caste and Outcast, but he was quite a prolific literary writer, with several books of poetry and fiction that are worth looking at. 

2. Translations. 

I decided to include translations by South Asian writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (Chattopadhyay) and Rabindranath Tagore in the Corpus. Tagore of course needs no explanation; he was one of the few South Asian writers to break through and achieve global acclaim in the early 20th century. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (here, I'm using one of the spellings used at the time, aware of course that "Chatterjee" and "Chatterji" are colonial-era abbreviations of Chattopadhyay...) is slightly different. He is clearly historically important for Anandamath (here included in translation as Dawn Over India) and Rajmohan's Wife (thought to be the first English-language novel by an Indian author), but it seemed like it might be valuable to include some other of his Bengali novels in translation here. Several of these I found at Wikisource.

Alongside translations by South Asian writers, there are a few translations in the corpus of historical South Asians texts by British writers. 

3. Fiction and Nonfiction

Right now there is a limited amount of nonfiction included in the corpus. This was a very tough decision, as there is a vast array of nonfiction colonial travel writing based in South Asia from this period. I've excluded that sort of writing for now, though I may include more of it as I continue to expand the corpus. 

However, I decided to include some nonfiction, mostly texts by literary authors who wrote occasional works of nonfiction (Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Caste and Outcaste is included, as is Tagore's My Reminiscences). I've also included a plain text file of Pandita Ramabai's The High-Caste Hindu Woman, mainly because it seems like an important text that might be useful for researchers in this field. Any queries specifically structured around the stylistics of fiction or the colonial novel might want to exclude these nonfiction texts. 

4. Derivation; grunt work

As with my other Corpus, I pulled together materials from different repositories to assemble this corpus. Here, the lion's share of material comes from Project Gutenberg and HathiTrust. (Derivation is indicated in my metadata file.) 

The Gutenberg materials were in good shape; they've generally been proofread and formatted cleanly.

The HathiTrust materials required much more work. One can extract HathiTrust texts by requesting plain text, but these OCR page scans need quite a bit of processing to make them clean enough to use. A lot of the grunt work of assembling this collection has entailed doing that processing. 

Here is a list of works I've imported from HathiTrust page scans thus far: 

Arnold, W.D. Oakfield; Or, Fellowship in the East 1855
Bain, F.W. A Hindoo Love Story 1898
Candler, Edmund Abdication 1922
Candler, Edmund Siri Ram, Revolutionist 1911
Candler, Edmund Mantle of the East 1910
Candler, Edmund Year of Chivalry 1916
Chatterji, Bankim Chandra Anandamath: Dawn Over India 1882 (1941)
Chatterji, Bankim Chandra Krishnakanta's Will 1917
Croker, B.M.  Proper Pride 1882
Croker, B.M.  Diana Barrington: A Romance of Central India 1888
Croker, B.M.  A Rolling Stone 1911
Diver, Maud Lilamani: A Study in Possibilities 1911
Diver, Maud Unconquered 1917
Derozio, Henry Louis Vivian Poems of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio: A Forgotten Anglo-Indian Poet 1923 (1831)
Duncan, Sara Jeannette Burnt Offering 1910
Dutt, Michael Madhusudan Sermista; a drama in five acts 1859
Dyer, Helen S. Pandita Ramabai: The Story of Her Life 1900
Kipling, Rudyard and Wolcott Balestier The Naulahka: A Story of West and East 1892
Mukerji, Dhan Gopal Caste and Outcast 1923
Mukerji, Dhan Gopal Layla-Majnu: A Musical Play in Three Acts 1916
Mukerji, Dhan Gopal Rajani: Songs of the Night 1916
Ramabai, Pandita The High Caste Hindu Woman 1888
Satthianadhan, Krupabai Kamala: A Story of Hindu Life 1894
Sorabji, Cornelia Between the Twilights: Being Studies of Indian Women By one of Themselves 1908
Sorabji, Cornelia Indian Tales of the Great Ones Among Men, and Bird-People 1916
Sorabji, Cornelia Shubala-A Child Mother 1920
Sorabji, Cornelia Sun-Babies: Studies in the Child-Life of India 1904
Tagore, Rabindranath Gora 1924 (1901)

Some of the highlights in the table above are in bold. As far as I know, these are the first plain text versions of the above texts to be made available online. 

You may notice that a couple of these texts are dated post-1923. I believe the 1941 translation of Anandamath (Dawn Over India) has fallen out of copyright in the U.S.

I should add that while I've cleaned up these files, I haven't proofread them. That is going to be a long-term project -- for which I would welcome collaborators! 


Friday, August 07, 2020

Text Processing 101: a Digital Humanities Work-Flow for Beginners

I wrote up the following as a primer for the students in my Digital Humanities seminar this fall, but I figured others might benefit from it as well. If you have favorite RegEx commands and tips, I would welcome them in the comments or hit me up on Twitter.

A lot of digital humanities work involves working with messy texts -- you get a PDF image file from Google Books, HathiTrust, Archive.org, or scans from old Microfilm, and you want to turn it into something you can work with, either for producing digital editions of texts or for quantitative analysis. 

OCR (Optical character recognition) is software that converts image-text in PDFs to Text. It is built into some PDF software (the non-free version of Adobe Acrobat has OCR, for instance), and you can find various PDF-Text converters online that will do it for you. Depending on the quality of the software and the quality of your page scan, OCR can be somewhere from 80-95% accurate. For most things (other than producing digital editions), 95% is pretty good. Still, I often find myself working hard to clean up the output of OCR to make sure it's useful for my various projects. 

It's also worth mentioning that some image files are poor enough that it's not worth your while to use OCR at all -- there's so many mistakes that it might just be faster to retype the whole document, letter for letter. 

Many digital humanities queries about literary texts require plain text files that don't have a lot of noise in them. If you are asking software to do word counts or study other features of the language inside a text, you want to make sure you have words by the authors themselves in the text, nothing else. If you have a folder full of Text files from Project Gutenberg, you need to go through and cut out the header and footer texts they attach to every text they publish online. If you have a text from HathiTrust that started as a PDF file, you probably want to cut out page numbers and page headers (Page 7, Page 8, etc.). 

Below I give a few tips on how to do that type of clean-up work efficiently using Text Editing software. 


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Announcing An Open-Access African-American Literature Corpus, 1853-1923

Announcing: an Open-Access African American Literature Corpus, 1853-1923
Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University. On Twitter @electrostani
July 2020

I’ve put together a small corpus of texts by Black literary authors in plain text format. The corpus is downloadable and researchers are free to modify it according to preference.

The corpus at present consists of, at present, about 100 texts by African American writers, of which about 75 are works of fiction (about 4.1 million words) and 25 are books of poetry (about 400,000 words). It starts in 1853, the year of publication of William Wells Brown’s Clotel and Frederick Douglass’ short fiction “The Heroic Slave,” and ends in 1923, with Jean Toomer’s Cane. Some of the files are admittedly still a little rough around the edges; cleaning and formatting will be an ongoing and long-term process. Still, I think the files are in good enough shape to start preliminarily exploring them using tools like AntConc or VoyantTools.

Right now I’m making the collection available as a Google Drive link as well as on Github


→ Download link. You can find the corpus here (Google Drive) or here (Github).


Sources: 

In the Metadata file I’ve created to accompany the collection, I indicate the origin of each text. Many come from Project Gutenberg, HathiTrust, the American Verse Project at the University of Michigan, the Library of Congress, and the History of Black Writing Novel Corpus. A few texts were present on multiple repositories; I generally used the text of the source that seemed cleanest and most convenient. 

I believe everything I’ve included in the corpus is in the public domain. 


Why Do This / My Background:

I started thinking about the relative paucity of collections focused on people of color online a few years ago (see my blog post on “Archive Gap” from 2015). I then initiated a couple of digital projects aimed to intervene in what I saw as the absence of Black writers in particular, “Claude McKay’s Early Poetry,” and “Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance.” That latter project in particular opened my eyes to the wealth of materials that have essentially fallen off the radar of literary history. A limited quantity of this overlooked material is sampled in anthologies like Maureen Honey’s Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance or Double-Take: A Revisionist Take on the Harlem Renaissance. But there remains a fairly substantial ‘great unread’ in the African Amerian literary tradition that could be brought to light, at least partly just by gathering materials that might have already been digitized in one form or another. 

Other corpora centered around Black writers do appear to exist, but they’re often restricted access. (For instance, The History of the Black Novel corpus has 53 works available to the public, but the larger corpus with about 450 works is restricted access for copyright reasons.) 

If corpora either don’t exist or aren’t readily available to scholars who don’t have access to password-protected university servers, that slows down research. At this point, Digital Humanities scholars have done impressive work analyzing large corpora of literature, but very few have applied computational methods to specifically African American texts. My hope is that this corpus might nudge more people to try. 


What’s included in the Corpus: 

In its current form, the corpus contains a mix of poetry and prose (for convenience, I’ve indicated whether a text is poetry or fiction in the title of each file). I’ve excluded slave narratives and other texts that are clearly not literary. (A large number of North American Slave Narratives are, in any case, collected here.) 

I included poetry alongside fiction in part because many of the topics historically-minded scholars might be interested in from these materials can be found in both formats. Many Black poets from this period wrote occasional poetry connected to historical events, including the Civil War and Emancipation, the Spanish-American War, World War I, the "Red Summer" of 1919, and so on. Admittedly, this mixing of formats might cause problems when studying these texts using certain software platforms (i.e., poetry and prose will be tokenized differently; they also need to be classified differently when doing word frequency types of queries, and sentence-length queries won't be useful). 

For convenience, I've also created folders with "Just Poetry" and "Just Fiction" from the collection in the Google Drive folder link above. 

Gender issues: It might also be worth noting that during this time period there were many African-American women publishing poetry -- but not as many who published fiction. (The reasons for this are beyond the scope of a brief announcement.) Still, including poetry can also be seen as an intentional choice -- designed to include writing by women in the field of view. It's also an invitation to other scholars using these materials to encourage them to work with writing by women. 

Users of this corpus who disagree with my choices are welcome to modify the selection when they design their own queries. I would also welcome any and all feedback. 

Honoring Black Writers / Expanding the Canon:
I’ve been inspired by the statement the Colored Conventions Project asks users to agree to when they download the CCP corpus, especially the first three principles:

  • I honor CCP’s commitment to a use of data that humanizes and acknowledges the Black people whose collective organizational histories are assembled here. Although the subjects of datasets are often reduced to abstract data points, I will contextualize and narrate the conditions of the people who appear as “data” and to name them when possible.
  • I will include the above language in my first citation of any data I pull/use from the CCP Corpus.
  • I will be sensitive to a standard use of language that again reduces 19th-century Black people to being objects. Words like “item” and “object,” standard in digital humanities and data collection, fall into this category. (Link)
While I don’t ask users of this collection to sign an analogous statement, I encourage all users of these materials to adhere to the spirit of the request made by CCP of the users of their corpus. My goal in doing this type of work is to recognize and validate the work of African American writers as important contributors to world literature. One of the ways we can do that is to consider the work at scale, using computational tools like text analysis and stylistics.

Friday, July 24, 2020

"Some Have Happiness Thrust Upon Them": Playing With "Twelfth Night" in "A Suitable Boy" (2/3)

(Part 2 in a Series. See part 1 here. Mira Nair's adaptation of A Suitable Boy debuts on BBC One in the UK on 7/26; the U.S. broadcast dates are yet to be announced.)

Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, set just after Indian independence, is deeply concerned with what we might call "de-Anglicization" -- the process by which upper-class and -caste Indians began to shed themselves of the Anglophilia that had been thoroughly imposed upon them over two centuries of British rule in India.

Elite English culture was presented to Indians in modes of dress and eating; it was seen as a work ethic and a demeanor to aspire to ("stiff upper lip"); it was visible in architecture and social structures (the "Club"). But nowhere was the pursuit of Englishness more palpable than in the school system the British established and that Indians continued to propagate for several generations. Most major English-medium Indian schools universities remain modeled on the British system; it's only recently that the American approach to "college" has begun to make inroads.

At the beating heart of that system of educative discipline is of course the Canon of English Literature. So it's not at all an accident that in A Suitable Boy one of the main characters is a young lecturer in English at the provincial (fictional) Brahmpur University. And his young sister-in-law, Lata -- the primary protagonist in the novel -- is herself an English major at the same university. 

It's not that the British are still hanging around at Brahmpur University in Seth's novel; even by the early 1950s, they've all departed. All of the faculty we meet are either fully Indian or mixed-race Anglo-Indian. There's no wizened British Department Chair to force the Indian faculty to toe the line and live and die by Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and (Percy) Shelley. The Indian faculty enforce the Canon all the same. But the young people at least inhabit Shakespeare slightly differently than the British might have. And the audience receives the play differently than we might expect.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Revisiting "A Suitable Boy" in 2020 (1/2)

I'm excited about Mira Nair's six-part adaptation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, which will be premiering on BBC One and Netflix India on July 26th. (No word yet on when and how we'll be able to see it in the U.S.) As most people reading this probably know, I have a special interest in this project since I published a book-length study of Mira Nair's films. This is Nair's first feature film since Queen of Katwe (2016), and her first film set in South Asia since The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). Nair has a special eye and a gift for telling stories about India, and it's been too long since she's made a film there. Seth's novel, I think, seems like a great fit for picking up where Monsoon Wedding left off...

*

I actually re-read Seth's book in its entirety earlier this summer, partly out of anticipation for the coming adaptation (I should also say that I'm also thinking of writing an article or a book chapter on the novel...). As I did so, I felt a newfound appreciation for the book that I didn't have the first time approached it. In the 1990s, as a young reader, I was interested in the shiny and topical style of writers like Rushdie. I wanted 'quick hits' -- ideas that can be encapsulated nicely in a seminar paper or conference talk. Later, as a young teacher, I tended to look for short books that work well with undergraduates; hence, I put A Suitable Boy away on a high shelf and left it alone. Today, I'm drawn much more to good storytelling and research, and Seth's novel has both.

For those who don't have the many, many hours required to read the whole thing, one possible angle you could try is the Dramatized Audiobook version, which condenses the story and uses a pretty well-known ensemble voice cast. It does downplay the politics and plays up the "Anglophile" parts of the plot a bit, but it's a high quality dramatization and quite entertaining. I listened to it a couple of years, and it whetted my appetite to get back to the text itself.

Nair's television adaptation has a trailer that you can see here:



Thoughts about the trailer? To my eye, the trailer emphasizes two of the romantic plots (Lata-Kabir and Maan-Saaeda Bai), while deemphasizing some of the less glamorous characters and side-plots (Kabir Durrani is clearly there -- but where's Haresh Khanna?).


That said, I have heard (directly from the director!) that the adaptation is going to attend to the social and political upheaval described at length in the novel -- the tensions between urban and rural Indias, the caste politics, and communalism. I'm pleased about that; the novel is much more than a period piece and romantic drama. (If you look carefully at the trailer, you'll see some hints of the politics...)

In a series of three blog posts (one per week), I'll revisit this fine novel, and introduce it (without spoilers!) for people who've never read it.


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Postcolonial Ecocriticism: A Preliminary Reading List

Two things motivate me in this blog post: first, I put together a small unit on postcolonial ecocriticism last fall in my Modernism/Postcolonial grad seminar, which turned out to be surprisingly effective for the students in the class. Second, I attended a panel on Postcolonial Ecocriticism at MLA earlier this month in Seattle.

In effect, most of the following is not necessarily material I've already read -- but stuff I want to read. If readers come across this list and would like to add their own suggestions, I would encourage people to use the comments function, or hit me up on Twitter (@electrostani).

1. In my grad seminar, we had been looking at books like E.M. Forster's Howards End, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. I had only intended The Lowland to be informed by postcolonial ecocritical thinking, but perhaps not surprisingly, we also had conversations about climate change -- more accurately, climate justice -- with those other books as well. Howards End is in part a book about the dreariness of polluted London and the value of rootedness and the local against the dehumanizing effects of transnational capitalism. The God of Small Things, for its part, has a surprising amount of concern for the ecosystem of the Kerala town where it is set -- including the river at the center of the plot -- which we see grow increasingly polluated as the novel moves forward in time from the late 1960s to the 1990s. It's not hard to see the seeds of Roy's later activism on issues like big dams anticipated by this novel; indeed, her essay, "The Greater Common Good," contains a critique of the rhetoric of the "big" and gestures towards resistance in small measures:
We have to support our small heroes. (Of these we have many. Many.) We have to fight specific wars in specific ways. Who knows, perhaps that’s what the 21st century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small. Perhaps right now, this very minute, there’s a small god up in heaven readying herself for us. Could it be? Could it possibly be? It sounds finger-licking good to me. (link)
The touchstone for our conversations was Rob Nixon's Slow Violence, Or the Environmentalism of the Poor, which is a remarkable book in many ways. It both worked as an introduction and as a roadmap for students who might want to go further -- with writers like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wangari Maathai, Indra Sinha, and many others who we couldn't fit on our syllabus last fall.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

South Asian Modernism: in Blog Posts

I recently chaired a panel at the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) on South Asian Modernisms, with three wonderful scholars whose work was new to me, Jennifer Dubrow of the University of Washington (check out her book on Urdu print culture!), Preetha Mani of Rutgers (AMESALL), and a graduate student from U-Chicago, Supurna Dasgupta.

Our panel dealt with multi-lingual South Asian modernisms, from Saadat Hasan Manto (Urdu) to Krishan Chander (Hindi) to Jayakanthan (Tamil) to Bishnu Dey (Bengali). We had a small but very engaged audience on the last morning of the conference.

In gearing up for chairing the panel I started reviewing some of my many blog posts over the years related to South Asian Modernism. I realized I had done quite a number of them -- plus two academic articles... Between 2010 and 2012 or so I was, in truth, working on a book on Modernism in South Asia -- though I petered out and never quite got it together (I wrote something else instead).

Judging from the lack of awareness about the contours of South Asian modernism in the mainstream of the MSA (outside of Mulk Raj Anand, who is pretty well-known), it seems like a synthetic, internally comparative account of South Asian modernism might be helpful to have. At a minimum, I would hope that such a book should have: 1) an account of the Bengal Renaissance as a jumping-off point [not a modernism proper]; 2) the advent of the Progressive Writers Association; 3) Hindi modernism post-independence (Nayi Kavita, Nayi Kahani); 4) Urdu modernism post-independence (Jadeed Afsana; Manto); 5) Tamil and Kannada modernisms; 6) the Anglophone scene (from Anand to the Calcutta Writers Workshop); and 7) an account of South Asian writers from the 1920s-60s who worked and wrote abroad (Mulk Raj Anand, Nirmal Verma, G.V. Desani, Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, among many others).

Owing to my language limitations I am not at all sure that I am the one to write such a book. Though who knows?

Still, in case it's helpful, below is a collection of blog posts I wrote dealing with South Asian modernism, mostly between 2006 and 2012.


Review: A Night in London by Sajjad Zaheer (2012; Urdu modernism in translation; South Asian writers abroad)

Revisiting Ahmed Ali: Twilight in Delhi (2011; Anglophone; South Asian writers abroad)

Gordon Roadarmel and Modern Hindi Fiction (2010; Nayi Kahani; Hindi short stories)

Revisiting the Calcutta Writers Workshop (2010; P. Lal; Anglophone)

Another Look at P. Lal (2010; Anglophone; influence of Anglo-American modernism on Anglophone modernism in India)

Modern Hindi Poetry (2010; on the Naya Kavita movement; a review of sorts of Lucy Rosenstein's collection)

Why I Don't Like Mulk Raj Anand's "Untouchable"... (on representing caste in Indian fiction)

Mulk Raj Anand on the Language Debate (2010; on the status of the English language in Indian literature in the 1930s)

Saadat Hasan Manto's "Letters to Uncle Sam" (2006; early post on Manto; Urdu fiction)

Ismat Chughtai's Short Stories (2006; early post on Chughtai)


Academic articles: 

Progressivism and Modernism in South Asian Fiction: 1930-1970 (Literature Compass)

More than 'Priestly Mumbo-Jumbo': Religion and Authorship in All About H. Hatterr (Journal of Postcolonial Writing)