Technologies of Text, Spring 2017

An experiential learning course in the English Department at Northeastern University

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Coding 2b: Text as Data

For today’s coding session you will need the RMD file here.

Code 2: Introduction to R and RStudio

The first thing we’ll do (likely before you even read these words) is start a new R project for this class. You can either select an existing directory—perhaps the one where you’ve saved the exercise files—or create a new one. You’ll be saving all of your work for the semester here. In fact, I would recommend you create a master folder, named whatever you like, with subfolders named:

  • exercises: into which you can save the RMD files I will provide for each coding session
  • fieldbooks: into which you can create your own RMD files for your fieldbook submissions
  • data: into which you can save data files when we use them for later labs.

For each coding session I will provide an RMD file like this one with instructions and sample code. You should download the RMD file (save it in that exercises folder you created) and open it in R studio.

Lab 2: Simulating the Scriptorium

Let’s start with a quote from Marshall McLuhan, who we will read next week:

The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no “content.” And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the “content” (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.

From Brian Pickings, a list of complaints about copying found in the margins of medieval manuscripts.

In today’s lab we read and wrote by candlelight in part to think about medieval textual practices, and it is certainly true that scribes copied manuscripts by candlelight. But it’s also true that technologies of illumination didn’t change that significantly for a long while—people in the mid-nineteenth century still read and wrote by candlelight and they were still scrivening well into the age of print. We are so used to the ways electric light reshapes our daily lives that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine landscapes and lives not defined by it.

To frame this in another way, the candle is a non-textual medium that has profoundly affected the texts we have inherited from previous generations. An ecology of media, including candlelight, parchment, and calligraphic standards circumscribed and defined the labor of early book making, which in turn helped determine what books were made (or saved). And that labor is also important as labor: bookmaking was a laborious process, an embodied process. The books through which we understand early periods are not simply those that were written, but instead those that survived, and often because they were mediated and remediated through a series of scribes, formats, materials, and, later, typesetters and editors.

Your task for this lab, then, is to reflect on our work in class by researching and reporting a particular story of textual transmission and remediation. You should research the provenance of at least one text written prior to the invention of movable type, with a special eye to debates over its textual details. That is, how do scholars believe the text we read today was shaped by the people who wrote and rewrote, copied and recopied, earlier versions of that text over centuries? From what physical artifacts do we receive the text, and what do they tell us its reception history? What do scholars believe is authentic to the “original” text, and what do they believe was inserted in later moments of editing and recomposition?

You can choose any text you want and you don’t need to read the text itself, just research its history. To pick a text, you might consult the early materials gathered in a Norton Anthology or similar collection. The point of this lab, in some ways, is to help you think about how such anthologies come to be, and the complex, long textual histories that precede any piece appearing in such tables of contents. The big question: how does “the canon” of texts we read today depend on a long chain of previous interactions between individual human beings; media forms; and larger political, religious, and social movements?

Code 1: Markdown

What is Markdown?

Markdown is a lightweight standard for writing in plain text while encoding the structure of your document for later representation in a format like Word, PDF, or HTML. If you have ever marked up a text using HTML tags, Markdown works quite similarly, but uses simple typographical symbols to encode text rather than longer HTML tags. One advantage to composing in Markdown is that you can then easily convert a single .md file into a range of other formats, giving you flexibility when you wish to publish your writing. For our class, writing in Markdown will help you reflect on the relationship of your texts’ structure to the media of their presentation. You will compose your fieldbook entries in Markdown or R Markdown, the latter of which will allow you to embed code written in the R programming language directly into a Markdown document.

Markdown References and Applications

Below I will describe the most common Markdown syntax, but for additional reference you can consult:

In short, in Markdown your text will not include any visible stylistic variations such as italics or bold text; Markdown is a plain text format. One advantage to this is that you can write valid Markdown in many, many editors, including the free text editors (such as TextEdit on the Mac or Wordpad on the PC) that come with most computers. You can also write in Markdown in my favorite writing application, Scrivener. There are many dedicated Markdown composition applications with additional features, such as syntax highlighting or the ability to preview what your documents. If you use a Mac, you might consider the free applications Macdown or Mou. For Windows you might try Markdownpad, or Remarkable for Linux. You can also compose online through platforms like Hashify.

Markdown Syntax

So, a few basics:

  1. If you want your text to be italicized, then enclose it in single asterisks.
    i.e. *enclose it in single asterisks*
  2. If you want your texts to be bold, then enclose it in double asterisks.
    i.e. **enclose it in double asterisks**
  3. To start a new paragraph, simply hit return twice (so there is a space in between paragraphs)
  4. To create a hyperlink, enclose the words you want linked in brackets and the link in parentheses following.
    i.e. [words you want linked in brackets and the link in parentheses following](

You can also create headlines of descending sizes, lists (numbered or bulleted),footnotes, embedded images, and more. See the reference materials above for details on these other elements.

Code Lab Assignment

Your assignment for this coding session is pretty straightforward: create a document encoded in markdown that encodes (at least):

  • Some italicized text
  • Some bold text
  • At least one link
  • At least one ordered (numbered) or unordered (bulleted) list
  • Headlines for different sections
  • I won’t require it, but extra kudos if you can include an image and/or a footnote.

If you have already drafted your Fieldbook entry for our lab at the MFA, you could mark it up for this assignment and kill two birds with one stone.

R Markdown

Another reason I am asking you to write in Markdown is that understanding these conventions will make it much easier for you to write about computer code. Once we start working with R in our coding sessions, we will use R Markdown for writing up anything that includes R code. Essentially, R Markdown blends the markdown conventions you are learning today with a few customizations that let you embed snippets of code, as well as any outputs (e.g. graphs, maps) produced by that code into Markdown documents. This lets you weave together prose and code, so your readers can see the technical aspects of your work while reading about their interpretive significance. We will talk about this more in the near future (and you’ll see some examples of R Markdown), but I want you to understand that we are learning Markdown both for its flexibility in representing the typical kinds of texts literature students write and for writing about code.

Lab 1: MFA Visit

Lab 1: Museum of Fine Arts Visit

We began our visit to the MFA by talking about the cuneiform tablet: the earliest known form of writing and one that help us think about what media mean in their infancy and how those meanings evolve.

In the MFA’s broader Art of the Ancient World Collections, you can find examples of ancient writing from many cultures across thousands of years: Babylonian, Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Nubian, and Roman. Because this is an art museum and not a library, this writing can primarily be found on objects rather than in books (don’t worry, we will see some ancient books later this semester). But of course, writing then as now was a diverse practice, and books were only one of many textual media.

Today’s lab will be an exercise in discovery, observation, and comparison. We want to get beyond simple tourism, in which we would look at the objects with some awe and then move on, and toward analysis. I expect that few of you will be able to read the ancient media we’re looking at—though you can of course read the summaries and translations provided in the various exhibits—so we will attend primarily to the relationships between material and meaning.

For this lab, you must choose 2 distinct textual artifacts from 2 different ancient cultures and carefully compare them. Partly this will be an exercise in attentive looking. Spend some time with your chosen artifacts. Take notes as you observe that you can use to write your fieldbook entry. Use your two chosen objects to think comparatively. How are the two objects you’ve chosen similar? How are they distinct? Keep in mind this central question: how do these objects make their meaning? 

To answer such broad questions, look very closely at your chosen artifacts. We can’t hold them, as we will some rare books later this semester, but get as close as you possibly can. Consider such questions as:

  • What is the medium, and what are its materials? How was each artifact created?
  • How do the material facts of your artifacts’ creation affect their textuality? Can you discern a relationship between the materials and the way people wrote with or on those materials?
  • What can you say about the mode of writing on each artifact? How is language represented? How do you imagine these different modes of representation would shape reading and writing processes?
    What is the relationship between text and other kinds of representation (images, etc.) on your chosen artifacts?
  • If there is a translation or summary of a text available, how does that message relate to its medium?
  • How do you think this textual object was used, or intended to be used? How does its form signal those uses?
  • How do your artifacts signal the relationship of texts to issues of class, education, etc.?

In your analysis, you should not simply list similarities and differences: e.g. the cuneiform tablet was small, but the hieroglyphic tomb wall was big. A comparative analysis should interpret those similarities and differences, thinking through what they might tell us about the audience(s), purpose(s), and meaning(s) of writing in these different media, cultures, and time periods.

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