In writing and literature classes, we teach our students to gather evidence from close reading in order to support their arguments. In what ways could data visualization charts actually aid processes of reading? The visualization tool Voyant allows the user to track the relative appearance and context of specific words and phrases in a specific body of text, from a poem to an entire corpus. While digital tool analysis by no means replaces close reading, it can be useful for arguments that make sweeping claims. For example, say one wished to display how many times a specific motif appeared in a text. While one could manually “count” references across a novel or ouvre, or attempt to estimate relative occurrence, a text analysis tool like Voyant can more easily provide textual evidence necessary to support an essay’s claim, or, if the evidence proves the writer “wrong,” help the writer re-evaluate her argument accordingly.
At the DWRL, our pedagogical lesson plans provide specific learning objectives for writing intensive classes and digital skill development. For this lesson, the primary learning objective is for students to learn to use digital tools to analyze texts. The digital skill that the students shall learn is how to use Voyant. While there are a variety of text analysis & text data mining tools available, I have chosen Voyant for this activity because it is easy to use and requires no prior experience with text data analysis.
You will need to mark out one class period for this assignment.
Access to the digital tool Voyant, internet access, a computer for each student, a projector, and selected texts to analyze.
No prior digital tool skills necessary.
Access and Adaptability
Because the visualization graphs color code data, instructors with students with colorblindness should use a Google Chrome extension Color Enhancer or Spectrum, or the Firefox extension Colorblind Design. Instructors who use Google Chrome may also want to use the extension Zoomy to enlarge certain sections of the screen for visually disabled students.
In this assignment, instructors will walk the students through the basics of using Voyant to analyze specific elements of a single text. These elements include frequency of specific words, phrases, and the contexts in which these words appear. Students will then be asked to compare two different texts.
It may be worth selecting two specific texts for your students to analyze prior to class instead of allowing them to select their own. This is left to the instructor’s discretion. There is also the option of using the Jane Austen and William Shakespeare examples provided by the “Getting Started” section of the Voyant website.
In-Class or Assignment Instructions
In order to execute this activity, both the instructor and students will need to learn how to use Voyant. While no prior knowledge with the tool is required, instructors are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the program before class.
The homepage for Voyant can be found at voyant-tools.org. One does not need to register an account to use the source. The homepage should look like this:
If you are copying and pasting from an interface, paste the text into the box. In this example, I have copied and pasted the texts to the lyrics to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” to keep the example simple.
Once you click “reveal,” Voyant shows different ways of visualizing the frequency of words. On the left column, the larger words are the most frequent. The frequency of words is also visualized with a trend graph on the right.
The two charts on the bottom half of the page are interactive. Clicking on different tabs provides a short data summary, shows the most common phrases in the text, and can often identify the text if you are using a text without knowing the author/source.
In my Neutral Milk Hotel example, the data summary chart on the left-hand side shows that:
This corpus has 1 document with 157 total words and 96 unique word forms.
Most frequent words in the corpus: beautiful (3); let (2); soft (2); sun (2); sweet (2).
Clicking the “phrases” tab reveals that the most common phrases in the song:
In the activity, students should be able to copy and paste two different texts into the tool. By comparing the visualizations with and against one another, each group of students should be able to observe from the visualization elements of the text that they may not have recognized before.
The instructor may choose to have students engage in informal class discussion around the potential uses, or limitations, of using the tool. There are also possibilities for a written assessment.
All images screen shots by author.