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"The Preparation of the Victorian Novel and the Preparation of the Topic Model."

Professor Rachel Sagner Buurma, Swarthmore College
Thursday, April 27, 2017 - 3:30pm
Petersen Room, Allen Library

Rachel Sagner Buurma 

Associate Professor of English, Swarthmore College

In this talk I draw together the research practices of Victorian novelists with the research practices of digital humanists to ask what we might learn by seeing them both as part of a longer history of literary research. Following Roland Barthes’s approach in “The Preparation of the Novel,” I first ask how understanding novelists’ note-taking systems, personal knowledge organization technologies, and self-archiving practices can help us rethink our ways of knowing the Victorian novel.  Taking prolific and almost-forgotten Victorian novelist Charles Reade as a case study, I offer illustrations drawn from the hundreds of volumes of notes and clippings he amassed over the course of his career. I then turn from Reade’s research practices to topic modeling, a method of unsupervised machine learning popular with digital humanists. Briefly introducing the theory and practice of topic modeling, I show why it makes sense to see the computational modeling of corpora of novels as a contingent way of imagining novels’ origins rather than as a more literal analysis of their contents. 

Rachel Sagner Buurma is Associate Professor of English Literature at Swarthmore College, where she works on Victorian literature and culture, the novel, book history, twentieth-century Anglo-American literary criticism, and literary informatics. She is finishing a project on the social history of narrative theories of the Victorian novel and beginning one on the research practices of nineteenth-century novelists. With Laura Heffernan, she is working on a new disciplinary history of English literary studies titled “The Teaching Archive.” Along with Jon Shaw (University of Pennsylvania Libraries), she co-directs the Early Novels Database. For further particulars see her website:

Reception to follow. All are welcome. 


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