Published: April 30, 2013

There are some key differences between a human heart and an artichoke heart. Literature PhD candidate Kirstyn Leuner wants to be clear about that. However, word frequency analysis tools may enhance learning when combined with contextual reading. “It’s a really good sign, as a teacher, when you’re excited about reading a batch of papers,” says Leuner, “and I’m receiving some of the best student papers I’ve ever read.”

Kirstyn Leuner teaches her students to analyze literature like scientists. She encourages them to see words as data and to look for patterns and trends in language. As a graduate instructor and a 2013 ASSETT Teaching with Technology award winner, Leuner has been experimenting with different technologies in the classroom for nearly a decade. She often uses blogs and social media tools like Twitter and Storify to help her students understand Shakespeare, romantic literature, and women’s literature. “She made the old Gothic novels we were reading feel more modern,” said one student.

Kirstyn Leuner

Kirstyn Leuner Photo by: Michael Riberdy, UCB Libraries

“I’ve always been interested in old things,” says Leuner, describing her fascination 19th Century Romanticism as she thumbs through a generously dog-eared book of Daguerreotypes and dioramas. But although Leuner may be a romantic, she isn’t old-fashioned: At Miami University, where Leuner started her PhD studies, she met scholar Laura Mandell. “Mandell introduced me to this whole new world of teaching and research that involved technology and digital tools,” she explained. It was at Miami that Leuner first learned how to TEI encode texts and to experiment with WordPress blog. These dueling interests followed her to the PhD program at Colorado and her Digital Humanities Fellowship at The University of Denver.

“I think of text as data,” says Leuner.  “I think scholars and students need to learn to zoom in and to zoom out of text. Close reading is important, but you need to juxtapose that with zooming out in order to analyze word data and see how these moments of close reading are just a small snapshot of how language works in the piece as a whole. Voyant helps us do that.”

Voyant is a free, web-based tool developed by that is more often used by scholars than undergraduate students. Once texts are uploaded, users can search for words and analyze frequency trends throughout a text. “Voyant does amazing things,” says Leuner, leaning across her desk in excitement. “It’s a step-up from Wordle. It shows you a breakdown of the number of times words are repeated and you can track or graph the frequency of words over the course of a novel.”

During the past semester, Leuner has begun to incorporate Voyant into her class assignments. When Leuner’s students studied Charlotte Dacre’s gothic novel Zofloya, they noticed an inverse relationship between the frequency of the word “heart” and the word “hand.” After looking more deeply at the text, the students discussed whether or not these trends related to the theme of revenge by sword or dagger (hand) for unrequited love (heart). "Of course the students also looked at the context of these words to make sure the author was referring to human hearts and not artichoke hearts," Leuner explains.

Another student worked on an independent project exploring the frequency of the word “door” in  Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance, which takes place in a mazelike castle.  After using Voyant to graph the overarching trends, the student did some close reading and argued that the word "door" was a metaphor for opportunity within the context of the novel.

It really isn’t surprising that Leuner’s students are writing papers that are more advanced than before. Leuner is using Voyant to ask more advanced questions. “In the past, this kind of analysis involving word frequency trends would have been too much to ask of an undergraduate class,” said Leuner, explaining that her students are tackling questions that would have been a challenge for advanced scholars just ten years ago. “Previously, I wouldn’t have thought to give them that assignment. They just wouldn’t have had the data.”

“Why go at books the same way we have been going at them forever?” asks Leuner, whose own research involves many of these questions about word patterns and trends in language over time. Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of her new teaching strategy is that, with access to tools like Voyant, Leuner can now have conversations with her students about the very questions that she is so invested in. “As a digital humanist, this is the wonderful way in which my research and my teaching meet.”



Article written by: Ashley E Williams