Ted Underwood, Associate Professor of English, University of Illinois, will speak on "Learning What We Don't Know About Literary History":
"In applying computational methods to the humanities, the primary challenge is to identify new and useful questions. On the one hand, we don't want our research programs to be shaped simply by the capacities of new technology. But it may be equally unprofitable to cling to familiar questions that we're already good at answering (say, interpretive questions about a single text).
"To slice through that dilemma, I'll present quantification as a way of uncovering our own ignorance. Research should be driven, not by what computers can do, or by what we already know, but by surprising blind spots we discover. I would argue that literary scholars are now discovering that our ignorance is deeper and more exciting than we've allowed ourselves to imagine. As we back up and take a broader view of the discipline, basic concepts like "genre," "theme," diction"—perhaps even "literature" itself—are refusing to behave as predicted.
"I'll focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature in English, and especially on the intersection of genre and diction (e.g., what is "poetic diction"?) But in exploring these topics I'll emphasize general questions of method that might also be relevant to the social or natural sciences. For instance, at what point in a research workflow does it make sense to use "supervised" or "unsupervised" learning? I hope the talk will be followed by broadly interdisciplinary discussion."
This is a lunch meeting. Please RSVP Matthew Wilkens (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like lunch, but feel free to come whether you RSVP or not.