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Digital methods for researching your English essay

Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Viola Wiegand offers valuable insights to help bring your extended essay research into the digital world. This is ­her second story in our graduate voices series.

Online library or E-learning concept. Open laptop and book compilation. 3d illustration
All textures were created me in Adobe Illustrator.

By Viola Wiegand 

Have you ever studied a novel for your English class and had to flip back and forth to find a particular passage and wished you had a “search” function? If you have an e-reader you’re in luck but with a hard copy you have to take notes about key quotations, place sticky page markers or annotate the text directly (but only if you own the book!). Back when I wrote my extended essay (EE)  in English, I certainly went through the novel that I had chosen to study MANY times (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22—heartily recommend it by the way!). I carried the book with me for months and certainly took it on a family vacation during the Easter break. I also spent a long time trying to manually trace the significance of dead characters in the novel (yes, a quirky research focus right there). Unsurprisingly, the hard copy looked rather ragged in the end.

Looking back, however, it would have been interesting to know about digital ways of studying literature for my extended essay”

At that time, I did not know that there was a whole academic field that specialises in analysing texts (both non-fiction and fiction) with the help of software. I could have saved myself a lot of time in searching through the book by hand—and that time I could have spent looking at more complex questions about the novel and refining my argument. Best of all, I might have been able to compare the language in Catch-22 with more general patterns in fiction. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with studying a hard copy in the traditional way. As it was, I did a thorough “close reading” of the novel and came up with interesting observations about this literary work. I was happy with the EE that came out of this procedure; my first long piece of writing, which had been so daunting!

Looking back, however, it would have been interesting to know about digital ways of studying literature for my EE because it could have opened up opportunities beyond close reading. Computers can search through texts better than we can, and (much!) faster too. Imagine how much time it would take if we had to manually search through all the texts that Google has indexed! Guess what, there are a lot of tools that actually make it possible to systematically study language. A really nice resource to help with writing is; just type in a word that you want to use and the tool produces a list of common patterns surrounding this word. That’s really helpful in cases like when you’re not quite sure which preposition to use. But in this post I want to focus on how we can use the computer to help us with analysing literature.

CLiC—a web app for studying the language of literature

“CLiC lets you read, analyse and compare the full text of over 140 texts.”

As I mentioned briefly in my first post about studying language on the IB Blog, there’s a specific web app that lets you search through literary texts. I’m actually part of the joint research team at the University of Birmingham and University of Nottingham that has developed the tool (things you do after studying linguistics at uni!). This free web app is called CLiC, which stands for “Corpus Linguistics in Context”. What does that mean? Well, “corpus linguistics” is the area of linguistics that develops methods and theoretical frameworks for analysing texts with the help of software. A “corpus” is Latin for “body”; so, corpus linguistics deals with bodies (collections) of text. And particularly when analysing literature, lots of context is important.

CLiC lets you read, analyse and compare the full text of over 140 texts. Most of these are British novels from the 19th century. There are a couple of American works (for example The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Twelve Years a Slave) and we’re looking forward to launching a new corpus of 19th century novels by African American writers later this summer. At the moment, the biggest corpus of texts by an individual author are the complete novels by Charles Dickens, followed by the novels by Jane Austen. CLiC also hosts a corpus of 19th century children’s literature, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Tales of Peter Rabbit.

Linguistic and literary insights into the past

“When analysing literature, lots of context is important”

What’s really interesting about being able to search and compare these fictional texts is that not only can you quickly find those key passages that you remember from reading a novel but you can also find out more about 19th century British language and culture. CLiC actually separates character speech from narration, so you can quickly find out about common patterns of speaking. Did you know that one of the polite phrases to say in the 19th century was very much obliged to you? To explore this and other findings about speech in 19th century fiction and Jane Austen’s novels in particular, you can download a copy of our free Activity Book (Activity 17 is the one that focuses on fictional speech). The booklet also introduces you to the main methods in corpus linguistics. For further reading, you can check out the introductory textbook The Language of Literature—An Introduction to Stylistics.

Body language is another cultural area that is not only interesting to explore but also prone to change! An example is the so-called “fireplace pose” that is described in 19th century literature (and captured in illustrations of the time). A case study of this pose using CLiC is available from the Activity Book—and written up on the Programming Historian Blog (we were inspired to do this analysis by Barbara Korte’s book). To give a final example, literature lends itself to study the social context in areas like education. The novels available in CLiC describe extreme ends of the educational landscape in 19th century Britain: from the lack of any educational opportunities at the lowest end of society (as in Oliver Twist) to the private education that the higher classes enjoyed. The CLiC Activity Book contains a section on “governesses”—young, unmarried women who acted as private tutors for the children (particularly girls) of the higher classes and lived with them. As you can find out by searching for governess in Jane Austen’s novels, Elizabeth Bennet experiences the judgement of higher society when it turns out that she did not have the benefit of a governess:

“Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected” (Lady Catherine, in Chapter 29 of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).

To learn more about this topic, have a go at analysing the examples by yourself!

More tools to get you started

If 19th century literature is not your cup of tea and you do have access to your own texts or want to analyse non-fiction texts such as newspaper articles, political manifestos or annual reports by companies, you can download the free corpus linguistic software AntConc. The academic developer behind AntConc, Laurence Anthony, has a whole series of video tutorials, so do check them out if you’re interested!

Going back to my EE, analysing Heller’s writing might be a bit tricky even now, because the texts by contemporary writers are copyrighted. Often it’s not straightforward to obtain legal electronic copies of contemporary writing that can be analysed with software packages, because the texts can be secured. Depending on the licensing, you might need to check if you have to ask the copyright holder for permission, especially if you want to share our results. Maybe I’ll try to tackle this challenge one day in order to replicate (and extend) my EE study!

The CLiC project is hosted at the University of Birmingham. The project team is made up of Professor Michaela Mahlberg (principal investigator), Professor Peter Stockwell (co-investigator at the University of Nottingham) and Viola Wiegand (research fellow). The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant reference AH/P504634/1).


Viola Wiegand is a graduate of the IB Diploma Programme at the Felix-Klein-Gymnasium in Göttingen, Germany. She studied English linguistics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the University of Nottingham in the UK. Viola works as a research fellow at the University of Birmingham and has just finished her PhD. To relax from her academic work, she likes to knit in her spare time. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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