Researcher using digital humanities to explore poetry in new ways


LAWRENCE — Reading 10,000 poems to search for certain themes would be a daunting task, no matter how passionate the reader is about the topic. But the evolution of digital technology has not only made that possible, it’s making it possible to change the way people think about poetry. That’s what Whitney Sperrazza hopes to do: analyze poetry in a new way and take digital humanities to a much wider audience at the same time.

Sperrazza recently joined the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas as a postdoctoral researcher dedicated to the digital humanities. In her role, she’ll use digital tools to pursue her own research and help researchers and scholars across the university bring digital humanities to their own work, no matter what field they are in. She views digital humanities as a way to ask questions about humanities that we simply weren’t able to before, or using technology to examine things in a new light. The flip side of that coin is public facing, she said, allowing scholars throughout, and outside, the humanities, even beyond university borders, to do the same.

“I hope my own research and what I can bring to others’ projects can address both sides of that coin,” Sperrazza said. “Digital humanities allows us to ask questions we haven’t been able to before and bring our questions to a wider public.”

Her own research focuses on representations of sexual violence by female poets in the English Renaissance, from roughly 1500 to 1700. She’s working on both a book project and digital companion to the work. The latter is taking shape and could end up as anything from an art installation to digital archive or possibly 3-D printed representations of her findings. Digital technology is allowing her to interact with the text in a different way than was previously possible. In addition to helping read and analyze large volumes of poetry, it assists in the study of the poetry itself: such as reading texts in a different way, through art or tangible objects rather than just reading writing on a page.

“I’m trying to find ways to measure and make tangible representations of violence in language and poetry. I’m also thinking about how digital tools can help us pinpoint what that is and what it means,” Sperrazza said. “The female poets have been left out of the conversation, unfortunately. I’m finding these writers were interested in how to think of the violence, not just in the poems, but in the form and structure of the poetry.”

Sexual violence in the Renaissance was a widespread problem. Not only did women of the time have to live with the constant threat, it was often dismissed or swept under the rug. The poetry of the time provides insight, as do surviving legal documents that often casually dismiss charges of sexual violence. The legal writings and poetry both reflect the dual threats women faced. Not only was the threat of violence real, but if they did dare to bring it to public attention, they were considered scandalous for even discussing such topics publicly. Those attitudes can help inform thought about the current rape culture women in society face, Sperrazza said.

“Rape narratives are common in the writing of that era. Bodily violence was pervasive to the point that it was part of a woman’s everyday life,” Sperrazza said. “By leaving the female poets out of the conversation on how such violence was represented, we’ve done a disservice to understanding what sexual violence meant at the time.”

Digital analysis of the poems will allow for finding common themes as well as comparing poems from men and women writers of the time.

Sperrazza has already begun working with faculty and graduate students in using digital humanities and their approaches in assisting diverse means of scholarship. She’ll teach a class in Renaissance poetry and digital humanities, and has partnered with faculty outside of humanities, including KU’s School of Education, in the first months of the semester. She is also partnering with the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities in KU Libraries and encourages anyone interested in how digital humanities can be part of their work to contact her at, noting such collaborative approaches can also open avenues to research funding. The conversation can begin with simply thinking about how digital humanities can apply to their work and be an aid to questions such as what qualitative analysis means to them and their work and how technology can allow them to ask new questions.

Tue, 10/17/2017


Mike Krings

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