PI: Patrick Madden
First of all, and most importantly, I want to thank everyone at ORCA and in my college and department who approved and funded this project. The financial support of the Mentored Environment Grant made possible a lot of interesting and far-reaching research for me and my students. I deeply appreciate the generosity. Following is my report.
Evaluation of Academic Objectives
This project utilized computational analysis to evaluate essays. Through stylometry, the study of writing style, the team studied essayists’ work to delineate writerly heritage, to identify potential authorship, and to recognize trends and answer questions about literary genre. From our analysis, we were able to identify preliminary points of demarcation among essayists due to style, time period, location, and subgenre. The primary subgenre which we examined over the course of the project was the “lyric essay,” a recently popular form which has uncertain characteristics we wanted to elucidate. As we examined essays classified as “lyric” we were able to corroborate and push against some of the characteristics currently believed to be features of the “lyric essay” in order to provide a more nuanced and precise understanding of the subgenre.
Beyond outlining finer definitions of what an essay is, the outcomes of this project have pedagogical use as well. Writing instructors can direct students to the EGP (http://egp.byu.edu) to upload essays, identifying which authors the students’ work resembles, potentially leading students to writers they may have never heard of. The reports created through the project allow for rich discussions regarding style, voice, genre, etc.
Instructors and writers alike are already benefiting from the large corpus of essays created through this project. We filled the corpus with contemporary essays as well as historical pieces, totaling over 3,000 essays. This essay corpus can continue to expand and will be invaluable for further research in the essay genre.
Two articles for publication are being drafted, one aimed for Fourth Genre and the second for Creative Nonfiction. The articles will outline the findings specific to the lyric essay as well as the pedagogical potential of the Essay Genome Project.
Preliminary research was presented at the national NonfictioNow Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona, in November 2015, and further presentations involving the EGP are slated for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, DC, in February 2017 and the 2017 Digital Humanities Symposium at UVU, also in February. Dr Madden and his graduate student assistants have used the EGP for classroom demonstrations and assignments. The EGP was featured on the BYU website on September 1, 2016 in an article titled “Do You Write Like Mark Twain or Ralph Waldo Emerson? BYU Corpus Has The Answer.” The interest in the project has been excellent as writers and teachers have uploaded and analyzed hundreds of essays and have commented on the pedagogical value to them.
Evaluation of the Mentoring Environment
The students involved in this project gained some programming and data entry as well as stylometric analysis and critical thinking experience, expanding their skills into the digital humanities. Many of the students were essay enthusiasts who could see the essay through digital tools they had never worked with before. The students’ analytical skills were strengthened as they gained a new vocabulary and set of tools with which they could explore and discuss the elements of the essay.
The presentation of the EGP at the NonfictioNow Conference allowed students the opportunity to be a part of the community within creative nonfiction, meeting writers, editors, instructors, and others interested in research. The students had to present findings and engage other essay enthusiasts in the aim of the project, pushing the students to become confident in the material they were adding to the conversation surrounding the essay.
Jake Clayson: Jake worked on this project early on in its development, organizing the data,helping establish processes for compiling data.
Heather Thomson: Heather compiled, organized, and analyzed data. She also helped present findings at the NonfictioNow conference.
Benjamin Blackhurst: Benjamin compiled and organized data and helped with preliminary analysis.
Andrew Wadsworth: Andrew worked on the EGP for one semester, cleaning up the corpus so it could be mapped accurately.
Elise Godfrey: Elise compiled, organized, and analyzed data.
Shelli Spotts: Shelli compiled, organized, and analyzed data, and, with Courtney Bulsiewicz, developed questions to explore and led the team of other students. She also helped present findings at the NonfictioNow conference. She is currently working on writing-up the findings for publication.
Courtney Bulsiewicz: Like Shelli, Courtney compiled, organized, and analyzed data, developed research questions, and led other students. She also helped present findings at the NonfictioNow conference. She is currently working on writing-up the findings for publication.
Most of the budget was spend on student wages (three graduate RAs and two undergraduate RAs) to compensate for their time working on the corpus and analysis. Travel expenses were provided for three graduate students to attend the NonfictioNow conference and present preliminary findings. Funds were also used for marketing materials for the conference (a poster and postcards), general office supplies, and e-book purchases which allowed us to add contemporary essays to the corpus.