Blog Post

Distant Reading for Single Mother (Under)Representation

Image description: A stack of books related to academia and motherhood are juxtaposed with two children's books on a wooden dining table

As academics, we are often finding various strategies for reading. A Google search for “reading” and “graduate school” yields 43 million results. Whether it’s trying to figure out how to take notes on readings (Collin Brooke has some helpful suggestions for that) or strategizing about how to read efficiently and effectively (what I have been told: read the introduction, conclusion, and key chapters of interest), the ways we are inundated with texts means finding strategic approaches to manage the work. As a mom to a five-year old, I find these strategic approaches especially valuable for maintaining the kinds of boundaries Frankie Mastrangelo talks about in her webinar to achieve a sustainable life as a graduate student.

Last year, when I was doing research about the underrepresentation of single mothers in Composition and Rhetoric, I decided to try out a method that implements a way of reading I hadn't had the chance to use in my course work: “distant reading,” a method I was introduced to by Jessica Enoch and Jean Bessette. Enoch and Bessette are feminist researchers in Composition and Rhetoric who describe this method as “…the digitally enabled practice of reading thousands (even millions) of books in an instant for the purpose of searching for a term and recognizing discursive patterns and trends in culled texts” (642). While Enoch and Bessette point to the Google Ngram Viewer as a tool for such work, I used a library database as well the digital search option on Kairos to search for key terms in select Composition and Rhetoric journals. Specifically, I searched for “single mother” and “single mom” versus “mother” and “mom” in four major journals in the field[1]. In this process of exploration, I was interested in the “social circulation” of these terms, in when and where such terms surface, to see how single mothers are or are not represented in some of the most notable publications (Enoch and Bessette 643). Using distant reading allowed me to read articles strategically that I could not have possibly covered through a more traditional approach.

Oftentimes, initial steps of research or understanding of a topic happen through a keyword search. Scholars and researchers often begin to learn about topics and start the research process through a keyword search, but if there is a limited availability of resources on a particular keyword, this also has the potential to limit opportunities to become more familiar with and better understand that topic. There is also a question of support for research that features single mom/mother identities. A lack of representation suggests a lack of support. Publications in academia are arguably part of a system that many academics depend on; they often carry substantial value in regards to hiring and tenure. There are ways in which the trends and patterns of keywords can reflect what article content carries greater value, and the infrequency of key word representation of single mom/mother suggests a gap in support for one facet of academic motherhood in Composition and Rhetoric. Distant reading allows for the opportunity to extract data about the use of key terms from a vast collection of text and visualize that data through the use of charts and graphs.

Distant Reading Discoveries: The (Under)Representation of Single Moms

What follows is what I found in using distant reading as a research method. Admittedly, I’m newer to this method and still working through the affordances of limitations of it, but implementing this method, in combination with close reading (not included here) allowed me to look at the underrepresentation of single moms in Composition and Rhetoric from various lenses.

As Table 1 indicates, even at its highest point of circulation in notable journals, “single mom” and “single mother” still only occurred at least once in 16 articles between 2000-2009, with College Composition and Communication including articles with this term most frequently. Despite the frequency of the term, single motherhood is never the primary focal point of an article published in this time, and it does not appear in any of the titles from the 10 College Composition and Communication articles. Instead, the term can be found as a passing descriptor of a student or research subject, a marker related to a research participant’s struggles, or a footnote at the bottom of a page.

Table 2 demonstrates how the use of terms mother and mom occur more frequently compared to single mom and single mother. Oftentimes, the terms emerge in reference to an individual’s parent or someone else’s, or an analysis of someone else’s work that features their mother, like “Embroidered Feminist Rhetoric in Andrea Dezsó’s Lessons from My Mother” by Adriana Cordali Gradea in Rhetoric Review; in other words, mom and mother are not regularly surfacing in these journals to represent embodied experiences and material practice of women with children. For example, in looking at the top twenty results of “mother” –“single mother” in College Composition and Communication, Kate Pantelides’ “On Being a New Mother-Dissertator-Writing Center Administrator” is the top result—an article that takes into consideration her embodied experience and material practice as a mother in the field. The following twenty results consider mother as an identity—a literacy sponsor, a description of a research participant, a person of significant impact in a working class narrative. A slightly different pattern emerges when taking looking at Composition Studies in the same way—the top result is Cucciare et. al.’s “Mothers’ Ways of Making It-or Making Do? Making (Over) Academic Lives in Rhetoric and Composition with Children.”

While the top five results demonstrate more consideration of embodied experience and material practice of mothers, the remaining articles demonstrate a pattern where mother surfaces in the most relevant search results because it is featured as an identity marker of a literacy sponsor or a person featured in a narrative, but there are also instances where the source comes up in the search simply because the author references a book or two with “mother” in the title. While embodied experience and material practice related to both mother/mom and single mother/single mom are not regularly the focal point of articles, mother does appear in the title of articles more frequently than single mom/mother, suggesting that if articles are going to focus on mothers, the ones that are published and circulated need to represent the category broadly in the title. I recognize that articles with mother or mom are still limited, but despite this limitation, they are present eight times as much as single mom/mother. What distant reading begins to reveal in this context is how single mothers are featured less in articles, as well as how there is a gap in attention to embodied experience and material practice of the mothering identities that do surface in these articles.

Distant Reading: Affordances and Limitations

Derek Mueller writes, “graphs allow us to zoom out…to render tangible those patterns that almost certainly go unrecognized (except intuitively) when we read at the default scale, picking up a few articles at a time” (198). In other words, using graphs to represent distant reading data allows us to see patterns in ways close reading or reading at a “default scale” cannot afford. While the graphs above represent an ebb and flow of selected key terms, they also represent a consistent lack of keyword representation of single mom/mother.  Despite this quick and vast survey, distant reading only provides a snapshot view. This method does not allow for a close look at how these terms are being used in frequency and circulation, which is why, in my own work, I have used it in combination with a close reading method for a more in-depth look at how single mothers are written about in articles. Distant reading also allowed me to locate articles for close analysis.  


[1] I chose Composition Studies, Kairos, Rhetoric Review, and College Composition and Communication because they are seminal publications in the field and often valued highly for tenure and promotion.


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