Blog Post

Hello! I'm Jesse Menn

Prior to anything about myself, I must extend thanks to Chris Forster from the Syracuse University English department. If not for him, I would never have given “digital humanities” (howsoever it’s defined) more than a passing glance. 
That said, my name is Jesse Menn, and I’m a third year PhD student in the English department at Syracuse University. My research focuses on eighteenth-century British literature. More specifically, I’m trying to trace and connect the changing discourses and opinions on aesthetic and gastronomic taste. I am in the early stages of a project digitizing and data-mining eighteenth-century cookbooks in order to create a database of the “taste of the times” (more on this soon). 
I also teach undergraduate classes on fiction and British literature where I use various levels of technology to engage and push my students. Most recently, as in just two days ago, I asked students to give an analysis of Hamlet based on this visualization from To See or Not To See and from a frequency distribution of the most frequently appearing words in Hamlet (done with my own code through the wonders of Python and the NLTK library). I believe this went well; three students who had asked to leave class early to attend a student rally ended up staying through the end of class, and a number of students said that it helped them notice aspects of the play they hadn’t encountered through their initial readings and class discussion. I’m also known to give out assignments involving Twitter.
Both my research project and my teaching experiences have led me to see the digital humanities as a tool for opening up new avenues of research and prompting new questions within my particular discipline. Furthermore, I find myself increasingly seduced by text mining and data visualization as ways of integrating literary studies with what’s being called the “public humanities.” It seems that DH allows two promising possibilities. First, it allows us to answer ostensibly silly, fundamental questions about our domain such as “what’s more popular, first or third person narrative” which Ted Underwood answered in part in a blog post, or “what’s more popular, iambic pentameter or some other metric form,” which I’m told was answered by a team from Stanford at DH2014. Secondly, and perhaps relatedly, DH projects such as data visualizations allow literary scholars (and those from other fields, of course!) the chance to make our work and research more easily accessible to the general public who may otherwise find such phrases as jouissance, objective correlative, or testicular erasure off-putting, dense, and/or jargony. I see this general trend toward DH not only as an opportunity to push our scholarship deeper with new questions and new modes of inquiry, but also as a way to open up our work to a larger audience.
I’m excited and honored to be a HASTAC scholar for the year, and I look forward to interacting with others interested in the intersection of the humanities and technology. I can be found on Twitter at @jessemenn and would love to chat. I also have a website at


One of the problems I've found in teaching, well, anything over a page long, is that students tend to miss the forest for the trees. The data visualizations allowed my students to get the larger picture, so to speak, including the absence of the Ghost in Hamlet through most of the scenes, even though it plays such a large role. One student emailed me later saying he found the visualization a way of seeing the relevance between his field (advertising) and English literature. Another looked at the word frequencies and noted the prevalence of "may" and "shall" to build an argument about subjunctive "moods." I may begin my next section with various visualizations to see what arguments they would pick up before (close) reading the actual text.

Nigel: Is that Literary and Linguistic Computing? I'm a bit behind in issues, embarassingly. I'm finding Jurafsky's new book, The Language of Food, a good example of "public humanities." Though based predominantly in linguistics, he's looking at Yelp reviews, restaurant menus, and food labels to build arguments about price, sociocultural "tastes," and other such relevant issues to a general, untrained public. I've been loving it so far, but I think it's also a good example of how and where these techniques can be applied to engage a larger audience. 


Hi Jesse,

I love your teaching example!  Although I love English literature (especially Shakespeare), I'm in Communication working with python now to collect and analyze data.  I'm definitely interested in having some conversations with you (maybe even blog posts?) about the allure of visualization, though for me it's from a social scientific perspective.

Thanks for your post! 




Hi Jesse,

Very interested in this unique adaptation of Hamlet! I also have done a lot of work on Shakespeare, so I am excited to learn about the kind of research you are doing. Sounds like a really interesting class activity. I would be interested it learn more about it - what did they think about the play based on these visual adaptations?




Hello Jesse,

Great introduction, and I am really into that visualization. I am also currently getting invested in the "wonders" NLTK with my own project.

What I liked most about your perspective on DH, though, is this idea that we open up our scholarship to others and contribute to the formation of 'public humanities'. This seems pretty in line with the typically commitments to open access we encounter in DH, though I'm not sure I've heard someone vocalize so directly until now.

That post by Underwood also found its way into a recent publication in a computational lingusitics journal that I should dig up; perhaps you might find it interesting.



Hi, Jesse, I really enjoyed the post and this discussion. Emma, what kind of work with Shakespeare  have you done? I am very interested in visual data and exploration as well as in Shakespeare seen through the lens of virtual reality and the supposed "real world." I believe ultimately we will stop seeing these as two opposites--in other words, virtual reality or gaming IS life. I love the notion of food language in the public domain/humanities.
I think in many ways, love language is the same as in Shakespeare's time--the vehicles have only changed. I also think there is value in exploring the notion of virtual reality, avatars based on personal physicality, and what opportunities exist for those with prostheses. I think to offer students a way into Shakespeare adaptations via VR and gaming may help them to actually view and enjoy the forest. At least, I will tell myself that. 

I see some of you in the comments are Shakespeare / DH scholars! I would like to invite you to join the new HASTAC group for Classical / Medieval / Renaissance Studies, TAMeR, and invite you also to join a panel for the HASTAC 2015 conference. It would be wonderful to showcase all the great work you all are doing!

Also, Jesse, you may work primarily in 18th-century literature, but we would certainly love to hear about your pedagogical practices as they relate to Shakespeare. 


Hi, Lisa, 

Thanks for this invite to us. Excited to join.




Hi Dave,

Thanks for joining our new group! We would love to hear more of your thoughts about the intersection of Shakespeare and virtual reality (and gaming?). It seems you have experience in digital publishing, which I think is also relevant HASTAC at large (we had an event recently that considered alternative dissertations including digital ones -- ). I'm sure HASTAC members would be interested to hear your input.