This week, my general education literature class will be starting Oscar Wilde. He’s the only writer that we’ll be reading in breadth, as we’ll be doing five different texts: two of his early fairytales (“The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose”), The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” (I know, I’m neglecting his nonfiction—but we may look at some in class.)
Given that the intention here is to make connections, comparisons, and think about Wilde’s oeuvre as a whole, I thought it would be an excellent moment for some data visualization: what recurring themes and connections do we see in his work? Does it change over time? Can we relate “The Happy Prince” directly to Dorian Gray? How? Themes like self-sacrifice vs. selfishness, love and death, and outer vs. inner beauty come up often enough that it seems like a visual tool would be lovely in helping to create, explore, and maintain the web of ideas that make up Wilde’s work.
I admit that I did spend some time thinking about drawing Venn diagrams or various types of charts on the overhead document camera (or perhaps on some posterboard that I could bring to each class period…) The problem, as I see it, is that too often digital tools seem to require too much setup, too much tweaking of data, and aren’t flexible enough to accomplish something like color coding for different texts (which would, manually, require nothing but different colors of markers). Time spent fussing over data seems like time that could be better spent thinking about the text. (And hey, I could always photograph the board and post it online when we were done!)
But, fortunately, the temptation of collaborative tools, and the sense of absurdity of being a posterboard-carrying HASTAC scholar won out. The challenge I gave myself: starting with nothing but a deep familiarity with these stories, and not knowing of any tool in particular that could accomplish what I wanted, could I set up an online collaborative tool in an hour or less?
Answer: I needed less than half an hour. Whoa! This was a nice surprise. After searching for something like “free online data connection visualization” (don’t I sound like an expert?) I found Many Eyes, visualization software from IBM. It included a type of data visualization titled “Networks Diagram.” It looked about right, you could upload your own data, and it was free.
It couldn’t be easier: you cut-and-paste in a chunk of data and Many Eyes asks what sort of chart you want. It was easier and less fiddly than I remember Excel charts being. After a bit of experimenting, I created this spreadsheet in Google docs, which I made public to users with the link:
(Don’t examine the content too closely--I quickly added a series of somewhat questionable categories because I wanted to see as many as possible. As we progress through the rest of our Wilde texts, my class can trim them down to more focused and less silly themes). Here is the result:
We’re doing the fairy tales in class today; on Wednesday, we start Earnest. I can post the link to the spreadsheet on the class’s Iowa webpage and ask students to add a couple of categories before class; during class, we can create the visualization as a starting-point for discussion.
It’s not perfect: you have to create a new visualization every time you change the data, and Many Eyes requires registration, so it’s not easy for students to play around with. (The Google doc is easy to collaborate on, at least. Google docs does have a series of gadgets built-in, but unfortunately, after poking around for a bit, I couldn’t find anything that provides this sort of visualization.) I’m also concerned how many data point the chart can handle as we move through five texts with 20 contributors, and I wish that we could color-code each text to make it easier to look at (at the moment, you can highlight each text by hovering over it). But for a 20-minute setup, it was easier than I had hoped for. I’ll update after we’re done with Wilde, but for the moment, I’m labeling this as a tentative setup success.
(Any tips on similar software, HASTAC community?)
Edit: Follow-up post here!