Research Spotlight

"Distant Reading" in the Digital Humanities
"Distant Reading" in the Digital Humanities

Posted on Tue, 09 May 2017

Prof. Ted Underwood


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Professor Ted Underwood works in the English Department teaching British Romanticism, but he also has worked intensively in the digital humanities subfield. He prefers to call refer to this work as “distant reading”, a term coined by Franco Moretti (2013) because the term “digital humanities” is a broad term encompassing how technology and humanities can work together in various ways.


Distant reading involves interpreting the huge digital libraries to create wide timelines that encompass huge chunk of time, millennia, to generate a better understanding of literary history. Through his research, Professor Underwood examines the shift that occurs in the humanities when technology brings modern ideas to the forefront because the majority of the humanities have been focusing on the past for hundreds of years. These shifts are important changes that have become inevitable with the growing importance and reliance on modern technology.


Although “close reading” and “distant reading” seem like opposite terms at first glance, there is actually a correlation between them. “Close reading” is a very-focused, intensive reading of a single text while “distant reading” ties several texts together to form a larger scale and is much more of a collaborative effort than “close reading.” However, for the past one-hundred years people have been using both methods to gain a clearer and larger understanding of the texts in question.


Professor Underwood first began exploring digital humanities in the 1990s, but his interest was piqued when digital libraries became the behemoths we see today. He currently has a blog called “The Stone and the Shell” that shares the early progress of his various projects.


Through his work, Professor Underwood has developed a clearer understanding of the term “genre,” how literature responds to the pressures of the marketplace, and how gender has had startlingly long arcs of change. Modern technology, such as the statistical model, has allowed Professor Underwood and his contemporaries to closely examine trends in literatures though decades and centuries, which allows them to see arcs of human ideas from a different perspective. Digital humanities (including distant reading) is an important new area of research because it allows scholars, and students, to look at the intersection between the humanities and modern technology. As technology grows and improves, so will digital humanities, which will only provide more opportunities and ideas for future scholars as it becomes more and more relevant.


by Ana Fleming with Prudhvila Mulakala, MCD interns

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