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Department Update: Connie Walker Researches 18th Century Women

<re often than not Carleton students can be found working—be it on a reading, paper, presentation or comps. Seldom is there time to think about the work other students are completing let alone the work our professors, those people that are assigning us massive amounts of work, are doing.

However it should be noted that there are many professors on campus doing fascinating projects, and we should take the time to learn about them. One such professor is Constance Walker from the English department.

When Walker isn’t teaching her A& I “Milton, Shelly, Pullman” or her 200 level “The Art of Jane Austen” courses she is working on creating a searchable database of poems from 1660-1900 by British women written about art. The poems are written about a variety of different arts including singing, acting, recitation, painting, sculpture, and musical instruments as well as in response to other people’s poems.

“There is no other anthology or collection about this area specifically, so I am searching for these poems largely on my own,” said Constance Walker. Currently she organizes her poems on Mendeley, a program that stores PDF files and allows searches by keywords and author. It even allows her to make connections between women poets writing to other women poets through poems and their responses.

Walker’s research right now is largely focused on metadata, or content about content, such as the titles, authors, genres and year of publication of poems. This information is crucial for the organization and creation of the database. Only after the primary data is gathered can Walker begin the analysis of the poems that will be included in her database.

Walker’s initial gathering and grouping of data would have been even more challenging than it already was if it were not for Paula Lackie, an ITS at Carleton College. Lackie said, “I provided the technical framework in order to give her a structure in which to pin the ideas she had.” Basically, Lackie assisted Walker in creating an organizational method in which the qualitative data she found could be expressed quantitatively.

When asked about her goals for the project, Walker responded, “I want to look at the differences of the reactions in women poetic responses to other women’s poems as opposed to their responses to men’s poems”.

More specifically, she wants to look for clusters of people that all wrote to each other—like a communication web . “I want to look at the relationships they had with each other, their conception of art and their conception of each other”.

Walker gave Elizabeth Barrett Browning as an example of a writer in one of these communication webs. Although many writers wrote to Browning, including Parkes, she primarily wrote to Letitia Elizabeth Landon.

Walker is also looking for poems written about other poems. For example, Mary Robinson wrote An Ode to the Harp of Louisa and another poet wrote On Ode to the Harp of Louisa.

“Generally, the women are very complimentary and supportive of each other. They see the art as a contagion and each other as muses. They seem to inspire teach other,” reflects Walker.

Once the poems have been compiled and the metadata entered, Walker aims to do extensive quantitative analyses of the nature of the poems. “Quantitative analysis is a new thing in literature. People don’t usually study literature from a quantitative perspective,” she said.

Walker has looked at the number of poems written to men as opposed to women in any given decade and found that it is fairly similar. She has also found that most poems about the arts were written in the English Regency, between 1811-1820.

She hopes to discern the number of poems about each branch of art and then use that, amongst other findings, to look at the attitudes women had towards male and female artists comparatively. Additionally she will be able to look for grammatical patterns, rhyme schemes and key words and perhaps chart their use across a certain decade or time period.

When asked why she wants to create this database walker answered, “I wanted to know more about these poems. I had no idea when I started how many poems I would find or what they would say. I want to explore women’s conceptions of art in the 19th century in particular”.

Lackie is glad to have been of assistance throughout this project and when asked why she thinks this project is important she answered, “Anytime we have a hunch about something intellectually it’s good to follow those hunches. Her hunch has paid off in terms of providing some insight about gender norms of the era she is in—are they different from today? I don’t know. It’s another way to look at poetry and what kinds of things poetry can reveal to us”.

Walker’s searchable database will open doors for many people researching this specific area of poetry. The concordance the database creates allows key words to be searched for much easier than an anthology would.

While research like this could be done in the past using books and anthologies, it can now be carried out in mere seconds. Walker admits, “you can’t replace books, but computers can help you do things much quicker as opposed to underlining and putting tabs in margins”.

In combining the English discipline with social science techniques Walker is creating a whole new way to look at poetry. There are others that are doing online archives about literature and Walker hopes that one day she can link databases with people doing similar research to her own. She says that people doing projects such as her are “using technology to help us fruitfully in our discipline”

After its completion the database may go public if Carleton is willing to post it and if copyright issues can be addressed. Walker is also considering the possibility of making it public on her own or joining it with a pre-existing database.  Walker loves the work is doing and says, “I’m waiting for a student to propose the first digital humanities comps in English”.

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