Voyant Tools (http://voyant-tools.org) is a web-based platform for analyzing texts using a bunch of different visualization methods. This worksheet will guide you through several different ways to analyze texts using this website, using a sample corpus of three related documents. In this case, I use 3 distinct chocolate chip cookie recipes, but you could substitute any relevant documents for your class. This particular worksheet is informed by an activity I have done with Dr Marissa Nicosia and Christina Riehman-Murphy’s undergraduate research project “What’s in a recipe?” at Penn State Abington; read more about the classroom activity here.
I regularly teach versions of this activity in English composition classes, but with a slightly different end purpose: Students will practice the techniques described by reading a couple web-based articles about a particular topic, put them in Voyant, practice the birds-eye view reading described here. Once they are comfortable with the software and technique, I then have them put their own writing in (an essay, or a couple short responses they had to write for the class) to observe their own style and linguistic quirks. From this birds-eye view of their writing, students are often able to identify specific linguistic constructions they tend to lean on and develop ways to edit their own writing (see ‘Next Steps’ at the bottom).
What you’ll need:
- 2-3 documents for reading and “distant” reading. As an example, I offer 3 chocolate chip cookie recipes for this worksheet (but you can use any text-driven web pages):
- A recipe of your choice from the NYT’s giant chocolate chip cookie compendium https://cooking.nytimes.com/42668502-kim-severson/13869874-our-best-chocolate-chip-cookie-recipes
- Somewhere to jot down some notes on your process
2 Opening data in Voyant
Voyant’s landing page asks you to provide texts to analyze by ‘ADDING TEXTS’ and clicking ‘REVEAL’. You can copy and paste text into the window or enter some URLs of your choice. If you click on the open button, you’ll see that Voyant offers a couple of corpora for demonstration purposes. And, you can upload texts from your own computer. For today’s activity, we’ll be copying and pasting some URLs into this landing page.
We will open each of our chocolate chip cookie recipes in in a separate tab and copy-pasting the URLs into this box, one per line (see figure 2).
When that is done, click ‘REVEAL’. The page may take a minute to load but it should eventually show you an interface that has a lot of information on it, as in Figure 3. (I’ve added numbers to mine, so we can talk about what each section does).
I’ve labelled each section with a number, so we can identify and define what each section does.
- Word Cloud – visualize medium-to-high frequency content words in the corpus. You can increase or decrease the number of words using the TERMS bar below the visualization.
- Reading pane – Look at the source material
- General trends over time – shows overall variation across our three chocolate chip cookie recipes, where each (faint) box represents 1 recipe, graphing the most frequent content words identified by the Voyant system for comparison.
- Some basic statistics about our document(s) – someinformation about our documents including longest/shortest, a type/token ratio or lexical density score for each document, and some of the overall most frequent content words in each document
- Concordance – identify patterns in word use wit a keyword in context concordance format (by looking at words to the left, a specified keyword, words to the right). You can expand the columns to get a better view, alphabetize results by clicking on the word ‘left’ or ‘right’, and look up specific words in the search box on the bottom-left.
ACTIVITY: Write down some responses to the following questions in your notes. Practice moving between the different blocks of the visualization suite to answer these questions — what are the affordances of each section?
- What are most frequent words? Are any of them surprising to you? Why/why not?
- Why is one recipe much longer than the others? How might that affect the words we see?
- What action words are used to describe the process of making these cookies? How are they used in the recipes?
- Look up another word in the concordance. What kinds of words appear to the left of your keyword? Right? Are there any recognizable patterns or recurring phrases? What are they, and what do you think they suggest about the text?
Next steps for introducing an assessment of your own writing: Have students upload some of their own writing (such an essay or a couple forum posts from a class) and observe their own patterns. Repeat the activity above, but encourage thinking about how this can help you think about your own writing practice. What words or phrases do you like to use? Are there other ways of saying the same thing, but using different words? What can this activity tell you about your own style?