Using Wordle in the classroom (1 of 2)

Consider this post (and the one to follow it next week) as companion pieces to Julie Meloni’s “Wordles, or the gateway drug to textual analysis.” I’ve been interested in computer-assisted textual analysis and information visualization for the most of the twenty-first century (ha! I crack myself up…), and first used such methods in the classroom almost 10 years ago, while I was still a graduate student. Since that time, computer-assisted methods of analyzing and presenting information have become easier to use, more visually compelling, and more common (though hardly commonplace). All of this means, in my humble opinion, that educators have a responsibility to teach students how these tools work and to give students some experience is using such tools.

And I don’t believe that we should do this only by designing and teaching courses on computer-assisted analysis and information visualization (though that’s not a bad idea). Rather, I think we should be incorporating a variety of tools and methods into all of our classes, where that’s feasible and where we have the wherewithal to do so. Does that sound unreasonable? If so, please feel free to use the comments to explain why you think so.

But consider this: it’s now standard practice, for example, to require students in a first-year-composition class to know how to use a word processor and to learn how to make good use of a database: those are not considered “computing skills” anymore. They’re just skills. Let’s start thinking that way about the other things computers can do rather than treating them only as glorified typewriters and card catalogs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with typewriters and card catalogs, mind you! Let there be no confusion: I am pro typewriter and pro card catalog!)

Furthermore, we’ve long assumed that students become better writers by reading a great deal; and we assume that experience at writing makes them better readers. For many generations, these 2 sides of the textual coin have been taught hand-in-hand: we don’t teach students to be consumers of words and then maybe later teach them (or teach only some of them, depending on their major or their future career) how to create words. Instead, they learn those skills simultaneously. Well, students (heck, all of us!) are increasingly going to be presented with sophisticated visual presentations of information and expected to make sense of them. Won’t they be more discerning consumers of that sort of information if they have some experience producing that sort of information? I certainly think so. (If any readers are aware of published results of empirical studies of this question, please share references in the comments!)

In my language and literature courses, I’ve just begun to introduce a bit of visualization into my teaching. Below, I explain step-by-step how we used Wordle in my senior-level eighteenth-century British literature course last year. For most of the semester, we proceeded along a path that would probably be perceived as more “traditional” for a literature course: occasional lectures, class discussions, student presentations, film clips of adaptations. In one unit, however, I showed students how to work with visualization as part of our analysis and discussion of two poems.

First, here are a few related links:

Inaugural Words – 1789 to the Present, created by the New York Times: “A look at the language of presidential inaugural addresses. The most-used words in each address appear in [this] interactive chart…, sized by number of uses. Words highlighted in yellow were used significantly more in this inaugural address than average.” The NYT has really been leading the pack of mainstream media outlets in their use of compelling visualizations, and this is just one example among many.
New York Times Visualization Lab: create your own visualizations using data sets provided by the New York Times and tools from the “Many Eyes” project at IBM.
Many Eyes, by IBM: “Data visualisation tools from IBM. Site allows users to upload data and then produce graphic representations for others to view and comment upon.” See also the Literature (general) page at Many Eyes, featuring 16 members and 54 visualizations.
Visualization, Literary Study, and the Survey Class, by Tonya Howe – THATCamp (18 June, 2009) See also Tonya Howe’s page at Many Eyes
How to notice things in an English class: Word clouds by Jason B. Jones – The Salt Box (2 September, 2008).

Second, a overview of our work with these poems:

  • The class is assigned “The Disappointment,” by Aphra Behn (1640-1689), and “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680).
  • Both poems describe unsatisfying sexual experiences, albeit in very different ways, so discussing and analyzing them together usually works quite well.
  • One of the many things we discuss with regard to these poems is diction.
  • Wordle is a great tool to assist in the analysis of diction.
  • By the time we’re playing with these visualizations, we’ve already read and discussed the poems in question. So Wordle is not a substitute for traditional reading in this exercise.

What follows are the steps one would take for creating visualizations to be used in analyzing and comparing diction in 2 (or more) poems.

Next week, I’ll explain how to use the advanced visualization options in Wordle as a followup to the discussion that resulted in class from viewing these 2 visualizations projected on the board at the front of the room.

Step 1: Locate reliable, online versions of the poems


Step 2: Copy the text of the poems, being sure not to copy the prefatory material or any notes


Step 3: At the home page, click on the “Create” link


Step 4: Paste in the text of each poem and click “Go”


Step 5: View the initial visualization and decide if you want to make any changes using the menu at the top

You also have some options along the bottom, including (on the right) the ability to save your visualization in a “public gallery.” Choose this option if you’d like to host your visualization so that you can share it with others. If you are happy with the visualization the way it is, feel free to skip the steps that involve making any changes.

Step 6: Click on “Edit” and choose any desired options


Step 7: Click on “Font” and make any desired changes


Step 8: Click on layout and choose whatever options you need


Step 9: Change the colors as needed


I adjusted my options and ended up with this visualization of Rochester’s poem…


…and then I repeated the same steps with Behn’s poem

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