Computers and Active Learning: Using the Stylistic Analysis and Linear Modeling Kits

  1. 1. Peter L. Havholm

    College of Wooster

  2. 2. Larry L. Stewart

    College of Wooster

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Models of Teaching and Learning
Some years ago, we argued [2] that a good pedagogical application of the computer was to have students use it to create working models of ideas they wished to study. Since then, our students have created hypertexts using Guide [3] and story generators, using our Linear Modeling Kit [4]. We have now developed a new application, the Stylistic Analysis Kit (SAK), which is an easy-to-use, fast concordance program with which students can do quantitative stylistic analyses of their own work. In this presentation, we would like to position the SAK and the Linear Modeling Kit (LMK) conceptually, talk a little about what our students do with them, and demonstrate their use.
We have found it important in presenting our work to make clear that our use of technology does not fit the dominant lecture/textbook model. Most courseware is part of a delivery system which presents knowledge conceived as information. Such courseware is often viewed with favor when it delivers information using appealing sound, animation, and video in addition to sets of questions and answers about the information. Taking a tip from the programmed instruction movement of the 1970s, courseware often divides its information into small sections, each followed by questions set to drive rehearsal.
One of the more effective examples we have seen is The Basics of English Metre, developed by Christian Kay and Jean Anderson at the University of Glasgow. The program presents metrical terms and their application in clear paragraphs, each accompanied by opportunities to test one's knowledge. It is the sort of interactive textbook that works well to introduce material and just as well as a review tutorial for the terms, ideas, and techniques it presents. A straightforward text-only program [7], its powers reside in the clarity of its presentation and the smooth, reinforcing fit of its questions with its presentation. It is an admirable representative of its type.
But the lecture/textbook model of instruction, while dominant and, in programs like The Basics, effective, is not the only one. And we believe no undergraduate education is complete without some use of the contrasting, active learning model.
Active learning, often thought to be the most effective mode of improving critical reading, writing, and thinking, usually involves critical practice. For example, critical reading is thought to be improved by the experience of presenting one's interpretation of a text in discussion. Engaging in discussion of reasons for conclusions, relevance of textual citations, and criteria by which one might choose one interpretation over another is a powerful way of improving one's ability to understand texts. Similar methods seem to work well to improve writing and thinking. Essentially, they require practice in the presence of critical interlocutors.
In our view, an important use of technology is to provide students with new occasions for critical practice. We decided long ago that it is the teacher who gets the most powerful learning from putting a course "on computer." "The expert confronted by a programmer must comprehend the subject in question with a kind of precision otherwise rarely necessary. The computer requires that ideas about the subject be put in formal terms suitable for expression in its language" ([1], p. 8). As we have heard in many conversations at many conferences with faculty who have done it, such translation requires deep thought about the subject; almost its reconstruction.
Students probably benefit from reading hypertexts prepared by their teachers, from considering textual statistics gleaned by scholars in the field, or from observing the operation of AI programs like David Cope's Experiments in Musical Intelligence. However, we are convinced that making hypertexts, gathering statistics, and building story generators are activities which particularly engage students in critical thinking as they try to construct knowledge in the company of peers and teacher. This model, the active learning model, guides our work.
The Linear Modeling Kit
At this presentation, we will demonstrate the latest version of the Linear Modeling Kit and the range of student work it has allowed. Earlier versions of the program have been described elsewhere [2], [3], [4], so we will say here only that it is an authoring system that allows students to create story generators. (It can be used to create generators of any cultural work that can be expressed in words, but our students have used it primarily to create stories in literary criticism courses.)
Elaborate programs that compose music and paint pictures have recently been in the news [5], [10]. Our unelaborate LMK allows undergraduates who have never touched a computer to make small analogs of these programs in the time it would normally take to produce an essay. They do so not to experiment with artificial intelligence but to create algorithm-driven generators that may be compared with human writers. We have found that it is extremely productive to ask the question: "What does a human-generated story have that the computer-generated story does not?" For us, the result has been some extremely effective student investigation of the nature of fictional texts, just the kind of investigation we mean when we talk about "critical practice."
As one student put it, making an LMK generator "really forces you to think about the structure of a story. It's almost like writing a paper in a different language. And it made me realize that I had some unrealized prejudices. I had lots of ideas about how stories are made that I did not know I had." One can hear in this student's thinking just the kind of critical reflection we find at the heart of active learning.
The Stylistic Analysis Kit for the Macintosh
Our most recent program, the SAK, has been developed in a similar fashion to the LMK and according to the same philosophy. That is, we have worked with an undergraduate programmer plucked from one of our English classes to produce an application that students can use to explore questions about language and literature.
The SAK is a relatively simple concordance program with almost no learning curve. Students open a text within the program, select "analyze," and in one window have basic statistics (see Figure 1 below) as well as a scrollable word list arranged alphabetically, by frequency, or according to user-defined word lists. Selecting a word allows all instances of the word to be seen in context.
Obviously, there are numerous highly sophisticated concordance programs available to scholars. What we needed, however, was a Macintosh program that could be used easily even by undergraduates with few computing skills beyond word processing and, perhaps, web surfing.
Students so far have used the SAK both to analyze their own texts and to analyze literary texts. For example, in the first classroom test of the SAK, one of the authors of this paper asked students to use it to compare their first paper with a more recent one. The result was an animated discussion both about the students' own writing and about the value of such statistical analysis. Since neither of us is firmly committed to this kind of textual analysis, students are put into the position of convincing us of the significance of their discoveries. They sometimes do.
After the first use of the SAK, one student came to his advisor, the other author of this paper, and in great excitement told him that he had just used the program. "Can you believe," he asked, "that 6.74% of all my words are 'the'? Almost every sentence starts with 'the'." The advisor, in fact, could believe it although he did not say so. He had been working with this student on his senior thesis and more than once had pointed to his lack of sentence variety.
For us, this anecdote suggests the power of this pedagogy. Using a tool to analyze his own work allowed this student to accept a criticism he had refused to hear because he had not seen it for himself. The ability to perform his own analyses excited the student to the point that he began looking at other features of his writing, and he seems at this time to be far more self-aware of his own use of language than he had been before.

Figure 1.

In another class, a first-year student had throughout the course been convinced that her problem was vocabulary; her high school teacher, she insisted, had told her she didn't use enough "big words." After analyzing one of her essays and then an excerpt from Richard Wright's Black Boy with the SAK, she was astounded to find that her average word length was almost identical to Wright's. For the first time in the course, she was able to look beyond her preconceived notions and to think more deeply about her writing.
This kind of analysis seems far from the textual analysis done by scholars, but preliminary uses of the program suggest that students may begin asking relatively sophisticated questions about literary texts. For example, in a sophomore-level literature course designed primarily for English majors, one student, after reading Jane Austen's Emma and then seeing the film, determined to write a paper articulating differences between the two. She began working with theme and plot but could find no satisfactory ways of discussing meaningful differences.
At that point she happened upon a phrase used by A. Walton Litz in his Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development: the "vocabulary of judgment" ([8], p. 133). What words, she asked herself, would be included in a vocabulary of judgment, and could the difference between novel and film have to do with language? She had soon composed a list of words having to do with thinking and judging: "think" and "judge", obviously, and "perceive", "penetrate", "balance", "weigh", "consider". She then made a user-defined list for the SAK and discovered that 1.02% of the words in Chapter 1 of Emma were from her vocabulary of judgment. She had no idea if the percentage had any meaning, so she made analyses of the first chapters of a number of Austen's other texts. She discovered that the juvenilia made no or small use of such a vocabulary (0.00% in Jack and Alice and 0.21% in Henry and Eliza) and that even the novels of Austen's maturity made substantially less use of it (0.45% in Sense and Sensibility and 0.67% in Mansfield Park).
Although the methodology of the study probably would not stand up to careful scrutiny, the use of statistical analysis helped this student see the value of looking closely at language rather than simply at plot and theme. The immediate result was an interesting paper in which the student argued that a significant difference between the novel and film could be accounted for by the narrator's language -- absent from the film -- which leads readers to think in terms of judgment and perception. However, the more important result may be the student's increased attention to language and its use in all texts.
Active Learning
This is what we mean by active learning. The LMK and the SAK bring students to engage with serious problems, much like those scholars enjoy. The answers the students achieve are their own, as is the consequent learning.
1. Cope, David. Experiments in Musical Intelligence. The Computer Music and Digital Audio. Vol. 12. A.R. Editions, 1996.
2. Havholm, Peter and Larry Stewart. "Modeling the Operation of Theory." Academic Computing 4:6 (March, 1990). pp. 8-12 and pp. 46-48.
3. _____. "The Computer Model as Formal Vantage Point to Understand Literary Criticism." When Lectures Fail: Educational Computing in the Humanities. Ed. Jerome Johnston & Robert B. Kozma. Ann Arbor: NCRIPTAL, 1993. pp. 31-47.
4. _____. "Computer Modeling and Critical Theory." Computers and Humanities 30 (1996). pp. 107-115.
5. Johnson, George. "The Artist's Angst Is All in Your Head." The News of the Week in Review. The New York Times. Sunday, November 16, 1997. p. 16.
6. Kay, C.J. and J.G. Anderson. The Basics of English Metre. Computer software. Glasgow: Univ. of Glasgow STELLA project. IBM PC or compatible, MS-DOS, 1990. Available through <>.
7. Kay, C.J. and J.J. Smith, "'Is There a Teacher in This Class': English Language and the STELLA Project." Literary and Linguistic Computing. 5: 1 (1990). pp. 77-80.
8. Litz, A. Walton. Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (New York: Oxford UP, 1965) pp. 132-149.
9. N.A. "Roll over Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Debusy, Rachmanninov..." The Sunday Telegraph. August 17, 1997. pp. 16-17.
10. Zalewski, Daniel. "Mostly Mozart." Lingua Franca. November, 1997.

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Conference Info

In review

"Virtual Communities"

Hosted at Debreceni Egyetem (University of Debrecen) (Lajos Kossuth University)

Debrecen, Hungary

July 5, 1998 - July 10, 1998

109 works by 129 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (10), ACH/ICCH (18), ALLC/EADH (25)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC