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CU Boulder Adds Coding to English Classes

A handful of English classes developed at the University of Colorado Boulder in recent years combine literary studies with data science, challenging students to learn how to code and then analyze literature using data.

CU Boulder
Shutterstock/Red Herring
(TNS) — Some students at the University of Colorado Boulder are now learning how to code in their English classes.

This is because a handful of English classes developed at CU Boulder within the past new years incorporate data science as part of literary studies. English Associate Professor David Glimp said the use of data science doesn't replace traditional literary methods, rather it allows for new types of analysis.

"When you add the computational piece to the equation, you can ask new kinds of questions," he said.

In these English and data science courses, students can study literature in a new way once they're taught how to code and use R programming language. For example, they can perform a word count or find out how frequently a word appears in a text. Students can also look at textual sentiment to determine the emotional tone, or use methods for examining how characters relate to each other.

Associate Teaching Professor Rachael Deagman Simonetta teaches the Introduction to Literary Study with Data Science course at CU Boulder. The class starts by talking about what reading is and the methods of trained literary critics. Students read a book and produce their own close reading of a novel before being introduced to data science methods.

Simonetta said the coding component gives students a different perspective that puts the larger time period and the larger body of work into conversation with a novel they've read. Some students even discover a new passion for it and look at opportunities they never knew existed.

"Some of them discover entire worlds that were not open to them before," Simonetta said.

Glimp said the classes introduce students from humanities and other disciplines to the growing and energized subfield in humanities that is data science.

"It's really exciting to bring literary reflection and humanistic methods to students from other parts of the campus," Glimp said. "These courses are a way to reach students from computer science, STEM backgrounds, information science, the social sciences and business and bring them into literary study and find another way to engage them in thinking about literature."

"It offers opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration, so we have a blend of students in our classroom," Simonetta said. "We'll have English students working with engineering students which I think is really wonderful."

Simonetta said some of the students come into class nervous about coding because they're in the humanities field or have never done it before. She said the class fosters literary and technological learning.

"It benefits (students) to realize 'I feel comfortable and I feel confident with technology,' so that when they go out into the world, they have a little bit of experience under their belts," Simonetta said. "We aren't training software engineers, but they do feel more comfortable."

Glimp said data science is impacting nearly every discipline at CU Boulder. There are about 136 courses offered in the fall semester that have "data" in the course title, he said, and those courses span across a variety of disciplines.

While incorporating data science into the humanities is an exciting opportunity, Glimp said, it's also a challenge.

"There are very powerful insights that you can generate from looking at 100 or 1,000 novels at once, but there are also limits to the kinds of insights you can glean from such an analysis," Glimp said. "We're trying to proceed in a way that values both traditional kinds of literary inquiry and the new opportunities that are opened up by data science."

©2023 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.