Designing Criticism


As I read the piece by Ted Underwood and Jordan Sellers, an article that our composition reading group read slowly began entering my mind (very slowly…more like as I skimmed over my notes from reading…that is more accurate).It was an article by James Purdy called “What can Design Thinking Offer Writing Studies?” that tried to show how a concept called “design thinking” has historically infiltrated composition and rhetoric. Many of the moves made throughout the Underwood and Sellers piece reminded me of the kinds of qualities that Purdy claims that design thinking has: thinking of the future more than past problems; focusing on combination and connection more than critique; generating many diverse solutions (emphasis on quantity before quality) (Purdy 620 and 626).

This is not a perfect analogy to lay onto DH scholarship (e.g., there’s not quite a series of “users” that Underwood and Sellers are trying to tailor their product for in the same way that designers do…in some ways there arguably are, but I think it might be some kind of hybridity that lays between critique and making that makes this analogy imperfect [making, at least, in the sense of designing] ), but I think, broadly speaking, the emphasis on the future and the emphasis on testing things out and living in method more than argument aligns nicely with the kind of work that designers perform.

Much like a hypothesis, Underwood and Sellers begin by thinking in terms of possibility and the future:


This is the problem, but the problem leaves itself open for many solutions. Underwood and Sellers are only leaving it open for something “interesting” by examining “changing characteristics.” As we see throughout the rest of the piece, there are many ways to slice up these changing characteristics. There are definitely considerations of quality throughout this slicing, but it is left very open-ended and we are left with a surplus—an emphasis on quantity—of methods of using and interpretations of data throughout the piece.

After the first chart, and the subsequent teasing out of the surge in use of words that entered the lexicon pre-1150 in literary genres, they write the below with a new chart:


The picture becomes more nuanced with poetry rising, prose fiction rising (though, less so than poetry), and nonfiction declining. Underwood and Sellers further complicate this picture by slicing the data along more specific genres. They describe the issue with drama and then start to discuss the problem of viewing too absolute and certain a distinction in change of language between literary texts and nonfiction texts because of the heterogeneity of genres. Going away from a previous argument (or “solution”), this leads to looking at a new dataset in a new way here:


After debriefing this chart, and how it shows the pitfalls of wondering too much about the similarities and dissimilarities between fiction and nonfiction over time, Underwood and Sellers build a new question (more…quantity rather than quality…exploring possibilities): “What was concretely entailed in the formation of a specialized literary language?”

After surveying some other works, historical and critical, about what made poetic diction become specialized, Underwood and Sellers’ next move is to answer another distant reading done by Heuser and Le-Khac that concluded that this shift was due to a decline in words associated with abstract values and an increase in concrete words. Rather than dismiss the study outright, they use this work to suggest that this work “overlaps in great part with” their own claims. Because of this overlapping, Underwood and Sellers decide to do more digging, going beyond the aggregate of the uptick of pre-1150 English words in 19th century literature and look to see individual words and their correlation to the variations in the diction ratio. First looking at the positive correlations followed by the negative correlations, some thematics are drawn from both groups (more concrete words, and some more abstract-ish experience words; fewer words connoting social relationships). Nothing is taken as hard proof here, and Underwood and Sellers continue to undercut their claims, prompting others to possibly investigate this data more. No demystifying here, just trying to encourage looking at the data in increasingly new ways to try to find things unseen before.

The (seemingly honest and not rhetorical) gesture toward the continuance of research is especially apparent in the last paragraph of the main essay and in the “Supporting Data and Code” section. They write that “this is a collective enterprise” and go on to acknowledge friends and critics as crucial to its making—it’s noteworthy that this is not in a separate section called “acknowledgements” but is in the main body of the text. The closing sections is filled with hyperlinks and even advice about how to filter collections of poetry to make sure the prose sections are not captured into the data. This is almost a gesture of: here’s how we did it, you try it, too. Or, make it even better. Constant invention, constant brainstorming, constant thought for the future, combination, connection. Very design-like.

Purdy, in the article on design thinking that I cited earlier, concludes his piece by writing that design thinking situates the goals of writing studies to “describe, explain, and enact the gamut of writing practices and products rather than to judge (or to dismiss) them” (632). With Underwood and Sellers, and it might be safe to say about the majority of DH scholarship, there’s a larger focus on descriptive work that is continuous and collaborative in the kind of spirit of design thinking that Purdy puts forth. There’s less critique and more testing; there’s more quantity and experiments than a Sisyphean task of finding the “best”, in kind of an Arnoldian way. Underwood and Sellers open their article by exploring what literary criticism once was: a definitive and descriptive practice. It might interesting to go back and read the New Critics and the Russian Formalists and to see if they might be designers in their own right, which might be more in degree than kind.

One thought on “Designing Criticism

  1. This seems like such a minor point in your blog post, but I really appreciate that you highlighted the placements of the acknowledgements. It seemed like such a crucial change in the way humanities projects normally progress, similar to how Wardrip-Fruin’s Expressive Processing acknowledged its blog reviewers.

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