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Wordle Revisited

ProfHacker first wrote about Wordle back in October 2009, when Julie Meloni called it “the gateway drug to textual analysis.” George Williams followed her post with another in November of 2009 that further considered ways to “[Use] Wordle in the classroom.”

Inspired by a Twitter conversation last week with Caleb McDaniel (@wcaleb), I decided to revisit it here.

I recently used Wordle in an assignment for my January Intersession class (on F. Scott Fitzgerald) and found it very useful for introducing students to close-reading and the basics of textual analysis. As an English professor, textual analysis is one of the most fundamental skills that I teach, and as a result, it can feel like the bane of my existence. The source of my frustration (and that of my students) is trying to get from summary and/or description to analysis. Students are often very good at describing what is happening in a text, but it can be very hard for them to break out of this habit and think about language in other ways.

Enter Wordle.

To me, there are two things that make Wordle invaluable:

  • It’s free and very easy to use. As an open web-based program, all students with access to a computer can use it. It doesn’t require specific hardware (read: iPad) or charge fees for accessing the site.
  • It’s fun. Generating a Word Cloud is as simple as clicking on the “Create” link, pasting in “a bunch of text,” and clicking “Go.” Once the Word Cloud is created, students can then play with fonts, color schemes, and other visual variables such as whether they prefer the words to be laid out horizontally, vertically, or a bit of both.

In my class, I first demonstrated how to use Wordle with the novel we were reading (This Side of Paradise), which had the added benefit of being published in 1921, so it is no-longer copyright protected so I could use passages from Project Gutenberg’s edition of the novel rather than having to transcribe them manually. We created a few word clouds together as a class to make sure everyone knew how to do it, and then I asked the students how looking at these passages through the Wordle lens might change their understanding. What did they notice seeing the words rearranged, and in some cases resized (the size of words in the Wordle is directly proportionate to the number of times that the word appears in the initial text block)? By deconstructing and defamiliarizing the passage, Wordle magically freed students from the summary trap and helped them to think about the text analytically beyond the constraints of plot. Word clouds do not have plots, at least not in the linear convention sense that allows easy summary, so analysis was suddenly less confusing.

Finally, I asked students to create a Wordle on their own and post a screenshot of it to the class blog. They could choose any episode from This Side of Paradise that we had not already examined together in class. Once they had their Wordle, they were asked to answer a few questions: “Does this graphic visualization of the text highlight certain themes or issues in the episode? Does it emphasize particular themes or ideas? Do you notice things about the episode that you had previously discounted in your earlier reading?”

Posting the Wordles to the website proved to be a bit tricky for some, but that difficulty stemmed from the screenshot rather than Wordle itself.

My class created some very interesting Wordles, and more to the point, using this tool helped to make the task of literary analysis less daunting, which is often no easy feat! I was left wondering why I don’t use it more often in my classes and am currently trying to figure out ways to incorporate it into other assignments.

Do you use Wordle or other information visualization tools in your classroom or assignments (literary or otherwise)? What has your experience been? Please share in the comments section!

[Image created by author using Wordle from This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald]

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