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Wordles, or the gateway drug to textual analysis

The descriptive text for the Wordle service says that “Wordle is a toy for generating ‘word clouds’ from text that you provide.” The emphasis on “toy” is my own, because while Wordle may be a toy in that it is interesting, fun, and generates play, it is certainly not “something of little value” or something useful only as a “diversion, rather than for serious practical use” (that’s me, showing off my mad dictionary skillz). Instead, I firmly believe that Wordles are the gateway drug to getting students interested in textual analysis. In a word cloud, the most frequently used words are the largest words in the display, while words used less frequently are displayed in a smaller font. It’s so very simple, yet so very useful.

Believe me, I think talking about concordances and collocates is cool, and I’m still waiting for the day I can throw “weighted centroid” into a conversation without people looking at me like I’ve grown another head, but the truth of the matter is that if I were to send my composition or lit survey students off to the Text Analysis Portal for Research (TAPoR) they’d lead some sort of revolt, I am sure. But put them in front of Wordle with their own essays or their own texts for reading, and they “get” it. What they “get” is that word clouds can:

  • help introduce a topic. For instance, who do you think is significant in Heart of Darkness—if you said “Kurtz” then you’d be on to something.
  • help students discover key words and ideas they might not otherwise have noticed (or support ideas they might have).
  • help students reflect on their own writing and word choices.

Last year, I had the good fortune of leading a few class periods of Dr. Donna Campbell’s upper-division undergraduate course in American Literature 1855-1915. We spent some time with the Whitman Archive and Dickinson Archive, but the tool students really wanted to use was Wordle.

One student generated the Wordle that you see in this blog post—it is is of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from the 1891-1892 “deathbed edition” of Leaves of Grass. The student said it was really creepy (but in a good way) when the three words “one” and “shall” and “know” popped up on the screen and just stared back at her. “It was like a message from the grave,” I think were her words to me. Another student wanted to see if the text of Whitman’s Drum-Taps ‘could describe any war, not just the Civil War,” and he thinks they can. Another student took a portion of Emily Dickinson’s poems believed to be written around 1862, and saw a prevalence of words like “go” and “away” as well as “wished”—and the student then talked about those words in relation to the preconceived image that students often have of Miss Emily.

After students are hooked on Wordles, the next logical step would be to have them read Geoffrey Rockwell’s “What is Textual Analysis” and see if I can’t interest them in stepping their interest up a notch.

Wordles can be used in many different classrooms—anywhere there’s text to be analyzed. Wordles in the American History classroom? Knock yourself out with Wordles of all the Inaugural Addresses of U.S. Presidents from Washington to Obama. Teaching Visual Rhetoric? You can have a field day with Wordles, as there are many display options: fonts, layouts, color schemes are all modifiable.

I’ve used Wordles for a few years, think they’re ultra-cool and useful in the classroom, yet I meet people all the time who haven’t heard of them or made the connection between colorful jumbles of words and a viable pedagogical tool. But it sure can be!

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