Literary archaeology

When Audrey Dubois ‘17 looks at a book, she sees not only the words on the page but also a story hidden between the lines and among the author’s habits.

A double major in English and philosophy, Dubois is exploring the power of digital humanities scholarship—the use of computer-aided analysis of texts—to uncover insights about the authorship of prose and poetry as well as the cultures that gave rise to a particular work of literature.

The Wheaton junior has received a significant boost in her ability to continue her explorations by winning a Beinecke Scholarship. She is one of 20 undergraduates nationwide to receive the $34,000 award for graduate studies.

“I wasn’t even sure I was going to go to grad school until this scholarship came through,” Dubois said, explaining the impact that the prize will have on her future.

A program of the Sperry Fund, the Beinecke Scholarship supports highly motivated students in pursuing graduate study in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Since 1975 the program has selected more than 450 college juniors from more than 100 undergraduate institutions for support during graduate study at any accredited university.

“I view what I do as both ‘literary archaeology’ and ‘literary anthropology’,” Dubois said. “My goal is to reconstruct the past by piecing together fragmentary material while at the same time creating an understanding of the particular culture of specific authors.”

Dubois discovered her interest in digital humanities from a course at Wheaton on medieval literature taught by Professor of English Michael Drout. The class ended with Dubois receiving the opportunity to intern with the Wheaton Lexomics research group, which develops and employs computer programs to analyze texts. During her internship, Dubois examined the poetic meter of Beowulf, identifying patterns within the Anglo-Saxon epic poem.

“This kind of research would take years to do by hand, while the software can calculate the ratio of certain letters across three thousand lines in a matter of seconds,” Dubois said. “Combined with data on spelling deviations in the original manuscript, it became clear that the scribes of Beowulf were copying from multiple sources …”

A resident of Scituate, R.I., Dubois has been active beyond the classroom as well. She is a member of the Dimple Divers, the college’s theatre improv group, for which she serves as publicity coordinator. She also is the web editor for the Wheaton Wire, the student-run newspaper, and a writing tutor in the college’s Filene Center for Academic Advising and Career Services.

Digital humanities has continued to be a focus of her interest, too. She applied her developing skills in digital analysis of texts to completing a class paper on Chaucer and to a collection of French texts. She also presented her work during this year’s WheaTalks event, which is a homegrown version of the international TED Talks series.

Dubois will return to the Lexomics research project this summer, as she considers her options for graduate school. While she hasn’t yet chosen a program, she is certain that she will continue to explore the use of computers in analyzing and understanding literature and what it can reveal about our past.

“As a doctoral student and scholar of literature, I recognize that new methods of scholarly research such as those in the realm of the digital humanities will allow for innovative ways of viewing a variety of texts, increasing the efficiency and objectivity of data collection,” she said.