Bringing Data Visualizations to the Humanities Dissertation

In my previous posts, I’ve provided an introduction to the field of data visualizations—outlining both what they are and what they are used for. In this post, I discuss what data visualizations have added to my own research before addressing the specifics of the project I’m currently conducting as part of my internship with the Center for Digital Humanities and which will eventually be included in my own dissertation.

My dissertation, “Hideous Progenitors: Queer Reproduction from Frankenstein to Fanfic,” traces examples of queer family-making through the trope of male pregnancy in literature, film, and born-digital works. As indicated by the title of my dissertation, one chapter looks solely at the field of fanfiction; in order to navigate these works, I’ve relied on data visualizations, finding that they allow me to explain this fanfic trope to readers who might be otherwise unfamiliar with these texts.

Fig. 1, for example, highlights the most prominent tags (referring to a fan practice to organize texts) of over 1,400 works from the MTV series Teen Wolf fandom in which male pregnancy is incorporated into the narrative. At a glance, viewers are able to gain insights to these writings that might remain unclear even for those willing to spend weeks navigating a fanfiction repository site like Archive of Our Own (AO3). In this way, data visualizations offer an alternative means of “reading” a text—one that can be useful for understanding a non-canonical corpus.

Figure 1. Most frequent tags in Teen Wolf mpreg fanfiction.

Through my internship with the Center for Digital Humanities, I have continued to delve into data visualizations, their uses, and the tools that can help humanities scholars like me to create them. 

In putting this knowledge to work, I’ve begun to explore options for creating additional data visualizations for my dissertation. This more recent project responds to the large gaps I noticed in my own scholarship. While each chapter of my dissertation looks to a prominent example of the male pregnancy trope, I felt that it inadequately covered the trope’s overall trajectory.

Thinking of the ways that data visualizations can offer viewers a more complete picture at a glance, I decided to create a timeline to track the male pregnancy narratives that I had come across. These texts (ranging from drama to novels to video games) covered the span of twelve centuries.

Figure 2. Prototype tracing the male pregnancy trope. Each post-it is a single textual example.

In initially constructing my visualization, I prototyped an analog model mapping each text through individual post-it notes (fig. 2). While creating this prototype, I came to several realizations. Although post-its made it easy to shift around my data in order to make room for additional examples, I recognized that a digital tool would allow an easier means to this form of manipulation and editing. Additionally, I realized that many of my examples might only be identified loosely within the male pregnancy trope. The yellow post-it notes in fig. 2 illustrate these instances and the off-shoots they create.

Turning to digital platforms, I then created a timeline through Tiki-Toki that allowed for an easier method of adding and subtracting individual texts (fig. 3). Another benefit of this platform was that it more visibly drew attention to pieces of metadata that I wished to include. I was able to color-code the “category” of different texts, for example (whether they came from literature, film, drama, etc.), and supplement each event on my timeline with additional information about the text through drop-down menus.

Figure 3. Screenshot of male pregnancy timeline created through Tiki-Toki.

Both this visualization and the one before it, however, should be thought of as prototypes. I’m not quite satisfied with either of them. While I was able to add more useful information with the digital timeline, for example, I lost the structure that was available in my analog format.

Thus, each prototype helps me to not only understand more of the connections between my texts, but they also shape how I desire to present these connections. As I continue to experiment with different platforms, I hope to land on one that allows for both spatial flexibility and greater access to categorical trajectories and additional information.

Jon Heggestad

Jon Heggestad

Graduate Student Intern at SBU Center for Digital Humanities
Jon Heggestad is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the English department at SBU, where he teaches and researches feminist theory, queer theory, and the digital humanities. His DH interests include data visualization, database, electronic text and new media. He is currently at work on his dissertation, which traces out a history of queer family-making and futurity through SF works of literature and film from Frankenstein to the present.
Jon Heggestad
Posted in Digital Humanities Tagged with: