Remember that scene in Dead Poets Society with the line graph in English class? You know, a student reads from the poetry textbook about plotting the quality of a poem to reveal the poem’s merits. It went something like this:
“If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.”
Then, the teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, illustrates what the textbook says. He draws the axes on the chalkboard and plots the poem’s qualities dutifully. (Give it a fresh watch below!)
From afar, this might seem similar to what I do here on Plotting Plots. But I want to make very clear why what I do–and what I hope readers everywhere do!– is ultimately opposite the the kind of reading promoted by the textbook’s fictitious author, Dr. J. Evans Pritchard.
It’s About the Reader, Not the Read
In the movie, the relationship between the reader and literature is one of disempowerment. The “correct” reading of the poem is already established, and the reader has no role other than to comply with what makes the great poem great. The author of the textbook and the teacher using the textbook (any teacher, that is, other than John Keating) are the gatekeepers of literary knowledge and appreciation.
As a result, reading literature becomes about objectifying the text, using labels and categories to break it down into its predetermined parts. In the scene from the film, the student cites the textbook saying, “To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech. Then ask two questions: One, how artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered, and two, how important is that objective. Question one rates the poem’s perfection, question two rates its importance.”
Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for stepping back and examining texts using a the specialized vocabulary of literary analysis. It can lead to a deeper appreciation for the complexity of stories and the world. But, exploring literature in such a way can also remove the reader’s response from the experience. And reading literature must ultimately about the reader, not the read.
Plotting Plots is About the Reader
When one uses quantitative literary data to explore a text on Plotting Plots, it is not with any sort of predetermined interpretation of the text in mind. On the contrary, visualizing word frequency data gives readers a new way to see expansive patterns in the text. Those patterns then point to new questions one might ask about the text. And those new questions lead to new interpretations and insights about the text, the reader, and the world.
The data serve the reader. Not the other way around.
There’s another subtle difference to note when watching the famous Dead Poets Society scene above. In it, the data Mr. Keating plots from the textbook amounts to the textbook author’s judgements of a poem. The author already interpreted the literary work, judged it, and presents his judgement as objective data.
However, the data readers encounter when they plot a plot here are the actual words of a text. There is no interpretation or judgement. Usually, I just offer word frequency tallies–like a compendium, but in a spreadsheet. The data are the author’s own words, just sorted and tallied.
So, the next time someone hears about Plotting Plots and likens it to Dr. J. Evans Pritchard’s method for understanding poetry, you have my permission to politely smile in the spirit of Mr. Keating and say to them: Excrement!