University Hosts Literature Scholar


Schoalr International children’s literature scholar Dr. Vanessa Joosen spoke about her pioneering research using digital tools to study characters and their relationships to one another during a visit to campus Monday.

English honor society Sigma Tau Delta hosted the lecture by Joosen, associate professor of English literature and children’s literature at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Joosen earned a European Research Council Starting Grant to pay for her work, which explores how digital techniques can be used to study character, readership and literature.

Also as part of her research, Joosen will assign people of varying ages to read the same book and then have multi-generational discussion groups.

Using technology such as digitized books and annotation, Joosen and her team will be able to analyze 600 children’s books from Northern Europe and the United Kingdom, she said.

During her lecture, she spoke about her work analyzing how the Dutch author Guus Kuijer depicts age. She and her team developed a computer script to extract and categorize the speech of the characters in Kuijer’s books. Young characters in Kuijer’s children’s books tend to have a negative view of adulthood, Joosen said.

In the children’s minds, grownups have no control over their feelings, are easily surprised and are unable to deal with pain — in other words, they act more like children. Scholars debate whether Kuijer’s books can contribute to a “Why grow up?” mentality or if they are merely a parody, she said.

Applying digital research techniques to the first Harry Potter books, Joosen found that the young wizard’s most frequent words were related to Quidditch, the fictitious sport played on broomsticks. The number of words related to death and eternity increased as the series progressed. (The seventh book was called “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”) 

Joosen’s digital techniques can be used to help determine a composition’s authorship when it is in question. She emphasized that she doesn’t want the digital methods to replace more traditional techniques, but rather to enrich them.

“It makes scholars look in places where they might not have looked,” she said.


Photo: Dr. Vanessa Joosen, associate professor of English literature and children's literature at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, speaks about her pioneering work using digital research techniques.