A Distant View of English Journal, 1912-2012

Jason Palmeri & Ben McCorkle



We first begin by "zooming out" to look at broad trends across all 766 articles we coded; in the following sections, we "zoom in" on the four most common types of media that English Journal authors engaged over the years: radio, film/video, television, and computer. These later graphs offer more detail about specific articles in each year, while the visualizations we present in this section offer very distant, high-level snapshots. Taken together, these visualizations demonstrate the kind of analytic flexibility one gains by employing distant reading methods to engage archival data at differeing levels of scale.

Production vs. Reception Over Time
Instructions: Click legend below to turn lines on and off. Double click graph to zoom in. Drag graph to move through time. Click link below to reset.

As you click the legend to turn the lines on and off or double click the graph to zoom in on years of interest, stay alert to what patterns you can observe occurring over time. As you look at the "all articles" timeline, you'll note that English pedagogy has long been concerned with diverse forms of media beyond the print book. Although some of the greatest peaks in new media interest occurred in the past two decades, we found media-related articles in every year except for 1920 and 1921. You can note that media reception tended to predominate over media production in most years until the 1980s, the era of the personal computer; however, there was a brief spike in media production pedagogies in the 1930s when sound film and radio were quite new, and also a minor spike in the early 1970s when new forms of consumer multimedia equipment proliferated. We note with interest that the late 1930s and early 1970s spikes in media production pedagogy also coincided with time periods that featured robust leftist social movements and corresponding emphasis on "progressive," student-centered pedagogies. As we zoom in on specific media in the next section, we'll start to outline more interpretations of why and when media production pedagogies tend to wax and wane. For now, we offer two preliminary observations:

  1. media production pedagogies appear to have a very long history in English studies (indeed we coded over 356 articles featuring media production pedagogy, including 145 before 1980);
  2. the computer era has coincided with a rise in media production pedagogies.
Commonplaces about New Media

As you hover over the stacked bar graph to see the total number of articles that included a particular commonplace, you can note how the claim that new media are "engaging for students" was pervasive throughout the corpus (indeed, 477 articles made this claim, including 241 articles before 1980). The second most prevalent commonplace we found was the claim that new technologies could be used to "enhance the teaching of alphabetic literacy" (n = 466). Often, we found that the the commonplaces of "engagement" and "enhancing alphabetic literacy" co-occurred in articles; for examples, we found these linked commonplaces in articles that claimed students would become more engaged with alphabetic reading and/or writing if they listened to Shakespeare on the radio (Carney, 1938), if they made film adaptations of classic poems (Hodge, 1938), or if they revised alphabetic essays with computers (Monahan, 1982). In this way, we can see that English teachers have tended to focus perhaps too narrowly on articulating how new media could be used to enhance alphabetic literacy instruction.

Despite the tendency to imagine new media first and foremost as in service to alphabetic learning goals, the articles in our corpus also frequently promoted the commonplace assumption that new media were "changing the nature of literacy" itself (n = 375)—often pointing out how the arrival of a new medium required that English teachers pay more attention to the unique affordances of visual, multimedia, and audio forms of communication. As we unpack the apparent contradictions in the top three most prevalent commonplaces in our corpus, we can gain a sense that new media have been a source of ambivalence and tension in the field over time: on the one hand, English teachers have sought to harness new media to teach traditional alphabetic reading and writing skills while also paradoxically engaging new media as a heuristic to rethink what the teaching of literacy entails. We see similar tensions and ambivalences at play in contemporary scholarship on digital composition (including our own). We find ourselves humbled when we come to recognize that many of the claims we have made about digital and multimodal pedagogies turn out to be very old indeed.

When we began this project, we expected to find many articles in which English teachers bemoaned how new media were harming students' alphabetic literacy skills, yet this turned out to be a relatively rare commonplace in our corpus (n = 52). Although we might be tempted to conclude that the field of English as a whole has always been welcoming to new media, we should of course remember that English Journal offers a relatively narrow view of the field. Because the primary mission of English Journal has been publishing innovative scholarship about K-12 English pedagogy, it makes sense that it has tended to privilege articles that emphasized how new technologies could enhance learning rather than screeds about the need to stick with tradition.

When we zoomed in to look at how these commonplaces were distributed in articles about production pedagogy compared to articles about reception pedagogy, we found some interesting divergences. Although the argument that new media can "expand audiences beyond the teacher" was quite common in articles about media production (n = 185), it was relatively rare in articles about media reception (n = 21). In this sense, we can see that media production pedagogies have tended to disrupt traditional models in which students compose primarily for the purpose of teacher evaluation. Conversely, the argument that new media "required the aesthetic and/or moral judgment of the teacher" was much more common in articles about teaching media reception (n = 144) than in articles about media production (n = 32).

In analyzing the prevalence of the "teacher judgment" commonplace in reception articles, we should keep in mind that the cultural construction of the English teacher as arbiter of aesthetic taste and moral virtue has a long history—especially in relation to the teaching of literary analysis (Applebee, 1974; Berlin, 1984). Given this legacy, it's not surprising that English teachers often sought to position themselves as belletristic authority figures whose duty was to carefully guide students' radio, television, and film consumption (Carney, 1938; Hodge, 1938; Orndorff, 1939). By contrast, when English teachers turned their attention to teaching students to compose with new media, they were less likely to conceptualize their work in relation to the belletristic tradition. We surmise that production pedagogies did not emphasize teacher judgment as frequently because teaching new media composing often placed English teachers in a position in which they did not feel like an expert authority—a position in which they may even have needed to turn to students for technological advice and support. As a result, media production pedagogies have tended to place less emphasis on the importance of the teacher's value judgement and more emphasis on the transformative potential of students composing texts for "audiences beyond the teacher," including fellow classmates. In this way, we can begin to speculate that media production pedagogies have been (at times) a resistant force, which has challenged conventional ideologies of teacher authority in English instruction.

Word Frequencies in Article Titles

Looking at our archive with a very distant eye, we present visualizations of the most common words that appeared in the article titles in our corpus—noting interesting similarities and divergences in articles about reception versus production. Although we recognize that article titles are not as thorough of a dataset as the complete text of all articles, they still can offer us some telling insights if we explore them as a discrete data set. For consistency in our comparison, the screenshots below were taken with the number of terms set to 75. Additionally, we have included links below to the corpora as catalogued and processed in Voyant so that readers can manipulate these data further (you can access all titles, regardless of production or reception emphasis, here).

PRODUCTION TITLES (link to corpus in Voyant here):

Wordcloud: Production Titles
RECEPTION TITLES (link to corpus in Voyant here):

Wordcloud: Reception Titles

Comparing the top 15 terms for both production and reception-focused titles gives us this breakdown (where n = number of separate titles in corpus):

(n = 365)
(n = 401)
computer (42) film (71)
student (41)
media (65)
writing (41)
television (50)
media (40)
teach (37)
classroom (38)
radio (31)
school (34)
classroom (30)
teach (32)
teacher (29)
using (26)
electronic (28)
electronic (24)
picture (26)
high (23)
school (23)
radio (21)
public (21)
technology (19)
arts (20)
class (18)
using (19)
create (15)
literature (18)
literature (15) motion (17) / reading (17)

It's not surprising that the words "media," "classroom," "school," and "electronic" appear among the top 15 words for each corpus, reflecting the common focus of our archive on media pedagogy in English studies. The preponderance of the word "electronic" is interesting, as this word has been used over time to refer to a variety of media including television and computers. Although in some ways this use of "electronic" may seem quaint, we also think that the prevalence of electricity in the corpus offers a useful reminder that the mediated history (and future) of the field is deeply bound up with electronic resource consumption in problematic ways (Parikka, 2015).

In addition to some interesting commonalities among production and reception articles, some striking differences emerge. Most notably, in the production corpus, the word "student(s)" is the second most frequent occurring (n = 41), while the words "teacher(s)" (n = 15) and "teach" (n = 32) are less frequent. By contrast, in the reception corpus, mentions of "student(s)" (n = 13) are relatively rare in titles, while mentions of "teacher(s)" (n = 30) and "teach" (n = 32) are more frequent. Noting the greater prevalence of "student(s)" in media production article titles, we might infer that media production pedagogies have aligned quite literally with student-centered pedagogies.

We also noted intriguing divergences in the relative prevalence of the words "reading" and "writing" in the corpus titles. Most notably, the word "writing" appears much more frequently in production (n = 41) than in media reception (n = 12) article titles. By contrast, the word "reading" appears more frequently in reception (n = 17) than in production (n = 9) article titles; furthermore, references to "reading" were less prevalent in the corpus titles overall. In this way, we can begin to surmise that English teachers' historic investment in teaching writing has been a force that has encouraged the field to engage students in composing with new technologies. By contrast, English teachers' investment in "reading" appears to be a more conservative force that has perhaps worked against more innovative uses of composing technologies in the classroom. As we begin to track how media production pedagogies have been aligned with "writing" over time, we can begin to understand some of the longstanding disciplinary trends that led to the development of computers and writing as a field.

In addition to divergences in mentions of writing compared to reading, the production and reception article titles also differed in terms of what forms of media they mentioned most frequently. The top two forms of media referenced in production titles were computers (n = 42) and radio (n = 21). By contrast, in reception article titles, film(s) (n = 71) and television (n = 50) were referenced much more frequently. As we explore possible reasons for this divergence, we think it is important to note that computers have been culturally associated with writing and radio has been culturally associated with speaking; given that writing and speaking have long been key parts of English curricula, it seems to follow that English teachers appear to have more frequently conceptualized computer and radio media as tools for student production. By contrast, film and television are commonly conceptualized primarily as visual media (though these multimodal media of course make use of alphabetic writing and auditory speaking as well). In this way, we can begin to surmise that English teachers may have been more likely to conceptualize a new medium as a tool for student composing if it aligned with their conventional goals of teaching alphabetic writing or (to a lesser extent) verbal speaking.

As we peruse some of the less frequently appearing words in articles, we can also note some other intriguing (though slight) differences. For example, the terms "publishing" and "publication" appear 15 times in production titles while appearing not at all in the reception titles—further confirming our sense that media production pedagogies have often been aligned with engaging students in composing texts for audiences beyond the teacher. Furthermore, the word "collaborative" appears in 5 media production titles while appearing not at all in media reception articles—suggesting a possible relationship between collaborative learning and media production pedagogies in the field. Conversely, we note with some amusement that the terms "Romeo" and "Juliet" each appear in 4 reception article titles, while appearing not at all in production titles—leading us to surmise that the teaching of what is perhaps the most prominent Shakespeare play in the high school English canon has tended to be aligned with more teacher-centered pedagogies. We also were interested to find that various forms of the word "critical*" appear in six reception article titles, but in only one production title; this difference in frequency suggests that the act of critique has been associated more closely with pedagogies of textual reception.

Of course, we recognize that analyzing titles can offer only a very limited vision of the whole corpus. Furthermore, we realize that the differences in frequency we are discussing here are relatively minor; we are making preliminary hunches here, not arguments for statistical significance. Although we recognize that our corpus of titles is not large enough to support empirical generalization, we nevertheless contend that it can help us come to re-see our archive in a new way and begin to locate intriguing constellations of articles that might reward close, comparative readings.