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Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series

Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Spring 2018 Distinguished Faculty Lecture

"Distant Reading: Undergraduate Research in First-Year Writing"

presented by
Ethna Dempsey Lay
Associate Chair, Department of Writing Studies and Rhetoric, School of Humanities, Fine and Performing Arts, Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Associate Director, Hofstra's Digital Research Center

Wednesday, April 11, 2018
11:15 a.m.-12:40 p.m.
Rochelle and Irwin A. Lowenfeld Conference and Exhibition Hall
Joan and Donald E. Axinn Library, 10th Floor, South Campus

What is distant reading? And what might its strategies demonstrate when applied to not to published literature but to student writing? Franco Moretti radically theorizes that much can be learned about large corpora of literature by applying distant reading strategies that do not study particular texts but instead aggregate and analyze large amounts of data. Moretti's investigation examined what the titles of 18th- and 19th-century novels might signify with respect to the marketplace, to the novelists' sense of their writing as commodity, and to attitudes about genre and its audience. It's noteworthy that the novels Moretti studied were not canonical, and perhaps not ever widely read. Likewise, student writing created for first-year composition is not necessarily read beyond the semester in which it is produced. However, by considering their own and their peers' writing for the term, students gain insight about what makes for effective writing. Such self-reflective analysis of the cohort's work would demonstrate to my students how they might improve their writing and how they might come to understand rhetorical power.

When students craft independent blogs for first-year composition classes, those students and those blogs can be used as an opportunity for primary research in writing studies. Students engage in distant reading strategies to learn about the rhetorical practices of their peers and of themselves.

Ethna Dempsey Lay

Ethna Dempsey Lay has been blogging with her students for nearly 10 years.

She is trained as a Chaucerian, researching Chaucer's collocation of Romance and English vocabulary. By collocating like words of different etymologies, Chaucer re-imagined the English language. Chaucer's system of poetics is flexible, using the languages of his bilingual imagination to the fullest, as evidenced by his frequent use of etymologically distinct, self-reflexive terms. Chaucer wrote at a time when writing in English was taking a new turn: while manuscript culture ascended at court, the oral tradition was still prevalent. (Indeed, the printing press was in development on the continent.)

Currently, Professor Lay investigates the way our current literacy (or post-literacy) moment seems to parallel the historical moment when orality yields to literacy. She estimates that we are experiencing what Walter Ong termed some "sequel to literacy," which she finds analogous to digital writing and the contemporary technologizing of the word. Her most recent research has to do with social reading and digital annotations as contemporary glosses. Her students regularly experiment in new media composing, often with the effect that such digital making leads them to more effective writing in print.

Ethna Dempsey Lay holds degrees in English literature and French language and literature from Binghamton University, New York. She earned a doctorate in English and American literature from New York University. She also studied at the Faculté d'Aix-en-Provence, France. Professor Lay is currently associate chair of the Department of Writing Studies and Rhetoric and associate director of Hofstra's Digital Research Center.

View a complete listing of previous Distinguished Faculty Lectures