Topic Modeling Personal Stories from September 11, 2001

One of my research interests is the formation of literary responses to trauma, and I have been interested in finding ways digital humanities can help uncover trends and themes in post-traumatic literature. As part of my Master’s thesis I examined the emergence of 9/11 fiction as it evolved from short personal essays and journalistic pieces to short stories and novels. I started by examining personal essays published in collections like 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11 and Afterwords: Stories and Reports from 9/11 and Beyond and examined how certain formal themes and constructions introduced in these early responses were reiterated in later literature about 9/11. Through close reading, I argued that these themes were central to the continuing post-traumatic response process.

For my Digital Tools project I am interested in continuing the work of examining personal responses to 9/11 to see how one begins process, understand, and form a linguistic response to a traumatic event. I am specifically interested to see if topic modeling may uncover new significant trends in the early responses to 9/11 that are also apparent in the later literature on the attacks, which in turn may shed light on how authors responded fictionally to the trauma. Hopefully, the topic modeling of these personal stories can help shed light on the way we narratively and imaginatively cope with a devastating national tragedy.

I am fortunate enough to have been generously granted access to the data collected by the Center for History’s and New Media and the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning’s September 11 Digital Archive, a project that has sought to collect and preserve the history of the attacks and their aftermath. The archive has collected personal emails and stories from different sources, some individually donated by the creators of the digital material, and some collected by, and acquired from, national institutions like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. I will be topic modeling the personal stories from various institutional sources (as they are more standardized and have fewer textual inconsistencies) in order to see what larger trends occur throughout time. So far, it looks like we will be able to search for topics and break down data by time of composition, gender, and (at times) location of authors to see if interesting trends emerge depending on temporal or spatial distance from the epicenter of the attacks. In understanding more thoroughly the ways we respond to events like 9/11, I hope that a project like this can pave the way for further discussion on how we process, imagine, narrate, discuss, and eventually come to terms with trauma.

–Jessica Young

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