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In Search of Multivocality: Periodical Studies and a Humanities Lab in Practice

As a field Periodical Studies is particularly well-suited to encourage innovative and interdisciplinary methodologies not only among experts but also among young scholars encountering the discipline for the first time. Periodicals are diverse, multi-authored visual and textual objects that when taught effectively can improve students’ close reading and distant reading skills, demand their equal attention toward art and advertisement, and teach them how to imagine the audience of a different historical time and place. They also invite digital humanities work that can enrich students’ critical methods and put their traditional modes of analysis in dialogue with other skills. At a broader theoretical level, the careful study of a periodical’s lifespan encourages students to recognize multivocality within a complex, evolving, and highly collaborative medium.

However, the features that make periodicals complex and distinct as objects of inquiry likewise make them opaque to traditional academic methodologies such as literary close reading and historicist contextualization. Studying this material means grappling with huge amounts of data that cannot be fully digested by a single person in a single semester. The abundance of advertisements, artwork, fiction, articles, and advice columns demand a reader who not only has time to sort through content, but who is versed in everything from literary analysis and art critique to publishing culture, and who can make meaningful the everyday minutiae that lie at the heart of many periodicals. All of these skills must be brought together with a historical understanding, often encompassing decades rather than a discrete moment, that approaches periodicals as more than the sum of their parts.

This project stemmed from the idea that barriers to semester-length periodical projects might be surmounted by means of a collaborative working group: a humanities lab. We are four PhD students in English and one MFA student of poetry with specialties ranging from early American to Victorian to twentieth-century literature and research interests in gender studies, spatial theory, digital humanities, textual genetics, war and literature, philosophy, and Irish studies. We have all encountered Periodical Studies for the first time through a graduate seminar on “Gender/Print Culture/Modernity” taught at the University of Notre Dame for the Gender Studies Program and English Department by Barbara Green, which served as the organizing framework for our collaborative work. This study developed alongside our knowledge of Periodical Studies and its texts, methodologies, and assumptions: knowledge which we accordingly applied to The Western Home Monthly, of which we initially knew nothing. Our goal in this article is self-reflexivity: a process-based discussion of our blank-slate exposure to Periodical Studies and our attempts to grapple with an unfamiliar magazine by means of a collaborative approach to research and writing.

The seminar’s unifying theme of gender helped to focus our process-oriented approach. Class readings involved prominent magazines such as Votes for Women, Vogue, and Good Housekeeping, many of which were created by and for an urban audience. By contrast, The Western Home Monthly sustained a more rural and provincial audience in the developing west of Canada. Several questions developed from these comparisons: How might the periodical’s rural identity challenge urban-centered conceptions of “modern” femininity, such as those advanced by the magazines at the center of our class discussions? In what ways does a magazine intended for the whole family organize its content along gender lines? How do the gender dynamics of visual representation compare or conflict with those found in the textual medium? While our project focused more on our process than on answering these questions conclusively, they were essential in guiding our work, from computational tracing of gendered content to close readings of specific constructions of femininity. At the very least they provided starting points for further productive questioning.

A “Humanities Lab”

Our multi-authored research project draws on Sean Latham’s and Robert Scholes’s foundational article “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” which addresses the practical challenges of the field using a model from the sciences. They call for “the creation of humanities labs: similarly collaborative networks of researchers and institutions that lend their collective expertise to textual objects that would otherwise overwhelm single scholars.”[1] The advantages of this approach are both practical—reducing the sheer amount of data an individual must contend with—and epistemological: “To be as diverse as the objects it examines . . . periodical studies should be constructed as a collaborative scholarly enterprise that cannot be confined to one scholar or even a single discipline” (Latham and Scholes,”The Rise of Periodical Studies,” 528). A lab environment is not inherently or exclusively “scientific”; if anything, its impetus—inclusiveness, interdisciplinarity, skepticism of single-author hegemony—resonates with the contemporary Humanities mindset.

While the lab structure affords certain practical advantages and aligns with our goals as humanists, it also requires a significant perspectival shift. As scholars accustomed to the “lone wolf” approach of our home disciplines, where the onus for discovery and interpretation rests on the individual, we all struggled with the challenges of steering five differently-minded scholars toward a unifying objective. Given that our project involved putting aside many of our traditional methodological practices, we established several process-centered questions to guide our work on The Western Home Monthly: What can a seminar-based, collaborative enterprise contribute to the study of a particular periodical? How will a group-centered approach allow us to balance close-reading strategies with digital “non-readings” sometimes called for by a periodical’s breadth? What implications might this methodology have for our own pedagogy as graduate instructors and in Humanities pedagogy more broadly?

We devoted the first two weeks of our project to familiarizing ourselves with the magazine and formulating initial research questions. In order to establish some common ground for our first meetings, we selected five issues at strategic locations at the beginning, middle, and end of the magazine’s lifespan, and representing different months, to read entirely. We also decided to use our required class presentations to help propel our research, and one colleague’s seminar presentation during this exploratory phase underlined the notion of rural femininity that ultimately provided our research’s organizing principle. Our early meetings centered on discussions of our initial encounters with the magazine and preferred lenses for further study. Since none of us had preconceived notions for approaching an entire periodical, we took the opportunity to explore methodologies different from our standard literary modes of analysis. We settled on a dialectic arrangement of two distant readers and two close readers. Our early exercises in collaborative planning and writing also revealed an urgent need for centralized leadership, and so the fifth student took on an administrative role that would maintain a broad vision of the project: editing, guiding, and organizing our research as it developed.

Due to the constraints of our semester-length time frame, one of the key administrative responsibilities was to develop a timeline that would allow us to pursue our independent research, but also afford time for reflection, writing, and revision. Ultimately, we chose to set definitive and modest expectations for our independent research and reserved the final three weeks for writing and revision. Our decisions pivoted around the understanding that, even with five pairs of eyes, the twenty thousand pages of the Western Home Monthly would demand a rigorous adherence to small and manageable objectives. We struggled to enforce a hard deadline three weeks before semester’s end when so much of the magazine lay unexamined. However, this proved a necessary sacrifice for the sake of producing a finished product.

We structured our work around the patterns of the semester, completing the bulk of our work independently but meeting regularly to share our findings. During meetings, conducted outside of class time, we summarized our current work, discussed opportunities for collaboration, set and adjusted our objectives, and resolved housekeeping and other logistical concerns. Since we could not reasonably share all of our work in shorter group meetings, we used digital tools such as Google docs, email, and chat clients. Google drive served as a space for sharing relevant articles, paper outlines and drafts, and data from our own research. The distant reading students held additional meetings with experts from the Notre Dame Libraries’ Center for Digital Scholarship (CDS), who offered guidance and technical expertise.

While the Humanities lab, as evinced below, produced a breadth of ideas about The Western Home Monthly and led to a greater appreciation of collaborative work, the project was not without its complications. There is a steep learning curve to the study of periodicals that is complicated by the additional obstacle of working as a team. We spent many weeks trying to figure out how best to navigate and read periodicals, and this had to be constantly mapped onto the irregular practice of surrendering agentive wholeness throughout a lengthy project. We initially divided our labor by our methodological preferences and, while this proved to be enriching in some ways, it also meant that no individual participant was seeing the larger picture. At one point we stepped back from individual work and convened for a joint reading of several issues of the magazine to regain a shared grounding in the object of research that we were studying piecemeal. The process of writing and revision further helped to forge closer connections between our individual foci as we merged the two distant readers’ work into a single section and then similarly joined the two close reading projects. Bridging the gap between our disparate approaches was a challenge that we did not fully resolve by the project’s end. Nevertheless, we believe that our forays into The Western Home Monthly have yielded productive methodological insights.

Shinjini Chattopadhyay and Anton Povzner: A Digital Approach

Confronted with the massive corpus of The Western Home Monthly, we resorted to digital tools. Although computational analysis does not adequately address a work’s historical and discursive context, it can uncover patterns unobtainable through conventional close reading.[2] The collaborative structure of our work group enabled us to integrate digital and traditional reading, leveraging a computational overview of the massive corpus to help structure close readings and provide an objective, if limited, point of reference for particular findings.

Having been provided with the digitized text of the magazine by Hannah McGregor, our starting point was the University of Notre Dame Center for Digital Scholarship, where Dan Johnson and Eric Lease Morgan graciously helped us with initial orientation and further support along the way. Incidentally, our work eventually divided between text mining (Shinjini) and topic modeling (Anton), mirroring the approach taken by Hannah McGregor and Nicholas van Orden in their “Remediation and the Development of Modernist Forms in The Western Home Monthly”; such independent convergence confirms these methodologies as viable inroads into unfamiliar periodical archives.[3] If research in general is a messy process, learning new technologies is even more so. This account streamlines much of that for the sake of clarity, but in practice our path was littered with false starts, errors, and possibilities unrealized due to limitations in technical skills and time.

For text mining I (Shinjini) used Voyant Tools. Voyant is a free open-source “web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts.”[4] It applies word counting algorithms to the text and outputs the results as interactive visualizations. When the text corpus of Western Home Monthly 1901–10 was uploaded to the system, it produced the following visualizations (fig. 1).

Voyant Corpus.
Fig. 1. Voyant Corpus.

In the individual sections clockwise from the top left corner, we see a word cloud with the document’s most frequent words, the original text, a line graph for word frequency across segments of the document, the contexts for a chosen word, and basic statistical data.

Voyant was especially useful for discerning frequency patterns of gendered words across the magazine’s corpus. The top frequent words highlighted in the wordcloud and the line graph—“home,” “man,” “time”—remained largely consistent over the entire run of the magazine, indicating a certain stability in its core concerns. Given the nature of the publication as a domestic magazine, the absence of “woman” among the top frequent words was intriguing in its suggestion that the contents might be slanted towards a male audience.

A few sample close readings appeared necessary to test the viability of this interpretation. Using Anton’s topic models, I tested topics such as frontier, clothes and sewing patterns, food recipes, and Christmas, which could plausibly address a female audience. While frontier fiction would appeal to both men and women, advertisements for jewelry and food recipes are clearly intended for women. Since the text, however, describes the jewelry or the cooking procedure without clearly gender-marked words, such gendered content slips past the word frequency algorithm. Thus, deriving thematic patterns from word frequencies is prone to error as thematic ramifications often remain beyond the objective level of written words.

Topic modeling, which goes beyond word counting to extract an approximation of a text’s core topic or themes, seemed to me (Anton) to promise the kind of broad overview that we were missing due to the practical impossibility of actually reading or even skimming the entirety of the magazine corpus. I used MALLET (MAchine Learning for LanguagE Toolkit), a free open-source package of computational analysis tools operated through a command-line interface.[5] “Topics” as addressed in topic modeling can be best described as groups of words that frequently co-occur in the documents of the text corpus.[6] This is broadly comparable to what a human reader understands as topics—the most central issues will likely be mentioned often in a text—but it is not a perfect match, as will be discussed in more detail in Trish’s section dealing with image-text relations. In particular, while the human reader intuitively distinguishes the connecting tissue of the text—“while,” “the,” “will,” “out”—from meaningful content, the machine does not, and “stop word” lists are used to filter out such clutter. MALLET helpfully comes with a set of about five hundred default stop words, but one may want to customize it for a particular task. In our case, since the project had a strong interest in gender, I opted to retain gender-marked pronouns (e.g, “he,” “her,” but not “they,” or “myself”).

MALLET essentially processes a text corpus into a user-defined number of topics. Low numbers of topics are prone to vagueness, and high numbers result in fragmentation; I settled at forty. The most frequent words for each topic provided by the algorithm can then be manually condensed into titles (fig. 2).

Topic Parsing.
Fig. 2. Topic Parsing.

Sorting by “weight,” the relative prominence of the topics, we see first a vague general topic, then classifieds, then the more concrete issues such as narrative, daily life, and family.

As MALLET also outputs the topic composition of the corpus documents, it is possible to go beyond a global weight to track it across time by aggregating topic scores for individual pages to account for whole issues or years; these can then be represented in a graphical form.[7] While a graph showing forty lines at once is almost unreadable, tracking only a few topics at a time provides workable results (fig. 3).

Graphic Rendering.
Fig. 3. Graphic Rendering.

Some of the results were fairly predictable, such as spike in the “war” topic around 1913–1920. Others looked like potential starting points for further inquiry, such as the consistent prominence of masculine over feminine inflection in narrative content (categorized by explicitly gendered words). Overall, the graphical representation does indeed answer the initial goal of a computational broad overview of the magazine content.

If the graph essentially works by radically condensing MALLET’s output, the granularity of the initial data also allows a closer engagement with the text by identifying the most relevant documents—in this case, magazine pages—for each of the topics. Using simple Excel functions, I generated a table linking to the relevant pages in the Peel archive (fig. 4).

Topics-Pages Link Table.
Fig. 4. Topics-Pages Link Table.

In balancing close and distant reading, the table provides an efficient bridge between the aggregated representation of the topics graph and the raw text of the magazine archive. This allowed my colleagues to browse the magazine in an informed fashion, retaining the neighboring contexts on the printed page, but more selectively than in simply flipping through the magazine.

While text mining and topic modeling were split between Shinjini and Anton, we did in fact work closely together with one another and with the CDS professionals. Our initial vision of computational analysis as providing a broad view of the periodical proved technically sound. However, particularly in the case of topic modeling, the time spent in skill acquisition delayed the results past a properly introductory function, though they proved helpful in later stages of the research. Ideally, one would want to concentrate the computational work in the initial stages of the project to maximize its benefit for the team; this would also add the possibility of designing more nuanced analyses later on in response to the close readers’ findings.

Concluding with a reflection on the benefits and limitations of digital approaches, it bears reiterating that they heavily lean towards text rather than, for example, illustration or print materiality; for both text mining and topic modeling, the focus further narrows down to vocabulary at the expense of syntax and form. Further, computational analysis engages with the breadth of the magazine but misses historical context and the specificity of the periodical as a composite object. Maria DiCenzo warns us against allowing methods to dictate research questions.[8] To some degree, the collaborative framework of the project addresses that problem: while Shinjini and Anton were, indeed, strongly bound to the limitations of the digital tools, Moon and Trish read more deeply into the magazine, sometimes using the results of the computational analysis but not constrained by them.

Again thinking generally of computational analysis, questions of access inevitably come to mind. Voyant Tools is relatively intuitive, and MALLET requires limited training. For more sophisticated techniques, however, mathematics and computer science training could be requisite, and access to these skills frequently falls along familiar lines of privilege. In addition, the essential support we received from the CDS professionals is clearly an extension of the privilege of being part of a wealthy institution. Access to digital materials as well as the selection of materials for digitization are similarly problematic (Dicenzo, “Remediating the Past,” 31).

That said, we find much benefit in distant reading. Both the periodical publication as an object of study and the collaborative frame of research integrated especially well with computational analysis. Working as part of a team allowed us to devote the necessary time to skill acquisition. Insights directly generated by the digital tools were broad and occasionally faulty, but at the same time useful as an overview and amenable to refinement through closer engagement with the text. Further, some of the output could be leveraged as helpful tools for the use of the close readers, which was probably most helpful for the project as a whole.

Trish Bredar and Moonseok Choi: A Closer Look at Text and Image

While Anton and Shinjini used distance reading to gain familiarity with The Western Home Monthly’s breadth and to detect large-scale trends, we turned to close reading strategies as a way to understand the complex dynamics on the page. As the digital reading models used in this project were primarily text-based and thus blind to images, layout, or design features as well as to tone and subtext, we tried to be particularly attentive to these elements. Because it would be impossible to perform a comprehensive study of these elements in a magazine filled with a wide array of visual material (from advertisements to illustrations to photographs) and an extensive range of textual genres (from advice columns to reports on global events to short stories), our approaches instead focused on specific sites within the magazine while drawing tentative conclusions about overall trends. As specialists in literary scholarship and creative writing, we each had substantial training in close reading. However, accounting for the complexity of The Western Home Monthly’s visual and literary material challenged our traditional methods for approaching a text.

My (Trish’s) work focused specifically on the relationships between text and image. Informed by Penny Tinkler’s emphasis on a holistic approach to Periodical Studies, I tried to get a sense of the publication’s depth and breadth without cherry-picking or disregarding the medium’s formal complexities.[9] That is, I avoided approaching the magazine with a preconceived narrative in mind or focusing on only one particular subset of its content, such as advertisements or illustrations, and instead sought to remain attentive to its multivocal, multimodal qualities. As I began to explore the periodical, I quickly realized that my standard forms of note-taking, shaped by studying literature, would be insufficient for this project. Instead, I turned to the program Evernote, a note-taking organization platform with web clipping and annotation tools. Evernote allowed me to catalogue entire pages, single images, and sections of interest; to take notes on each saved element; and to organize images by tags.

Descriptive tagging proved to be an efficient way to catalogue patterns, trends, and currents of imagery. It also revealed telling points of contrast with my colleagues’ computational tools. Topic modeling, which clusters frequently co-occurring words into groups that ideally constitute meaningful topics or themes, lets the text speak for itself and minimizes the researcher’s biases. However, it only captures broad patterns and cannot detect visual content or subtleties in form. Creating tags, on the other hand, necessarily involves imposing a researcher’s impressions and interpretations on the content but also benefits from the greater nuance and comprehensive understanding of a human reader. Keeping these advantages and limitations in mind, I tried to avoid constraining the material to pre-existing frameworks and instead created tags that responded to distinct categories (“ad,” “illustration,” “photograph”) and to recurring topics (“farming,” “medicine,” “fashion”). This strategy yielded approximately twenty categories which I used to sort my material and illuminate common threads between images (figs. 5–7).

Evernote Web Clipper.
Fig. 5. Evernote Web Clipper.
Evernote Notebook with Tags.
Fig. 6. Evernote Notebook with Tags.
Labels and Notations in Evernote.
Fig. 7. Labels and Notations in Evernote.

Comparing my findings with the results of my peers’ digital humanities work enabled broader observations regarding gender dynamics in image as compared to text. Both Anton’s topic mapping spreadsheets and Shinjini’s word frequency counts indicated a higher incidence of masculine-inflected language. However, my own impressions suggested that the periodical features more visual representations of women than of men. Using Anton’s topic spreadsheet to locate pages with high concentrations of “masculine” terms, I encountered mostly male-authored, non-fiction texts that were either unillustrated or accompanied by the author’s photograph. Images of women, on the other hand, seemed to appear more frequently not only alongside feminine-marked texts but also in advertisements, which make up a significant portion of The Western Home Monthly’s visual material. In this case, bringing digital and non-digital methods together allowed us to posit that the periodical’s textual content might be more masculine-oriented whereas its visual content tends toward the feminine.

Periodically drawing from the categorical and statistical approaches outlined above, my (Moon’s) research focused on fictional narrative. As an MFA student with a concentration in poetry, I was out of my comfort zone pursuing scholarly work on a magazine whose primary literary form was the short story. My aim in reading literature is to find inspiration for my own work or to examine a successful piece to decode its formal and thematic devices. The fiction of an avowedly middlebrow Canadian magazine from a century ago offered little along these lines, but it did help me to see the common threads that sustain modern fiction and, more importantly, to see the way in which the form of the periodical can shape how a textual labor of love is consumed by its readership.

Short fiction dominates the early issues of The Western Home Monthly and while advice columns, advertisements, and other material gradually come to play more prominent roles as the magazine develops, the short story remains a central part of its identity. Since I could not read thirty years’ worth of fiction, I selected random stories across the publication’s run to get a sense of their style. My normal process as a reader involves selecting parts of an author’s oeuvre and engaging them as aesthetic objects in and of themselves. This mentality sharply contrasted with the project’s need to determine historical patterns from a panoply of hundreds of authors. A sense of purposelessness crept in during my early explorations of this immense collection and was resolved through conversations within the group about our common line of inquiry on rural domesticity. Shinjini’s and Anton’s work allowed me to target stories concerned with such issues, and Trish’s work provided a basis for considering fiction’s relationship to other visual and textual elements within the publication.

We (Moon and Trish) brought together our respective interests in text-image relationships and the operations of short fictional narrative within the periodical medium around one particular piece of short fiction: Sarah Cone Bryant’s “In Time of Storm” (September 1910, 4–8). George Bornstein’s “How to Read a Page: Modernism and Material Textuality” and the notion of “strange collisions” (to borrow a phrase from Caroline Levine via Debra Rae Cohen) provided inspiration for understanding the particular and peculiar arrangements of textual and visual content surrounding this story.[10] Each of page of the story features a constellation of visual and textual elements: several columns of fiction, a sizeable central image, and a column of advertisements. The illustrations which accompany the story have a sketched-in quality, leaving the faces of characters indistinct: one depicts the heroine, Martha, and her would-be lover walking side by side; the other shows several men rescuing a drowning woman (fig. 8). While Lorraine Kooistra provides a framework for understanding author-illustrator dynamics, image-text relationships become infinitely more complex when we factor in additional, incidental cohabitations on the page. For example, before the reader encounters the story, their attention will likely be caught by the bold “Madam!” of the hair goods advertisement, with its accompanying illustration of a dreamy-eyed, shiny-haired woman. Given that the story’s proper illustrations do not provide a clear image of Martha’s face, the easily discernible features of the woman in the advertisement might offer a potential surrogate, perhaps leaving the reader with a more polished, urban image of the protagonist than the story itself constructs. This is surely not the intention of the advertiser, author, illustrator, editor, or even the reader, yet it surfaces as one of many possible effects of a “collision” that is all but unavoidable on the page.

First spread, “In Time of Storm,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 4–5.
Fig. 8. First spread, “In Time of Storm,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 4–5.
Second spread, “In Time of Storm,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 6–7.
Fig. 9. Second spread, “In Time of Storm,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 6–7.

The next sequence of pages (fig. 9) adds further complications. This spread follows the same basic layout as the first, yet its central images, while consistent with the illustrations in placement and formatting, are photographs rather than drawings and have no relevance to the surrounding text. The fictional narrative presents a tale of flood, rescue, and romance in a coastal town, while the photographs document dry, land-locked scenes of a farm and a train wreck. While we cannot make a responsible argument regarding intentionality, if we turn our attention to effects rather than causes, these intruding images of Western Canadian life seem to reassert the magazine’s particular regional character on a page where it might otherwise be omitted. Balancing “imported” content with photographic representation of local rural life ensures that the reader does not lose herself completely in the world of the story but rather maintains a constant awareness of the Western Home Monthly’s core identity.

Moon’s analysis sheds additional light on these issues by attending to how they shape the reader’s experience of short fiction. No reader could encounter the short stories in The Western Home Monthly as isolated, standalone works, for they were often spread out across an issue in fragmented form, surrounded and interrupted by content that jarred with, rather than complemented, their subject matter. Using Trish’s class presentation of the above reading as a starting point, I examined the narratological consequences of image placement in “In Time of Storm.” While Trish focused on the surprising relationships between visual elements on the page, the arrangements of illustrations also have important narrative implications. The only two illustrations appear on the first two pages of the six-page story. Their captions each match a scene in the text but, while the first illustration appears on the same page as the scene it represents, the second depicts a climactic event that occurs two pages later, when the storm has escalated, putting all of the characters in mortal peril. Kooistra might describe the images’ relationship to the text as a fairly straightforward “quotation strategy,” bringing specific passages from the text to life.[11] Yet their placement demonstrates a complete lack of interest in concealing critical plot developments. Instead, we find what Jennifer Sorensen has called a “sense of temporal disorientation and distancing” from the narrative action that here forces readers to bridge the gap between the narrative that unfolds in the first two pages and the dramatic events that they know will occur before the story’s conclusion.[12] Disruptions of this kind, which are common throughout the publication, remind us that, in the periodical format, the reader is unlikely to encounter a piece of fiction as a self-contained, aesthetic object but rather as a work disrupted and enriched by accidental but often meaningful range of contexts. While painstaking archival research would be required to uncover the actual rationale (if any) for these fragmentations and juxtapositions, their effects on reading experience are pronounced and complicate the often straightforward gender divisions in the magazine’s fictional narratives.

Close readings of this kind provided a foundation from which we were able to gesture to wider trends. The fiction in Western Home Monthly most often reinforces rather than challenges conventional gender roles with its stories of masculine heroics and adventure on one hand, and women-centric plots featuring romance and the domestic sphere on the other. Overall, female characters are defined by their relationship to men, with their plots and narrative centered on establishing or preserving that relationship. Within “In Time of Storm,” Martha’s jealousy towards Amy, her apparent romantic rival, is established through her dialogue with David, her unsuspecting beloved, well before the eponymous storm rolls in. Martha’s heartbreak and resentment dominate her thoughts, even when potentially facing death, as she wonders why she must guide Amy when they are both women, and suppresses the urge to abandon her to the waters. The remainder of the story is dedicated to crying out for the two notable male figures in the story—Martha’s father, who is revealed to be dead in an aside to the reader and is never mentioned again, and David, who does save her in the end. In a case of near-death experiences making the heart grow fonder, David realizes and reciprocates Martha’s love after the ordeal, declaring that “I’m going to take care of you.”[13] The potential of the story to focus on the spectacle of disaster and the adrenaline of survival is clipped, redirected through the lens of a love triangle that stems from a female protagonist.

While the gender dynamics of most short fiction in the periodical become apparent within the first few paragraphs, the gender of the intended audience is often more ambiguous. Thus, alongside the text of “In Time of Storm” we see advertisements not only for women’s hairstyle catalogues but also for men’s suits, both of which address the reader in the second person, implying that men and women might be reading the same story. Imagining a reader browsing through the magazine’s pages rather than reading in a linear fashion, it is further possible that the eye-catching advertisements and photographs could initiate a reader’s contact with the page, at which point they might read a few sentences from the middle of a story and perhaps choose to track back and read the story from the beginning. Indeed, this would be congruent with the apparent lack of concern about revealing plot turns in the illustrations. In such a case especially, the publication would appear to be aiming for the broadest possible engagement with the audience, not trying to segment readership and content but spreading a wide “net” of narrative fragments, illustrations, advertisements, and photographs in hope that one of those might capture a reader’s attention and bring them to interact with the magazine. This tendency within short fiction is in distinct contrast to rigidly demarcated sections such as “The Young Man and His Problem” or “Mother’s Page” which seem to demand a specific reader.

Thinking about how the types of pairings, juxtapositions, and confusions that emerge on the pages of The Western Home Monthly would shape readers’ experience of the periodical also informed Trish’s general observations of image-text relationships. The insertion of Western rural life that we see in “In Time of Storm” speaks to a documentary impulse that persists throughout the periodical’s lifespan. While illustrations and, occasionally, advertisements may feature “other” locations—imported goods, an “oriental” palace, a fanciful Egyptian scene (figs. 10–12)—most photographs document events or scenes of everyday frontier life (figs. 13–15). This impulse to situate the magazine in a specific place is perhaps the defining feature of its visual content. Although illustrations and advertisements can give readers a taste of other locales, a frontier identity asserts itself on nearly every page; even some of the fashion columns place styles “from the New York Shops” within a distinctly rural backdrop (fig. 16).

Schweizer’s Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, May 1914, 16.
Fig. 10. Schweizer’s Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, May 1914, 16.
“The Princess and the Clowns,” Western Home Monthly, February 1927, 10.
Fig. 11. “The Princess and the Clowns,” Western Home Monthly, February 1927, 10.
Embellishment, Western Home Monthly, August 1920, 31.
Fig. 12. Embellishment, Western Home Monthly, August 1920, 31.
“Baby Superintends the Morning Meal,” Western Home Monthly, March 1919, 28.
Fig. 13. “Baby Superintends the Morning Meal,” Western Home Monthly, March 1919, 28.
“True to Life,” Western Home Monthly, January 1905, 13.
Fig. 14. “True to Life,” Western Home Monthly, January 1905, 13.
“Giving Him the Dull Finish,” Western Home Monthly, January 1905, 4.
Fig. 15. “Giving Him the Dull Finish,” Western Home Monthly, January 1905, 4.
Fashion spread with rural backdrop, Western Home Monthly, July 1924, 26.
Fig. 16. Fashion spread with rural backdrop, Western Home Monthly, July 1924, 26.

This persistent attention to rural culture also informs The Western Home Monthly’s visual constructions of gender. I found many conservative gender stereotypes throughout the publication: images tend to depict women in domestic, decorative, and/or subordinate roles (figs. 17–20). Yet a rural agricultural society often requires women to take an active part in outdoor work (figs. 21–22) and perhaps even participate in frontier adventures (fig. 23). Where these representations emerge, they point to the tensions between apparent gender ideals and the realities of rural life, giving us a vision of femininity that looks quite different from what we might find in a more urban-centered periodical. While these types of observations cannot encompass the entire breadth of the publication’s history, we both found that we were able to adjust our close reading strategies to the particular challenges and affordances of a diverse, unwieldy, and multivocal text.

Hoosier Cabinet Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, May 1914, 56.
Fig. 17. Hoosier Cabinet Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, May 1914, 56.
Prue Cottons Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, November 1920, inside front cover.
Fig. 18. Prue Cottons Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, November 1920, inside front cover.
“Meditation,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 12.
Fig. 19. “Meditation,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 12.
“The Intrusion of the Personal” illustration, Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 13.
Fig. 20. “The Intrusion of the Personal” illustration, Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 13.
“The Modern Way,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 75.
Fig. 21. “The Modern Way,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 75.
“Busy Picking Wax Beans for Market,” Western Home Monthly, May 1914, 67.
Fig. 22. “Busy Picking Wax Beans for Market,” Western Home Monthly, May 1914, 67.
Illustration for “The Man and His Wife,” Western Home Monthly, September 1932, 8.
Fig. 23. Illustration for “The Man and His Wife,” Western Home Monthly, September 1932, 8.

Implications for Pedagogy

Working through the challenges of a collaborative Periodical Studies project within the structure of a graduate seminar has provided insight into the advantages, roadblocks, and logistical concerns for implementing this type of work in a classroom setting. For students at both graduate and undergraduate levels, periodicals present a rigorous intellectual challenge, asking them to grapple with the complexities of a multivocal multimedia form. The diversity of potential approaches allows students to craft a methodology that appeals to their own interests, as we did in our work. By pursuing their own routes, students will gain expertise in their respective areas of inquiry and, ideally, will feel a sense of responsibility in contributing to a larger research project. Given the difficulty of covering a representative portion of a periodical, even with five group members, we propose two possible solutions. One would involve small groups that tackle a limited selection of material: for instance, a single year’s worth of issues. The other would ask the entire class to work towards a central research question across a broader run of the document, using small working groups clustered around similar interests or methodologies to facilitate collaboration.

For either approach we highly recommend scheduling in-class presentations and group work throughout the course. In a Periodical Studies classroom, students rarely have the ease of a single shared object of analysis. Even if everyone works with the same publication, they are unlikely to encounter the same elements through a single lens. For our group, the class presentations were a particularly helpful mechanism for checking our progress. Although we met frequently outside of class, the necessity of formalizing our research, articulating our accomplishments, and generating discussion questions pushed the project forward and provided the entire class with a consistent, evolving experience of a single publication. We recommend supplementing these formal presentations with frequent opportunities for informal group work. While students would also be expected to meet outside of class, offering designated class time to accomplish specific tasks helps to build rapport and encourage collaborative thinking while allowing the instructor to observe group dynamics and offer guidance.


Latham’s and Scholes’s conception of a Humanities lab goes beyond that of an extended group project, bearing implications for the way in which Humanities knowledge is conceived. We have limited our focus to the way this impulse can manifest in the restructuring of the classroom. The lab structure is a viable but challenging approach to Periodical Studies, especially for a graduate seminar or undergraduate class. The greatest challenges to this method stem from its collaborative nature and from the constraints of a semester-length project. Students new to Periodical Studies need time and guidance from an experienced instructor in order to understand the unique structure of a periodical and the methodologies created to explore its diverse and curiously-arranged content. While a single student could have developed an argument from the more than twenty thousand pages of The Western Home Monthly, s/he would have barely been able to make a dent in the whole. Having multiple scholars to tackle the expanse of the magazine has notable benefits. Distant reading is of course useful in this regard—assuming a particular computer competency—but its broad coverage comes at the expense of the nuance and sensitivity which magazines’ complex form and content demand. A lab structure allows for balance between these two approaches and delivers opportunities for cross-pollination between differing methodologies and perspectives. As amateur scholars of Periodical Studies, our collective work on The Western Home Monthly was certainly challenging, but it also yielded considerable rewards as we brought together our diverse skills, reconsidered our paradigm for Humanities research, and attempted to match the heterogeneity of the periodical.


The technological aspects of the project greatly benefitted from the support of the University of Notre Dame Center for Digital Scholarship.

[1] Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” PMLA 121, no. 2 (2006): 517–31, 530.

[2] Jeffrey Drouin, “Close- And Distant-Reading Modernism: Network Analysis, Text Mining, and Teaching The Little Review,” Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 5, no. 1 (2014): 110–35, 111.

[3] See Hannah McGregor and Nicholas van Orden, “Remediation and the Development of Modernist Forms in The Western Home Monthly,” in Reading Modernism with Machines: Digital Humanities and Modernist Literature, ed. Shawna Ross and James O’Sullivan (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 140–47.

[4] Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, “Voyant Tools,” 2016.

[5] Andrew Kachites McCallum, “MALLET: A Machine Learning for Language Toolkit, 2002.” For an excellent guide to MALLET, see Shawn Graham, Scott Weingart, and Ian Milligan, “Getting Started with Topic Modeling and MALLET,” The Programming Historian, September 2, 2012.

[6] For a simple explanation of topic modeling, see Matthew Jockers, “The LDA Buffet: A Topic Modeling Fable.” For more technical detail, see Ted Underwood, “Topic Modeling Made Just Simple Enough,” The Stone and the Shell, April 7, 2012.

[7] This process was carried out in Excel; Dan Johnson from the CDS graciously adapted the result for the online format.

[8] Maria DiCenzo, “Remediating the Past: Doing ‘Periodical Studies’ in the Digital Era,” English Studies in Canada 41, no. 1 (2015): 19–39, 29.

[9] See Penny Tinkler, “Fragmentation and Inclusivity: Methods for Working with Girls’ and Women’s Magazines,” in Women in Magazines: Research, Representation, Production and Consumption, ed. Rachel Ritchie, Sue Hawkins, Nicola Phillips, and S. Jay Kleinberg (New York: Routledge, 2016), 25–39.

[10] Debra Rae Cohen, “‘Strange Collisions’: Keywords Toward an Intermedial Periodical Studies,” English Studies in Canada 41, no. 1 (2015): 93–104, 93.

[11] Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, The Artist as Critic: Bitextuality in Fin-de-Siecle Illustrated Books (Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1995), 16; emphasis in original.

[12] Jennifer J. Sorensen, Modernist Experiments in Genre, Media, and Transatlantic Print Culture (New York: Routledge, 2016), 34.

[13] Sarah Cone Bryant, “In Time of Storm,” Western Home Monthly, September 1910, 4–8, 8.