Adam Hammond receives Northrop Frye Faculty Award

April 20, 2022 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

As an undergraduate student, Adam Hammond remembers turning the pages of Northrop Frye’s book The Educated Imagination and the profound impact it had on his life.

“He had a role in me deciding to get into this discipline,” says Hammond, an associate professor with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of English.

“I remember not knowing if I should go to grad school because I didn't know if what I was doing would have any relevance beyond academia. But The Educated Imagination made such a strong case for the value of a humanities education.”

So it’s especially satisfying for Hammond to be named as the winner of the 2022 Northrop Frye Award in the individual category. Presented by the University of Toronto Alumni Association, this honour recognizes outstanding teaching that succeeds in conveying the importance — and excitement — of research to students.

“The fact that it's the Northrop Frye award definitely means something to me,” says Hammond. “What excites me most about my research is the way it integrates with my teaching. So an award that's focused on the integration of the two is very meaningful.”

“Congratulations to Adam Hammond for winning this prestigious award,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. “Adam is an expert in twentieth century modern fiction, and a pioneer in the world of digital humanities. His research and teaching explore the computational analysis of literature, which is creating so many exciting new opportunities for students.”

The whole bringing together of my teaching and research and Northrop Frye, who started me on this road, is really rewarding.

“I’m excited by big, systemic, historical questions,” says Hammond, noting that his research projects are often large in scope and require a team of students to undertake.

“And that's my favorite thing about this — it’s a different research model compared to a lot of humanities research. Working with students and having a team, I love that part of it.”

One example is his Project Dialogism, co-led with computational linguists Graeme Hirst, Krishnapriya Vishnubhotla and Julian Brooke. This study is developing techniques for identifying and analyzing multi-voicedness in fiction, such as age, gender, culture, social class and other criteria.

“I was interested in this question of: to what extent can a novel model the diversity of voices in the real world, and what does that do?” says Hammond. “Which authors are able to create a world in which there are a lot of different competing, speaking voices? It turned out to be something very computationally tractable.”

Behind this project is the annotation of novels conducted by undergraduate students who, since the summer of 2020, have identified close to 36,000 quotations in 22 novels.

“We’ve come up with an algorithm to describe which novels are the most multi-voiced, or which authors create characters who sound the least like themselves and then we rank every novel from most to least,” says Hammond.

Another group of students is supporting Hammond’s Birth of the Modern Detective Story (BMDS) project.

Launched by the Jackman Humanities Institute in 2021, Hammond is working alongside Simon Stern, a professor with faculty appointments both in English and the Faculty of Law.

The project tracks the development of the modern detective story by building and analyzing a database containing detective stories published between 1890 and 1920 — a time span that’s generated most detective fiction rules and conventions.

“Stern is interested in the idea of planted and fabricated evidence,” says Hammond. “And he became interested in practices in the legal system related to the use of planted and fabricated evidence in detective fiction.

“Did detective fiction identify the problem of police planting and fabricating evidence and then the public became aware of it? Like me, Simon is interested in what literature was actually doing for readers and how that changed their experience of the world and affect daily life.”

The project’s undergraduate students have collected 380 detective stories so far, each annotated for 61 categories related to types of crime, clues and types of evidence.

Its database is already proving useful to other departments outside of English, with undergraduate student researchers working with Hammond’s data set in two U of T statistics classes.

Back in his own department, Hammond’s keen interest in fusing literature with data sciences extends to his courses.

His Digital Text course explores the impacts of literature’s transition from printed to digital forms — such as webcomics, fan fiction and video games — and asks questions such as: How do digital and printed texts differ materially, and how does this affect literary form, consumption, reception — and society more broadly?

And this fall, Hammond will teach a new course: Literature and Data.

Designed for humanities students, this course provides an introduction to computer programming, statistics and data science that will help students develop the skills to become familiar with literary data and computation.

“I'm in the process of formulating the course right now even though it won’t be offered until September,” he says. “I'm incredibly excited about it.”

He hopes the course will enable his students to gain new insights about literature, history, or culture from a spreadsheet of bestsellers, or a database of fan fiction, or from an archive of hundreds or even thousands of novels.

“I want to give students a chance to develop these kinds of skills in the context of English,” he says, noting this award just adds to his motivation.

“The whole bringing together of my teaching and research and Northrop Frye, who started me on this road, is really rewarding.”