Student Spotlight: Nikoo Sarraf & Jennifer Chen

In their Tech Forum talk, "The difference queer fanfiction makes: Lessons for the publishing industry," Nikoo and Jennifer presented their research on queer representation in fanfiction and mainstream fiction.
Image by Jennifer Chen (left) and Nikoo Sarraf (right).

Nikoo Sarraf recently graduated from McGill University with a BA in Computer Science and Hispanic Studies and is currently enrolled in the MA in Digital Humanities. Jennifer Chen is a second-year B.Sc. student at McGill University, planning to major in Computer Science.

As members of our .txtlab, Nikoo and Jennifer have spent the last year working on a research project that analyzes the textual and stylistic markers of queer fanfiction as a powerful and transformative form of writing, especially for LGBTQ+ youth.

"Fanfiction normalizes intimacy and emotional vulnerability for sexual and gender minority youth."

In their research, Nikoo and Jennifer run text mining analyses with tools such as NLTK and MALLET on a dataset of nearly 14,000 fanfics and a collection of 426 novels "to better understand the stylistic qualities of queer fanfiction." They explore taboo, character centrism, and emotional vulnerability with a focus on sexual and gender minorities, and explain the implications of their research for industry publishers: "There appears to be a sizable market for fiction centred around LGBTQ+ characters yet a lack of publications that are being produced to fulfill this demand."

Graph showing most distinctive events of the fanfic data in Chen and Sarraf's work
Image by Jennifer Chen and Nikoo Sarraf.
Events that are most distinctive of the fanfic data based on the results of a log-likelihood ratio test.

From the .txtlab to the Tech Forum

Together, Nikoo and Jennifer presented their collaborative work on queer fanfiction at BookNet's Tech Forum on March 10. When asked about their journey to present at this prestigious event, Nikoo and Jennifer explained that it all began at the .txtlab. They both joined the .txtlab last academic year (September 2020) and soon after approached our DH GPD, Prof. Andrew Piper, about this research project. After writing a .txtlab paper in the summer of 2021, Nikoo and Jennifer were contacted by BookNet Canada to present at the Tech Forum. They are grateful for the support and supervision of Prof. Piper, through whom BookNet contacted them: "We are fortunate to work under him. Prof. Piper and the .txtlab really encourage people to get involved."

Poster for Jennifer and Nikoo's presentation at the Tech Forum
Image by Tech Forum (BookNet Canada).

Doing DH at McGill

For Nikoo, the .txtlab was key in her decision to pursue DH: "The .txtlab led me to where I am now. I learned about other people's research, which sparked my interest in DH. It is the reason why I went from Computer Science to DH." Likewise, Jennifer greatly values her experience at McGill: "The .txtlab has taught me a lot. The presentations are eye-opening and it is a great opportunity to be exposed to research. McGill, in general, provides strong foundations to conduct research." Thus, Nikoo and Jennifer encourage their peers to focus on networking and collaboration.

"Don't be afraid to put yourself out there and contact initiatives you are interested in. Putting yourself out there is hard, but it pays off. Take advantage of your time and resources at McGill."

Nikoo and Jennifer will continue their research considering some of the points raised by the Tech Forum audience and hope to publish their paper in the near future.

Graph of topic frequencies in Chen and Sarraf's datasets
Image by Jennifer Chen and Nikoo Sarraf.
Graph showing topic frequencies sorted from most disproportionately represented in the fanfiction dataset (on the right) to most disproportionately represented in the NYT dataset (on the left).

Learn more about Nikoo and Jennifer's research in this .txtlab's blog post and make sure to watch the recording of their presentation at the Tech Forum.

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