emiT | Time

This past week has involved a lot of application of the material we have been learning for the past few weeks. Seeing the value of our time spent familiarizing ourselves with DH methodology tools and research techniques is really exciting. Yet, it all comes with a price tag.

Time. Lots of time. Time spent reading. Time spent discussing possible questions. And more time spent questioning those questions. There is no avoiding this. This is the nature of research – insightful findings come at the expense of time spent emmersing in the material and (as in our case as interns being new to the Digital Humanities) time spent learning how to approach our research topics in a systematic, efficient way.

Our work putting together a group proposal was fulfilling. Naturally, we first discussed an encompassing theme into which our individual interests fit. Emma’s fascination with the first college library overlapped with Katie’s beguilment with early learning at Amherst as viewed through the course catalogs, which in turn intersected with Amanda’s captivation with the lived experience between 1821-61, and finally my own attraction to the same topic as it relates to physical environments and boundaries between college and town. All these seamlessly wove into our chosen theme: “Early Learning at Amherst,” which captures our overlapping curiosities.

Writing individual proposals to contribute to our group abstract was as thrilling as it was challenging. I was initially overwhelmed by the possibilities within my chosen topic: an investigation into the physicalities and boubdaries of early college architecture and how it facilitated learning. Yet, I felt constricted by our chosen theme. This push/pull dynamic was mentally stimulating, yielding a project proposal that is challenging and possible to complete within our limited time frame.

My project investigates the lived experiences of early Amherst including, but not limited to, student and faculty life and the intersection between the college and town of Amherst. Focusing attention on learning at Amherst in various forms (academic, physical education, social aptitude), I will funnel my attention towards investigating the physical and social structures that facilitated such learning. Although this investigation lends itself to mapping the spaces and movements of peoples of interest over the period between 1821-61, it is not exclusively confined to place-making. An analysis of visual material, complemented by textual evidence will offer new insights into how Amherst College students, faculty, and townspeople built a conducive learning environment (both literally and figuratively) in early Amherst.

I am still a far cry from mastering DH methodologies and techniques. Nonetheless, I feel more confident to take on an individual project than I was last week. Progress, I presume, is the purpose of learning. Inevitably, however, effective research will emiT | Time. It’s important to reflect on that.

On Methods, Data, and Proposals

This week, was a particularly transitory period of the internship—we were not quite finished with methodology workshops, but at the same time, were poised to begin to construct proposals for more substantive research. This, to me, seemed like a research-process-sweet-spot: we’re pretty familiar with the tools and methods that are available to us, but it still feels like there is enough temporal wiggle-room to be really ambitious with our ideas, to think broadly and imaginatively about potential project avenues. Inevitable limits of time and practicality have not quite set in yet.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how we interpret and understand “data” as a concept. Earlier this week, we read Johanna Drucker’s article “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,” in which she identifies a need for data constructions and visualizations that are more in line with the uncertainty and persistent questioning practices that are characteristic of the humanities. Data is so often taken at face value and as fact, with little substantive questioning of any methodological underpinnings or assumptions inherent in data collection and organization practices. As I start to think about how data visualization might play into our final project, I’m also thinking about how data visualizations work and what they do.

I’ll use my current interest/proposal as an example. After spending a lot of time digging through finding aids and library catalogues, I became fascinated by the college’s original library, and its relationship to concurrent student libraries, the contents of which are documented in the archives. I decided that it would be interesting to consider the differences between student-curated versus faculty curated library collections, potentially comparing both subject matter and locations from which books were sourced in each case. As a first stab at this project, I began compiling a spreadsheet of data on books in the original college library. Immediately, I realized how much my own decisions and biases would affect the results of my research. Before I even arrived at this point, librarians decided on a relevant set of metadata with which to describe the books in the online catalogue. On my end, in order to compile this data, I had to decide which pieces of previously-created metadata about the books were relevant to my project, and also had to decide on a standardized list of subject headings under which the books could be grouped for my purposes. Just like that, I felt my own priorities, assumptions, and prior training “contaminating” the information in front of me… 

Though I have little to offer in terms of ways to rectify this conundrum—Drucker herself calls the task “enormous”—I think that a first step is to make apparent the decisions and biases that contributed to the construction of a project by outlining our methodology and research process for reader-viewers, such that they are equipped with enough context and information to examine DH projects not simply at their face value, but also from a critical/ever-questioning/humanities-informed  standpoint.

On another note, this week was especially fun because I think we really began to see where our interests might intersect or fit together to create a cohesive final project. I’m particularly excited because all four of us are so committed to making sure the final product reads as a cohesive, though multi-faceted, project, and plan to link our sub-projects to one another, compelling the reader-viewer to draw their own connections between pages. We have lots more to do–we’re still pitching new ideas and tweaking projects every day–but I’m excited to continue to draw connections and collaborate as the final proposal takes shape!

From Drifting About to Diving In

There is something to be said for wandering.

I am prone to long walks in forests, eyes flitting from mossy rock to rotten stump to staid trees. I don’t set out searching for certain creatures, so every chipmunk, starling, frog is a wondrous treasure. At times I’ll be mesmerized by flashes of blue sky between branches or the mirror world just beneath a puddle, and I’ll stand, still and silent, for minutes entranced.

That’s how these first few weeks of research have felt. Sticking, at first, to clearly laid-out paths– the Amherst College Early History collection– then wandering, traipsing out to the Dramatics Collection, to carpenters’ ledgers, to faculty minutes, or else following a flickering idea, an elusive bird, from tree to tree.

And it’s been wonderful, this welcome perusal, this pleasant wandering. But after a while, one craves a purpose, a point, a destination. Eyes seek trail markers, hunger for guaranteed views at the end of a hike.

That’s how proposals feel. We know our way around the woods, trust our garnered skills, and are ready to march on with purpose. We’re sitting around a map that we’ve half filled in ourselves and plotting out a course for the weeks to follow. It’s fun. Like kids playing at being pirates, searching for that fabled X.

There were challenges as well, of course. Narrowing down our interests into something researchable, hopefully manageable, has the pain of all the paths not taken. Finding a guiding question for our inclinations is daunting too– moving from that pure joy of exploration to the sedate pleasure of purpose can feel like a loss, even though it isn’t.

I’m glad we had, as it were, practice proposals first. I’m ready for commitment, for rolling up my sleeves and digging deep into data, but I’d not want to rush in too quickly to anything less than the perfect match. Perhaps it’s too limiting to think of the right research path as a some sort of destined affair, but, well, I’m a romantic at heart.

I’ve been hanging out a lot with the course catalogs– we’re pretty close at this point– but I’m not sure if I’m ready for that next step. There’s a lot I like about them– the endless numbers lurking beneath the surface, those statistics waiting to be visualized, the subtler questions of formatting, that culture and mentality embedded in form, and the sheer continuity and scope of them– but I can’t help but wonder what other potential matches are out there.

I am reassured that the decision is not entirely my own– I know my team will help me narrow down my options into one topic that will play nicely with their own. I’m excited to walk alongside my fellow archival adventurers into new territory.

We have disparate interests, to be sure, but our passion for this project will help us bridge those differences. And it’s crucial that we all bring together those different perspectives into something holistic. There are, in all our interests, sites for synthesis. We may need to narrow down our topics into that one thread that weaves best into the tapestry, but it’s still our own colors dancing through the whole.

weaving, metaphor, I'm so week
There’s a lot to be done, a focus to be found, paths to leave less traveled — that can feel like a lot and a loss, like laying down limits just as we’re getting busy. But there’s still plenty of time for wandering, adventuring, as long as it’s in the right direction — we’re not out of the woods yet.

The Proposal

Guess what? We’ve had a SUCCESSFUL PROPOSAL!!!!

Nah, no one’s getting married, but this progression of events is just as exciting (perhaps even more so) for us interns! This past week, we presented our first major project proposal, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say that it was both a challenge and a delight.

Our overarching project theme was “Learning at Amherst” and focused on the years 1821-1861. This project consisted of three main sections, which, when viewed together, we hoped would give our viewers a multi-faceted perspective on what it was to be learning at Amherst College in the mid-Nineteenth Century. These three sections drew on three personal interests which we have been investigating during our research–Amherst’s early libraries, the first course catalogs, and the lived experiences of Amherst students, faculty, and townspeople. Personally, I loved putting the proposal together; it was wonderful to see topics that the four of us have been interested in on a personal level be morphed into a collective project, with crossover information that allowed us to see our main topic on deeper levels and through different lenses. I think that this was one of the first times that we saw our personal research pursuits shaping into something tangible and, for lack of a better term, “for the greater good,” which was so exciting! Also encouraging was how well we worked together as a team to talk about our ideas, take on specific roles, and produce an idea and a document that expressed our thoughts and passions coherently.

For me, the current biggest question that I have revolves around that “lived experiences” topic, which Takudzwa and I have a profound interest in: What, exactly, are we doing? This question makes me sounds pretty clueless, but it’s not that bad, I promise! The predicament is merely that, currently, our ideas take into account both the architectural and geographical landscapes of 1800s Amherst, as well as personal accounts and photographs of people’s daily lives at the young College on the Hill. We’re going to have to narrow down our topic, figure out a specific question to answer, as well as narrow down the resources that we’ll use to answer that question. Personally, I’m definitely going to struggle with this–I’m fascinated with all of the resources that we have and I want to delve into everything… But I know that that’s not feasible. Lucky for me, I get to work with an amazing team who I know will give amazing advice and input when it comes to making these tough decisions!

Overall, I know that this proposal is really only a small starting point for the main project that we will be working on for the second half of the internship (though this definitely doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate our accomplishment–I’m so proud of us!!). Looking ahead, I have two main concerns:

  1. The narrowing down of our topics. There’s just so much amazing information and so many resources at our fingertips, and I want to utilize every single bit of it! But if that happened, I’d probably still be sitting in Frost in the year 2067, just in time for my 50th class reunion.
  2. The technological processing. Something I’ve learned when putting together our proposal, as well as when using programs like the Topic Modeling Tool, Tableau, and Gephi, is that tasks that we originally estimate might only take an hour can sometimes take up an entire morning (or more)! We’re definitely going to have to be smart about not biting off more than we can chew while still being ambitious, as well as working as a team to get things finished.

When all is said and done, I can’t wait for what we come up with next! I suppose all of this is sort of like a wedding engagement–we’re currently in a season of anticipating and preparing for the Big Day, which for us will be the finalization of our main project! In the meantime will be a lot of preparing and decision-making (and maybe some cake-tasting? We should get a cake. I love cake. Let’s get a cake). Yaaaay!

cake

A Method to (DH) Madness

I must admit: after the first week of my Digital Scholars internship, I thought the task of researching the early college history in the span of two months was insurmountable. Among many linear feet of manuscripts, countless volumes of publications, articles, and journals, apparently, lies new insights into the early college history that I must dig out. This task beats finding a needle in a haystack for difficulty, I thought. I equated it to finding a silver one hidden among a needle-stack in fifty shades of gray, all within a limited time frame – nearly impossible. After an additional week of methodology workshops, however, I found my concerns abated.

This week focused our attention as interns on text analysis techniques: Google Ngrams, Voyant, Lexos, and topic modeling. In addition to learning how to distill large volumes of text, I picked up a few new words that allow for better understanding of the hermeneutics of my corpus (I may need practise at using these new words though). I have come to understand the methodologies applied to Digital Humanities in a practical way (as is natural for my architecture background). Like a fulcrum, text analysis tools do not change the load of information to be lifted from the Archives and Special Collections (pun always intended). Rather, the tools allow for more output for the effort placed into analyzing large volumes of text in a limited span of time.

I will not go into the details of the features of each of the tools we learned mostly because I am yet to fully grasp each of them, and partly because they each achieve similar outcomes: to translate texts into graphic information. Text analysis is a neat art! As a visual learner I appreciate how, for example, a phrase or argument can be traced in a body of text, or across different texts that may or may not be explicitly related. This is valuable in our quest as interns to acquire new insights into the old material available in the Archives and Special Collections.

The text analysis workshops have reshaped my approach to my project for the internship. Rather than exclusively focus on using visual material such as photographs and architectural drawings to understand early Amherst College architecture, I will be analyzing college publications and journals from between 1821 – 1861 to compliment my findings thus far. Previously, I was overwhelemed by the quantity of the material available for the scope of our research. Now, given additional time-saving tools, I am ready to begin analysis of texts that point to the rich early college architecture.

I cannot say that I have mastered many of the new research tools we have been taught. Nonetheless, I feel more confident that the task before us is possible given our awareness of more efficient ways to climb the mountain of material before us. It seems, afterall, there is a method to this madness.

Armed for Inquiry

I am not mathematically minded. After my Precalc midterm, my teacher looked at me with a mix of awe and disappointment and asked, “Katie, what happened?” I forged through Psych Statistics wielding rote memorization like a machete. No matter how many times I order the exact same meal at Fresh Side, I still have to break out my calculator app to figure out the tip.

Despite this… I love data.

I also love intuition– the spectral webs of crisscrossing themes and the cotton candy feel of abstract ideas spinning together.

But there’s something exciting about boiling down complex ideas into simple, manipulatable numbers. To see those intuitions finally concrete in scatterplots and percentages– or else thereby denied and replaced by a new realm of phantasmagoric possibilities.

This love of data has been amplified by the various methodology workshops we’ve been doing. Learning about tools like Voyant and MALLET, the ways they can act as not a substitute for analysis but as a supplement or stimulus, and looking at data visualization, the way arguments can be made in images– all of it has been exhilarating. There are so many paths to walk down that ultimately I don’t feel terrible about having to narrow it down to just a few; there are thousands of good and great options, sure, but I just have to find the right ones.

Data exists everywhere– these workshops have convinced me of that. They’ve given me a new way of looking at our archival resources– inaugural speeches can be analyzed for trends, student publications can be broken down into topics, course catalogs can be distilled into graphs, charts, numbers. I’ve always been one to value the anecdote and its place in painting abstract ideas– now I realize that as beautiful as broad strokes are, there’s also power in pointillism.

Me, looking for the right paths and armed for the expedition.
Me, looking for the right paths and armed for the expedition.

So I’m ready to move on from frolicking to focusing– both have their merits– and to start circling in on a final topic. I have all these new, powerful methodologies– I want to sic them on something.

And I feel prepared for the journey– I’ve been armed for inquiry, I’ve got a great team beside me, and I’m eagerly awaiting the challenges ahead.

After all, we’re dealing in data, and data is fun.

New Tools and Old Histories

The featured image is a detail of the entire original map, available by means of digital scholarship: Gray, Alonzo,  Adams, C. B. (Charles Baker),  and Pendleton’s Lithography.  “A map of Amherst with a view of the college and Mount Pleasant Institution.”  Map.  1833.  Norman B. Leventhal Map Center,  https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:cj82ks51r (accessed June 16, 2017). 

Welcome to this week’s edition of I Never Knew That Thing Existed, But It is So Cool, and Now My Mind is Going in A Million Different Directions With Differing Ideas of How to Utilize It!, featuring NGrams, Voyant, Lexos, and the Topic Modeling Tool! Yay!

In all seriousness, this week has been filled with many workshops, discussions, and test-runs designed to familiarize us interns with varying digital scholarship tools–and my goodness, has it been awesome! Overwhelming, but awesome. As a person who’s always struggled with the STEM side of my education (though I’ve also always been fascinated by it, and consequently frustrated that my brain often struggles with understanding it), I’ve absolutely loved getting to know these deeply technologically-based tools through the lens of the humanities. For example, Voyant’s ability to analyze text and create visualizations describing various characteristics of that text blows my mind! As an artist who loves image-based learning, this technology expands not only my conceptualization of the text, but also the questions brewing in my mind when thinking about the text. It’s cliché to say (and therefore my inner almost-English-major heart weeps as I type this), but new doors have been opened for me that may lead to new horizons!

Perhaps these Amherst students of 1868 are just as intrigued with their studies as I am with these new methodologies! Lovell, John L., 1825-1903, “Room no. 12, North College dormitory at Amherst College,” Digital Amherst, accessed June 16, 2017, http://www.digitalamherst.org/items/show/571.
Perhaps these Amherst students of 1868 are just as intrigued with their studies as I am with these new methodologies!
Lovell, John L., 1825-1903, “Room no. 12, North College dormitory at Amherst College,” Digital Amherst, accessed June 16, 2017, http://www.digitalamherst.org/items/show/571.

I’ve used texts and topics relating to the early history of Amherst College as my “guinea pigs” when exploring how to use these tools, which has been really valuable. Three college history books I’ve been familiarizing myself with over the past couple of weeks are William Seymour Tyler’s Autobiography of William Seymour Tyler, his History of Amherst College During Its First Half Century, and Stanley King’s The Consecrated Eminence. As I’ve looked at visual models and textual lists created by the aforementioned technologies, I’ve begun to see trends and develop new research questions, such as:

  • What topics did Tyler write about most often and why?
  • How did Amherst College physically and conceptually develop as it passed through the hands of various college presidents?
  • What, if anything, does Tyler’s writing style say about his experience with the college? Was his experience an exceptional one, or can we infer his contemporaries’ Amherst experiences from his?

When realizing that the time to turn from “learning how to use tools” to “working on a project” is fast approaching, I’m really excited! I definitely feel that I have enough of a grasp of these methodologies to begin brainstorming/creating a focused project–it already seems that I’m creating a billion mini-project-ideas in my mind as I play with the tools! Plus, I get to work with an amazing team of interns and librarians (I promise I’m not just saying this to butter anyone up–they’re all awesome)! One of the best parts of working in a team is pulling from each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and I definitely know that I can count on the others to help me learn, push myself, and gain new insights into the technologies we’re using and topics we’re researching. How cool is that?

IMG_4450

So, behold: Barrett Hall (far left through window), circa 1859, and the Moose, circa 2014.  I’ve witnessed the establishment of one of these Amherst College icons, and the other I’ve been reading up on over the past couple of weeks as an intern. As I type this, I sit betwixt the two–physically, of course, but metaphorically, too. In what ways will I utilize tools of the digital world to bridge the gap between Amherst past and Amherst present? The Moose grins at me as if he already knows, and I grin back at him, eager to find out.

Tool or Topic?

chickenoregg

Which comes first: tool or topic? This question has loomed large over our first week of methodology workshops. As I see it, the work we did followed two distinct strands this week:

1.) The craft of archival research: how to ask researchable questions of archival materials, how to navigate collections and databases, how to be imaginative and far-reaching in our research and question-forming practices.

2.) The (wild) world of digital methodologies: how to use and navigate digital tools, how to evaluate digital scholarship, how to assess which tools might be useful and which less so given a research question/data set.

Currently, these still feel like two fairly separate tracks—we jump into a digital methodology workshop for a few hours here, spend a few hours deciphering nineteenth century correspondences there—but soon, very soon, we’re going to have to weave the work we’re doing on both fronts into one (hopefully) coherent, insightful work of scholarship. I return, then, to my first question—which comes first, tool or topic? I’m still not sure.

Dramatic renditioning of me in the archives, puzzling over all the possible ways I might formulate a research question... (Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving "Melencolia I")
Dramatic renditioning of me in the archives, puzzling over all the possible ways I might formulate a research question…
(Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving “Melencolia I”)

Trevor Owens’s blog post “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities” provides some comfort in the face of this uncertainty. Owens’s characterization of DH research as an exploratory process, with many potential starting points depending on a project’s objectives, speaks to how I’ve felt over the past few days, as I’ve begun to get a better sense of what is (and is not) possible given our research collections, tool access, and collective skill set. 

In the past, when I’ve approached a major research project, I’ve done so with a particular set of images or objects in mind…my art historical brain is drawn first to the visual or material subject matter, from which my research questions inevitably develop and multiply. Here, instead, I find myself drawn to more vast groups of materials, and to content and questions that I wouldn’t usually tackle with my toolbox of traditional humanities scholarship methods.

A recent idea I had comes to mind: the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst has preserved the volumes that comprised original library of the college, and to this day, they remain together in the special collections stacks. The archives also houses the library catalogues of the two early literary societies, which were hugely popular amongst students in the early years of the college. Especially as a few of us are interested in considering student-directed learning vs. faculty-directed learning practices in this early period, I think that comparing the types of books students were collecting versus the types of books the faculty were collecting could be particularly illuminating, and perhaps would be a good candidate for some kind of data visualization technique…

However, we still have so much more to learn, and I can’t be sure where a new batch of tools and methods might direct my thinking next week…  Either way, though, I’m learning to embrace the uncertainty and the interplay between our tool-motivated ideas and our topic-motivated ideas going forward.

Brawl to Ballet (and Embracing the Battle)

Two men, two journals. Or, rather, fifteen men between 1821 and 1861 in Amherst College with an odd assortment of journals, diaries and autobiographies. Or, actually, forty years of Amherst College students living and recording their lives only to have a fraction end up in the archives, tucked away in neat little folders in dark boxes on metal shelves.

rackham mice bird pageBut for me, today, there is only Alfred and Augustus, class of ’58 and ’39, with their patterned leather-bound books enclosing nineteenth century scrawl. And even that is too broad a scope.

Augustus Wing was a philosophical mind, particularly fond of poetry and linguistics, with a keen appreciation of geography and theology and a tendency to jot down bits of history.

Alfred Ellsworth, on the other hand, is a more opaque figure. Not because his journal lacks substance– it was auctioned off with a letter noting its rich Amherst-related contents — but because, quite frankly, I can stare and stare and stare and make little sense of his slender slanting scrawl.

So I spend my time with Augustus.

***

The data is marshaled into precise little rows, the columns standing side by side. Each student from the class of 1825 with their hometown right up against their place and date of death. As if that weren’t already cold and impersonal enough, another sheet strips away the human touch of “Colerain” and “Woodbridge” and replaces them with lengthy strings of latitude and longitude.

But, strangely, it’s not as austere as it seems. As the numbers shift from from 42 to 33, or 77 to 89, you see a life far flung from the familiarity of home. Lincoln Clark and Robert Coffin, next to each in the class list might now be lying next to each other in their graves– both died in the Massachusetts town of Conway. And of the 31 classmates, seven of them– seven!– died in the decade after their freshman year.

The data waits, geographical coordinates ready to map across the United States patterns of concentricity and change. TimeMapper and MapStory lurk between tutorial and troubleshooting tabs, their infrastructure perfect for the task at hand. And yet…

I am thwarted. I add a layer of my data, but nothing appears on screen. Following the diagram in the FAQs, I publish my Google spreadsheet, only to have the website insistently inform me that I should try publishing my sheet. I stare at the other projects and their pristine visualizations and wonder in despair if the rest of the world will ever see the beauty in my data.

***

I am used to living, research-wise, in the best of all possible worlds. With all my texts in neat type, with the library making available any article I require, with Word and Scrivener and Powerpoint all mastered — with all this, I am used to threading together themes with data and established theory with original commentary, everything dressed up and bolstered by with alliteration, chiasmus, and tricolons crescens.

Now I encounter resistance in both the material and the medium, especially at the point of welding them together. For how can I honestly present a picture of student life at Amherst if there’s a rich source I neglected? How much worse will that lacuna be when magnified by the data’s presentation? Is it dishonest, as well, to use anything less than the optimal software to display the data if by doing so its representation loses clarity and possibly significance as well?

This battleground between data and its display is a new one for me, and at times I feel unequipped. Which should dictate which? Whose side am I fighting on? Am I paramedic trying to keep both armies alive, or a Valkyrie ready to whisk away the weaker to a different sort of glory?

I think, perhaps, that as I learn to negotiate that space between it will become less of a brawl and more of a ballet, methodology, data, and research questions each a moving piece but ultimately moving in harmony. That is the ideal, at least.

And as I work towards such a state, I’ll keep dreaming up research questions and digging through the archives. My naive hope at the beginning was to meld medium and material, to have one reflect and amplify the other. I realize now that the task will be more difficult than I imagined– by that only makes me all the more determined to achieve such an arduous but ultimately invaluable union. And to do so I will need an intimate understanding of early Amherst. The hard (yet easy data) of birth and death sites alongside trickier anecdotes and opinions gleaned from diaries, journals, publications, lecture notes and letters. I must be even-handed in my research, push back at the resistance, and aim to achieve a balance.

It is only fair, I think, to have one Alfred for each Augustus.

 

Research Question Questions

I am fortunate to have had the privilege of getting research instruction from different librarians, including Sara Smith and Dunstan McNutt, during my time preparing for and writing my senior honors thesis with the Architectural Studies department. Despite the multiple instruction sessions, however, I cannot claim to be a seasoned researcher. The skill of research is as iterative as the process of research itself. The instructors’ support, nonetheless, has not been in vain.

Before receiving research training, I approached research projects with a lock-and-key mentality; the research question being the lock, and my argument or thesis being the key. Often, I would either find myself entangled with multiple keys struggling to open one door, or exhaust my efforts into trying to find the door in a seemingly endless hallway to match a key that I had crafted. In some cases I got weighed down by multiple keys, failing to figure out how best to find the key that would match one door among multiple possibilities. None of these approaches were sustainable.

For my thesis I read widely around apartheid planning in South African townships before attempting to find what question(s) my findings unlocked. With a general interest but no specific research question to drive my inquiry, I collected a bucket list of books, articles, and journals that would help me get a better understanding of apartheid planning. My visit to Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, over winter break resulted in a breakthrough. I learned how apartheid infrastructure was being used to benefit the locals, and then proposed ways to replicate this form of vernacular urbanism to other African cities that share a similar history of colonial planning. While this approach opened possibilities in generating further questions (or doors leading to new doors), it often resulted in a frustrating task of trying multiple and often self-contradicting arguments to fit a research question.

At the start of the Digital Humanities internship, I had a linear way of thinking about and executing research projects. In his article, “Where to Start? On Research Questions in The Digital Humanities,” Trevor Owens discourages the approach of trying to fit the tool to the question, as I often did, and instead proposes incorporating Joe Maxwell’s five components into all research endeavors: setting goals, having a conceptual framework, defining clear research questions, applying effective methods, and validating the research. He suggests that research questions function to define the scope of a project rather than to define the project itself. They provide a reference point as the project develops, and develop concurrently with the project.

Combining Owens’ insight with the methodology workshop on concept mapping, I will be conducting my research this summer with a more holistic approach. I will map out my parameters using a definitive research question and dive into the archives with as open a mind as is possible about what my findings will be. Thus, in keeping with the lock-and-key analogy, my new approach is the equivalent of crafting the lock and the key for a frame that opens the door to new possibilities. I am confident that the library staff and my colleagues can help me find the right tools to match this task.