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

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.

DH and Research and Mapping… Oh My!

Research is in the eye of the beholder. –Not-so-ancient proverb

When I begin a new research project, I feel very much like how I imagine the girl in this painting, A Girl Writing, by Henriette Browne to be feeling–excited by so many intellectual and imaginative prospects, but also easily distracted by the wonder of the world around me and all that I am discovering.

When conducting my own, personal research (i.e., when unprompted by a specific topic for a class exercise), I tend to begin with a topic that interests me. For example, prior to my semester studying abroad in Scotland, I thought it was a good idea to learn as much as I possibly could about Scottish culture, society, geography, history… The list goes on. I began by watching documentaries and reading travel guides geared towards tourists, with the intention of gaining knowlehttps://giphy.com/gifs/fall-unicorn-psl-scarves-legwarmers-bike-funny-cute-illustration-l2Jho5fnv7sfNAAZqdge of the basics (for example, did you know that the bicycle was invented in Scotland? Or that the national animal is the unicorn? Yeah, Scotland is pretty cool). From there, I found that I had deeper interests in specific topics, such as the clan system, folklore, and music. I also wanted to learn more about the town of St Andrews specifically, where I was preparing to study and to live. With these topics in mind, I then sought out resources (films, documentaries, books, poetry, art, and songs) to give me more information concerning them. As I discovered, questions began formulating in my mind, and I took on some side-research to find answers as I continued on. I learned quite a lot this way, and enjoyed how one topic would lead into another, which would lead to another and another… The possibilities were endless!

Today, my research methods in those types of situations are much the same, and have been guiding my first week of the internship. I’ll start with looking at a list of Amherst College presidents because I don’t know much about them, become interested in William Augustus Stearns because I lived in a dormitory named after him, read the program and speeches given at his inauguration, read snapshots of his life written by one of his colleagues, and finally end up digging through the archives to look at his personal letters… All the while finding interesting tidbits that make my mind go in a million other directions.

While exhilarating, this method can also be exhausting while not being exhaustive (though, is it really possible to ever research everything about anything?), which made Trevor Owens’ article “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities” an interesting read for me. While it may seem like the logical thing to do, I don’t usually begin any sort of research with a question–at least, not one that I’m cognizant of. Owens notes that “research questions are useful structures to organize your work and inquiry,” which is a great point, also reflects on the importance of establishing goals when doing research. Both of these points have actually been huge focuses of the last few days of this DSSI Summer, and I’m definitely seeing how valuable they are, particularly when tackling topics that are large, complicated, and laden with historical and archival material to sift through (COUGHthefirstdecadesofAmherstCollegehistoryCOUGH).

I’m quite excited to continue researching and exploring topics within Amherst’s early history–as a team, we interns have come up with some incredible questions and ideas, and the Digital Humanities tools that we’re beginning to use are already proving to be invaluable to our tasks. In particular, I’m excited about creating some sort of interactive map for viewers to engage with that connects the architecture and landscape of the contemporary campus with that of the mid-19th-century campus. GIS mapping tools could provide amazing platforms for this potential project, and I’m really thankful for the various mapping websites that we looked at (such as two of my favorites, The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City and Geography of the Post: U.S. Post Offices in the Nineteenth-Century West), which are each giving me ideas and expanding my conception of what is physically possible to create.

Screenshot from The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City, a website that utilizes GIS mapping to create an interactive map experience.
Screenshot from The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City, a website that utilizes GIS mapping to create an interactive map experience.

Moving forward, I’m eager to continue exploring answers to the questions that the other interns and I have come up with–it’s amazing that we have so many resources at our disposal, and that we’re learning so many new tools to help with researching and presenting! I can’t wait to see what we come up with!

Initial Thoughts on A Summer in Digital Scholarship at Amherst College

From a young age, I have been intrigued by the faces and places of the past–as a child, I visited various historical museums, found a home within the pages of historical fiction novels and films, dreamt of finding a time machine or Narnia-like wardrobe, and spent hours poring over the diagrams, photographs, and first-person accounts that I found in my history textbooks. I loved how I was alive in the same world that so many others had once been alive in, and that, while most of the people and events that I was learning about had passed on, handprints of those people and events still impacted my own life however-many years later. I often found myself thinking of historical figures as friends who I’d merely lost touch with, and, as a native of Buffalo, New York, I loved comparing old photographs of Buffalo to the contemporary land and cityscapes that I lived in myself. For me, exploring history was merely a step in discovering where my life and other lives intersected in this big world that we live in.

Imagine my excitement when I arrived as a first-year at Amherst College: an institution of higher learning that was literally built into the historically rich (for better or, oftentimes, for worse–but that’s another discussion) hills of Western Massachusetts. Naturally, I yearned to learn as much as I could about the place where I would spend at least four years of my life, and took every possible chance to absorb information pertaining to the College on the Hill. During the summer of 2016, I became especially interested in the first few decades of the College’s history, and spent time over the following months reading and investigating. But, alas, my senior thesis was then birthed into the world, and as I’m sure I’ll learn whenever I become a mother to a human child, I found that much of my life became re-centered on Caring for My Thesis rather than Pursuing In Depth My Own Miscellaneous Interests. That being said, I was naturally overjoyed when being offered an internship in Frost Library where I would not only be able to explore Amherst College’s history on a deep level, but where I would also be laboring within the framework of the Digital Humanities, a field I’ve been slightly dipping into here and there over the past couple of years.

So far, I have only experienced two days of my internship, where I’ve spent much time exploring information pertaining to the early years of Amherst College. Rather than not having much to say due to how early in the game it is, my mind is absolutely packed with ideas, questions, interests, and random-bursts-of-thought–one of which is, “I could spend the next several decades within the walls and webpages of Frost Library and still not have enough time to explore all of the projects that I’m already forming in my mind.” What a great first day-and-a-half, no?! To make it easier for both you and me (For you: to be able to coherently read my thoughts. For me: to be able to coherently assemble my thoughts), I’ve provided a list of some of these items below:

Topics of Interest on Amherst College, 1821-1861

  • Campus Life
    • Student uprisings
    • Class divisions and rivalries
    • Hazing culture
    • Sports and their impacts
    • Fraternities and their impacts
    • Women involved with the College
    • Amherst students of color
    • Christian revivals
    • Personal narratives and accounts (students, faculty, townspeople, etc).
  • Education & Intellectual Endeavors
    • Relationships between students and faculty
    • Role of the arts and visual media in education
    • Role of Christian ministry and missions in education
    • Amherst as an educational opportunity for low-income students
  • Architecture/Landscape of the College & Town
    • Interaction between students, faculty, and townspeople
    • Architectural development of the College
    • Impacts of the College on the town (cultural, economic, etc.)

…The list could go on, but I’ll stop here. My point is that I’ve found a vast array of topics interesting and worth pursuit–the problem is that, as I mentioned earlier, I could basically spend the remainder of my life researching all of this information and still have ideas and topics left to explore and discover. Truthfully, it seems that every time I find another interesting topic or every time I have a question answered, about six more topics or questions branch out of the original ones. On one hand, this is a problem for my adventure-and-exploration-seeking heart: I just want to learn everything I can (the good, the bad, and the ugly) in order to come to a fuller understanding of who and what Amherst College was and is, both for my own benefit and that of anyone who cares to take an interest. On the other hand, is this not an integral aspect of the beauty, complexity, and value of a liberal arts education? Having only graduated from Amherst two weeks ago, I can reflect on the past four years and say that I have more questions on my mind as an alumna than when I first arrived–and what a blessing that is!

I’ve learned to challenge, to question, to engage, and to disrupt. I’ve learned to utilize resources, to voice my thoughts, and to be critical of those same thoughts that I’ve voiced. I’ve learned to explore. I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a dead end, even when the door is locked. I’ve learned that pursing knowledge is useless unless we are willing to challenge those pursuits, learn about things we’re uncomfortable with, and humble ourselves when we realize that we don’t know everything. Pursuing knowledge is useless unless we make that knowledge accessible, and making that knowledge accessible is an integral step in making our world a more fruitful place.

Each of these things is something that time-machine-searching, old-Buffalo-daydreaming Amanda would never even have dreamt of pursuing. But thankfully, Frost-Archives-searching, old-and-new-Amherst-daydreaming Amanda is excited to pursue each of them (and more, because goodness knows she’ll discover more worth pursing) as she delves into her internship. Cheers to an incredible summer!