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!

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.

First Thoughts

We’ve spent the last two days immersing ourselves in the wide-ranging, somewhat nebulous world of digital humanities, and while I am overwhelmed by the field’s immensity, I am also so excited by all of the potential that its methodologies offer.

Aside from commonplace, expected student uses of technology, I’m coming at this internship with absolutely no experience with digital anything. I was a double major in Chemistry and the History of Art at Amherst, and spent most of my time here buried in piles of dusty books or in the lab, conducting experiments. As I grew here as a student and as a researcher, I did notice the increasing role of digital tools and methodologies in both of my major fields, but I never had the time or training to substantively explore them. This summer, I am excited to finally immerse myself in the realm of the digital, and to understand how the digital humanities may expand, redevelop, and perhaps complicate my previous approaches to humanities research. 

In his chapter “The Emergence of Digital Humanities (as the Network is Everting),” Steven Jones writes about digital humanities as more than just the digitization of materials that constitute humanities research—instead, he says, it is “…characterized by two-way interactions between two realms, physical artifacts and digital media.” This was an important point for me, because, as an art history student, I am often intensely focused on the physicality and materiality of the objects I study, and often, I’m frustrated when left with only digital reproductions to work with. However, understanding digital humanities as a conversation between the physical and digital, as a decentering of the physical object in order to make space for new types of dialogue and inquiry, strikes me as an exciting new way of thinking, and as something to consider in my own research going forward. This summer, I hope gain a better understanding of what that might look like in practice.