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.

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.

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.

Day 1/3

I’ve only been through the internship for a fraction of the time that the other interns, Amanda, Emma, and Katie, have been (international student issues). As reassuring as they were in pointing out that we’re in the same boat of inquiry into the Digital Humanities field, which is new to us all interns, I can’t help but feel that they are a leg up in our collective quest to untangle the mysteries of DH.

My first day started with getting me up to speed with what I missed in the first two days. My collegues summarized the function and form of DH from the first week’s readings beautifully in three words: accessibility, authenticity, and aesthetics. While this multifaceted field cannot be constrained by these three words, I found it a good foundation to begin my understanding of DH.

To the three words the other three interns came up with, I would add a fourth: connectivity. My initial understanding of DH is in its role to connect; be it pieces of data to make more data, or data to the people who consume it. In “What is Metadata,” an article published in the Scientific American journal, Bonie Swoger explains how metadata can be used to connect otherwise meaningless pieces of data to produce valuable information: “Without metadata, discovery and reuse of digital information would be much harder.” A major part of DH is in amalgamating this information and in distributing it equitably and systematically, resulting in a recursive, iterative process.

As an Architectural Studies major at Amherst, I am drawn to such recursive, iterative processes. This internship not only presents the opportunity for me to explore a new and fascinating field of inquiry, but also the prospect of learning about the architecture of a place I called home for the past four years. The Archives and Special Collections have a bounty of articles, journals, and photographs that I am excited to dig into for the next two months. Our collective inquiry as interns into the history of Amherst between 1810 and 1861 will undoubtedly unearth findings that are relevant to Amherst today. This summer, I hope to study old Amherst architecture to see how trends in aesthetics and cultural building practices may inform current renovation and construction projects on campus such as the Greenway project, or not.

After a long first day of reading and discussions, I still feel that I don’t have a full grasp of what DH is about. This statement is likely to remain true to the end of the summer, and hopefully through the course of my academic career. That is the beauty of learning – the endless pursuit of knowledge. To have a team of curious minds to join in the journey is but a sweet bonus. I look forward to working with Amanda, Emma, Katie, and the Frost Library team this summer.