The Importance of Absence

So, I missed the field trips. Where that chunk of experience should be is an empty space.

I’ve been thinking about empty spaces lately and particularly the Japanese concept of ma. It’s the space between sounds, the meaningless movement between purposeful motions. It’s not an emptiness in the Western sense– it’s just as important as the action that surrounds it. It is there to strike a balance.

I’ve been thinking about it because there is a lot of material– fascinating, important, beautiful material– that won’t win its way into our final product. Depending on how we craft the site, this could feel like lacunae. Or we could make it ma.

Where big chunks of data could be, we could have tiny asides. Little amuse-bouche reflections that give a taste of what could have been a five-course meal. We’ve talked about stubs– making them purposeful and graceful, a lead rather than a lack, will be crucial.

Notice the empty sky adding atmosphere and emphasizing the rabbit rather than detracting from the whole.
Notice the empty sky adding atmosphere and emphasizing the rabbit rather than detracting from the whole.

At the same time, we must strive to avoid clutter. To accept the emptiness as part of our purpose, an aspect of our argument.

This will be difficult. It requires a patience and craft we might find lacking in the next week.

But I think it’s important. When you have a limited scope, every aspect and absence must be meaningful. If we are deliberate in our details, sensible in our silences, and elegant in our aesthetics, I think we can strike a balance between answers and questions, between argument and exploration, and between material and ma.


Early Amherst Perspectives

After many project proposals, methodology workshops, and blog posts, I think I am ready to start crunching out a final research project website deliverable. Design is an iterative process. Although our brainstorming has somewhat narrowed our focus and pointed to where we need to invest our time for the remaining three weeks (time flies when you’re having fun!), I feel the need to start molding the clay of research accrued over the past few weeks. The challenge, now, is to decide what what sculpture we as interns want to (and can) make in the remaining time (some time has been invested into brainstorming the possibilities), where the online piece will be hosted, and what tools we will call on.

One mini-project that has captured my interest is the “Amherst___through the lens of___” project. Potential fill-ins for the blanks could lead to each of our different projects, which focus on early Amherst perspectives: social networks, the early College library collection, academics as viewed through course catalogs, and architecture. What is interesting about this proposal is its potential to draw the site user into learning about early Amherst in a playful, interactive way. In giving the user autonomy to select their path through the site according to what lens interests them the most (be it Amherst faculty, a specific student or society, or time period, or even a specific building) the site will keep the user engaged as they leap from one section to another. A challenge, however, would be to make the different sections overlap enough to make a scholarly argument about early Amherst, as Este suggested in our team meeting.

As critical as it is to produce an aesthetically pleasing, fun website, it is equally important to see this assignment as a scholarly research project. While we have been absorbing information in preparation for our final product, we should keep in mind that the site must balance between disseminating information and advancing scholarly work on the data available on early Amherst. I can’t believe I’m beginning to sound like my thesis advisor!

So, that said, I shall start site construction this week. I will get frustrated with the tools I have and my shortcomings in using them. I will fail to make the visuals match my vision for the site. I will miss some important data. But I will learn. I will get better at using the tools, and I will research more to find missing pieces to the puzzle. In the words of Amherst alumn William Hastie (1925), “Achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.”

Without further delay, may the site construction games begin!

Archive Pride and Spreadsheet Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged… that I’m somewhat obsessed with the old course catalogs.

I could extol their data-rich virtues, their college-sanctioned information, the meta-layers of their presentation– but perhaps it’s simpler just to say that they’re awesome.

So it’s little surprise that the project I’m most excited about is a constellation of smaller projects on the changing academic environment of early Amherst, whose backbone is the esteemed collection of course catalogs and which runs tangentially to any inspection of the literary societies.

But I’ve spoken enough and stared at enough and spreadsheet-ed enough the course catalogs. Let’s talk about something else– the Archives.


There are myriad collections that could contribute to my constellation of projects. I’ve been combing the finding aids, and it’s almost overwhelming how many potential sources fling themselves at me when I open one.

Though I suppose I should be discerning in which documents I call to help contextualize my catalogs, there are so many delicious options that it’s hard to restrain myself. Here’s a taste of them:

In just the Amherst College Early History Manuscripts and Pamphlets Collection, we’ve got discontented students writing to President Moore about their dissatisfaction with the tutor Lucius Field, the faculty criticizing the “Social Union,” a literary society, for its hurtful anonymous compositions, and two score of the senior class trying to skive off the end of the semester by citing the president’s ill health. So we’ve got students expressing dissatisfaction with the administration and the administration expressing dissatisfaction with the students– a lovely example of the tension between the two.

The value of the Clubs and Society Collection, with its minutes and documents from the literary societies hardly need be mentioned here.

The Historical Manuscripts Collection has a wealth of student perspectives on learning. Some examples include an oration on “The Obligations of Genius to Common Minds,” a literary discussion asking “Are Works of Fiction Necessary to Give a Proper Cultivation of the Mind?”, an essay on the “Influence of Science on the Moral Improvement of Society,” an oration on “Motives to Intellectual Exertion,” and another oration on “Science and the Classics – Their Union the True Basis of a Professional Education.” All this, I should note, is just looking at the first twelfth of the collection.

In short, while I’ve been somewhat myopic in my focus on the catalogs, I’m excited now to take a landscape view, to dive back into the Archives and to situate my statistics within a larger story. For so long I’ve been championing my spreadsheets that I’d forgotten how valuable the anecdotal can be– I’m ready to remedy that.


Forest for the Trees / Story for the Statistics

I’ve mentioned it before: I love data. The way each datum interlocks with the next to build a meaningful whole, the way broad swathes of time are calcified in revelatory statistics, the way evocative questions and theories and ideas wrap around a backbone of data– all of it thrills the researcher in me.

As such, I’ve spent a lot of time with the course catalogs, looking at changes in courses, admission requirements, faculty. Time spent digging deep into the data, filling spreadsheets with numbers and names and nested if-then statements. I’ve found it soothing to input row after row of college life condensed into little factoids.

Data is wonderful, but it’s also skeletal. And while dealing with it is soothing, I realize now I need to find the sort of research that is frustrating too.

No matter how much you dress up data with fanciful theories, it's still not fleshed out by context.
No matter how much you dress up data with fanciful theories, it’s still not fleshed out by context.

It’s only where there’s friction that falsehood is burned away. When studying a world two centuries away, any easy analysis is wont to impose modern interpretations instead of intuiting the logic of a bygone culture.

To offer an example– it is easy to see that across forty years, the proportion of classes that are classics drops from 0.6 to 0.5 to 0.3 to 0.06 through the class years. That right there is a barebones fact.

But the meat of the story isn’t hidden in the numbers– it’s found in a student publication and the program of a mock funeral service, which detail the satirical dirge the upperclassmen recited as they brought out all their classics books to be burnt. With a bar chart one might wonder what the students thought of their changing academic fare; with broader archive-combing research one can provide the start of an answer.

The start of an answer, because one could also comb through more student publications for opinion pieces, through student diaries for candid reflections, through lecture notes for the level of detail students paid attention to.

This week we thought a lot about how we want our final project to feel. We’re still debating at the drawing board, but one harmony we’ve thought worth having is that balance between between skeletal data and more fleshed-out context. Charts and figures are fine, but they offer a black-and-white line drawing that student quotes and historical anecdotes color in.

Numerical data is not a dead end, but it’s not the be-all and end-all either. As I go forward fascinated by learning at early Amherst, I want to answer my questions by pairing statistics with snapshots of student life. I’ve spent a lot of time with my nose to the grindstone, crunching numbers and cooking them into graphs, and it’s about time I look up and see the rest of the archives still waiting for me.

Another One! (Blog Post or Research Interest? You decide :)

Somehow, the interval between these blog posts seems too short. However, on taking the time to pause and think about the material we have covered in the span of a week, I realize that I have more to write about than I initially thought. Nonetheless, the challenge remains to articulate my thoughts in a comprehensible, concise way. I will make an attempt.

Last week was my favorite week of the internship yet – a close second to the textual visualization workshops week. What made last week most exciting was the freedom to explore new areas of interest in the Archives, and also the challenge to self-teach Gephi and to lead a workshop on it. Both experiences truly synthesized what we have been learning for the past few weeks: how to approach research systematically and eficiently, and the application of research tools to data collected in research. Having to teach the Gephi workshop also highlighted the strengths and potential of our intern team, which is exciting now that we are diving two-feet into our final research project for the internship. It’s sink or swim from here!

Emma, Katie, Amanda, and I have thus far worked efficiently as a team to meet collective deliverables expected of us each week. Our research interests of the early College library, catalog collection, social network, and architecture respectively between 1821-61 have shaped our approach to working on team proposals. We have worked by delegating portions of a deliverable according to these varied interests to cover as much ground as possible. The challenge now is to find a common theme across our preliminary findings that will translate seamlessly into a visual DH project.

At the end of last week, with the help of Sarah and Este, we brainstormed ways we can use the remaining four weeks efficiently. Our biggest challenge was the chicken or the egg problem – whether to dig deeper into our individual projects, or to focus our attention on finding common ground. The answer is neither and one or the other. There is no wrong or right answer. It’s an enigma! And so is our rearch. Having learned methodology tools to facilitate our learning, however, we can be nimble in our focus as different needs arise. This is the approach we will take.

After last week, I gained interest in looking into the ealry images of the College in the form of sketches, etches, engravings, and photographs in the 1850s, and what they can tell us about the culture and lived experiences of students, faculty and the town community at the time. Yet another rabbit hole, but an exciting one to investigate nonetheless. My hope (I have little choice in the matter) is to continue barrowing through these leads towards a larger, more fulfilling DH project.

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.

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.

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.

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.