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.

 

Are you a 1910 Slang Word? Because You’re “Jamake”-ing Me Crazy

Despite all the Digital Humanities concepts, ideas and jargon thrown at us within our first 48 hours of internship, one question dominated my mind this morning.

“What the heck is a ‘Jamake’?”

I’d encountered the term while reading the Kidder, a 1912 humor zine that was quite sophomoric for the time (although I’d argue that all publications in a college should be at the very least 25% sophomoric, if only for proper class-year representation.) The student editor, one Frederick Barton, had sent a draft to esteemed writer and troublemaker Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard, impressed with the rebellious display, wrote a kind letter in response. The editors would run Hubbard’s approval in the same issue, a trophy of witty delinquency.

Barton

Remember the good ol' days when world renowned authors invited you to sip lemonade on their porch because of your college magazine? I'm still waiting to hear back, Margaret Atwood. 

Reading his kind regards, I was left wondering what quality “jamake” could describe. Google searches turned up nothing. I texted my grandma at lunch and she never responded (crossing finger she didn’t pass away but too right now too call). Not until later did I realize the truth.

Jamake is plural.

The singular is “Jamoke,” a slang term from the late 19th century to describe a fool. The phrase arose from Irish American slang, particularly those working in shipping ports. It’s a combination of java and mocha, new words in America that had yet to be made cliche by Starbucks. To call someone a jamoke, apparently, is to say they no greater mind than that of a cup of coffee. It would rise to prominence in the trenches as slang for an army men, and like Tang, classic rock and the US presidency, would pick-up a less savory definition in the 70s.

Questions like these make me excited to spend real time looking at Amherst’s publications (unfortunately it’s not quite as easy to appreciate that old, mildewy book smell when you’ve gone digital.) I’ve written for a good number of our papers and magazines, but one thing I’ve found lacking is a sense of community and history within them. Students email their drafts, never step a foot in the office and don’t even know each others names. If it weren’t for the icons attached to their gmail address, I wouldn’t even know my editor’s faces.

My guess is that it’s hard to talk about legendary writers for The Student because it boasts such a massive, unwieldy history. Publication controversies, successes and tragedies come and go, but aren’t well recorded because they are ultimately covered up with the slog of boring candid sports photos and fluff news pieces. If an American icon were to contact a publication I wrote for, it probably wouldn’t even trickle down to my level. It seems a little ironic how the gatekeepers of Amherst’s daily history, have almost no knowledge of their own past. That’s all a little bit too selfless for me. Hopefully this jamoke can rectify it.

Week 2 – beginning the trials

Forming, storming, norming, performing. We’ve got it down.

  • HOW IT’S DONE: We’ve  started learning the various methodologies used in DH –  currently up to Omeka exhibits and geographical mapping. Each tool-learning experience starts with a little “evaluate these other projects that have used these tools” session in which we basically critique other projects, making notes about how what we should take from their example or do differently.
  • OMEKA: After learning the  tool with small demos, we proceed to write a bunch of concept maps and research questions. For the Omeka exhibit, this worked fine: 4 concept maps, one brainstorming session, and we had some topics. Although our facilities dealing with concept maps were exhausted, we had some idea of where we were going.
    • Interestingly, the most fruitful discussions about research questions and concept maps come straight from the blue – from Kelcy’s “what if” questions and Daniel’s spontaneous tangents. One of these discussions arose during a concept map session (the last one, god bless). Someone suddenly asked, “What if we observe Ed and Orra’s achievements from a modern lens?” Suddenly, the tedious brainstorming (we had just done it so much in such a short time!) had an outcome – we had another point of view that created interesting questions we had not seen before. The “legacy” aspect of our project intrigued me the most.
    • These are just two examples of concept maps - including the one we used to create the final exhibit prototype!
      These are just two examples of concept maps – including the one we used to create the final exhibit prototype!

      IMG_20150618_110556

  • For the Omeka exhibit prototype, we settled on a topic that arose from the “modern lens perspective discussion”: Ed and Orra’s impact on the interacting fields of Art and Education. The themes chosen were simple yet interesting: Edward, usually thought of as the scientist in the pair, had some projects of creative merit, and Orra, “accomplished artist,” was a trained and published botanist and scientific illustration. This role switch added another dimension to their characters – no longer were they known simply by their reputation.
  • In addition, this topic choice – Art + Education – was perfect for a visual  exhibit. We had the visual element in the title: art! We included as many images as we could for each of the respective pages we were doing.
    • During the session on actually creating an information architecture – where we basically create a site layout, with pages, subpages, themes, etc. The navigation for the site.
    • I’m particularly really proud of how this worked out – the group came in  at 9 am, threw our tired selves into this post-it note creation, and ended up with nothing. After a while of blank staring, I reshuffled the post-its into a cohesive format – Orra and Ed’s individual achievements on one side, Orra and Ed’s collaborative projects on the other, with more concrete pages stemming from those three broad categories. The end result had the unusually sleepy cohort blinking  awake – look! here’s something that makes sense! B-) go me
    • The end result of our informational architecture machinations. AKA "should we draw lines or put markers or just leave it how it is?"
      The end result of our informational architecture machinations. AKA “should we draw lines or put markers or just leave it how it is?”
    • Here’s the end result for the Omeka workshop! (X) Not all the pages have content, but here is the one that I made: (X)
  • MAPPING: Following the Omeka workshop was one on geographical mapping. Cool stuff. From the very beginning, I was particularly interested in mapping and maps and geography because what is more inspiring that the image of a world map? That view slowly eroded. The various mapping examples we looked at had me asking the same question: “Why are maps used in these situations? What does a map do that another tool couldn’t?” It was fairly disenheartening to see that a tool with such interesting potential had no use that I could  concretely see (with the exception of http://worldmap.harvard.edu/africamap/ this one is an adventure with all its interactive content)
  • We skipped the mapping process for the mapping protoype and went straight to research questions. The end result is a mess of questions, but the final one remains – what does the mapping tool add to any of these questions?
  • What an engaging mess. Fortunately, we actually had some interesting ideas spaced in here concerning the geographical aspects of the Hitchcocks' legacy
    What an engaging mess. Fortunately, we actually had some interesting ideas spaced in here concerning the geographical aspects of the Hitchcocks’ legacy
  • We then split into  two groups, making two prototypes. I was in the pair with Seanna that had to observe the movements of the Hitchcocks during their travels and plot them on a map using Orra’s diary entries. For this, we used TimeMapper, a simply and accessible tool  (although some Harvard graduate gave it a 1-star review – “this is so simple! there arent enough options with this tool!” yes mister, that is the point – simplicity!)
    • My partner had a health emergency, so I took on the diary entries myself. It was not easy.
    • "Don't we have interns to do this tedious work for us?" say the interns themselves
      “Don’t we have interns to do this tedious work for us?” say the interns themselves
    • Anyway, here’s my less-than-fruitful result. Sarah and Kelcy came over and the three of us together had a hard time getting this done, reading the locations and trying to find out the specifics with Google. “Is there a Gallahan Castle in Cologne? Which country is Cologne even in?” In the end, we knew more about the River Neckar than we ever needed to. Huge thanks to Sarah and Kelcy too – their help actually made my prototype exist. The prototype can be found here: (X)
  • LUNCHTIME: In addition, we met with the DH post-bacs. An interesting pair –  Jeffrey Moro (his twitter is here) and Mariel Nyröp. They brought up some interesting points about the politics of DH, the various limitations that each tool and methodologies use. The idea is that every tool has a certain communication to it and requires thoughts and ideas  to be delivered in that fashion, which may exclude people incapable to communicate in that manner. This was not a topic that we had discussed previously (although it was mentioned). That was my big takeaway from this lunch (other than the thought that people who are not official scholars also work in the DH field), but even then, the post-bacs themselves told us that “It’s like a filter. You have to decide when to turn on the politics and when to turn it off to actually get work done.”
  • This was one of the first images on Google for "politics digital humanities." It's a fairly common topic in DH tbh (according to the post-bacs)
    This was one of the first images on Google for “politics digital humanities.” It’s a fairly common topic in DH tbh (according to the post-bacs)
  • THE END: Otherwise, we’re working on the abstracts and methods for the last two projects, doing readings, living and breathing. Woohoo.  Last Friday, Daniel turned on some music ridiculously loudly in the room. The day ended with some soft partying to songs that shouldn’t be repeated. This morning on the way here, Flavia (who is working in the Archives for the summer) held the door to Frost Library for me and said, “You guys were playing music so loudly that I was finishing shelving to ‘Trap Queen’!” Because that’s what we do in Digital Scholarship, DH, the DigiShip, Diggy Human Dept. We party and write and research. Rock on m/

Making knowledge of data: from the analog to the digital in humanities research

What constitutes digital humanities?

It is a question that eludes even the professionals and scholars of the field—let alone me, a humble student intern. There are many answers to the question, most of which can be categorized into three basic camps of thought: the crusaders, the conservatives, and the cynics. The first camp consists of those who believe that DH has the potential to disrupt and transform the world of information and knowledge. They are optimistic if not utopian. It is the realists who comprise the second camp. They recognize DH as a set of new digital tools that can augment more traditional humanities scholarship. If the crusaders explicate the reaches of DH, then the conservatives delineate its limits. Finally, there are the cynics. This censorious bunch believes DH to be the swan song of humanities itself, a last ditch effort made by increasingly defunded (read: irrelevant in today’s market society) humanities departments across the United States and the world at large.

Whichever camp one agrees and aligns herself with, it is relatively noninflammatory and perhaps agreeable to say that the trend towards the digital in the humanities bespeaks a wider trend toward the digital in our culture. In fact, the insight is..well, unremarkable.

We live in the era of big data, of amassing Brobdingnagian inventories of information so that they may be mined for specific purposes of either a commercial or educational nature, mostly. Statistical analysis and summarization is a useful skill to have nowadays, and the salaries for entry-level jobs in the tech world help support such a claim. What then is digital humanities without data? Documents such as articles, books, certificates, citations, film, illustrations, letters, photographs, receipts, and many more objects crowding archives everywhere all contain data within them. Traditional scholars make use of that data, or information; they examine it, unpack it, and assemble it so as to produce new knowledge—at least, that is the ideal of the métier.

It is that process of scholarship, or rather, data analytics I hope to replicate this summer with my fellow digital scholarship interns as we work with the digital collection of the Edward and Orra Hitchcock Papers. Some of the questions such an approach raises includes: What data lies dormant in the collection? How can it be surfaced and organized? What can we say about the data? What does the data reveal? How does it enrich our understanding of the lives of Edward and Orra Hitchcock? How do we impart our findings to others in an accessible and engaging way?

My aim is to have stimulating, thoughtful  answers to these and other questions that may surface along the way—answers that may help begin to illuminate the future direction of our interaction with the past through new means of technology. This is the start of that endeavor. Where we end up remains to be seen.

Introduction to All

What questions do you have after the first couple of days?

I arrived a bit late, but even after half a day of discussion and a couple of hardcore reading hours I’m filled with thoughts. We have not answered the question of “what is digital humanities” – and, for now, agreed not to have one, or to at least allow it to have its vagueness for now.

In addition, while I am all completely for the use of digital tools to look at primary sources and data, Daniel’s constant question, “What does the digital add to the project?” Many of the projects we looked at could have been done in a physical form rather than a digital one. Victoria’s second map from last year’s project, while incredibly appealing, could be made with some ingenious sliding mechanisms in a book. The linguistic analysis piece could have also been done by hand, albeit painstakingly.

As I’m thinking about the proper usage of digital humanities that helps the viewer better understand the material, I remembered about the Book of Kells, an Irish calligraphic version of the Bible made circa 800. I took a 3-day calligraphy class in high school; we watched the animated movie, “The Secret of Kells” (fantastic, unique, imaginative, 9/10, would recommend), gained a newfound appreciation for the book, and then proceeded to observe the book itself, in all its intricacy and beauty, through a digital collection of Trinity College in Dublin. What followed then was a practical demonstration of Irish calligraphy and then our own student trials of pen and ink. The movement from digital media to practical hands-on experience really solidified the small course and brought the students the most benefit in the most constrained time – a quality of efficiency that I hope to emulate in the less-pedagogical-more-research-oriented project.

This is the most famous page of the Book of Kells, the  Chi-Rho Page, named for the large character. 

Compare this image with Trinity College’s digitized version, which allows a fantastic amount of zoom (you need to scroll to folio 34 r to see it).

I’m not yet sure what  to do with this example yet except keep it as a model for a context where the use of DH helped more than hindered.

 

What are you particularly interested in exploring/learning this   summer?

 

I would like to know more about the concrete tools available for digital scholarship, which I suppose we as a team will be introduced to through workshop-like elements. Perhaps I can learn to tweak them to my advantage! After looking through the Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Finding Aid, I’m curious about seeing where their two strengths aid each other – his curiosity about dinosaur footprints, geology, and natural theology, and her accurate depiction of all things in the natural world. In addition, it would be interesting to compare the lecture notes that he used for teaching alongside her drawings, perhaps see the accuracy of their paired project as compared to current scientific drawings of the same objects.

What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

Most of all, a new range of skills that I could then carry on and use in other areas. My work with the Archives & Special Collections in the fall showed me alternative uses of traditional media – I’d like to see what else is possible with it. In all else, I know that everything I will learn will not come from me declaring it but rather living through the experience. I look forward to learning about these tools, researching the interesting people who are Edward and Orra White (who I have to explain and re-explain to all who ask me what exactly I am doing with my summer internship), and producing an insightful project with equally awesome people that can help others understand the interesting lives of our subjects.

Men of Soul: W.E.B. Du Bois and Charles Eastman

This is a photo of Charles Eastman's "Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains," one of the many literary works by Charles Eastman in Amherst's Kim Wait-Eisenberg Collection in Archives and Special Collections.
This is a photo of Charles Eastman’s “Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains,” one of the many literary works by Charles Eastman in Amherst’s Kim Wait-Eisenberg Collection in Archives and Special Collections.

The Kim-Wait Eisenberg Collection, the newest component of Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections, is indeed a comprehensive collection of literary works from the Native American past, admirable for both its chronological and thematic breadth. However, when we walk into a collection of Native American books, what do we expect to find? In the American imagination, Native American history and experiences in the United States have centered so deeply on the relationship between Native American people and European settlers. This Eurocentric focus can come at the expense of other considerations in Native American Studies, such as the historic relationships between Native Americans and other ethnic minorities.

Continue reading Men of Soul: W.E.B. Du Bois and Charles Eastman

Digitizing the Kim Wait Eisenberg

I’m a digitizer. I’ve been digitizing since I was ten years old and my mother told me to throw out some of the papers I had boxed (one file box for each grade, 1 – 4). I was instructed to snap photos with our bulky point-and-shoot and clear out the boxes. I’ve been doing that ever since, digitizing my own past once in a while (though I can’t say I’ve ever looked back at any of those photos). The key to any digitization that might happen through the KWE Collection, whether it be the covers of novels for images or texts of pre-1923 works for text mining (no, copyright does not and at this rate will not allow anything post-1923 to sink gracefully into public domain).

Some topics that have drifted across my radar in the KWE:

Digitizing History: My First Thoughts on Digital Scholarship

What was the price of coffee in 1920? Today, for my second day as a Digital Scholarship Summer Intern at Amherst College’s Frost Library, I explored The New York Public Library’s digital initiative, “What’s on the Menu?”. Could questions like the coffee question be potentially answered through digital scholarship? “What’s on the Menu” is a crowdsourcing initiative that seeks everyday people beyond the NYPL staff to help transcribe menus from a vast array of historical periods from around the world. Eventually, scholars could easily look up specific dishes and prices in these menus rather than rely on the menu titles for their research. Evaluating “What’s on the Menu?” provided me with a platform for planning the digital program that I will work on along with other interns and library staff.

Our society seems to like binaries quite a bit, whether they are gender binaries or the academic binaries we artificially create between the humanities and the sciences. Before, I never considered technology and science as potential aspects of my professional life, confining myself in a self-imposed false binary of humanities versus science. Today, I’m starting to work with the humanities and technology side-by-side, learning to respect them as distinguishable but interconnected fields.

Continue reading Digitizing History: My First Thoughts on Digital Scholarship