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.

MYSTERY DOUBLE-FEATURE: The Secrets of the Old Buildings & The Case of the Missing Theologians

This week has been a most exciting time in the DSSI world! We’ve hit the halfway mark of the internship (!!!), which means that most of our time moving forward (and most of our time this past week) will be focused on research–and gosh, am I excited! I really enjoy research. To me, it’s an adventure, a mystery, a fantastic journey that is just waiting for you to discover something new and exciting. I grew up reading all sorts of mystery novels–everything from Nancy Drew to A Series of Unfortunate Events to Sherlock Holmes and every obscure Young Adult Mystery-Fiction title out there–and have held a secret desire to be a detective ever since. Perhaps that’s why I’m so enticed by research… I can finally be a detective to mysteries that I stumble upon myself! Sometimes I begin with a mystery (as in, a research question) and sometimes I just happen to collect a ton of clues that eventually spark a mystery when lumped together. For example:

Beginning With Research Questions

Last week, I was doing more research on college architecture (big surprise) and thought it would be a good idea to collect information on each of the early college buildings into a spreadsheet. I’ve been learning so many data-driven technologies lately that I figured I could do something with the data I collected. So I created a spreadsheet that focused on each of the buildings, with categories like “Year Constructed,” “Architect,” and “Building Materials.” I realized that, despite all that I’d already learned about the buildings, I had more information on some buildings than others, and much of my spreadsheet was lacking. In a desperate attempt to get some answers, I ended up Googling something like “Amherst College architectural history” and, long story short, ended up finding an amazing website. And by amazing, I mean I was literally close to tears when I stumbled upon it, because there was just so much amazing nd information suddenly at my fingertips! It’s called the Amherst Property Viewer and, among other things, it allows you to use GIS software to find information on various buildings throughout Amherst and the surrounding area. Some buildings have more info than others, but to my delight, practically every building in Amherst with some sort of historical significance has a historical PDF record attached to it–which means that all of the early college buildings I needed information on had records! YAY! I found answers to a lot of my spreadsheet questions, and even added in some new spreadsheet categories due to the information that I found on record. There are some downfalls to the APV–such as not-so-intuitive interfaces and the fact that many of the architectural records haven’t been updated since the 1970s–, but what I eventually discovered definitely made all of the digging worth it. Nancy would be proud.

Beginning with Clues

On the flip side, I also came across some exciting discoveries by means of deduction and having some clues in my arsenal (I was apparently unintentionally channeling my inner Sherlock here, and I am not ashamed). Earlier in the week, I spent a lot of time with the 1861 Olio and created a spreadsheet that inventoried each Amherst College student from the year 1861, their home state or country, and all of the clubs/societies/fraternities that they were involved in during that year. Upon checking off the last student, I went back through my spreadsheet and noticed that there were two names who I had noted as being part of a club, Josiah Ayres and Henry F. Hills, but who didn’t match any names of students. After doing some spell-checking, rereading the entire Olio twice over, and using command-F about fifty times, I still didn’t have a clue who these people were. Stranger still was the fact that both of these “ghost sherlocknames” were part of the same club–the Bible Society–and, to make matters even more odd, there was only one other person listed as being a member of that club, a senior named Horace Parker. For a moment, I wondered if they’d died during the semester, but then remembered that a senior actually did pass away during that school year, and it was noted within the Olio at various points. So, who were these people??!!?!?!?!?!?!?!!

My first thoughts were that I shouldn’t be spending time worrying about two random people who probably weren’t going to have an impact on my research overall, and that I was just going to be wasting time looking for them. But my curiosity got the best of me, and I was bound and determined to find out at least something about them. After spending so much time inputting data about everyone else, I felt that I owed it to Josiah and Henry to at least acknowledge more about their existence than I was able to from the 1861 Olio.

I instinctively went to the bio file books in the little Archives reading room/library/awesome space; perhaps Josiah and Henry dropped out of school that semester, and I knew that the biographical books listed whether or not people graduated from Amherst or merely passed through as non-graduates. To my dismay, I couldn’t find them anywhere.

I then went to the Archives desk and inquired of any other resources that might help me find them, and was directed to another amazing book that contained student files (shoutout to Rachel! You’re awesome!)… But again, no luck. I even looked for alternate spellings of their last names (such as “Ayers” or “Hill”) since I noticed a few discrepancies throughout the Olio, but I still couldn’t find anything about either of them. To say that I was dissatisfied was an understatement–I was more heartbroken than anything else. I mean, they couldn’t have just randomly dropped off the face of the earth, could they? Well, even if they did, I wanted to know.

In one final attempt to gather more clues, I decided to Google their names and see what I could find (honestly, I often forget that Google exists when I’m surrounded by all of these primary sources… I’m failing you, my fellow millennials). Aaaaand… LO AND BEHOLD! DISCOVERIES ABOUND!! nd2

I found a digitized version of a family genealogy that noted Josiah Ayres as being a janitor at Amherst College. Sounds great, right? But the problem was that the book also noted that he died in 1860. So, four options:

  1. The book mislabeled Josiah’s death year
  2. The Olio mislabeled Josiah’s involvement year
  3. Josiah died during the 1860 part of the ’60-’61 school year and was still labeled as having been involved in the society
  4. Josiah is a ghost

Next, I moved on to Henry F. Hills, and found a bit more information. After looking through several digital resources via the Googlenator, I pieced together that Henry was a part of the famous (well, back then at least) Hills Family of Amherst. His family owned the Hills Company, which forged a fortune from their hat factory which was on present-day Dickinson Street, right between the Dickinson Homestead and today’s Amherst College Police Department building. This was exciting to me, since I had come across an 1886 map of Amherst a couple of weeks ago and noticed some sort of factory on Dickinson Street–sure enough, I looked back at the map and noticed that the factory was labeled as the Hills Company.

BUT WAIT. THERE’S MORE! Some of my digging actually landed me back at the Archives–it turns out that the College holds a collection called the Hills Family Papers, which, you guessed it, is the same family. Looking at the finding aid, I found that Leonard (Henry’s dad) built a house on the corner of Triangle and Main Street, and that Henry built his own house next door. This is where it gets really exciting… Upon reading those street names, I was pretty sure that I knew exactly which houses these were, and that they were still standing! A quick Google Maps search confirmed my hunch.

Leonard’s home currently houses the Amherst Women’s Club, and I only know this because I went on a “Let’s Explore the Town We’re Living In For the Next Four Years” walk with a friend during my freshman year at Amherst. We stumbled upon the Women’s Club and, both of us being lovers of all things old and architecturey, fell in love with the house. We then continued down the street, saw what I now know to be Henry’s house, and immediately decided that we were somehow going to buy it and turn it into a cafe-bookshop-art gallery one  day. Anyways. Henry’s house is listed in the finding aid as being the home for the Amherst Boys & Girls Club, but I remembered that, when my friend and I saw the house almost four years ago, it was pretty dilapidated–and I’ve also noticed that, a couple of years ago, it seems to have been renovated and, I’m assuming, is a private home now. Doing some research, I found that the AB&GC has moved to a rented space in the town center as of several years ago.

The Leonard M. Hills House
The Leonard M. Hills House

After looking a little more into Henry, I also found that he was involved in the Christian community in Amherst, and then remembered three short words that I’d written down earlier in the day from data in the AC Biographical Record about Horace, the senior in the Bible Society: “Studied theology privately.” When I’d read this originally, it didn’t mean much–but now, it might be the key to linking my “ghost names” to the Bible Society. What if Josiah and Henry had been doing a bible study with Horace, and ended up calling it the Bible Society? I can’t find any records of this concretely, but all of these little clues seem to at least point in that direction. This possibility is especially exciting to me, since I was involved in multiple bible studies during my four years at Amherst–perhaps we should have called them Meetings of the Bible Society!

There are still questions that I have about Horace, Josiah, and Henry, and if time allows, I’d love to do some more digging. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with the mystery that I partially seem to have solved.

All in all: research is fun, being a detective is awesome, and I think I need to buy myself a magnifying glass and deerstalker cap now.

sherlock3-01

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!

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

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.

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.

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.

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.