Research Question Questions

I am fortunate to have had the privilege of getting research instruction from different librarians, including Sara Smith and Dunstan McNutt, during my time preparing for and writing my senior honors thesis with the Architectural Studies department. Despite the multiple instruction sessions, however, I cannot claim to be a seasoned researcher. The skill of research is as iterative as the process of research itself. The instructors’ support, nonetheless, has not been in vain.

Before receiving research training, I approached research projects with a lock-and-key mentality; the research question being the lock, and my argument or thesis being the key. Often, I would either find myself entangled with multiple keys struggling to open one door, or exhaust my efforts into trying to find the door in a seemingly endless hallway to match a key that I had crafted. In some cases I got weighed down by multiple keys, failing to figure out how best to find the key that would match one door among multiple possibilities. None of these approaches were sustainable.

For my thesis I read widely around apartheid planning in South African townships before attempting to find what question(s) my findings unlocked. With a general interest but no specific research question to drive my inquiry, I collected a bucket list of books, articles, and journals that would help me get a better understanding of apartheid planning. My visit to Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, over winter break resulted in a breakthrough. I learned how apartheid infrastructure was being used to benefit the locals, and then proposed ways to replicate this form of vernacular urbanism to other African cities that share a similar history of colonial planning. While this approach opened possibilities in generating further questions (or doors leading to new doors), it often resulted in a frustrating task of trying multiple and often self-contradicting arguments to fit a research question.

At the start of the Digital Humanities internship, I had a linear way of thinking about and executing research projects. In his article, “Where to Start? On Research Questions in The Digital Humanities,” Trevor Owens discourages the approach of trying to fit the tool to the question, as I often did, and instead proposes incorporating Joe Maxwell’s five components into all research endeavors: setting goals, having a conceptual framework, defining clear research questions, applying effective methods, and validating the research. He suggests that research questions function to define the scope of a project rather than to define the project itself. They provide a reference point as the project develops, and develop concurrently with the project.

Combining Owens’ insight with the methodology workshop on concept mapping, I will be conducting my research this summer with a more holistic approach. I will map out my parameters using a definitive research question and dive into the archives with as open a mind as is possible about what my findings will be. Thus, in keeping with the lock-and-key analogy, my new approach is the equivalent of crafting the lock and the key for a frame that opens the door to new possibilities. I am confident that the library staff and my colleagues can help me find the right tools to match this task.

DH and Research and Mapping… Oh My!

Research is in the eye of the beholder. –Not-so-ancient proverb

When I begin a new research project, I feel very much like how I imagine the girl in this painting, A Girl Writing, by Henriette Browne to be feeling–excited by so many intellectual and imaginative prospects, but also easily distracted by the wonder of the world around me and all that I am discovering.

When conducting my own, personal research (i.e., when unprompted by a specific topic for a class exercise), I tend to begin with a topic that interests me. For example, prior to my semester studying abroad in Scotland, I thought it was a good idea to learn as much as I possibly could about Scottish culture, society, geography, history… The list goes on. I began by watching documentaries and reading travel guides geared towards tourists, with the intention of gaining knowlehttps://giphy.com/gifs/fall-unicorn-psl-scarves-legwarmers-bike-funny-cute-illustration-l2Jho5fnv7sfNAAZqdge of the basics (for example, did you know that the bicycle was invented in Scotland? Or that the national animal is the unicorn? Yeah, Scotland is pretty cool). From there, I found that I had deeper interests in specific topics, such as the clan system, folklore, and music. I also wanted to learn more about the town of St Andrews specifically, where I was preparing to study and to live. With these topics in mind, I then sought out resources (films, documentaries, books, poetry, art, and songs) to give me more information concerning them. As I discovered, questions began formulating in my mind, and I took on some side-research to find answers as I continued on. I learned quite a lot this way, and enjoyed how one topic would lead into another, which would lead to another and another… The possibilities were endless!

Today, my research methods in those types of situations are much the same, and have been guiding my first week of the internship. I’ll start with looking at a list of Amherst College presidents because I don’t know much about them, become interested in William Augustus Stearns because I lived in a dormitory named after him, read the program and speeches given at his inauguration, read snapshots of his life written by one of his colleagues, and finally end up digging through the archives to look at his personal letters… All the while finding interesting tidbits that make my mind go in a million other directions.

While exhilarating, this method can also be exhausting while not being exhaustive (though, is it really possible to ever research everything about anything?), which made Trevor Owens’ article “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities” an interesting read for me. While it may seem like the logical thing to do, I don’t usually begin any sort of research with a question–at least, not one that I’m cognizant of. Owens notes that “research questions are useful structures to organize your work and inquiry,” which is a great point, also reflects on the importance of establishing goals when doing research. Both of these points have actually been huge focuses of the last few days of this DSSI Summer, and I’m definitely seeing how valuable they are, particularly when tackling topics that are large, complicated, and laden with historical and archival material to sift through (COUGHthefirstdecadesofAmherstCollegehistoryCOUGH).

I’m quite excited to continue researching and exploring topics within Amherst’s early history–as a team, we interns have come up with some incredible questions and ideas, and the Digital Humanities tools that we’re beginning to use are already proving to be invaluable to our tasks. In particular, I’m excited about creating some sort of interactive map for viewers to engage with that connects the architecture and landscape of the contemporary campus with that of the mid-19th-century campus. GIS mapping tools could provide amazing platforms for this potential project, and I’m really thankful for the various mapping websites that we looked at (such as two of my favorites, The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City and Geography of the Post: U.S. Post Offices in the Nineteenth-Century West), which are each giving me ideas and expanding my conception of what is physically possible to create.

Screenshot from The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City, a website that utilizes GIS mapping to create an interactive map experience.
Screenshot from The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City, a website that utilizes GIS mapping to create an interactive map experience.

Moving forward, I’m eager to continue exploring answers to the questions that the other interns and I have come up with–it’s amazing that we have so many resources at our disposal, and that we’re learning so many new tools to help with researching and presenting! I can’t wait to see what we come up with!

First Thoughts

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

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

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

Initial Thoughts on A Summer in Digital Scholarship at Amherst College

From a young age, I have been intrigued by the faces and places of the past–as a child, I visited various historical museums, found a home within the pages of historical fiction novels and films, dreamt of finding a time machine or Narnia-like wardrobe, and spent hours poring over the diagrams, photographs, and first-person accounts that I found in my history textbooks. I loved how I was alive in the same world that so many others had once been alive in, and that, while most of the people and events that I was learning about had passed on, handprints of those people and events still impacted my own life however-many years later. I often found myself thinking of historical figures as friends who I’d merely lost touch with, and, as a native of Buffalo, New York, I loved comparing old photographs of Buffalo to the contemporary land and cityscapes that I lived in myself. For me, exploring history was merely a step in discovering where my life and other lives intersected in this big world that we live in.

Imagine my excitement when I arrived as a first-year at Amherst College: an institution of higher learning that was literally built into the historically rich (for better or, oftentimes, for worse–but that’s another discussion) hills of Western Massachusetts. Naturally, I yearned to learn as much as I could about the place where I would spend at least four years of my life, and took every possible chance to absorb information pertaining to the College on the Hill. During the summer of 2016, I became especially interested in the first few decades of the College’s history, and spent time over the following months reading and investigating. But, alas, my senior thesis was then birthed into the world, and as I’m sure I’ll learn whenever I become a mother to a human child, I found that much of my life became re-centered on Caring for My Thesis rather than Pursuing In Depth My Own Miscellaneous Interests. That being said, I was naturally overjoyed when being offered an internship in Frost Library where I would not only be able to explore Amherst College’s history on a deep level, but where I would also be laboring within the framework of the Digital Humanities, a field I’ve been slightly dipping into here and there over the past couple of years.

So far, I have only experienced two days of my internship, where I’ve spent much time exploring information pertaining to the early years of Amherst College. Rather than not having much to say due to how early in the game it is, my mind is absolutely packed with ideas, questions, interests, and random-bursts-of-thought–one of which is, “I could spend the next several decades within the walls and webpages of Frost Library and still not have enough time to explore all of the projects that I’m already forming in my mind.” What a great first day-and-a-half, no?! To make it easier for both you and me (For you: to be able to coherently read my thoughts. For me: to be able to coherently assemble my thoughts), I’ve provided a list of some of these items below:

Topics of Interest on Amherst College, 1821-1861

  • Campus Life
    • Student uprisings
    • Class divisions and rivalries
    • Hazing culture
    • Sports and their impacts
    • Fraternities and their impacts
    • Women involved with the College
    • Amherst students of color
    • Christian revivals
    • Personal narratives and accounts (students, faculty, townspeople, etc).
  • Education & Intellectual Endeavors
    • Relationships between students and faculty
    • Role of the arts and visual media in education
    • Role of Christian ministry and missions in education
    • Amherst as an educational opportunity for low-income students
  • Architecture/Landscape of the College & Town
    • Interaction between students, faculty, and townspeople
    • Architectural development of the College
    • Impacts of the College on the town (cultural, economic, etc.)

…The list could go on, but I’ll stop here. My point is that I’ve found a vast array of topics interesting and worth pursuit–the problem is that, as I mentioned earlier, I could basically spend the remainder of my life researching all of this information and still have ideas and topics left to explore and discover. Truthfully, it seems that every time I find another interesting topic or every time I have a question answered, about six more topics or questions branch out of the original ones. On one hand, this is a problem for my adventure-and-exploration-seeking heart: I just want to learn everything I can (the good, the bad, and the ugly) in order to come to a fuller understanding of who and what Amherst College was and is, both for my own benefit and that of anyone who cares to take an interest. On the other hand, is this not an integral aspect of the beauty, complexity, and value of a liberal arts education? Having only graduated from Amherst two weeks ago, I can reflect on the past four years and say that I have more questions on my mind as an alumna than when I first arrived–and what a blessing that is!

I’ve learned to challenge, to question, to engage, and to disrupt. I’ve learned to utilize resources, to voice my thoughts, and to be critical of those same thoughts that I’ve voiced. I’ve learned to explore. I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a dead end, even when the door is locked. I’ve learned that pursing knowledge is useless unless we are willing to challenge those pursuits, learn about things we’re uncomfortable with, and humble ourselves when we realize that we don’t know everything. Pursuing knowledge is useless unless we make that knowledge accessible, and making that knowledge accessible is an integral step in making our world a more fruitful place.

Each of these things is something that time-machine-searching, old-Buffalo-daydreaming Amanda would never even have dreamt of pursuing. But thankfully, Frost-Archives-searching, old-and-new-Amherst-daydreaming Amanda is excited to pursue each of them (and more, because goodness knows she’ll discover more worth pursing) as she delves into her internship. Cheers to an incredible summer!

The End.

After two long months of struggling, laughing, and occasionally, working productively, the Digital Scholarship Internship has ended. The project I ended up working on was definitely not something I could have imagined in the beginning. But with the help of all the librarians and research assistants and special archives people, I learned a lot more about digital tools than I could have imagined and a lot more about the history of Amherst College than I ever cared to know. I am ~quite~ satisfied with my project, although I hoped that it would disappear quietly into an Internet black hole after its completion. More importantly, I am happy to have met so many people working at the library, I am happy to have worked so closely with my teammates, and I am happy that we made it. Now I can (maybe) give an answer to the question, “What is digital humanities?”

Here is a link to my project.

Dear future interns, who will probably be reading this post in your first week of your internship, here is some advice:

  • Don’t worry too much what you’re going to do. It’s kind of like choosing your major: either you know or you don’t know, but eventually you will know.
  • Start your WordPress site early.
  • In fact, start everything early if possible.
  • Look forward to giving a workshop on Gephi. By far the most useful tool you will use.
  • Bring a jacket everyday.
  • Most useful shortcut on WordPress is Command + K (unless you use PC – then I don’t know how to help you). If you highlight text and ^do that, you can add a hyperlink.
  • Make sure you pick a project you enjoy. Otherwise, you are going to be spending a lot of time on a project you do not enjoy.
  • Val repeats their menu even more frequently during the summer.
  • Best time to go to lunch is 11:30 or 12:45.
  • ^People might strongly disagree with the above, but don’t listen to them.
  • Have fun! (Or not. Up to you.)

Sincerely,

This cat

Ive-seen-the-end_o_118440

My Kingdom for a Time-Turner!

I don’t have a kingdom to offer, but time has passed disproportionately for this internship. The past week has been a build-up to the day of the presentation; those days were long because of the amount of work I was doing, but then they always appeared too short for the amount of work remaining. We have come so far since my last post; I didn’t even have a concrete idea of what my project would look like then, but now two weeks later, I have the privilege of looking backwards in time with a final product to boast about.

Here is A Little Magazine, complete with documentation.

Although I am proud of my project, it is certainly not the be-all and end-all. In fact, I would venture to say that the most valuable things I have learned from this Digital Scholarship internship, and the most valuable memories I have, have been the rest of “it.” The final product is a landmark, but not the cumulative experience.

I will end with a bullet-point of “it” in no particular order:

  • Building the timeline of the Student Publications Collection!
  • Knowing Lane Room too well. Knowing the computer lab on A level too well.
  • Increased knowledge of best spots in the library to counteract the temperature of the AC
  • The hypocrisy when I (almost) commit the same sin that I criticized of another website (story for another time)
  • Learning what “deliverables” mean
  • Still not knowing whether it’s “the digital humanities is” or “the digital humanities are”
  • The irony of making jokes about literary magazines, and then ended up focusing on one of them as my project
  • Not having enough time to do textual analysis and/or topic modeling; would have loved to see what kind of trends emerged
  • Learning that there are more than five librarians in the library. Really thankful for the network of librarians and other staff who have taught us and helped us along the way. [Personal note: now I know who to pester during the school year]
  • That feeling of accomplishment when my initials appeared in a streak on the Archives log-in sheet, because I came in everyday for data collection
  • Team meeting every Thursday; scrambling to prepare things for presentation
  • Learn that copyright is a thing, and that it is very complicated despite having charts to guide you through it
  • Having a group of interns to joke with in the first half of internship, and to keep up my morale during the dark days of tool failure; going crazy unproductive on one day and wake up and nail a Gephi workshop
  • Finding my way around WordPress; building something online for the first time
  • Being in the Archives for the first time; doing detective work
  • Getting stronger by lifting archival boxes from the front desk to the desk I was working on
  • First time at Mt. Holyoke; visited Leslie in the Archives
  • Emerging into the sun after a day of self-isolation in the Archives
  • That time when the word “concatenate” gained special status
  • Appreciation for access to the staff lounge (food cornucopia), with us interns at the highest priority for emails about food opportunities in the library
  • Finding the perfect spot in the Archives to take pictures of documents without my shadow blocking it
  • The beauty of Command F to look for keywords in a decades’ worth of newspaper OCR
  • Staying in the library until all the lights shut down
  • Being totally turned off by a tool at first sight, but then realizing some possible merits after having to teach a workshop on it (hint: Gephi)
  • Learning that Tableau is “like Excel, but more fun!”
  • Attended two job interviews
  • Took awkward group pictures
  • How to make a Pictionary session of publication names educational
  • This insight and call to action: Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.57.58 AM
  • The havoc that puns cause on productivity, when you throw four tired interns together in a Monday afternoon, which leads me to…
  • A certain “Group Proposal” document that is in fact, bonkers. Inside joke: art rat

Signing off, but not gone,
Phuong-Nghi

 

Iterate & Circulate (rinse and repeat)

After spending every single working hour with each other in the first five weeks (I’m not complaining; after all, we managed to create a “pictionary” session out of publication titles- that’s the epitome of team bonding and productivity), the self-imposed isolation of the recent two weeks meant only catching a glimpse of each other’s dazed faces at team meetings, or during the sporadic half-hour of project planning. Otherwise, with the range of our project topics and reliance on different tools, it is a fairly solitary undertaking. Also, the materials that we are working with demand that we physically be in certain places, whether that be in the Archives Reading Room or the Higgins Room.

Despite this physical constraint, we keep morale up by sharing the occasional high-fives and smiles when we see each other in passing. On days when we happen to do research together in one room, the quiet is often punctuated by excited bursts of commentary on all sorts of interesting finds, even if not necessarily relevant to the project at hand. I find that this adventurous spirit – refusing for our topics to become blinders, even at this stage where the days until the final presentation are indifferently ticking away – stimulating and encouraging. For me, it is comforting to hear how others’ projects are going, the headway they made, the unexpected obstacles and the lingering confusion. Although I cannot contribute in terms of resolving their problems, it is a vicarious and almost cathartic.

It will be a relief to reconvene later in the week in order to figure out the information architecture for our website and put together the final product. The hair-wringing process of research would transform from abstract to concrete, ready for presentation (or so we hope).

As for my own project, it’s been dizzying. But at least there’s movement, right? If this intrigues, check back in a week and see what kind of creature hatches.

More Contemplation

Flipping through old copies of The Amherst Student from the 60s and 70s, I have slowly begun to realize that history has a tendency to repeat itself, and that students back then were asking the same questions we ask now. Take the two pictures below. The first one is from the Afro-American protest in 1969 and the second is from #AmherstUprising in 2015. Both reflect the turbulent time period the protests arose from, and both are making demands to the administration to give voice to the marginalized populations at Amherst College.

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Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 3.07.05 PM

Another interesting aspect about the history of student protests at Amherst College is that not all of them were meant to be taken seriously. It seems like a couple of times a year, there have been several articles that say “protests” but describe a party gone wild. I wondered if this reflected the divide between student activists and non-student activists on campus (aka those who took civil disobedience seriously and those who didn’t) or if this was the student publication’s idea of humor back in the day. In any case, with these types of articles, it is hard to trace the intent and origin behind the sarcastic use of the word “protest,” and I concluded that I would consider it a lost cause to try to look deeper.
I am still delving into the archives to find out more about student protests, but as a group, we have also stepped back to look at the bigger picture. We are working to create a timeline of student publications from the beginning of Amherst College. After importing all the details from our abstract list and fitting them onto the Excel template given by TimelineJS (the digital humanities tool we decided to use), we now face the task of cleaning it up and making it look presentable. So far we have organized the publications into one of these categories: News/Student Life, Humor/Satire, Literary Magazine, Journals of Thoughts, Academic Journals, and Yearbook. This categorization has helped me to understand that repeating patterns in student publications, especially the tendency to express themselves creating new student publications when there is not one that feels sufficient. We also cleaned up the dates for each publication, double checking with the finding aid and special archives. This task was mind-numbingly mundane (see the comic strip below), but at the very least, helped me see how many single issue publications there were.

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It seems like I am achieving a good balance of doing purely research and then stepping back to see how this fits into the bigger picture. At least, the timeline is giving me a vague feeling of productivity.

Rod Serling and Boxes 1-20

In the Amherst Special Collections, there are documents that venture onto the precipice of strange and weird, categorized within an archive beyond man, the middle ground between light and shadow, science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of mans fears (Amherst Literary Monthly) and the summit of his knowledge (everything else). It is known as the Twilight Zone.

Behind the door to this dimension lie Amherst Student clippings with headlines like “Sarat Joins [O.J.] Simpson Defense.” One front page article features a student covered in a white full-body poncho,  “SHE’s debut new mascot, Captain Condom” Publications dedicated to alternative art, advocating students to wave around Mao’s little red book. It depicts an Amherst that both was, is and will never be.

These documents, worthy of headline in any SNL Weekend Update, are legitimate. On their own, they are the quirkier aspects of life in a small college. They are united only by their deviation from the norm and not similarities, a collection of misfits. Together, they paint Amherst as a little unhinged but immensely lovable.

Unfortunately, that makes them ill suited for study. I love to snap photos of each strange feature I see, with Ripley’s Believe it or Not on speed dial. However, I can’t really find any digital use for them- I can’t even explain why we’re so drawn to them anyways! The application of some collections to projects are easy, like charting the growth of buildings or the advancement and recession of Sarat’s hairline in each photo appearance.

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Sarat’s “Peak” hair years- named for both the climax in hair density and the premature onset of widow’s peak.

If anything, it’s affected my attitude towards my dedicated project. I’m grateful to be exploring comedy publications, because the lines between fiction and reality and not as blurred. For now, I’d like to focus on the question I asked earlier in the summer- when was comedy looking inward and when was it looking outward? Originally, I would’ve assumed most inspiration came outward. But now…. I’m wondering if it flowed from the pioneer valley between reality and fiction, situated in the Twilight Zone.

 

Fancy new word for a day of dialogue

The past weeks research was mostly protest related, which is the path along which I am strongly inclined. I dug through the moratoria papers, which in a nutshell is a collection of papers based on different moratoria (read day of dialogue) that have been held on campus to address concerns that had come up as a result of protests.

Moratorium: a temporary prohibition of an activity.                             Synonyms: embargo, ban, prohibition, suspension, postponement, stay, stoppage, halt, freeze, standstill, respite

So I learned that the day of dialogue isn’t a new thing, it has been proposed before on campus as a solution to some of the protests that have previously been held. Moratorium, day of concern, day of dialogue; same thing, different name. On top of that, the response to the day of dialogue as a solution hasn’t changed. The one that was held in my freshman year didn’t seem to bear much fruit, the same goes for the ones that were held 30 years ago. What this revealed to me is that I can take research on protests in a different direction. Rather than picking a specific time period, comparing similar protests that occurred at different points in time and seeing how they evolve over time, or how closely they mirror each other could also be interesting.

I also stumbled across the letter that President Plimpton of Amherst College sent to President Nixon of the U.S, to which President Nixon DID reply (albeit through his assistant). I’m also constantly finding random things in the Student which aren’t necessarily tied to protests but are cool, like for instance, the opinion sections where people weren’t afraid to blatantly express what was on there minds, and then googling the alums with the most controversial posts. I’m constantly finding cool things in the digging in process but at the back of my mind I feel like going through the archives is putting off actually having to start the project. I wouldn’t call it a dead end, but I really am not sure about where to start. Hopefully now that we have Gephi out of the way, I can channel all that energy to figuring out where.

Still trying to figure out which one I am. Maybe a spin on the Internet Researcher – the Archive Researcher