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.

 

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!

Day 1/3

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Early Work for “Early Amherst”

The first two days have been a whirlwind of information. I think it’s fair to say that the three of us (Takudzwa will join us soon!) were blown away by the versatility and expressive power of Digital Humanities, the enthusiasm of everyone involved in this endeavor, and the endlessly fractalling potential for our project.

rackham three girls in wind

The Archives already feel like an upcoming adventure. Unassuming as the Reading Room seems, with its quiet tables and gentle book cradles, it nonetheless feels like the edge of canyon or the bottom of a mountain–  the sheer scope of the collections available (90 linear feet of student publications alone!) electrifies the air. Tantalizing too is the long list online of the special collections, the finding aids all lined up for inspection and susceptible to quick control-F.

Though it’s only the second day, I feel as if ideas for the project have been arising, colliding, and coalescing in my mind for weeks. Already I’ve jumped from Jacob Abbott to Noah Webster to Lucius Boltwood and back, eyes lighting up as the same names pop up in faculty minutes, transcribed journals, and history books. I’ve stared, puzzled, at 19th century handwriting and each author’s chirographical eccentricities, parsing out with difficulty “Athenian” and “Alexandrian,” just to have those two literary societies mentioned easily and offhandedly in Fuess’s book (along with the tidbit that people were assigned to either in alternating alphabetical order).

My questions– bifurcating with every new piece of information– are perhaps too manifold to list. Let me focus, instead, on my goals for this internship.

I am enchanted with DH theory and praxis, and I’m hoping not just to immerse myself equally in the DH world and the world of early Amherst but also to have the two inform each other.

Though I acknowledge I will be limited by the tools available and the team’s proficiency thereof, the idea of melding medium and subject matter is too much of a siren call to shake. To have the interface and experience of our project reflect its very content, to mirror the values of research subjects within their own representation, to allow ease of access and friction in ways that imitate the generation of information– such ideals are tantalizing.

But even if the quixotic remains beyond my lance’s reach, I feel certain that the cohort’s endeavors here will never be wasted. Already our ideas spark off each other’s, our passions lending new lenses to the same sources. Humorous tidbits (expulsion for chicken stealing, grave concern over oversleeping ) are shared with the same frequency as more serious discoveries, and it is rare that one observation is not met with another’s connection. I fervently hope that such academic camaraderie continues.

The final goal I’ll mention is more worldly. That I have found a field that synthesizes my love of learning with my deep commitment to effective and aesthetic communication– which I hopefully achieve in my creative writing– feels strangely both inevitable and like a windfall. The future for me– until now always somewhat murky– now opens another possible path. Though I’ve but two months this summer to immerse myself in the theory, praxis, and intellectual joy of DH, I hope it will be enough to allow me to continue further in the field.

And now, since I’ll undoubtedly have a good laugh about it when my dreams from day two meet the research and reality of the upcoming weeks, I’ll name “Learning at Early Amherst” as the topic that entices me the most and that I hope to follow. Among the possible branches of exploration are the student self-directed literary societies, the evolving pedagogy and curriculum, and the sometimes tense relationship between students and faculty. As for resources, there are a few posters, a handful of student journals, and a number of student periodicals that present a promising starting point.

In any case, no matter what direction our research pulls us in, I know I’ve a good team beside me. In a field which embraces the expansion of expression and the tension between interpretations, there is no better way to explore any subject than with a cohort ready to dive in, develop, and debate with you.

I look forward to sharing our future explorations here, and I hope my reflections may offer you something of value!

(As a side note, I intend to include an Arthur Rackham illustration in every blog post. There’s always room in the world for more beautiful art.)