From Drifting About to Diving In

There is something to be said for wandering.

I am prone to long walks in forests, eyes flitting from mossy rock to rotten stump to staid trees. I don’t set out searching for certain creatures, so every chipmunk, starling, frog is a wondrous treasure. At times I’ll be mesmerized by flashes of blue sky between branches or the mirror world just beneath a puddle, and I’ll stand, still and silent, for minutes entranced.

That’s how these first few weeks of research have felt. Sticking, at first, to clearly laid-out paths– the Amherst College Early History collection– then wandering, traipsing out to the Dramatics Collection, to carpenters’ ledgers, to faculty minutes, or else following a flickering idea, an elusive bird, from tree to tree.

And it’s been wonderful, this welcome perusal, this pleasant wandering. But after a while, one craves a purpose, a point, a destination. Eyes seek trail markers, hunger for guaranteed views at the end of a hike.

That’s how proposals feel. We know our way around the woods, trust our garnered skills, and are ready to march on with purpose. We’re sitting around a map that we’ve half filled in ourselves and plotting out a course for the weeks to follow. It’s fun. Like kids playing at being pirates, searching for that fabled X.

There were challenges as well, of course. Narrowing down our interests into something researchable, hopefully manageable, has the pain of all the paths not taken. Finding a guiding question for our inclinations is daunting too– moving from that pure joy of exploration to the sedate pleasure of purpose can feel like a loss, even though it isn’t.

I’m glad we had, as it were, practice proposals first. I’m ready for commitment, for rolling up my sleeves and digging deep into data, but I’d not want to rush in too quickly to anything less than the perfect match. Perhaps it’s too limiting to think of the right research path as a some sort of destined affair, but, well, I’m a romantic at heart.

I’ve been hanging out a lot with the course catalogs– we’re pretty close at this point– but I’m not sure if I’m ready for that next step. There’s a lot I like about them– the endless numbers lurking beneath the surface, those statistics waiting to be visualized, the subtler questions of formatting, that culture and mentality embedded in form, and the sheer continuity and scope of them– but I can’t help but wonder what other potential matches are out there.

I am reassured that the decision is not entirely my own– I know my team will help me narrow down my options into one topic that will play nicely with their own. I’m excited to walk alongside my fellow archival adventurers into new territory.

We have disparate interests, to be sure, but our passion for this project will help us bridge those differences. And it’s crucial that we all bring together those different perspectives into something holistic. There are, in all our interests, sites for synthesis. We may need to narrow down our topics into that one thread that weaves best into the tapestry, but it’s still our own colors dancing through the whole.

weaving, metaphor, I'm so week
There’s a lot to be done, a focus to be found, paths to leave less traveled — that can feel like a lot and a loss, like laying down limits just as we’re getting busy. But there’s still plenty of time for wandering, adventuring, as long as it’s in the right direction — we’re not out of the woods yet.

Armed for Inquiry

I am not mathematically minded. After my Precalc midterm, my teacher looked at me with a mix of awe and disappointment and asked, “Katie, what happened?” I forged through Psych Statistics wielding rote memorization like a machete. No matter how many times I order the exact same meal at Fresh Side, I still have to break out my calculator app to figure out the tip.

Despite this… I love data.

I also love intuition– the spectral webs of crisscrossing themes and the cotton candy feel of abstract ideas spinning together.

But there’s something exciting about boiling down complex ideas into simple, manipulatable numbers. To see those intuitions finally concrete in scatterplots and percentages– or else thereby denied and replaced by a new realm of phantasmagoric possibilities.

This love of data has been amplified by the various methodology workshops we’ve been doing. Learning about tools like Voyant and MALLET, the ways they can act as not a substitute for analysis but as a supplement or stimulus, and looking at data visualization, the way arguments can be made in images– all of it has been exhilarating. There are so many paths to walk down that ultimately I don’t feel terrible about having to narrow it down to just a few; there are thousands of good and great options, sure, but I just have to find the right ones.

Data exists everywhere– these workshops have convinced me of that. They’ve given me a new way of looking at our archival resources– inaugural speeches can be analyzed for trends, student publications can be broken down into topics, course catalogs can be distilled into graphs, charts, numbers. I’ve always been one to value the anecdote and its place in painting abstract ideas– now I realize that as beautiful as broad strokes are, there’s also power in pointillism.

Me, looking for the right paths and armed for the expedition.
Me, looking for the right paths and armed for the expedition.

So I’m ready to move on from frolicking to focusing– both have their merits– and to start circling in on a final topic. I have all these new, powerful methodologies– I want to sic them on something.

And I feel prepared for the journey– I’ve been armed for inquiry, I’ve got a great team beside me, and I’m eagerly awaiting the challenges ahead.

After all, we’re dealing in data, and data is fun.

Brawl to Ballet (and Embracing the Battle)

Two men, two journals. Or, rather, fifteen men between 1821 and 1861 in Amherst College with an odd assortment of journals, diaries and autobiographies. Or, actually, forty years of Amherst College students living and recording their lives only to have a fraction end up in the archives, tucked away in neat little folders in dark boxes on metal shelves.

rackham mice bird pageBut for me, today, there is only Alfred and Augustus, class of ’58 and ’39, with their patterned leather-bound books enclosing nineteenth century scrawl. And even that is too broad a scope.

Augustus Wing was a philosophical mind, particularly fond of poetry and linguistics, with a keen appreciation of geography and theology and a tendency to jot down bits of history.

Alfred Ellsworth, on the other hand, is a more opaque figure. Not because his journal lacks substance– it was auctioned off with a letter noting its rich Amherst-related contents — but because, quite frankly, I can stare and stare and stare and make little sense of his slender slanting scrawl.

So I spend my time with Augustus.


The data is marshaled into precise little rows, the columns standing side by side. Each student from the class of 1825 with their hometown right up against their place and date of death. As if that weren’t already cold and impersonal enough, another sheet strips away the human touch of “Colerain” and “Woodbridge” and replaces them with lengthy strings of latitude and longitude.

But, strangely, it’s not as austere as it seems. As the numbers shift from from 42 to 33, or 77 to 89, you see a life far flung from the familiarity of home. Lincoln Clark and Robert Coffin, next to each in the class list might now be lying next to each other in their graves– both died in the Massachusetts town of Conway. And of the 31 classmates, seven of them– seven!– died in the decade after their freshman year.

The data waits, geographical coordinates ready to map across the United States patterns of concentricity and change. TimeMapper and MapStory lurk between tutorial and troubleshooting tabs, their infrastructure perfect for the task at hand. And yet…

I am thwarted. I add a layer of my data, but nothing appears on screen. Following the diagram in the FAQs, I publish my Google spreadsheet, only to have the website insistently inform me that I should try publishing my sheet. I stare at the other projects and their pristine visualizations and wonder in despair if the rest of the world will ever see the beauty in my data.


I am used to living, research-wise, in the best of all possible worlds. With all my texts in neat type, with the library making available any article I require, with Word and Scrivener and Powerpoint all mastered — with all this, I am used to threading together themes with data and established theory with original commentary, everything dressed up and bolstered by with alliteration, chiasmus, and tricolons crescens.

Now I encounter resistance in both the material and the medium, especially at the point of welding them together. For how can I honestly present a picture of student life at Amherst if there’s a rich source I neglected? How much worse will that lacuna be when magnified by the data’s presentation? Is it dishonest, as well, to use anything less than the optimal software to display the data if by doing so its representation loses clarity and possibly significance as well?

This battleground between data and its display is a new one for me, and at times I feel unequipped. Which should dictate which? Whose side am I fighting on? Am I paramedic trying to keep both armies alive, or a Valkyrie ready to whisk away the weaker to a different sort of glory?

I think, perhaps, that as I learn to negotiate that space between it will become less of a brawl and more of a ballet, methodology, data, and research questions each a moving piece but ultimately moving in harmony. That is the ideal, at least.

And as I work towards such a state, I’ll keep dreaming up research questions and digging through the archives. My naive hope at the beginning was to meld medium and material, to have one reflect and amplify the other. I realize now that the task will be more difficult than I imagined– by that only makes me all the more determined to achieve such an arduous but ultimately invaluable union. And to do so I will need an intimate understanding of early Amherst. The hard (yet easy data) of birth and death sites alongside trickier anecdotes and opinions gleaned from diaries, journals, publications, lecture notes and letters. I must be even-handed in my research, push back at the resistance, and aim to achieve a balance.

It is only fair, I think, to have one Alfred for each Augustus.


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 knowle 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!

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.)


Catching Sparks

Food for thought: should we strive to be like this spider?

As we fling ourselves into this stage of exploration, a stage of self-guided archival immersion punctuated by workshops and meetings, I have grown to embrace the nebulousness inherent in any research process, not least for a digital humanities project. In fact, the conversations that we have had this past week reinforce the idea that each research project, either traditional or digital, is a unique undertaking. Unlike the neat charts delineating “the components” of the research process and pointing out a progression with helpful arrows, the reality of research design is a much more complex mingling of “things.” Such things typically include research questions, goals, methods, conceptual framework, and validity (see Trevor Owens’ blogpost here), which constantly interact with each other. On second thoughts, “interact” is rather vague and sterile, isn’t it? As I’m sure we will discover in the next few weeks, they will illuminate each other, be in tension with each other, guide each other, interrogate each other; they will open some doors, shut several, keep a few ajar, lock some others, or eliminate the concept of doors entirely…

Well, that escalated quickly.

My keyword from last week, “fluidity,” applies now as much as ever. In fact, as we begin to learn about tools for digital exhibits and mapping, I find that a reasonable answer to my questions last week regarding where is the best place to start (with research questions, digital tools, interesting ideas?) is this: just start. And follow your heart/head. Yes, this is cheesy, but in a research context where time and effort are in great demand, it is important to not just pick a topic that sparks one’s interest, but to also have the courage to let tidbits lead you down a footpath with an indeterminate destination. Who really knows the destination at this point anyways?

With all this in mind, it is just perfect timing that we made our first concept maps this week. Concept-mapping is an organization tool for brainstorming. A quick Google search yields diagrams of concepts, consisting of boxes and circles connected to each other in a variety of relationships.

A “meta” concept-map

For me, who is still a child at heart, concept-mapping is basically making my own spider web. Each string can branch out to another network, connect unlikely objects, or simply hang in space. In a workshop with two Research & Instruction librarians, we learned how to incorporate concept maps into the process of generating research questions. And just like any type of research, the goal of a brainstorming session is to generate without discrimination, which means learning how to eliminate the adjectives such as: is it a trivial question? Too vague? Too vague? Too specific? Too random?

At this stage, asking questions is key. As we start to spend time with tools such as Omeka and TimeMapper, I am less concerned about how to make this a digital humanities project than just thinking about how this project will materialize. I think a Five-College Digital Humanities (DH) post-bac put it best when he told us that digital humanities simply provides a lens with which to approach research. We spend additional time to learn a variety of digital tools, but the essence of the research process remains the same as that of traditional scholarship: immerse oneself in the material, consult ancillary sources, brainstorm questions and ideas while minimizing self-censorship, thinking critically, embracing periods of confusion and self-doubt, figuring out ways to organize information- all with the hope of catching sparks.

Disclaimer: not a concept map. But still valuable.

Optimistically confuzzled

As two separate words, “digital” and “humanities” do hold some meaning for this child of the digital generation, whose liberal-arts education leans liberally toward the humanities. But simply put those two words together, and poof! I am faced with a hazy sense of meaning, which is just a kinder way of saying that my knowledge on the matter is basically non-existent. Thankfully, the description for this Digital Scholarship internship reassures that “no prior technical or digital scholarship experience necessary, just curiosity and commitment.” After reading a number of articles, some of which attempt to clarify the scope of “digital humanities” while others argue for the futility of defining/delineating boundaries for the field, I find some comfort in the collective confusion, at least for these first two days.

In the last 36 hours, one word appears to best characterize my experience with digital scholarship this summer: fluidity. Digital humanities is inclusive in its ability to hover beyond the wall of definition, welcoming vast networks of scholars, projects, and methodologies. But with this fluidity comes more responsibilities. The first half of the internship will be devoted to exploring some of the tools available to digital humanists, but how do I allow the tools to enrich my research project rather than to dictate it? There is a limit to what we interns can learn and apply in the first few weeks, so how does one even begin to maintain a conversation between the digital and traditional aspects of the research process? What kind of questions would take advantage of the potential of digital technology and yield insights that traditional research for a paper could not?

My first foray into the library’s archives yesterday was a mix of glee (combing through just a few boxes of student publications revealed some bizarre ads and an interesting sense of humor in the late 1800s) and apprehension (how can I synthesize all the information in this collection of 36 boxes occupying 90 linear feet?). The obvious challenge of diving into a collection of this size and variety is how to navigate it all effectively: do I studiously go through all of the boxes (a bit ambitious… just a bit), hoping to stumble onto interesting threads one day? Do I identify a theme or question beforehand? Do I take notes of interesting tidbits and try to weave a pattern throughout? Or do I view the brainstorming process through the digital tools that we will learn, thinking about how they can be applied in the formation of my questions? In short, how should I take advantage of the interdisciplinary potential of a digital project? And thinking about the end product, which hopefully will be a concrete presentation-ready thing, what would the experience be like for an audience unfamiliar with digital scholarship?

Just drowning in questions… Be back in a mo’

As much as I anticipate the long periods of ambiguity, confusion, and perhaps existential crisis this summer, I do look forward to experiencing them all (just with my fingers crossed for the light at the end of this purple tunnel of ambiguity). Who knows, maybe I will be able to define what “digital humanities” mean(s)… to me.

DH Blueprints is Live and Ready to Teach by Example

DH Blueprints is live and ready to teach by example. Visit our final project website, DH Blueprints. There you can see what came of our projects as well as the various resources we compiled for people interested in learning more about the exciting field of digital humanities. A more in depth recap is forthcoming.

(Image Credit: Libby Dowdall)

From Exploration to Development

Since June, my work for the Digital Scholarship Summer Internship at Amherst has been dominated by exploration. Throughout my time working as an intern this summer at Frost Library, I’ve had the opportunity to digitize nineteenth-century Emily Dickinson poems, attend data visualization conference workshops, consult with Native American scholars about digital scholarship possibilities for Amherst’s own Native American book collection, and contribute to this blog. The list goes on and on.

But this week ends on a different note as the supervising staff helped us mark deadlines for our final projects and its components. In late August, our DH initiative must transform from an abstract idea to an actual digital experience for others to explore.  What we’re trying to do is develop an educational webspace featuring a few model projects in digital scholarship that could serve as examples for fellow undergraduate students, especially those unfamiliar with digital scholarship.

Continue reading From Exploration to Development

Where Am I and How Did I Get Here?

My individual digital scholarship project, which is now part of our collaborative ‘meta-project’ around digital scholarship, has changed a great deal in the last few weeks. And it’s changed even more since I first began to envision what our collective digital project would be. Initially, I wanted to explore a project that would map the publication data of the Native American books collection. Then, I wanted to plot geographic locations within various books to see what Native American authors were writing about a given region in the U.S.  over time. And now, I’ve shifted to using text analysis programs and methodologies to compare two different Iroquois creation stories written by Tuscarora authors. How’d this happen? Continue reading Where Am I and How Did I Get Here?