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.

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!

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!

Experimenting with the Experimental

Now that our (exhaustive) timeline of the student-publication collection is finished for the moment, we can breathe a sigh of relief before diving into our individual parts for the final project. For me, what’s clear from the outset is the constant re-evaluation of scope, specifically the need to narrow my focus. Time constraint (we have roughly less than three weeks left!) and my limited experience with digital tools necessitate that I not bite off more than I can chew:

All student publications (125+) >

Literary magazines (41) >

Experimental magazines (~7) >

Io and Adelphian (2)

 

Why literary magazines?

Compiling and cleaning up the template for the timeline yielded useful data for generating a variety of graphs (which hopefully will feature on the homepage of our currently non-existent website for the final project). One of these, the-distribution-of-genres graph, shows that literary magazines make up the largest group with 41 publications. But that number alone does not provide the full picture, since some publications were single issues while others, such as the Amherst Literary Magazine, last upwards of 70 years. Nevertheless, not only were literary magazines the first student publications to come out of Amherst College, they remained a staple marker of students’ intellectual and creative lives throughout Amherst’s 200-year history.

It would be a Sisyphean task to tackle all of the literary magazines. Despite the generic and bland description often attached to them, “featuring short stories, essays, and poems,” they exist in all different shapes and forms, requiring extensive work, effort, and technical ability to give them justice. To take a more logistically realistic route, I have decided to focus on the experimental literary magazines as a lens on the literary establishment at Amherst. For this purpose, I selected Io (1965-66 at Amherst, 1967-1976 post-Amherst), an anthology combining literature, anthropology, natural and physical sciences into thematic issues, intended to be “a long accumulating poem, or myth, created by those who read it.” Puzzled yet intrigued? Me, too. The other is Adelphian (1985-1986), which aimed to attract “voices one would not expect to find at Amherst,” a phrase which itself raises questions about the student climate at Amherst and what was considered acceptable by the literary establishment.

So what does it mean that they are experimental magazines? For one thing, after spending two days trekking through the pieces, I can say that they are DIFFICULT to understand. How can digital tools like textual analysis help me with these interpretive challenges? The range of topics by itself is incredible, but more challenging to wrap one’s mind around are the styles of the writers and poets, who often perform technical feats to convey their points. “Experimental” is meant to be a catch-all term, because to pin down a definition for such words is, as Samuel Butler puts it elegantly, “to enclose a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.”

Nevertheless, “experimental” is relative, as it requires a point of comparison and historical context. To provide a rounded look, I plan to comb through the Amherst Student to gather information about their reception by the student body and the faculty. What are the dynamics between the literary establishment and these experimental literary magazines? Looking at the “established literary magazine” from the same period would be beneficial in gauging the degree of experimentation, although how to depict this visually remains a challenge.

Whatever I find in these next few days, I envision the final project to involve a lot of writing. Context is crucial, because in addition to looking at individual pieces themselves, my interest in origins lingers, prompting me to learn more about the founders and contributors. Where did they end up, and did their involvement with these magazines have any influence on their career path and current work? In working with the digital, I want to emphasize the human connection as much as possible, and perhaps this is one way of doing so. Time will tell (check back in a week).

I Spy a Black Hole

Let’s tackle the mystery of the title right now instead of threading it subtly throughout the post. Black holes are noble and majestic – remnants of collapsed stars that strive to make this harsh, ever-expanding universe warmer by extending a generous welcome to all who venture within its gravitational field. At least that’s what I presume based on my Earth Science knowledge from 7th grade… and a rose-colored figment of my imagination, since I’ve never actually encountered one (thank my lucky stars). A quick Google search reveals that black holes are, in fact, quite photogenic.  A starry spiral spreads outward, punctuating the profundity of the enigmatic core that is soul-less-ly black. It’s hard not to wax poetic about black holes, but one quibble remains. If they are trying not to attract attention, they should reconsider their color choice, or at least think about how their effects on their surrounding give away their position. This aside, what’s not to like about the enigma of black holes, except the fact that our very attraction to them comes from their ability to elude extensive study?

Smooth transition coming up.

In the compact 90-linear-ft universe of the Student Publications Collection in the Archives in A Level of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College, there too exists a black-hole. It has earned many affectionate names from the DSSI interns and generated many a fruitful conversations:

A glimpse into the life...
Fear the Literary Magazines

As you can see from this snippet, I am venturing into dangerous, unknown territory. Putting the juicy metaphorical significance aside for a moment, literary magazines do make up roughly 40% of the collection (disclaimer: no actual calculation has been done), so it seems careless to disregard this size-able chunk that managed to remain a staple of student publications for almost 200 years. We do not know how these publications were received in their time and how large the readership was, but there is something to be admired in the resilience of literary magazines to pop up in almost every decade of Amherst history.

Newspapers, editorials, and journals of thought tell us directly about the conditions and issues of the time. Literary magazines, on the whole (although there are a few peculiarities), seek to showcase student work by providing a space for creative expression through multiple mediums (poetry, short stories, photography etc.). What can creative expression reveal other than the polished brain scribbles of some person’s imagination? In a way, fiction is a paradox: it transcends time while remaining firmly a product of its generation. How does a lowly intern even begin to capture this paradox through digital tools?

One option is topic modeling and textual analysis, which would reveal trends in topics that occupy students’ imagination through the years. In addition to the enormous data ingestion that this requires, it also seems counterintuitive: doesn’t the power of fiction lie in the uniqueness with which each author approaches a universal topic? These tools can reveal patterns through similarities, but how can they display the range of differences? The pieces that I have read so far range from personal to mystical, from piercing to eccentric, from emotionally draining to confusing. They straddle that threshold of the real in the bubble of the imaginary.

Research at this point is simply to read. And then read some more, all the while praying for serendipity. If I never end up working with literary magazines for this internship, at least they have earned an acknowledgement in a modest blog post.

________________________________________________________________

Other notable accomplishments this week:

  • Detective work for Visualization Deliverables: discovered a mystery man whose fate in WWII turned out differently in three publications
  • First time reading a senior thesis in an attempt to find some numbers on Amherst students during World War II
  • Pictionary with publication titles- totally educational
  • Teaching a Gephi workshop in a responsible, critical manner without completely roasting the tool as we were originally inclined to do
  • Creating a Group Proposal document that went bonkers with a certain three letters (no worries, a properly academic one was created the next morning, just in time for its presentation)
  • Beginning to construct a timeline of Student Publications (all ~120 of them!)

Circles vs lines

My usual research process varies depending on the subject. In economics, my papers usually start with a statement in mind, then my research is geared towards supporting that statement. In my humanities courses, I usually start with the research first, then draw a thesis from all I have gathered, then do further research to support that thesis. This is especially helpful if there is absolutely no background in the research matter going in. What I’ve come to appreciate so far is that research is circular, and with such a large collection, it can definitely go off in any direction at any moment of time.

Start wherever, as long as where you start is anchored in your goals

This becomes even trickier when you aren’t quite sure what your goals are. The workshops have been quite eye-opening in the sense that they’ve sort of us given us hints of what direction we could take with the overall final deliverables of the internship. But the more I learn, the more I realize there’s more to learn. Which is exciting, but also kind of daunting for when it comes the time to align your goals and finally pursue a certain theme/publication.

I personally enjoyed the concept mapping most so far I had only come across it before in design thinking workshops and seeing it being applied in academia was something I hadn’t thought of before. The mapping examples we went through were very different from how I had encountered mapping before, which was through a more geographic lens, and not too much history embedded into it. Seeing it being used here opens up so much possibilities in my personal research aligned with my major here at Amherst, which I am excited about. On top of that the direction we took with the deliverables led us to shifting our focus to other publications which he hadn’t gotten a chance to look through yet, such as the Amherst Student. This again just reminded me of how not only the research guides the tool, but the tool can guide the research as well.

Update: Still unable to define digital humanities, but it is officially ingrained in my brain as a thing.

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?

Coming up for Air: a Brief Recap on a Week of Research

Last week, we interns had free reign to do our own research relating to a digital project proposal for the KWE Native American book collection. This meant lots of time exploring different books and articles related to Native American studies and digital humanities tools that could be useful for our digital project. I broke up my time reading and gathering info on two broad subjects that tended to overlap as I began to hone in on what I was interested in. In the one corner, there was Native American literary history. In the other, studies related to the history of American publishing and of American print culture. In many ways it was a week of info dumping- searching catalogs for articles, skimming said articles, checking bibliographies, looking up books… you get the idea. With that said, I think an important take away from this is that there is so much to learn about the fields I’m looking at. That can be daunting, but it’s also cool to be exposed slowly but surely to something new. Anyway, I have a few more takeaways that might be best served as questions.  Continue reading Coming up for Air: a Brief Recap on a Week of Research