Learning to Ask Questions

It’s now the end of our first full week of the Digital Scholars internship (and the beginning of the second, by this point), and it seems that the wish I made last week (that I could return to school) has been granted, in a way. As we began to learn about our first two DH tools and try a hands-on exploration of applying them to the Hitchcock collection, I began to feel that I was going to have to reexamine everything I thought I knew about research, and maybe even relearn how to go about forming research questions.

This might not sound like the most ground-breaking of revelations, but as someone who just spent a year of her life working on a senior thesis, I thought I had the whole “research” thing pretty much down (and so begins the breakdown of post-graduate hubris). I was used to coming to a research project with a solid comprehension of my source materials, a clear grasp of what tools I had on hand, and most importantly, an outline of where my argument was going to go. Even with my thesis, which naturally grew and changed in unexpected ways over the course of the year, I had a good sense that I was in control of the texts and the outcomes throughout the process.

Not so with the Hitchcock Collection so far. First off, it’s certainly the most extensive assortment of source materials I’ve ever tried to examine as a collective. Given the nature of the materials, it’s challenging to find a cohesive focus throughout: this is a collection of artifacts from two peoples’ lives, from intimate diaries to professional correspondences to receipts of their daily finances. There isn’t a distinct “argument” at work here that I can parse out and examine, as I’ve grown used to doing in my research. And while getting to know the extensive collection (26 boxes!) well will be a long-term process that I hope will bring gradual comprehension as the summer goes on, the very nature of the tools we will be using to approach the collection ensures that any potential research questions will be in a near-constant state of flux.

This helpful diagram from a Trevor Owens article we read last week explains how digital tools and methodologies should inform a potential research question, with an emphasis on this continual state of refinement and adaptation that bothers me so much. Basically, we have so many options for tools and content that there is no one obvious way to approach this project; it seems like half the project is going to be figuring out what the project is going to be about… a process that is taking some getting used to on my part.

We’ve learned about two digital tools or approaches so far–Omeka, an online exhibit platform, and GIS mapping–and have looked at and critiqued a variety of examples of scholarship that makes use of each tool. Given the visual nature and focus of these tools, a lot of the examples we’ve examined so far have been visually interesting and outwardly arresting, but banal in terms of content or contribution to their actual field of research. The tool should fit/add to the research, we keep saying in a DH-style echo of the traditional literary adage “form follows content.” And it makes sense, but in examining and being entertained by these projects, I can see how easy it could be for our own project to fall into a similar trap of prioritizing the tool over the research itself. I personally am very easily seduced by interactive maps and visuals, and each time we examine one, I find myself getting excited about the tools not for what they could bring to the collection, but for how we could apply the collection to the tool.

When I try to think in the other direction, pulling out a research question or theme first, and then finding a tool to apply it to, nothing seems to quite stick. This might be because the themes I’m interested in right now don’t easily break down into to the visual or quantitative data that the tools we’ve looked at so far seem to prefer. I don’t even have concrete questions at this point, more just threads or themes that I’ve seen in the collection that I’d like to look into more: Edward’s reconciliation of science and religion; Edward and Orra’s familial relationship; the source and nature of his hypochondria.

I’m hoping that as we move along into this week of exploring more diverse and potentially more textually-based tools (text analysis, topic modeling), I’ll be able to find something that is more applicable to the themes and questions I’m interested in, and that from there I’ll be able to think more creatively about the collection and the rest of the tools.

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