Team Hitchcock, Unite!

After the past couple of weeks spent getting to know the Hitchcock Collection, learning about/experimenting with various digital tools, and generally agonizing about finding a research question or focus from which to begin our project, it was nice this week to go off on our own (mentally, if not physically) a bit and work on the smaller project proposals. This week gave us the chance to produce something that was concrete, something solid that we could point to and move around, instead of getting caught in the mire of repeated concept mapping that had slowed us down so much before when we tried to articulate potential projects.

Although in my last post, I articulated some lack of direction for where to go with my individual project, after reading through some secondary sources, I soon found a direction that related back to one of our first real questions about the collection: was Hitchcock important (in contributions to science, religion, etc.) or just Amherst important?

During my secondary source research, I found conflicting evidence in service of this question. Many of his colleagues and contemporaries touted Hitchcock as a groundbreaking scientist as well as an honorable and modest man—”one of America’s heroes,” J.P. Lesley claims in his biography of Hitchcock for the National Academy of Sciences. Hitchcock was, after all, one of the incorporators of the NAS, which certainly says something about his reputation and renown as a scientist. But was he really a “household term” in the world of geology, as Lesley suggests, ranking him above other internationally known geologists of the era? I did quick Google Ngrams search to see how Hitchcock stacked up to the other names Lesley dropped, and the results were not particularly encouraging on Hitchcock’s part.

But as Google Ngrams is a limited tool for measuring the true importance of a man’s impact on the world, this experiment raised more questions than it answered served as the inspiration for my individual proposal.

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My proposal suggested approaching this question using social network analysis, which was one of the digital tools we learned about that fascinated me the most. In terms of data visualization, network analysis software really appeals to me because it allows you to give weight and value to the data you’re presenting, showcasing the dynamic nature of the network and connections involved and not just treating them as if they’re all equal. For someone (aka ME) who is still skeptical about the ideal of treating qualitative information as quantitative data, this tool seems like a way to combat some of my concerns about homogenizing the nuances of humanities research into equally flat little data points. The real inspiration for using this tool came from the project Signs@40, which uses a social network analysis to approach to create a comprehensive network of the sources that their writers have been citing for the past 40 years in their articles.

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I see a lot of potential for using this tool to approach Hitchcock and his legacy, and proposed mapping when and where he and his works are cited in geological/scientific writings both from his time and now, and comparing them to see the reach of his ideas. Since the root of this project proposal came from the moderately facetious question we’ve all been asking from the beginning (“why should we care about Hitchcock?”), I feel that this line of inquiry is one that is at least moderately interesting to the rest of the group. Further, it also fits pretty nicely into the one general theme that we managed to come to a consensus on for shaping the project: time. Be it context or legacy or the inevitability of death, the broadness of the theme allows for a good amount of flexibility for individual mini-research questions within the project, and I think my proposed mini-project could provide a necessary perspective on Hitchcock.

Of course, I’m totally biased on the importance and relevance of my particular project, and the more that I think about it, the more that I really, reallllyyyyyy want to pursue it, to the point where I feel like I would be willing to do the whole thing myself, if this ends up being an arm of the larger final project. On a related note, I did feel a little bit of disappointment (not quite the right word? The feeling wasn’t quite that strong) when we’d finished our individual proposals and had to reintegrate into the group. I’m used to doing my research or academic work alone, and now that I’ve gotten so attached to the idea of this project, my first instinct was to begin work on it on my own and to bring it to the group when it’s finished. But I also don’t want to do that, because:

  1. It’s probably not logistically possible for me to do alone. My individual social network analysis proposal was broad in terms of the kinds of questions that it could ask and vague on actual methodology for implementation. This was because while I think the social network analysis would be a great tool to use with this hypothetical data (citations), I have no concrete idea how I would go about finding that data. And if I did, there would be a lot of data to process, even if I severely limited the time intervals I drew from. Finally, while we did attend a workshop for how to use a network visualization tool, Gephi, I struggled to understand a lot of the mechanics of the tool, and could definitely use some help working with it.
  2. I actually really like working with this group.I find that working with the other interns makes research and planning much more dynamic and exciting than it ever is when I’m on my own. I feel more invested in the project, more confident in its trajectory, and more enthusiastic and encouraged on a daily basis when I work with them. I don’t really want to go off on my own and make something that can just be pasted together with three other individual projects. I want to be involved in all of them, I want to learn as much as possible, and I want to see how the project can still grow and change in ways that I can’t even imagine at this point. And I can’t do that alone.

As much as I’ve hyped up my own proposed project, I was also really interested in everything that everyone else proposed as well. It’s fascinating to see not just where our individual interests gravitate towards, but how we go about asking certain questions and proposing to answer them. I keep thinking back to the learning-style assessments we did last week and seeing how each of us are expressing our individual learning-style preferences in the way that we’ve constructed these proposals. I’m actually really grateful that we’re all pretty different when it comes to that; I can’t imagine myself having come up with some of the things they have so far, and I’m glad to have to opportunity to approach this project from so many perspectives. I know it would be a ton of work, but I would really love to try to integrate as many of the individual proposals as we can into the final project, albeit perhaps adapting them a bit so that they fit together more smoothly. I’m looking forward to the next couple of days of brainstorming and planning, and feel that we’re really close to coming up with a concrete plan here.


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