Approaching an Asymptote

Each methodology workshop has ended with a short bullet list of deliverables, designed to ease us into a hands-on application of the particular digital tool. These generally included building a small project using the tool and then creating proposals for a larger project. In addition to learning about the nitty-gritty of the tool, or at least as much as our young DH brains could manage in the space of a few hours, my favorite part of each workshop has been exploring and evaluating a variety of projects online. Although I’m easily attracted to superficial things like quirky titles and ideas, the common thread throughout successful projects, for me, has been the human connection. Like all research projects out there, the range of research questions asked is unfathomable; add the nebulousness (our favorite buzzword, it appears) of DH and you get a mind-blowing host of concepts and ideas, some of which are impressive, some puzzling, some underwhelming, and some leaving me to ponder the purpose of their existence.

Opponents of the digital humanities have cited how the digital distances viewers and audience from the human authenticity of things, despite the fact that the phrase itself contains both “digital” and “human.” I certainly see this in projects that care more about displaying the ability of the tool (“look at these swirly, pretty patterns that this dataset creates!) than the meaning/significance it is able to illuminate on the issue at hand. In most cases, context facilitates connection. The coolness of the tool should be balanced by how it enriches the conveying of information. Just like any project, a DH one should be able to answer the question “Why should we care about this topic?” Digital projects that work surprise me with the kind of research questions that their specific tools stimulate, and invite us, the audience, to discover for ourselves how the new lens provided by the digital reveals an engaging perspective (see the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative). Easy in concept, but tricky in execution… like most things in life.

So far, we have learned about and considered the pros and cons of four tools: Omeka, Mapping, textual analysis, and topic modeling. These tools are divided into two groups: Omeka and Mapping are more conducive to being final project products thanks to their concrete schemes, while textual analysis (Voyant) and topic modeling (MALLET) assist in the research process by revealing interesting patterns and generating new research questions. For our deliverables, the tool has been the centerpiece. I find this to be a helpful exercise, even when keeping the digital pitfall in mind, because we had to carefully consider the tool’s purpose, capability, potential, and limitations in the research process and in creating the final product. Our imagination was then let loose in our proposals for larger projects – hypothetical scenarios of unlimited time, limitless resources, and most importantly, vast technical ability.

I’m rather intimidated by the approaching transition from the learning phase to the project phase of the internship because of how fast time has flown. I feel like a DH duckling barely scraping off egg shells from my back, eager to stumble my way through this new world, but also dazed by the experience.

Feeling brave

With the nebulous (there, I’ve used it again) expanse of digital tools, I am eager to learn more because at their best, new tools invite a really cool way of approaching research. On the other hand, knowledge is application. By writing abstracts of many student publications these past two weeks, we interns have begun to immerse ourselves in the stories, outlooks, concerns, and celebrations of Amherst students in the last 200 years. With the clock ticking, all I can do is roll up my sleeves.

2 thoughts on “Approaching an Asymptote”

  1. I think the idea of the human connection is also reflected on what content we’ve found most intriguing when going through the publications. Not that the piles of literary magazines aren’t human enough, but there’s definitely something more exciting about reading different stories and perspectives from alums from long ago. W wonder if you would you say that you feel a deeper connection to Amherst because of this human connection, or is it rather how you generally prefer to approach research regardless of the subject or class

    1. I feel like there are two sides to the human-connection element: one is between the researcher and the material, and the other is between the audience and the material. It’s certainly important for us to work on something we are truly invested in, but it is equally important for us to persuade the audience to feel the same excitement for the material. The projects that didn’t work for me fell short on this latter bit. I’m sure the authors were invested in their topics (after all, they did devote a lot of time and energy to make their ideas materialize and share them on the web), but I just found myself unmoved as I looked at the graphs, diagrams, swirly pictures (etc.), thinking: “yes, this is pretty and mildly interesting, but why should I care?”

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