Exploring an unbelievable time in Amherst’s history

Given our current experience in a time of great uncertainty and global crisis, our proposal topic of disaster at Amherst is not only relevant but necessary. Disaster at Amherst is both an aggregation of all the disasters at Amherst, with deep analysis accompanying at least two events, and a study of resilience and will throughout generations. After devising the proposal, our first task was exploratory in nature. We first compiled a working database of relevant sources from the college archives which provided student accounts of disaster. This process of compiling sources was eye-opening as we witnessed the versatility with which students discussed these events and the overarching tendency to both acknowledge the current hardship while looking to the future. Students used poetry, humor, essays, and narrative pieces to convey their experiences regarding natural disasters, war, and epidemics.

In particular, from 1917-1918, students provided rich accounts of their experiences during WWI – which is the topic that I have chosen as my focus. During this time, the college campus transformed into essentially a training camp to prepare students for the possibility of combat. Rather than studying philosophy and the natural sciences students were trained in the military sciences. Given the all-male student population, this experience of enlistment was shared by every single enrolled student, and based on the primary sources, students derived a new sense of camaraderie from this shared experience. In studying this event, one series of documents titled War Letters was especially interesting. In this series, students engaged in combat sent letters to a student publication titled the Amherst Monthly. The creators of these letters often discussed the challenging transition to a life that was unpredictable and filled with danger. Students shared their struggles with maintaining morale under often harsh, unsanitary conditions. They also shared the simple joys of receiving an occasional treat as a part of their rations. Overall, this period in Amherst’s history is extremely insightful though still quite remarkable. There is one picture that I often revisit of students in uniform marching down the path which faces Converse. The juxtaposition of old and new makes me do a double-take as it is hard to believe that at one point this familiar campus life was flipped upside down.

I plan to study this period in Amherst history using the text analysis tools that were taught in previous workshops with a focus on topic modeling. I also hope to produce some compelling visualizations to illustrate these findings. At the least, I wish to unveil a period of time that is often hidden and hopefully create a case for the sheer will and determination of Amherst students during challenging times.

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