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.

Pieces of the puzzle

In previous projects, my research process was centered around attempting to find a relationship between two variables, and while the relevant data surrounding those projects may have been direct or indirect measurements of human behavior, there was still an overwhelming desire to find numerical relationships rather than human relationships. The DSSF project differs as it is inherently human-centered and with this characteristic, our cohort has the option of exploring a research question in a variety of ways. But where do we start? — with so many possibilities, narrowing down a topic proves to be a challenge. Currently, I am reflecting on my “research superpower” once more and thinking about how my strengths and the strengths of my colleagues can contribute to a thought-provoking, dynamic project.

Digital humanities researcher, Trevor Owens, illuminated this research dilemma in his blog post, “Where to Start? On Research Questions in The Digital Humanities”. In this post, Owens states that the first step of any DH project is identifying the goals or inspiration for the project. Similarly, I am reflecting on what I would like to get out of this experience. On a personal level, I am hoping to learn more about the digital humanities and the intersections that it has with other disciplines. On a larger level, I am interested in further reinforcing the adage that to make a better future we must learn from the past. I look forward to exploring how students today may relate to the experiences of students in previous classes.

The other day, I really enjoyed meeting with my colleagues for an informal brainstorming session. During this meeting of less than a half-hour, we came up with a primary topic and a backup topic, along with potential methodology. We are all interested in using this current moment ranging from our experiences living during this pandemic to various social and political upheavals to inform our research topic. We are especially interested in how Amherst students, faculty, and administration in the past have dealt with national and global crises. While we are developing the targets of our inquiry, we imagine that our subjects will include natural disasters, conflicts, and socio-political upheavals. This research question could be explored using text analysis to reveal the language surrounding various crises, along with topic modeling to explore if different types of conflicts are associated with different styles of language.

I am excited to take the first steps of our research process and I cannot wait to see the pieces come together!

Owens, Trevor. “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities.” Trevor Owens: User Centered Digital Memory, WordPress, 22 Aug. 2014. www.trevorowens.org/2014/08/where-to-start-on-research-questions-in-the-digital-humanities/

Beginning a New Chapter

In my application to this summer’s DSSF cohort, I hoped to convey a genuine desire to help produce a project that not only combined humanistic inquiry and technical applications but one that would positively impact our campus community during these challenging times. Due to the current world health crisis, we are all communing in a virtual space and while this presents the perfect opportunity to engage our community digitally there also exists the pressure to produce a project that will supplement the rich in-person experience that gallery and museum exhibits provide. This encourages us to ponder how might our cohort create a project that is more than just a static page but a dynamic experience that can hold the focus of the viewer for over half an hour as Scott Saul’s Richard Pryor’s Peoria did to me. 


Additionally, in our pursuit to create a project that is both meaningful and relevant, we may choose to pursue a research question that involves some of the world’s most pressing issues such as race relations, equity, and public health. If we so chose to pursue one of these research topics we are not only encouraged but obligated to ensure that our use of archival collections is ethical and that we avoid commodifying the traumatic experiences of others. This responsibility of archivists and researchers to center the human subjects of traumatic histories and avoid collecting archival material at the expense of retraumatization is expertly detailed in Eira Tansey’sNo one owes their trauma to archivists, or, the commodification of contemporaneous collecting”, one of our introductory readings. 


Just in this week alone, I have learned so much about research methods, careers in archives and collections, and archival research. Our independent activities have encouraged me to think about more technical aspects of the project like site design and data collection and visualization. 

In this week’s Introduction to Archival Research workshop, the session began with the following icebreaker question – “what is your research superpower?”. My answer to this question was based on different projects that I have completed throughout the semesters, during which I found that my research strength is transforming a medley of information and putting it into context for my audience. More specifically, my strength is going beyond the “what” and answering the ubiquitous followup to most research – “why should we care?”. Currently, I am considering how my answer to the question will present itself in the following weeks. 


Following this week’s sessions, I have questions of my own such as how might we use the past to inform our present and future and what role do academic institutions play in shaping community structures. I look forward to exploring these questions next week and beginning the first phase of devising our cohort’s research question. 


1“No one owes their trauma to archivists” Tansey, Eira. “No one Owes Their Trauma to Archivists” http://eiratansey.com/category/archivists/ (accessed 6/24/2020)


2 Richard Pryor’s Peoria: A Digital Companion to the Biography Becoming Richard Pryor. Saul, Scott. http://www.becomingrichardpryor.com/pryors-peoria/home/contact-the-author/ (accessed 6/27/2020).