1 Thing a Digital Scholarship Intern Said In a Blog Post [Sponsored]

It is ironic I have been prompted to write about how my project «will benefit from a team-based approach» as an individual (though not necessarily as an artist who respects creative integrity and intellectual property). I think it like enough immeasurably more valuable to discuss directly with my fellow interns just how they could «shape, amplify, improve and implement [my] piece of the project» than to conjecture as much alone, in a blog post somewhere between the back o’ Bourke and Woop Woop, enclosed by this series of tubes we call “Internet“. Nevertheless, I write on, thinking (rationalizing?) the exercise will prove to be useful in due time.

I have left the above introductory paragraph to ferment as a draft in my WordPress dashboard for a half-week now, supposing that an answer to the then-unanswerable question of how others may augment my project would reveal itself to me via a Seussian dream ripe for psychoanalytic interpretation. Alas, no Muse has left such a phantasmagorical present for me. Yet I am not surprised, considering how many of the countless personality quizzes I have taken (most notably the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram test) along with my co-interns have said I am not a model team player, to understate my results. Bluntly 16personalities.com says, «Active teamwork is not ideal for people [like me] with the INTJ personality type»; the Enneagram Institute likewise states, «Eights [like me] are the true “rugged individualists” of the Enneagram. More than any other type, they stand alone. They want to be independent, and resist being indebted to anyone.» Similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the world’s largest cowboy boots, my inability to expatiate on the merits of teamwork is a small wonder.

I do not mean to suggest even remotely I think the members of my team dimwitted and thus incapable of contributing anything of value to my own endeavor. I merely offer an explanation for why I am experiencing so much difficulty coming up with ways in which a team would be able to enhance my project. Then again, maybe I have been uncharacteristically quick to write off the possibility that I will not use my team as a resource, that I am too much of a black sheep, lone wolf, loose goose, or any other name for an individualistic (and sometimes unruly) animal / Amherst restaurant (look it up).

At my most Panglossian, I believe my team can aid me by simply being there, by entertaining my questions and nodding their respective heads at my at times needy appeals for approval. And that really is all I need to elevate my final project—the understanding endorsement of others.

The Art of the Soluble

The more I read up on Hitchcock, the more I wonder what else we interns could add to the corpus of Hitchcock scholarship. Why, the man was esteemed enough to be the subject of a profusion of works, which all state the same talking points: he was a “crank”, “genius”, “hypochondriac”, &tc. Then again, these and other judgments are the result of more traditional forms of humanistic inquiry; they all derive mostly from the same first and second hand accounts, whose promulgations have fossilized into mere caricature. There must be more to the man than indigestion and piety, I assume (against a cynical impulse to write off others as the sum of predictable motivations such as desire, ego, and/or profit-maximization). Perhaps, nay, almost certainly at least one of the many biases and heuristics that guide human behavior gripped those who wrote of Hitchcock as they wrote of him. Without the digital tools available to the humanities today, everyone from Philip J. Lawrence to Ariel Jacob Segal may have ignored or simply overlooked data (in whatever form it takes) that, when considered against beliefs, hypotheses, prejudices, and other data, may very well prove to be enlightening—at least, I hope not-so-quietly (I am writing this blog post, after all) to find such a unicorn.

But I stodge on, tempering my expectations with frequent ganders at the calendar (which now end in variants of exclamations similar to That’s it??! rather than the naïvely optimistic Oh, I’ve got time!s of my younger-by-mere-weeks self from earlier this summer) and recurrent falls into rabbit holes of en-coding, project [self-]management, and distractions, respectively. In fact, I have a project in mind, one that plays on my earlier pursuit of cataloging and analyzing Hitchcock’s debits and credits. Like I said in an earlier post of mine, the question of how Hitchcock extricated the College from crippling financial obligations has a rather definitive answer already, so arecched by my academic forebears. A more suitable, less close-ended question is, How did Hitchcock spend his own money? However often Hitchcock expounded on (and sometimes—let’s be real—bloviated about) “The Cross in Nature / And Nature in the Cross” in his writings, one still cannot be sure of what he valued without diving deeper into the other things he left behind, viz., his personal financial records. These documents make up a significant portion of his papers, not to mention, a sizable quantum of archives the world over. Yet the digital humanities for one often (I have read) ignore this chunk of dossiers for reasons varying from antipathy for the travail that is data extraction to a myopia in estimating their scholastic worth. I think such apparent indifference lamentable. As the affable (albeit occasionally creepy) Vice President Joe Biden said, «Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.» Indeed, it is in historical financial records (or: HFRs, as Metadata Management Librarian and recreational protogramophile Kate Gerrity would have us call them) one’s affairs and, by extension, interests and ethics emerge.

Consider the pontificating televangelist (the appropriate question here is, Which one? 😏) who professes a belief in the Gospel—the one that includes Jesus saying, «It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.»—as he raises $60 million for a Gulfstream G650. What Creflo Dollar or any other person wants to buy is sometimes much more telling than what he or she says they treasure. But I doubt I will find anything that even approaches the scandalous in Hitchcock’s own books. Even if I were to happen on questionable pecuniary behavior, I am not in the business of sleazy tar-brushing. No, I merely seek to enrich my understanding of Hitchcock, and expect to do as much by transcribing his account book and evaluating the data I am able to collate. With help from the supportive personnel here at Frost, I do believe my labor will yield a rich harvest of knowledge—knowledge of who Hitchcock was and what he left behind, knowledge from which future scholars may educe their own ventures.

Running Fast and Kicking Something

Less an articulation and more a demonstration, my proposal was relatively straightforward: presenting visually what Hitchcock left behind. I took the theme of legacy, which my fellow interns and I have been and remain drawn to, literally by examining the last will and testament of Edward Hitchcock.

I compiled who got what into an Excel spreadsheet, detailing the value of inheritances and their respective categories (among other data), as seen in the snippet below.

What guided my organizational methodology were the requirements of Tableau Public—a platform «for anyone who wants to tell interactive data stories on the web.» After playing around with the service for the entirety of one morning, following how-to videos and tinkering with example data sets, I was ready to begin transforming my own collected data into intriguing visualizations like a bar chart.

A (relatively) pretty bar chart

It is improbable to me that much if any more than a couple of graphs could be made with data extracted from but that one account book containing instructions for the dispersion of Hitchcock’s estate. My aim was never to craft manifold presentation-ready visual aids, however. Again, my proposal was a taster of what is possible given the right data. What prompted me to pursue such a route of action was my desire to investigate the narrative oft-repeated in secondary sources—that of Hitchcock’s saving the College from financial ruin. Unsatisfied with Hitchcock’s rationalization that «the glory of this change [in the College’s financial outlook] be now and ever ascribed to a special divine Providence», I knew that I wanted to look further into the matter for causes of a less divine and more concrete nature. Indeed, I wanted specifics; I wanted to know how the College’s money was spent before and during Hitchcock’s presidency. My proposal then was to be a trial of sorts, exposing me to the sort of work (transcribing and translating primary source documents like ledgers, and perhaps even encoding them) such an endeavor would entail.

But my ambition overshot the query—already have others detailed how the College’s money was expended under Hitchcock. Almost immediately upon Hitchcock’s ascension to the presidency, the College received a few sizable donations and many more smaller ones that together constituted about a hundred thousand dollars, which equates to about two and a half million dollars today. From this sum, Amherst was able to not only pay off its debt but establish several professorships and construct buildings including the Appleton and Woods Cabinets. What each debit amounted to is documented by the likes of Stanley King, thus answering in broad strokes the question of how largesse was spent during the reign of Hitchcock and leaving me temporarily empty-handed in terms of what I could contribute to the group’s final project. Nevertheless, I came away from my proposal qua practice with a better understanding of Tableau’s functionality, and do foresee continued use of the platform, albeit for a slightly different end (the details of which will proceed with time).

An Unbroken Series of Successful Gestures

In that fusty, carmine-carpeted chapel of the building that bears the name JOHNSON hangs portraits of our former prominenti, those persons who at one point were associated with the College and for now endure in oils and frames. In company with such celebrated figures as Calvin Coolidge (the 30th President of the United States), Harlan F. Stone (the 12th Chief Justice of the United States), Rose R. Olver (the College’s first female tenured professor), and Anthony W. Marx (his reputation precedes him) is none other than the Reverend Professor Edward Hitchcock, Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Laws. Not unlike most of the pictured individuals surrounding him, the third president of Amherst sits close-mouthed, pale and dyspeptic; he holds a compass, which as a suggestion of a clear vision if not an adventurous spirit would belie the staid countenance he wears were his eyes to glint less proudly. From beholding the noted geologist’s likeness for but a minute, the richness of the man’s personality emerges—the collection of deeds, desires, and morals that made him who he was arises where color and canvas agglutinate. [It takes, of course, both a virtuosic painter and an interesting subject to produce a work worthy of contemplation. Alas, this is but a blog post and not a discourse on the merits and faults (the “pure applesauce”, as one could call them) of realism in portrait painting. Suffice it to say that the work to which I refer is good enough to warrant extended consideration here.] It is personality that compels me to keep looking at the artwork, what piques and stokes my interest. Indeed, what would it be like to, say, get a beer with the aforementioned Hitchcock? (Presumably not well, considering he was an avid apologist of the temperance movement.) The question I am getting at, really, is, Who was he? We know of his accomplishments and of his gastrointestinal ailments. But what of the man behind the letters and trivialities? To know Edward Hitchcock, to understand his motivations by reading into the things he left behind guides the vector of this internship’s enquiry. It was at the Beneski our man of the summer literally took shape.

Busted preconceptions
Never mind the profusion of millions-year-old fossils at the College’s museum of natural history, which left me with awe-induced goosebumps; forget about the Exodusian tale of Hitchcock at Mount Holyoke watching the Ox-bow materialize (Darya has already covered it). What I will take note of here is the marble bust of Hitchcock that lords over his eponymous ichnology collection in the depths of the aforementioned museum. Early on this internship, I happened on a few pictures of a statue of Hitchcock—a statue whose current hidey-hole the Archives knew naught of, the statue now parented by Collections Curator and diorama enthusiast Kate Wellspring. Upon encountering the head’s thoughtful, stern and paternal dead eyes, I knew Hitchcock was once a force of the College, if not the varied communities (viz. local, religious, and scientific) he occupied. Discounting tyrants, some members of the leisure class, and others often undeserving of commemoration, men and women with statues are those who contribute positively, significantly to the public, who leave a legacy in the wake of their deaths—at least, such is the ideology of memorialization. (This is not the forum to discuss the politics of idolatry, however.) What I have been girding is the impression the Beneski visit left on me: newfound appreciation for Hitchcock’s accomplishments. It was the statue that underscored the man’s general devise.

My fair seed-field
What’s more, the statue itself (along with what I will call the Ox-bow incident) effectuated thoughts of the importance of time to Hithcock. Already my interns in arm and I have broached the subject of time, the meaning and experience of it, when we discussed how we could use the methodology of mapping to make sense of and present the collection. Our provisory proposal for a mapping project stated that we would seek to recreate living in the early to mid 1800s. Such a focus on time in part derives from text analysis performed on some of Hitchcock’s published writings, which make frequent use of temporal-related words like era, new, and explicitly, time. Perhaps it was a mixture of Hitchcock’s geological and religious exposure, respectively, that primed him for an obsession with sempiternity, in addition to his brush with death as a youth when a case of mumps sickened him severely, permanently (hence, his impaired vision). Whatever the source of Hitchcock’s existential preoccupations, what seems clear is that the man had been “led…to inquire on what foundation I was building for eternity” (from his Reminiscences of Amherst College). Such a profound aim elicited from a visit to the Beneski and research in toto is worthy of extended focus as our project evolves.

On Limits

A whiteboard in the room we do most of our work says, “Dissolve all limits!” The line, written by yours truly in fittingly-evanescent black, was a reminder to both self and team of our commitment to remaining open, playful, experimental, innovative—creative, in a word. This last week, our ambitions met reality.

Some context

What we worked on involved two distinct methodologies of research organization: exhibits and mapping. The result of the former approach to presenting knowledge should be familiar with anyone who has ever visited a museum, where often if not always a featured exhibition presents a curated collection of objects that together tell a story, make an argument, and/or speak to a broader idea. The recent Matisse retrospective at the MoMA is one such showcase. Richard Pryor’s Peoria is an example of an exhibit that has gone digital (but sadly, not viral, it seems), so to speak. Many other exhibits abound online, with varying degrees of quality in terms of scholarship, design, and execution. While collectively engaging with these cyber exhibits, we discussed what we liked and did not, all the while envisaging and sharing just how we might want an exhibit to look like, should we choose to create one for the Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Papers.

Installation view at Tate Modern
Henri Matisse: The Cut Outs, at Tate Modern

Afterward, we got to work on creating a mock-up of such an exhibit on omeka.net—an online platform for “[c]reat[ing] complex narratives and sharing] rich collections, …designed for scholars, museums, libraries, archives, and enthusiasts” as the site so states on its home page. The effort was good exercise in the sorts of skills an exemplary exhibit calls for during its production process: an ability to present information in an accessible, cogent manner (per the gallery text guidelines published online by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which my fellow interns and I read); proficiency with classificatory principles; and an eye for sensible and intuitive UI, to name but a few. It is that final itemized faculty that brought forth our first encounter with the limits of our work.

Facing the shortcomings of the field’s tools

Open source” has never been a term I immediately associate with cool, forward-thinking, fetching, or any other positive attribute usually ascribed to brands like Apple, which privilege considerations of aesthetics in design and engineering operations (or so they tell us in marketing material). I do not mean to disparage, say, OpenOffice, whose pursuit of allowing all without the means or want to buy the closed system that is Microsoft Office in order to aim to create professional-grade documents could be called honorable, when I express a reluctance to use tools that advertise their open source credentials. It is simply a matter of fact that companies such as Adobe, Google, and other corporate heavyweights have the capital—both human and financial—as well as infrastructure to create powerful tools that have the capability of yielding an interminable amount of results. With an open source tool not unlike omeka.net, I feel limited. Indeed, this was a refrain I reiterated within the workplace, those around me can attest to. And my discontent over limits was not always directed at the aforementioned online exhibition publisher. I felt limited by activity designed to manage ideas raised in a brainstorming session without inhibiting inventiveness; I even felt limited by the clock (a painfully on-the-nose metonym for time itself), by the walls, by the seeming dearth of choices available at our disposal. Yet a recent discussion I have since had with my co-workers has helped me come to terms with the idea that this is the fundamental reality of scholarship, and in truth, life itself: enclosure. There is only so much available out there to academia and elsewhere—only so many experts, articles published, books written, conferences held, &tc. Dealing then with what one can do, possibilities seem less restrictive and more strengthening, insofar as, they establish a framework from which one can develop her own additions, his own insights.

Mapping, and beyond

Without waxing philosophical, I wish merely to convey in my talk of limits the kinds of problems that the process of “doing” digital humanities entails, and how one can resolve those problems with a shift in perspective. Take the other methodology we explored as another case study in the power of frameshifts: mapping. My initial exposure to mapping in DH came in the form of the HyperCities project, which aspired to “integrat[e] scholarship with the world of lived experience, [and] mak[e] sense of the past in the layered spaces of the present for the sake of the open future.” Suffice it to say, I was disappointed with how the concepts were carried out under such an ambitious banner. But, recognizing that scholarship is an ongoing conversation and by no means a static endeavor, that what one does can always be improved upon, I now approach the internship able to recognize that an ascent is all in the steps, a function — relevant with limits.

Making knowledge of data: from the analog to the digital in humanities research

What constitutes digital humanities?

It is a question that eludes even the professionals and scholars of the field—let alone me, a humble student intern. There are many answers to the question, most of which can be categorized into three basic camps of thought: the crusaders, the conservatives, and the cynics. The first camp consists of those who believe that DH has the potential to disrupt and transform the world of information and knowledge. They are optimistic if not utopian. It is the realists who comprise the second camp. They recognize DH as a set of new digital tools that can augment more traditional humanities scholarship. If the crusaders explicate the reaches of DH, then the conservatives delineate its limits. Finally, there are the cynics. This censorious bunch believes DH to be the swan song of humanities itself, a last ditch effort made by increasingly defunded (read: irrelevant in today’s market society) humanities departments across the United States and the world at large.

Whichever camp one agrees and aligns herself with, it is relatively noninflammatory and perhaps agreeable to say that the trend towards the digital in the humanities bespeaks a wider trend toward the digital in our culture. In fact, the insight is..well, unremarkable.

We live in the era of big data, of amassing Brobdingnagian inventories of information so that they may be mined for specific purposes of either a commercial or educational nature, mostly. Statistical analysis and summarization is a useful skill to have nowadays, and the salaries for entry-level jobs in the tech world help support such a claim. What then is digital humanities without data? Documents such as articles, books, certificates, citations, film, illustrations, letters, photographs, receipts, and many more objects crowding archives everywhere all contain data within them. Traditional scholars make use of that data, or information; they examine it, unpack it, and assemble it so as to produce new knowledge—at least, that is the ideal of the métier.

It is that process of scholarship, or rather, data analytics I hope to replicate this summer with my fellow digital scholarship interns as we work with the digital collection of the Edward and Orra Hitchcock Papers. Some of the questions such an approach raises includes: What data lies dormant in the collection? How can it be surfaced and organized? What can we say about the data? What does the data reveal? How does it enrich our understanding of the lives of Edward and Orra Hitchcock? How do we impart our findings to others in an accessible and engaging way?

My aim is to have stimulating, thoughtful  answers to these and other questions that may surface along the way—answers that may help begin to illuminate the future direction of our interaction with the past through new means of technology. This is the start of that endeavor. Where we end up remains to be seen.