What Does a Disaster Feel Like?

A dead bird of azure and emerald feathers was covered by a fallen leave. People are amazed by its beauty, which makes its death more disappointing. They want to give the bird a formal burial and document this “disaster”. Three steps away was a dead grey sparrow whose unimpressive appearance attracted little attention. No one bothered with a trivial loss, nor would they refer to it as a “disaster”. But who is there to say that the death of a bird without the fanciful colors is not a disaster? Who is there to say that a bird dead for other reasons (shot by hungry hunters) makes disaster more/less intense?

I took a walk around the Frost Library where supposedly I would spend my 6 weeks as a Digital Scholarship Summer Fellow. I stood at its southeast corner, gazing at the reindeer sculpture on the second floor. Just beneath the reindeer is a plate that memorializes the Library’s predecessor, Walker Hall. Constructed of fine Monson granite, Walker used to be the largest and most elaborate building on campus back in the 19th century. Through creating the timeline for disasters in the history of Amherst College, I learned Walker Hall was demolished twice: firstly, a tragic fire that gutted most parts of the building and its archived administrative records at the night of March 28, 1882; then, a less tragic, college-planned razing to make the way for the current Robert Frost Library in 1963.

[The rebuilt Walker is] more than ever, the archives, the treasury, the capitol, the acropolis of Amherst College. (Prof. W.S.Tyler, AC 1830)

The two birds re-occupied my mind. As a creator of the timeline, should I include both birds’ death as disasters, or should I include only the more beautiful one? Similarly, should I include both demolishments of Walker Hall, or only the first one, considering the second one is consciously planned, executed, and approved by the administration? Furthermore, does the arisen Frost Library make the second Walker Hall’s demolishment meaningful, therefore less disastrous? Would the raze of Walker Hall seem more disastrous than other buildings on campus?

Archivists are gatekeepers of history, and they should be conscious of their power in “rewriting” the records. To some degree, what’s not in the archive is equally as important as what’s in it. The principle of inclusion and, inevitably, exclusion challenges my definition and stereotypes about disasters. For example, if I define a disaster as an incident and/or a continuation of events that cause great damages or losses, both demolishments should be considered as disasters (the damage of Walker Hall, planned or not, was the criterion of disaster). However, if I define a disaster as an event that leads to unfortunate consequences, only the fire at Walker Hall should be recognized as a disaster (the event’s positive/negative aftermath becomes the threshold). Let Walker Hall be only one example of the decisions I have to make in creating the timeline. Should the Amherst Uprising be included as a response to a disaster or simply “disaster per se”? What about a sexual assault on campus? National disasters that would surely impact some Amherst people?

What’s a bit consoling, the word “disaster” has also evolved over time. From Italian “disastro”, literally meaning “ill-starred”, we could infer that people in the past times think disaster as a destined outcome, one that cannot be prevented or altered. Speaking with Matthew Hart, the Director of Emergency Management at Amherst, I learned that disaster research and management has been understood as a science. Yet however hard we try to apply our rationality to approach disasters, we are still caged by our emotions– fear, anxiety, uncertainty– that inherited from our notion of uncontrollable destiny. A part of the final project we deliver focuses on analyzing how writers in the Amherst Student use the word “disaster” in their reports and op-eds. Not surprisingly, writers charge the most intense emotion on the “disasters” of sports games– a goalkeeper slipped to give away a goal for free, or a tactic that did not work as intended. Quite in contrast, writers seldom use “disasters” to describe an administrative failure or a misappropriate student behavior. Instead, they may complain about the problems behind the incidents as though a “disaster” is not meant to be analyzed but to be absorbed purely emotionally.

It’s strangely exciting to examine disasters in the history of Amherst College. On one hand, I know what it takes to best analyze disasters in the past– a cool head, a pair of analytical eyes, and a logical narrative. Disasters repeat because people can’t take them seriously or don’t analyze them using scientific principles. On the other hand, I am also aware that I’m living through one of the most memorable disasters of Amherst History– the COVID-19 pandemic. The personal experience feels so trivial in a large pool of archived documents. Perhaps it is inherently impossible for one to truly measure the impact of a disaster just by analyzing the “objective” statements and news reports. I’ve created an index to probe the intensity of each disaster in Amherst history, but I understand there is much to do. Only by balancing between the roles of an analyst and a storyteller could one be a true Digital Humanist.

In some years, future archivists would examine our work on the disasters much like me observing the birds. They will draw their own conclusions– whether I measure the impacts accurately, intervene too much, or include everything I should. But just like there will be a Frost after a demolished Walker, there will be new research about disasters that hopefully builds on our questions and discoveries. My thought process will become a part of the archive.


Nobody Wanted to Talk About It. Now Everyone Does.

Haoran Tong, Digital Scholarship Summer Fellow 2020


What’s great about analyzing disaster? Certainly a disagreeable and perhaps dismissable topic to most members of the society, disaster has not garnered the amount of attention it deserves in “the peaceful times”. Take disaster as your distant relatives who exposed your “childhood wrongs” to your father. Understandably, we don’t want news about them to ruin our happiness. Correspondingly, conversations about them exhaust our memories about pain, loss, and cruelty. But every now and then, when their visit wreaks havoc in our house, we have to confront them, most likely alongside their unpleasant image of the past. So a question naturally arises: what do we do before their next visit? 


“What do we do” is only a nanoscopic part of the questions digital humanists strive to answer. Nevertheless, it is receiving more and more attention. Recent writings concerning the purpose of digital humanities have readjusted their focus from “unearthing novel discoveries” to “answering to the societal need”. Digital humanists thus should stand at the front door, ready to interrogate the distant relatives so that the family can prepare better, respond sooner, and relieve easier. Is there a more pressing need than analyzing disasters? The pandemic has exposed a shocking lack of worldwide healthcare infrastructure and brutal negligence of vulnerable lives. Arrogance, coupled with race-class conflicts, enfolds America with an alarming rate of tragedies taking place household by household. The Covid-19 pandemic reveals lingering problems in not only the healthcare sector but also human conditions in general. Hence, it proves the societal need for the study of disaster, through sciences and humanities. 

Joseph Stiglitz talk about the national response to the pandemic
Institutional responses to the repercussions of the ongoing pandemic draw much more attention than student’s individual literary accounts to the same matter.

Yet we deem disaster the focus of our research not because it is a timely topic to exploit. Precisely on the opposite, we find disaster’s gravity and urgency in its timelessness. For too many times, we have had similar responses– physical and psychological– to an archetype of disasters.  For too many times, still, we fear that we haven’t learned from lessons taught by disasters at the expense of disruption and death. The fear is unfortunately valid. However, when we discredit authorities for their meager transparency and competency in dealing with disasters, we seldom reflect on the way disasters have been portrayed in the wake of its troubling waves. People haven’t learned the lesson because researchers haven’t presented the materials correctly (as in the best form to serve the public interest). The want of the audience speaks to the mismatch between our interpretation and objective reality. The purpose of the DH researchers is to craft a comprehensive narrative of disasters through texts and data, across time and place.


Disaster, wide in scope and varied in scale, remains notoriously challenging to describe. What one considers to be catastrophic might not mean a thing from another’s perspective. What causes disasters — natural or human-made– challenges the way we categorize disasters. Disasters’ impacts vary; their strengths differ. Furthermore, this is not a question about disaster only. It is about disaster AND Amherst College. Sophisticated in its demographic composition, the college sustains a community whose unified interests and ideals on education oftentimes shadow its diverse personal backgrounds and priorities. First-hand experience: when the college released its plan to remote learning in the spring, I lingered on the quad contemplating my worrisome stay in the US, while party music had already kickstarted celebration in the distant dorms. Such stark contrast in the reception of disaster has bifold implications: one, the same disaster impacts individuals in different intensities and ways; two, people respond to disasters differently. 

Amherst Student newspaper article writes about community's reflection about a network outage
Some students view the recent network outage as a disaster

There is no consensus on what disasters constitute, not to mention its scope of influence on different groups of peoples who altogether make up this unique college community. These “no”s are the sources of my curiosity. Through various sources of student publications, we are able to systematically trace different emotional and logical footprints to analyze personal and institutional choices. What tools can we use to reveal a disaster’s geo-temporal characteristics? Progress in-text analytical tools e.g. Voyant hopefully provide a lexicon-driven framework for the exploration of such consensus or the lack thereof. Using Voyant, we identify, cross-compare, and cluster keywords in the college administrator’s announcements and student publications about multiple disasters. In particular, we research the different choices of descriptive words from their respective perspectives, posing a question on the varying levels of intensity in which disasters may have impacted their lives. 


Hopefully, by the end of the next week, we will have some of the answers and some more questions. So, what’s great about analyzing disaster? That we are able to see something new when the entire world looks at it. So that when the world stops looking at it, we help the world see it. 


A brainstorming tool to structure the relationship between amherst and disaster
A mindmap that captures the interrelated complexity between disaster and Amherst (by the author)

To Question, To Intervene

What is research? Perhaps defining research reflects a larger sense of conceiving of progress, especially epistemic progress in academia. When we invent a novel concept to explain the unexplained or conduct an experiment to show the unshown, we consider them as progress. But progress in humanities, according to Trevor Owens, isn’t necessarily about delivering the final product. In a lot of cases, it is centered on the unfinished or unexplained. When we explore different narratives relying on evolving digital tools, we are almost certainly bound to evolving answers that don’t lead to the same destination. But it is in the different destinations that spur more exciting discoveries from the origin.

Trevor Owens’ framework of research is different from that in the introductory science classes. In science, we start with a question and end with an answer. It is linearly structured, which makes it easier to conduct a hypothesis. However, it is almost certainly exclusive, susceptible to a confined parameter. While the structure is certainly operationalized in most social sciences, even, it assumes that the body of knowledge is a finite circle. Individual scientists conduct researches to push the edge of our known to the unknown, a linear expansion or push known within to find unknown, a linear collapse. This model assumes that there is an objective truth, and the only way we get close to it is by approaching it with refined tools and parameters, so as to construct a valid argument. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge I have in the research process is to accept the final project being a product of a question left unanswered. In DH, for a lot of times, we start with an answer and end with a question. We assume the knowledge is about making intersectional connections. We further assume that we cannot fully remove our bias or ignorance from the analysis or visualization so that every time we take primary sources beyond its scope of influence we are making an intervention. Every intervention has a cost and an award. 

A historical picture of Amherst campus destroyed by a hurricane in 1938
Amherst Campus Destroyed by the Hurricane in 1938

Take “Amherst in Disasters”, a topic to practice in the research workshop, for example. The first question we have (as the starting point of our research) is: what counts as a disaster? We use several keywords such as “disaster*” and “catastrophe” to run down the archive database, and find numerous pieces of publications that contain relevant information. However, further segmentation surfaces in the initial keywords “disaster”– disasters are of different causes (natural and societal) and will yield different outcomes. Therefore, a follow-up question can be like: what are the ways to categorize disaster? How would the student cope with different types of disasters? Consequently, if we notice the contributors of various primary sources, we may observe a pronounced correlation between the type of disaster and the source of the contributor. Our updated question, correspondingly, would be: why would contributors differ on labeling types of disasters differently? Could their perception of disasters provide additional insight into their status in society and in relation to the college? Furthermore, would their unique perception result in a distinct approach to mitigate the disaster’s impact on their lives?

Another debate in Trevor Owen’s article centers around using tools to find questions, which also seems counter-intuitive for hypothesis-driven research paradigm. Just as a question is meaningful in its making, a tool is useful in its development. If we apply topic modeling tools to a dataset, we pay attention to the correlation between keywords, which then shapes our understanding of the dataset’s implications. Conversely, if we run a keyword network on gephi, we may modify our question into one that fits the narrative of network effects, not simply correlations. While we can not remove the limitations or biases of using each tool, we can acknowledge our presumptions and move forward with a question to address them.

Combined with last week’s reading on digital humanities’ purpose, a digital humanist researcher would not stay content with an answer that is already provided and promulgated by the system.  With new collections being introduced, new methods invented, or new paradigms shifted, the necessities for “finding an answer” are disruption, interrogation, and reconstruction of narratives. And the first step to find the answer is to question it.

A blackboard describing the process of research
The Different Processes of Research


A Unity of Contradictions

Digital. Humanities.

–A Unity of Contradictions.

These two words put together are almost oxymoron according to most, if not all, prominent scholars nearly a century ago. To them, digital is the future and humanities are the past. In a world facilitated by quantitative analysis and dictated by data explosion, “digital everything” has become a fashion for scholars of various disciplines. Humanities, on the other hand, never lack criticism on its “outdatedness” to change and exclusivity from the practical tools. There seems to be a prevailing but false notion that asserts institutions should defund “old books” and subsidize data and quantitative sciences. Even liberal arts colleges, whose reputation has been relying on the great books and overall quality of argument, have dedicated themselves to catching up with the wave, diverting more attention to building a digital curriculum and a data-supportive library. 

big data has a large impact on the society
The Big Data Stream

But for others, digital represents change, while humanities symbolize preservation. While the results from digital technologies have fascinated scientists and application users, it also reveals flaws in the generation, interpretation, and communication of numbers to society. The change it brings to the table has also created by-products of overreliance and assertive abuse of data in the naive negligence of its application to human beings and human communities in which humanities have delved in-depth for thousands of years. Humanists are regarded by some as the “defendants” of the study of humans by humans, the resisting force of the data-dictatorship through the analysis of human emotive intuitions and rational responses. And now, researchers from various disciplines, including history, music, literature, data science, computer science, and neuroscience, have proposed for their integrated marriage. Since Roberto Busa created a computer-generated concordance to Thomas Aquinas’ writings in 1946, a new way to research in the humanities has been paved. Growing in the soil of vastly diversified computing applications, digital humanities was molded to shape thanks to data of large scale and scope, as well as technologies to analyze and present them. 


A person passing a wall of modern art installations
Installation view at Tate Modern

You see, these are two narratives that different humans can interpret differently. After all, what’s central to humanities as a discipline is the various facets of facts and arguments that altogether construct an explanation or vision for the known and the unknown of human worlds. Narratives matter. So are different ways to advance, condition, and interpret them. When I started to consider the question “What are the digital humanities anyway?”, I think of a narrative constructed by the perceptive scholars and reconstructed with the assistance of technologies. Are they the same or fundamentally different? Are they falsifiable to each other’s arguments? In what ways can we truly call a project a digital humanities one? 

I come to the fellowship in an expectation to go beyond the “easy jobs” and “conventional paradigms”. Digitizing dust-filled archives is a critical first step, but it does not create enough impact to be called a DH project– unfortunately, most projects stop here. Burying potential discoveries in the data pool is as wasteful as leaving ancient records on the dusty shelves. Likewise, making an ideologically-oriented hypothesis on the grounds of humanities without referencing relevant data often fails to convince the public and wastes the many “first-steps” institutions have undertaken to trailblaze in the DH field. I am blessed to have Amherst’s trust in working with college digital archives to see something new and something meaningful. Words and illustrations in the past carry weight. They document the history of the college and the society in alumni’s voices. But our job is to use the data to see them in a different light and then engagingly present our findings. 

If DH is ultimately centered on “the meaningful contributions” it can make to reflect and engage the world beyond the academy, it has a specific purpose to solve the problems or at least find the clues of the multidimensional humanitarian and social issues that have troubled traditional-methodized scholars for their complexity, intersectionality, and obfuscation. But can it ultimately transform the way we epistemologically know things– because only if it does so would it deserve to be entitled as a discipline? 

To me, digital humanities are both overvalued and undervalued. It is overvalued because digital humanities are not transformative in their institutional regard. Analogously, it is not the engine for a jetplane that provides power to change the course of motion. Rather, it is a refined exhaust nozzle of the engine, helping increase the power outlet through either incorporating more air or improving combustion efficiency. It would be unrealistic to say that DH projects completely replace (outwit) analog, linear theories, and approaches because the use of digitization and digital methods still builds on ideological and scholastic presumptions about fundamental theories in particular fields. Nevertheless, neither is its value solely limited to refurbishments and “final ribbons” of already construed humanities projects. DH provides us with not only tools to redefine conventional “humanities research” but also fresh perspectives of how we can deal with the content and evaluate its materiality. It works on both ends, from design to execution, from broad strokes to trivial touches. Its impact is not evaluated based on how much it develops itself, but how much it exhausts itself to serve humanities in general.

And here comes a question I wish to explore further in this fellowship: to what extent are humanities digital? To what extent is data humanistic? Is data only a pathway for a better understanding of humanities, or is it the humanities in its futuristic form? What if our stories, journeys, and communities will be rewritten in datapoints and codes the same way they were written by our ancestors on paper? Would that make or break humanities as a whole? Furthermore, will it help or hinder us to approach the complexity of the big questions in humanities research?

The interaction and alienation of the digital and the humanities represent two contracting forces to pull the discipline in disparate directions. Digital humanists have called for efforts to either normalize or to disrupt the construct. From race to gender, class to culture, we either use substantiated data to legitimize a system for its validity in maintaining social order or, in other cases, uproot a system for its sustenance of societal problems. Furthermore, it seems as though digital humanities is also a tug-of-war (or a handshake) between the subjective and the objective. While humanities research has been attacked for its “manipulative” politically- and ideologically-charged results, will its digitality reinforce or reduce the bias? Is data truly as “objective”, or insulated from political intent, as the general public sees it? Do digital humanities produce signals of social problems or symbols for social change? 

Essentially, however, the transformation from signal to symbol contributes to a renewed understanding of DH. The interaction between humanities and data creates a space for communication of disciplines, approaches, and methods. Space, then, gives birth to a re-creation or reconstruction of the normalized themes or projects that have been complacently cast aside, out of discovery with human eyes. Next comes a critical intervention.

To craft a mission statement for this project as well as DH in general, I would call DH as:

Not only data for humanities, but also humanities for data;

Not only reconstructing paradigms but also redefining the parameter of paradigm usage;

Not only operationalizing methods but also empowering agency in the faculty of volition;

Such that, new tools offer new perspectives to draw novel, disruptive insights. 

And thus, new researches on DH may likewise unite the contradictions.

A blackboard with words about digital humanities
The Author’s Blackboard with Notes on Digital Humanities