After two long months of struggling, laughing, and occasionally, working productively, the Digital Scholarship Internship has ended. The project I ended up working on was definitely not something I could have imagined in the beginning. But with the help of all the librarians and research assistants and special archives people, I learned a lot more about digital tools than I could have imagined and a lot more about the history of Amherst College than I ever cared to know. I am ~quite~ satisfied with my project, although I hoped that it would disappear quietly into an Internet black hole after its completion. More importantly, I am happy to have met so many people working at the library, I am happy to have worked so closely with my teammates, and I am happy that we made it. Now I can (maybe) give an answer to the question, “What is digital humanities?”
Flipping through old copies of The Amherst Student from the 60s and 70s, I have slowly begun to realize that history has a tendency to repeat itself, and that students back then were asking the same questions we ask now. Take the two pictures below. The first one is from the Afro-American protest in 1969 and the second is from #AmherstUprising in 2015. Both reflect the turbulent time period the protests arose from, and both are making demands to the administration to give voice to the marginalized populations at Amherst College.
Another interesting aspect about the history of student protests at Amherst College is that not all of them were meant to be taken seriously. It seems like a couple of times a year, there have been several articles that say “protests” but describe a party gone wild. I wondered if this reflected the divide between student activists and non-student activists on campus (aka those who took civil disobedience seriously and those who didn’t) or if this was the student publication’s idea of humor back in the day. In any case, with these types of articles, it is hard to trace the intent and origin behind the sarcastic use of the word “protest,” and I concluded that I would consider it a lost cause to try to look deeper. I am still delving into the archives to find out more about student protests, but as a group, we have also stepped back to look at the bigger picture. We are working to create a timeline of student publications from the beginning of Amherst College. After importing all the details from our abstract list and fitting them onto the Excel template given by TimelineJS (the digital humanities tool we decided to use), we now face the task of cleaning it up and making it look presentable. So far we have organized the publications into one of these categories: News/Student Life, Humor/Satire, Literary Magazine, Journals of Thoughts, Academic Journals, and Yearbook. This categorization has helped me to understand that repeating patterns in student publications, especially the tendency to express themselves creating new student publications when there is not one that feels sufficient. We also cleaned up the dates for each publication, double checking with the finding aid and special archives. This task was mind-numbingly mundane (see the comic strip below), but at the very least, helped me see how many single issue publications there were.
It seems like I am achieving a good balance of doing purely research and then stepping back to see how this fits into the bigger picture. At least, the timeline is giving me a vague feeling of productivity.
Proposals. I could never shake off the feeling that I’m signing a contract when I’m writing a proposal. In my three and half years of college, I’ve written a variety of proposals. The standard research project proposal. The ambiguously phrased photography project proposal. The stab-in-the-dark film proposal. All of them amounted to feeling like I have committed to something I’m not sure I want. Like buying a dress at Forever 21 and wondering if it’ll still be in style a month from now.
The initial proposals we worked on weren’t that different, despite the many reassurances that we would have time to change our minds. Especially once Norah and I started to dig into The Amherst Student issues from the 60s and 70s, it felt as if the research project already started. I was honestly elated to find abundant material relating to the topic: campus protests. It was the first eureka high I’ve had for this internship.
But I’m still at the stage when I’m still browsing, trying on different topics to see which suits me better, but not willing to commit to anyone in particular. And then the store announces that it’s closing in ten minutes, and shoppers should line up at the door to check out their proposals. Sure, you can always come back and return it, but that’s another commitment, a commitment to saying no.
In terms of moving forward, I think we need to spend less time staring into each other’s eyes, wondering if we all feel the same way or if it’s just me, and start admitting that we are all as lost and uncertain as each other. Maybe we have a nebulous hunch. But if we keep turning that hunch into a research proposal, we’re gonna find ourselves in a two-week relationship with a research project that we had doubts about from the beginning.
At least we learned to avoid Gephi (see images below).
Last week and this week, we learned a variety of tools related to digital humanities such as Omeka, TimeMapper, and worst of all, Voyant. Each methodology workshop was followed by a deliverable, a word used in the context of this internship to means: a work produced by playing make believe. We assume that we have an infinite amount of resources and time and dedication to the subject. For a span of two hours, we pretend that we are embarking on a long-term project, knowing that we do not have to commit. We wrap ourselves in the comfort blanket that tells us that we do not have worry about real-world limitations or wonder if this is a project we will be willing to do the next day. Without playing make believe with these tools through deliverables, I would not have had a complete understanding of the tools and their shortcomings. But as useful as deliverables have been, they have been false starts to the “real” project.
As we are checking off the list of deliverables to deliver, I can sense that we are nearing the real start. We have glimpsed into the student publications, we have glanced around to see what interests us, and soon we will have to dive in. The deliverables have helped us get a general sense of what is in and not in the student publications, what we can and cannot do with them. But they have still remained in the realm of make believe. Like children playing house cannot fathom what it means to maintain a house and have responsibilities, I feel that we cannot fathom what lies ahead of us until we start.
“… digital humanities, with a culture that values collaboration, openness, nonhierarchial relations, and agility, might be an instrument for real resistance or reform.” – Matthew Kirschenbaum
The struggle to define digital humanities reflects its wide scope of possibilities and potential for growth, and in its ambiguous boundaries lies its definition. Kirschenbaum tries to explain, “Digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies.” Advancement of technology will and have been changing the contours of digital humanities, but what should remain consistent is the willingness to incorporate digital tools to advance academia. This attitude has allowed digital humanities to expand and be accepted in academic environments, and the proliferation of projects implementing digital humanities in the past decade is a true testament to this dedication.
In the context of this Digital Scholarship Internship, I am struggling to comprehend the meaning of digital humanities and how this term translates when digging into student publications in the Special Archives. I see this internship as an opportunity examine the history and culture of the Amherst student body, especially during contentious times, and use digital methodologies to make this information accessible to the public. At this moment, trying to find what I want in the student publications collection seems like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But in hopes that aiming high will get me somewhere close, I will say that I want to find student publications that reflected or shaped the Amherst administration, such as admitting women, increasing diversity, changing financial aid to need blind, implementing a Black Studies major, and more. I hope that by focusing on the past impact of student voices, it will encourage future classes of Amherst College to speak out for change, using the past as precedents for their struggle and success.