Can We Guess What Your Learning Preferences Are With This One Question??

One of my favorite little things about this internship so far has been seeing how everyone in the group approaches our weekly blog posts so differently. Although we all are given the same prompt and have the same tools available for answering the prompt, from the beginning, each individual has made their blog post unique, distinguishing themselves with stylistic choices like bullet-pointed narrative, allusive featured images, or a first-person reflective voice. At first, I was surprised at the dramatic differences between the look and feel of all of our blog posts, but after a couple of weeks with the team, it makes sense. After we had a workshop that helped us determine our learning style preferences using the Kolb learning style inventory, it was apparent that the four of us all had very different preferred learning styles. Even where a couple of us elapsed in preferences, the determined way that we expressed those preferences was different.

The interesting thing about the Kolb inventory is that it presents the learning styles not as discrete, but all making up part of a cycle of learning that we all experience (albeit in different ways and at different paces).

So while my preferences fall in the “Assimilating” category (which prioritizes observation and thinking before any of the other steps), at some point I will have to move on to the next quadrant of thinking and doing, testing out the ideas that I’ve been conceptualizing.

This is the point I feel as though I’ve reached in my section of the research project. I spent last week collecting a large amount of data on when five of Edward Hitchcock’s most important works have been cited, according to Google Scholar. I have a nice big Google Sheet with individualized tabs and lots of data. The question is, where do I go from here? The goal with this branch of the project is to map the network of Hitchcock’s scholarly influence after his death, but given the diversity of data I’ve collected, this could present itself in a variety of different ways. Do I map exclusively the numbers of citations and co-citations? Should frequently appearing authors or journals be connected in some way? Does that matter to us? (It might show that what appears to be a very widely spread network is just a network that is very insular, but active.) What about mapping with an emphasis on time and place? These are elements I’ve been very interested in recording from the beginning, and I think they also have some relevance with the data Seanna’s collecting, at least on a macro, if not quite micro level.

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The time period of Seanna’s project is focused on the years of Hitchcock’s life, when he was actively publishing. Additionally, the data she’s been collecting comes from sources that were relatively geographically close to Hitchcock as well; the furthest source I’ve seen so far recorded is London. At first I was bothered by the lack of overlap in our data, but now looking at the scopes of our respective projects side-by-side, it seems like they’re natural continuations of one another that could easily segue back and forth. I’m envisioning two separate networks with different data focuses (foci?), but when you “zoom” in or out of one you reach the other. In the end, they’re both trying to measure Hitchcock’s relevance, influence, and effect on his intellectual peers.

This is my dream architecture, the two networks represented visually with zooming capabilities and detailed nodes. However, this is my imagined approach, one that is very visual and very attached to the network image that’s been fascinating me from the beginning. Like with the blog post, I’m approaching this project with a preconceived set of expectations for what it should look like. When I find myself hesitating about the direction to take my visualization (and especially in what data to include), I think that one way of moving forward could be turning to the team to see how they would approach the visualization. If we had more time (always, always, if we had more time), I would love to take a day or half a day to have sandbox time with the data and Tableau. During our Tableau workshop, we played around with some of the sample data sets provided on the site, and it was fascinating to see what everyone chose, and then how they chose to visualize it with the software. I think it would be a great brainstorming experiment to give everyone my data and tell them to mess around in Tableau and present it however they thought was best. If we want to get more complicated, I could ask them to arrange the data with an emphasis on a certain category or using a certain type of visualization, to compare and contrast how they (and a potential later viewer) might be interested in looking at the data.

I’ve been trolling around the Tableau website looking at the sample visualizations they have as a substitute for the above experiment. They really showcase the variety of options you have in Tableau for displaying data, which reassures me that there’s no set template for visualizing data in a certain way. I’m hoping that through some more experimentation, ideally with the input and aid of my fellow team members, we’ll be able to find a method of visualization that best showcases the network data.


Ripples in the Pond of Hitchcock

After weeks of agonizing over our final project proposal and potential research questions, the proposal itself fell together with unprecedented ease. Once we’d had a taste of thinking practically and narrowing our scope by doing individual project proposals, it seemed a natural step to integrate the elements of our own proposals that we’d found most interesting into the final project. What we have settled upon for a loose overarching question is What did Edward Hitchcock leave behind? Although, yes, it is rather broad, it’s been a useful umbrella under which we can arrange our major themes of time and legacy while still making use of the collection.

For the structure of the project, we ultimately did decide to take most of the individual proposals and connect them where relevant as sub-projects within the overall final exhibit. The idea is that we’ll have a kind of interactive website that lets viewers choose upon entering which of the ~4 sub-projects they’d like to explore first. Ideally, they’d eventually explore all of them, but we’d like to present all of the options on an equal footing, not determined chronologically or by “importance.” We want our audience to be able to engage with any part of the site and come away feeling that they’ve experienced a full narrative, not just part of one.

In terms of sites that would model something like that visually, while I can’t think of any specific examples, I feel that I’ve certainly encountered something similar before. I’m imagining a pretty simple homepage, maybe one that starts off with some basic biographical information about Hitchcock (or features that lead you through that) so there’s some kind of baseline knowledge, and then maybe leads into a page with four boxes: one for each of the mini-projects. You click on a box, and it takes you to that project page. Embarrassingly, the closest visual model I have for this is the block boxes you click on to select answers in Buzzfeed quizzes, but hey, at least those are intuitive.

I do at least have a clearer idea of what I’d like the iteration of my “mini-project” to be. I’ve harped on ad infinitum about how the Cocitation Network project in Signs@40 was in the inspiration for my mini-proposal and all that. But while it is a beautiful piece of data visualization, the kind of data that I’m looking to analyze doesn’t quite fit into the network model the same way. Signs@40 was examining the citations listed in all the articles in their journal over the past 40 years: so while the nodes of the network were from a variety of authors and time periods, they were all neatly catalogued by the single source of the journal itself. Not only does this give them a clear, demarcated set of data to examine, but it all comes back to the same point that they share in common: Signs@40.

With Hitchcock’s citations, things get a bit trickier. Hitchcock was pretty prolific and published a lot of his writings, which ranged in subject from geology and chemistry to the temperance movement. To completely measure the effect of his words, one would have to track whenever ANY of his many publications was cited: a task which not only seems very time-consuming, but kind of boring. So I plan to narrow the search to only tracking when his most important works were cited (exact criteria for that TBD). That helps a little bit with the problem of scope, but still there’s the question of having multiple sources for the citation network(s) it/themselves. Each work of Hitchcock’s would be at the center of its own network, which would necessitate a multitude of graphs, and more time. Unless, of course, we choose to put them all together in a single graph, which then raises the question of topic: should the original documents be all scientific texts, or a mix of scientific and religious? I’m more interested in looking at a medley of topics, but I’m also concerned that having too many different categories that the data points differ on could make it both difficult to model and analyze.

Data visualization of networks seems like a pretty popular field in the DH/tech community. This site has a lot of really well-constructed and easy to read data/network visualizations, so I spent some time here looking for inspiration.

My original idea of what the network would look like was similar to this LinkedIn visualization tool, which allows you to look at an aggregate of your connections on the site and see how they’re all collected to one another. Pretty much a standard network visualization. What I like best about it is the color-coding, which would come in handy if we end up doing a single Hitchcock citation graph of his top publications, as the colors could be used to designate each publication (and also offer a useful comparison between the reach of each one). What I don’t like so much about this graph is that it’s incredibly difficult to read, given all of the nodes that are included. Granted, with our project, it may not be so important to read each individual node, and more so that we at least have a visual sense of the mass of them. So actually, maybe not a problem at all.

Another network visualization I looked at was this one, which charts Google+ “Ripples” that extend as a way of sharing news in social media. The idea is that when something groundbreaking or headline-worthy happens, someone/some site is the first to post it, and then some number of people will see the news and share it over social media, in this case, Google+. Then, some number of people who see that “share” will go on and share it themselves, and the news will extend out like that, reaching an even greater number of people. I found this visualization particularly interesting out of all the network analyses I saw because it seems the closest in goal to what we’re trying to see in the Hitchcock project. In mapping where Hitchcock is cited, we’re trying to get a sense of how far his influence spread, how important and worth sharing his ideas were, both back then and now. Google+ Ripples is doing something similar in that the visual effect isn’t so much focused on who did the sharing but the sharing itself, how the ripples spread out from this original source or news event. It’s all about magnitude and direction of influence, which I think will be key in creating our own visualization of Hitchcock’s influences on the scholarly world.

One potential problem with these models is that most of them are made in Gephi, or some more complicated software. While we had a brief Gephi training, none of us on the team are particularly confident or even conversational in using it, and we eventually decided that in order to not waste time, we would likely use Tableau to create the final visualization. While Tableau, as far as I’ve seen, doesn’t do anything exactly like the Gephi network, it does offer a lot more options for graphs and other visual ways to display data, and is also a lot easier to manipulate.

But before we get to that point, we have to wade through a sea of data collection and processing: all of that and more exciting things to come next week!

Team Hitchcock, Unite!

After the past couple of weeks spent getting to know the Hitchcock Collection, learning about/experimenting with various digital tools, and generally agonizing about finding a research question or focus from which to begin our project, it was nice this week to go off on our own (mentally, if not physically) a bit and work on the smaller project proposals. This week gave us the chance to produce something that was concrete, something solid that we could point to and move around, instead of getting caught in the mire of repeated concept mapping that had slowed us down so much before when we tried to articulate potential projects.

Although in my last post, I articulated some lack of direction for where to go with my individual project, after reading through some secondary sources, I soon found a direction that related back to one of our first real questions about the collection: was Hitchcock important (in contributions to science, religion, etc.) or just Amherst important?

During my secondary source research, I found conflicting evidence in service of this question. Many of his colleagues and contemporaries touted Hitchcock as a groundbreaking scientist as well as an honorable and modest man—”one of America’s heroes,” J.P. Lesley claims in his biography of Hitchcock for the National Academy of Sciences. Hitchcock was, after all, one of the incorporators of the NAS, which certainly says something about his reputation and renown as a scientist. But was he really a “household term” in the world of geology, as Lesley suggests, ranking him above other internationally known geologists of the era? I did quick Google Ngrams search to see how Hitchcock stacked up to the other names Lesley dropped, and the results were not particularly encouraging on Hitchcock’s part.

But as Google Ngrams is a limited tool for measuring the true importance of a man’s impact on the world, this experiment raised more questions than it answered served as the inspiration for my individual proposal.

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My proposal suggested approaching this question using social network analysis, which was one of the digital tools we learned about that fascinated me the most. In terms of data visualization, network analysis software really appeals to me because it allows you to give weight and value to the data you’re presenting, showcasing the dynamic nature of the network and connections involved and not just treating them as if they’re all equal. For someone (aka ME) who is still skeptical about the ideal of treating qualitative information as quantitative data, this tool seems like a way to combat some of my concerns about homogenizing the nuances of humanities research into equally flat little data points. The real inspiration for using this tool came from the project Signs@40, which uses a social network analysis to approach to create a comprehensive network of the sources that their writers have been citing for the past 40 years in their articles.

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I see a lot of potential for using this tool to approach Hitchcock and his legacy, and proposed mapping when and where he and his works are cited in geological/scientific writings both from his time and now, and comparing them to see the reach of his ideas. Since the root of this project proposal came from the moderately facetious question we’ve all been asking from the beginning (“why should we care about Hitchcock?”), I feel that this line of inquiry is one that is at least moderately interesting to the rest of the group. Further, it also fits pretty nicely into the one general theme that we managed to come to a consensus on for shaping the project: time. Be it context or legacy or the inevitability of death, the broadness of the theme allows for a good amount of flexibility for individual mini-research questions within the project, and I think my proposed mini-project could provide a necessary perspective on Hitchcock.

Of course, I’m totally biased on the importance and relevance of my particular project, and the more that I think about it, the more that I really, reallllyyyyyy want to pursue it, to the point where I feel like I would be willing to do the whole thing myself, if this ends up being an arm of the larger final project. On a related note, I did feel a little bit of disappointment (not quite the right word? The feeling wasn’t quite that strong) when we’d finished our individual proposals and had to reintegrate into the group. I’m used to doing my research or academic work alone, and now that I’ve gotten so attached to the idea of this project, my first instinct was to begin work on it on my own and to bring it to the group when it’s finished. But I also don’t want to do that, because:

  1. It’s probably not logistically possible for me to do alone. My individual social network analysis proposal was broad in terms of the kinds of questions that it could ask and vague on actual methodology for implementation. This was because while I think the social network analysis would be a great tool to use with this hypothetical data (citations), I have no concrete idea how I would go about finding that data. And if I did, there would be a lot of data to process, even if I severely limited the time intervals I drew from. Finally, while we did attend a workshop for how to use a network visualization tool, Gephi, I struggled to understand a lot of the mechanics of the tool, and could definitely use some help working with it.
  2. I actually really like working with this group.I find that working with the other interns makes research and planning much more dynamic and exciting than it ever is when I’m on my own. I feel more invested in the project, more confident in its trajectory, and more enthusiastic and encouraged on a daily basis when I work with them. I don’t really want to go off on my own and make something that can just be pasted together with three other individual projects. I want to be involved in all of them, I want to learn as much as possible, and I want to see how the project can still grow and change in ways that I can’t even imagine at this point. And I can’t do that alone.

As much as I’ve hyped up my own proposed project, I was also really interested in everything that everyone else proposed as well. It’s fascinating to see not just where our individual interests gravitate towards, but how we go about asking certain questions and proposing to answer them. I keep thinking back to the learning-style assessments we did last week and seeing how each of us are expressing our individual learning-style preferences in the way that we’ve constructed these proposals. I’m actually really grateful that we’re all pretty different when it comes to that; I can’t imagine myself having come up with some of the things they have so far, and I’m glad to have to opportunity to approach this project from so many perspectives. I know it would be a ton of work, but I would really love to try to integrate as many of the individual proposals as we can into the final project, albeit perhaps adapting them a bit so that they fit together more smoothly. I’m looking forward to the next couple of days of brainstorming and planning, and feel that we’re really close to coming up with a concrete plan here.


Revelations at the Museum

Last (last) week, we had the opportunity to take a tour of Edward Hitchcock’s contributions to the Beneski Museum of Natural History, guided by the wonderful and extremely knowledgable Kate Wellspring. I’ve been to the Beneski Museum several times in the past, both for classes and on my own, and I thought I had a pretty good sense of the collection (HA, even writing that statement now, the naivete is painful) and what it contained. Mineral samples, drawings of the Oxbow, and of course the ubiquitous Ichnology Collection of Edward Hitchcock that lines the walls of the ground floor in massive slabs of footprinted stone.

And on those points, I certainly wasn’t disappointed: all of the exhibits and artifacts I’d perused before were still there, but my experience of them was markedly different than it had been in the past. Instead of wandering through and skimming the object labels that held my fleeting interest, I experienced a much more active and energetic interaction with the museum, thanks to Kate’s guidance. Kate not only seems to know just about everything there is to know about Hitchcock, she’s also incredibly enthusiastic about the topic of his life.

As Kate led us around the museum, stopping to give us details about the objects and exhibits that I had seen and passed by times before, I found myself much more engaged and attentive than I had been in the past. Granted, this change in my interest is most primarily explained by the fact that I’ve been living and breathing (nearly) Hitchcock for the past three weeks: in terms of audience, I/we the group was/were the ideal audience for Kate’s tour, given that we are actively and, one could say, urgently interested in learning about Hitchcock.

But outside of current situational elements that make me more engaged with the Hitchcock-related exhibits than I have been in the past, there was something about Kate’s energy and enthusiasm during the tour that made me even more actively interested than I think I would have been on my own. In addition to the basic explanation of each Hitch-related object she showed us, Kate would offer anecdotes from Hitchcock’s life, details on his relationships and personality, and her own commentary on what she thought it all meant. (For an example, when showing us all of the places Hitchcock traveled around New England to do geological surveys, Kate added that he was a very active man, despite his hypochondria, and would walk all over the countryside. “I think he probably needed to get out of the house and away from all those kids,” she quipped, referring to the full house of his and Orra’s children.)

I would say that this tour made Hitchcock feel like a real person to me, but I think I reached that milestone after reading his records of loans to his kids and some of his notes to Orra. Rather, I began to realize that Hitchcock was not just a real person, but a real person who I don’t and can’t really ever know: for all I’ve read about him so far, he can still surprise me; there is still learning to be had here, I just needed to be directed toward it by an authority, i.e. Kate.

I’ve been thinking about our/my experience with Kate at the Beneski Museum as an analogue for how our ideal exhibit would work: in the midst of the ocean of information contained in the Hitchcock Collection, our exhibit (or map, or data analysis, or combination of whatever) should be a guide, providing a unique and interesting narrative that the visitor could not just get from reading the Edward Hitchcock Wikipedia article.

On the other side of things, the exhibit should also leave room for the audience to explore (dare I say browse) and discover some things on their own. I keep having to remind myself that planning this project is not like planning a paper: there should be less of a rigid structure and more than one endpoint for the audience to come to.

Similarly, I continually have to remind myself that the research question that we will finally/soon embark upon doesn’t necessarily have to be a single or fixed question. After a week (this past one) of brainstorming about how on earth we were going to funnel all of our interests into a single question, this week we’re trying a more experimental approach, and allowing ourselves to explore what interests us and seems relevant in the collection and various secondary sources, with the hope that near the end of the week we can come together with more articulable ideas of what is more/less fruitful to research in-depth. I’m looking forward to the less-structured time, although I’m not sure I even know which direction to go off in. I still feel like I don’t know enough about the time and place and context of Hitchcock’s life (esp. in relation to the college, as they seem so inextricably linked in my and I think I can say the group’s mind[s]), and I think it might be most helpful to start there, with secondary sources and see where Hitchcock comes through the most.

Learning to Ask Questions

It’s now the end of our first full week of the Digital Scholars internship (and the beginning of the second, by this point), and it seems that the wish I made last week (that I could return to school) has been granted, in a way. As we began to learn about our first two DH tools and try a hands-on exploration of applying them to the Hitchcock collection, I began to feel that I was going to have to reexamine everything I thought I knew about research, and maybe even relearn how to go about forming research questions.

This might not sound like the most ground-breaking of revelations, but as someone who just spent a year of her life working on a senior thesis, I thought I had the whole “research” thing pretty much down (and so begins the breakdown of post-graduate hubris). I was used to coming to a research project with a solid comprehension of my source materials, a clear grasp of what tools I had on hand, and most importantly, an outline of where my argument was going to go. Even with my thesis, which naturally grew and changed in unexpected ways over the course of the year, I had a good sense that I was in control of the texts and the outcomes throughout the process.

Not so with the Hitchcock Collection so far. First off, it’s certainly the most extensive assortment of source materials I’ve ever tried to examine as a collective. Given the nature of the materials, it’s challenging to find a cohesive focus throughout: this is a collection of artifacts from two peoples’ lives, from intimate diaries to professional correspondences to receipts of their daily finances. There isn’t a distinct “argument” at work here that I can parse out and examine, as I’ve grown used to doing in my research. And while getting to know the extensive collection (26 boxes!) well will be a long-term process that I hope will bring gradual comprehension as the summer goes on, the very nature of the tools we will be using to approach the collection ensures that any potential research questions will be in a near-constant state of flux.

This helpful diagram from a Trevor Owens article we read last week explains how digital tools and methodologies should inform a potential research question, with an emphasis on this continual state of refinement and adaptation that bothers me so much. Basically, we have so many options for tools and content that there is no one obvious way to approach this project; it seems like half the project is going to be figuring out what the project is going to be about… a process that is taking some getting used to on my part.

We’ve learned about two digital tools or approaches so far–Omeka, an online exhibit platform, and GIS mapping–and have looked at and critiqued a variety of examples of scholarship that makes use of each tool. Given the visual nature and focus of these tools, a lot of the examples we’ve examined so far have been visually interesting and outwardly arresting, but banal in terms of content or contribution to their actual field of research. The tool should fit/add to the research, we keep saying in a DH-style echo of the traditional literary adage “form follows content.” And it makes sense, but in examining and being entertained by these projects, I can see how easy it could be for our own project to fall into a similar trap of prioritizing the tool over the research itself. I personally am very easily seduced by interactive maps and visuals, and each time we examine one, I find myself getting excited about the tools not for what they could bring to the collection, but for how we could apply the collection to the tool.

When I try to think in the other direction, pulling out a research question or theme first, and then finding a tool to apply it to, nothing seems to quite stick. This might be because the themes I’m interested in right now don’t easily break down into to the visual or quantitative data that the tools we’ve looked at so far seem to prefer. I don’t even have concrete questions at this point, more just threads or themes that I’ve seen in the collection that I’d like to look into more: Edward’s reconciliation of science and religion; Edward and Orra’s familial relationship; the source and nature of his hypochondria.

I’m hoping that as we move along into this week of exploring more diverse and potentially more textually-based tools (text analysis, topic modeling), I’ll be able to find something that is more applicable to the themes and questions I’m interested in, and that from there I’ll be able to think more creatively about the collection and the rest of the tools.

Marie’s Post

It’s only my second day as a Digital Scholarship Summer Intern and already I’m wishing that I could go back to college. Or rather, I feel that I somehow haven’t quite graduated yet—after all, I am still here, surrounded by Amherst’s verdant June beauty that so quickly makes one forget the pain and stress of semesters past—and that this summer of exploration in digital humanities scholarship is just the natural continuation of the education I pursued during my past four years at this college.

Because although it’s only my second day as a Digital Scholarship Summer Intern, from what little two-day introductory exploration I’ve done in the field of digital humanities (DH), studying and working in this field already feels so important and so relevant to the liberal arts education I spent four years working towards that I can’t believe I wasn’t more exposed to it during that time. At this point, it’s still difficult for me to pin down exactly what it is about DH that excites me so much intellectually.

Part of this difficulty stems from my struggle to define what exactly DH is—a question that the DH community itself still wrestles with. Answers from those who work within the community ( range from exhaustively descriptive—”Digital Humanities is the integration of sophisticated, empirical techniques utilizing tools and technologies typically associated with practical sciences into the study of traditional humanities questions,” via Elijah Meeks of Stanford University—to pithy—”A term of tactical convenience,” says Matthew Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland.

For me, Ed Finn (Stanford University) has produced the most helpful and intriguing definition for me so far:

For now, digital humanities defines the overlap between humanities research and digital tools. But the humanities are the study of cultural life, and our cultural life will soon be inextricably bound up with digital media.

DH both excites me and intimidates me a little bit: it feels like a challenge. As an avid childhood reader turned English major, I can get 100% behind the “h” of DH, but am a bit unsure of the “d.” My love for the traditional analogue liberal arts entirely took over my education, and I have no experience with coding, web design, or many of the other digital skills that seem to be so ubiquitous in the DH community.

But I’m only a semi-Luddite in practice, not in theory, and while it’s an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling to admit that I’m nearly illiterate in a certain field, I also want to use this summer as a continuing education experience—not because I’m afraid of falling “behind with the times” or as a way of preparing for the supplanting of the analogue humanities by digital technologies, but because I truly see so much potential that these digital tools offer in examining texts (and a variety of other resources) from new perspectives. In a concrete, practical sense, I would like to walk away from this summer with some applicable new skills. I’d like to be less intimidated and unsure of myself when working with digital tools in general, and I’d like to have not just the vocabulary to build further on these skills but the confidence and drive to do so. I’m not sold that DH is the savior of the humanities, or that the humanities need saving, but I am open to the possibility that my study of the humanities (and the way I communicate it to others) can be enriched by the tools that DH has to offer.

If I can say one thing for certain about DH, it is that it is constantly moving, evolving, in flux. It began as a set of methodologies but became a community, one that is using innovative digital technology not only to address questions within the humanities but also turning the tradition of humanistic inquiry around to examine the technology that suffuses our lives.

Oddly, I believe that this hits close to the mark of what compels and fascinates me about DH: it allows me a framework to both utilize and critique the increasingly digitized world, and it assures me that despite what cynics and “doomsday”-ers may cry, this burgeoning world is not antithetical to or excluded from the range of humanistic inquiry that I’ve learned of (and learned to love) through the liberal arts.