My Kingdom for a Time-Turner!

I don’t have a kingdom to offer, but time has passed disproportionately for this internship. The past week has been a build-up to the day of the presentation; those days were long because of the amount of work I was doing, but then they always appeared too short for the amount of work remaining. We have come so far since my last post; I didn’t even have a concrete idea of what my project would look like then, but now two weeks later, I have the privilege of looking backwards in time with a final product to boast about.

Here is A Little Magazine, complete with documentation.

Although I am proud of my project, it is certainly not the be-all and end-all. In fact, I would venture to say that the most valuable things I have learned from this Digital Scholarship internship, and the most valuable memories I have, have been the rest of “it.” The final product is a landmark, but not the cumulative experience.

I will end with a bullet-point of “it” in no particular order:

  • Building the timeline of the Student Publications Collection!
  • Knowing Lane Room too well. Knowing the computer lab on A level too well.
  • Increased knowledge of best spots in the library to counteract the temperature of the AC
  • The hypocrisy when I (almost) commit the same sin that I criticized of another website (story for another time)
  • Learning what “deliverables” mean
  • Still not knowing whether it’s “the digital humanities is” or “the digital humanities are”
  • The irony of making jokes about literary magazines, and then ended up focusing on one of them as my project
  • Not having enough time to do textual analysis and/or topic modeling; would have loved to see what kind of trends emerged
  • Learning that there are more than five librarians in the library. Really thankful for the network of librarians and other staff who have taught us and helped us along the way. [Personal note: now I know who to pester during the school year]
  • That feeling of accomplishment when my initials appeared in a streak on the Archives log-in sheet, because I came in everyday for data collection
  • Team meeting every Thursday; scrambling to prepare things for presentation
  • Learn that copyright is a thing, and that it is very complicated despite having charts to guide you through it
  • Having a group of interns to joke with in the first half of internship, and to keep up my morale during the dark days of tool failure; going crazy unproductive on one day and wake up and nail a Gephi workshop
  • Finding my way around WordPress; building something online for the first time
  • Being in the Archives for the first time; doing detective work
  • Getting stronger by lifting archival boxes from the front desk to the desk I was working on
  • First time at Mt. Holyoke; visited Leslie in the Archives
  • Emerging into the sun after a day of self-isolation in the Archives
  • That time when the word “concatenate” gained special status
  • Appreciation for access to the staff lounge (food cornucopia), with us interns at the highest priority for emails about food opportunities in the library
  • Finding the perfect spot in the Archives to take pictures of documents without my shadow blocking it
  • The beauty of Command F to look for keywords in a decades’ worth of newspaper OCR
  • Staying in the library until all the lights shut down
  • Being totally turned off by a tool at first sight, but then realizing some possible merits after having to teach a workshop on it (hint: Gephi)
  • Learning that Tableau is “like Excel, but more fun!”
  • Attended two job interviews
  • Took awkward group pictures
  • How to make a Pictionary session of publication names educational
  • This insight and call to action: Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.57.58 AM
  • The havoc that puns cause on productivity, when you throw four tired interns together in a Monday afternoon, which leads me to…
  • A certain “Group Proposal” document that is in fact, bonkers. Inside joke: art rat

Signing off, but not gone,


Iterate & Circulate (rinse and repeat)

After spending every single working hour with each other in the first five weeks (I’m not complaining; after all, we managed to create a “pictionary” session out of publication titles- that’s the epitome of team bonding and productivity), the self-imposed isolation of the recent two weeks meant only catching a glimpse of each other’s dazed faces at team meetings, or during the sporadic half-hour of project planning. Otherwise, with the range of our project topics and reliance on different tools, it is a fairly solitary undertaking. Also, the materials that we are working with demand that we physically be in certain places, whether that be in the Archives Reading Room or the Higgins Room.

Despite this physical constraint, we keep morale up by sharing the occasional high-fives and smiles when we see each other in passing. On days when we happen to do research together in one room, the quiet is often punctuated by excited bursts of commentary on all sorts of interesting finds, even if not necessarily relevant to the project at hand. I find that this adventurous spirit – refusing for our topics to become blinders, even at this stage where the days until the final presentation are indifferently ticking away – stimulating and encouraging. For me, it is comforting to hear how others’ projects are going, the headway they made, the unexpected obstacles and the lingering confusion. Although I cannot contribute in terms of resolving their problems, it is a vicarious and almost cathartic.

It will be a relief to reconvene later in the week in order to figure out the information architecture for our website and put together the final product. The hair-wringing process of research would transform from abstract to concrete, ready for presentation (or so we hope).

As for my own project, it’s been dizzying. But at least there’s movement, right? If this intrigues, check back in a week and see what kind of creature hatches.

Experimenting with the Experimental

Now that our (exhaustive) timeline of the student-publication collection is finished for the moment, we can breathe a sigh of relief before diving into our individual parts for the final project. For me, what’s clear from the outset is the constant re-evaluation of scope, specifically the need to narrow my focus. Time constraint (we have roughly less than three weeks left!) and my limited experience with digital tools necessitate that I not bite off more than I can chew:

All student publications (125+) >

Literary magazines (41) >

Experimental magazines (~7) >

Io and Adelphian (2)


Why literary magazines?

Compiling and cleaning up the template for the timeline yielded useful data for generating a variety of graphs (which hopefully will feature on the homepage of our currently non-existent website for the final project). One of these, the-distribution-of-genres graph, shows that literary magazines make up the largest group with 41 publications. But that number alone does not provide the full picture, since some publications were single issues while others, such as the Amherst Literary Magazine, last upwards of 70 years. Nevertheless, not only were literary magazines the first student publications to come out of Amherst College, they remained a staple marker of students’ intellectual and creative lives throughout Amherst’s 200-year history.

It would be a Sisyphean task to tackle all of the literary magazines. Despite the generic and bland description often attached to them, “featuring short stories, essays, and poems,” they exist in all different shapes and forms, requiring extensive work, effort, and technical ability to give them justice. To take a more logistically realistic route, I have decided to focus on the experimental literary magazines as a lens on the literary establishment at Amherst. For this purpose, I selected Io (1965-66 at Amherst, 1967-1976 post-Amherst), an anthology combining literature, anthropology, natural and physical sciences into thematic issues, intended to be “a long accumulating poem, or myth, created by those who read it.” Puzzled yet intrigued? Me, too. The other is Adelphian (1985-1986), which aimed to attract “voices one would not expect to find at Amherst,” a phrase which itself raises questions about the student climate at Amherst and what was considered acceptable by the literary establishment.

So what does it mean that they are experimental magazines? For one thing, after spending two days trekking through the pieces, I can say that they are DIFFICULT to understand. How can digital tools like textual analysis help me with these interpretive challenges? The range of topics by itself is incredible, but more challenging to wrap one’s mind around are the styles of the writers and poets, who often perform technical feats to convey their points. “Experimental” is meant to be a catch-all term, because to pin down a definition for such words is, as Samuel Butler puts it elegantly, “to enclose a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.”

Nevertheless, “experimental” is relative, as it requires a point of comparison and historical context. To provide a rounded look, I plan to comb through the Amherst Student to gather information about their reception by the student body and the faculty. What are the dynamics between the literary establishment and these experimental literary magazines? Looking at the “established literary magazine” from the same period would be beneficial in gauging the degree of experimentation, although how to depict this visually remains a challenge.

Whatever I find in these next few days, I envision the final project to involve a lot of writing. Context is crucial, because in addition to looking at individual pieces themselves, my interest in origins lingers, prompting me to learn more about the founders and contributors. Where did they end up, and did their involvement with these magazines have any influence on their career path and current work? In working with the digital, I want to emphasize the human connection as much as possible, and perhaps this is one way of doing so. Time will tell (check back in a week).

I Spy a Black Hole

Let’s tackle the mystery of the title right now instead of threading it subtly throughout the post. Black holes are noble and majestic – remnants of collapsed stars that strive to make this harsh, ever-expanding universe warmer by extending a generous welcome to all who venture within its gravitational field. At least that’s what I presume based on my Earth Science knowledge from 7th grade… and a rose-colored figment of my imagination, since I’ve never actually encountered one (thank my lucky stars). A quick Google search reveals that black holes are, in fact, quite photogenic.  A starry spiral spreads outward, punctuating the profundity of the enigmatic core that is soul-less-ly black. It’s hard not to wax poetic about black holes, but one quibble remains. If they are trying not to attract attention, they should reconsider their color choice, or at least think about how their effects on their surrounding give away their position. This aside, what’s not to like about the enigma of black holes, except the fact that our very attraction to them comes from their ability to elude extensive study?

Smooth transition coming up.

In the compact 90-linear-ft universe of the Student Publications Collection in the Archives in A Level of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College, there too exists a black-hole. It has earned many affectionate names from the DSSI interns and generated many a fruitful conversations:

A glimpse into the life...
Fear the Literary Magazines

As you can see from this snippet, I am venturing into dangerous, unknown territory. Putting the juicy metaphorical significance aside for a moment, literary magazines do make up roughly 40% of the collection (disclaimer: no actual calculation has been done), so it seems careless to disregard this size-able chunk that managed to remain a staple of student publications for almost 200 years. We do not know how these publications were received in their time and how large the readership was, but there is something to be admired in the resilience of literary magazines to pop up in almost every decade of Amherst history.

Newspapers, editorials, and journals of thought tell us directly about the conditions and issues of the time. Literary magazines, on the whole (although there are a few peculiarities), seek to showcase student work by providing a space for creative expression through multiple mediums (poetry, short stories, photography etc.). What can creative expression reveal other than the polished brain scribbles of some person’s imagination? In a way, fiction is a paradox: it transcends time while remaining firmly a product of its generation. How does a lowly intern even begin to capture this paradox through digital tools?

One option is topic modeling and textual analysis, which would reveal trends in topics that occupy students’ imagination through the years. In addition to the enormous data ingestion that this requires, it also seems counterintuitive: doesn’t the power of fiction lie in the uniqueness with which each author approaches a universal topic? These tools can reveal patterns through similarities, but how can they display the range of differences? The pieces that I have read so far range from personal to mystical, from piercing to eccentric, from emotionally draining to confusing. They straddle that threshold of the real in the bubble of the imaginary.

Research at this point is simply to read. And then read some more, all the while praying for serendipity. If I never end up working with literary magazines for this internship, at least they have earned an acknowledgement in a modest blog post.


Other notable accomplishments this week:

  • Detective work for Visualization Deliverables: discovered a mystery man whose fate in WWII turned out differently in three publications
  • First time reading a senior thesis in an attempt to find some numbers on Amherst students during World War II
  • Pictionary with publication titles- totally educational
  • Teaching a Gephi workshop in a responsible, critical manner without completely roasting the tool as we were originally inclined to do
  • Creating a Group Proposal document that went bonkers with a certain three letters (no worries, a properly academic one was created the next morning, just in time for its presentation)
  • Beginning to construct a timeline of Student Publications (all ~120 of them!)

Looking for Buoys

This past week bumped up the amount of intensity not with the number of workshops, but with the increasing amount of self-scheduled time for deliverables, proposals, and general digging around in the archives. The proposals that we have come up with thus far have been in relation to a specific tool. Although this lens provided a narrow focus, we used this “limitation” as an anchor, a jumping-off point for research questions. Now that the methodology workshops have come to an end, we are set free in this ocean that is the student publications collection. But with this freedom comes the inevitable – where, and how, to begin? Yes, we have some tools (digital, mental, intellectual etc.) at our disposal, but the challenge now becomes knowing when to draw on them most effectively, first of all to minimize the risk of drowning.

A few topics of interest have emerged in the process: wartime Amherst, student protests, comedy over the years, and origins of the many publications. Although the group brainpower has generated these topics, the four of us has branched off to pursue what most intrigues us individually. The final product will be a group proposal, and at this point, we are trying to find threads that weave through all of our interests. We jokingly said that the main thread is “student publications.” After all, despite the diversity and range of topics and purpose, they sought to react to something in the world, and did so in their own way of expression, whether that be comedy, politics, arts, or creative writing.

Thinking about the people behind these publications helps me connect the most with this collection. Instead of seeing a stack of papers, separated into bland yellow folders, shuffled into austere grey boxes, I want a glimpse into why certain publications came into existence: what forces propelled their founders, and what challenges did they face in getting the final product published? In short, the context is the thing. While it is a Sisyphean task to track down every single reason that contributes to the beginning of each publication, I did stumble upon a few extensive first-issue editorials and other accompanying documents that discussed the circumstances of their origins. The two currently on my mind are Io, an unconventional literary magazine that accepted drafts in an effort to rebel against the supposedly elitist literary establishment at Amherst, and the Amherst Story Project, which emulated an NPR show of the same name to showcase the unique life stories of the Amherst community members.

I have not yet graduated to the stage where I’m thinking of how to incorporate digital tools, because I only know a small number of publications from writing abstracts for the collection. Although we are still in the brainstorming stage, with no ideas set in stone yet, the search has begun. Specifically, the search for an umbrella term for our final group project that is not “student publications.”

Approaching an Asymptote

Each methodology workshop has ended with a short bullet list of deliverables, designed to ease us into a hands-on application of the particular digital tool. These generally included building a small project using the tool and then creating proposals for a larger project. In addition to learning about the nitty-gritty of the tool, or at least as much as our young DH brains could manage in the space of a few hours, my favorite part of each workshop has been exploring and evaluating a variety of projects online. Although I’m easily attracted to superficial things like quirky titles and ideas, the common thread throughout successful projects, for me, has been the human connection. Like all research projects out there, the range of research questions asked is unfathomable; add the nebulousness (our favorite buzzword, it appears) of DH and you get a mind-blowing host of concepts and ideas, some of which are impressive, some puzzling, some underwhelming, and some leaving me to ponder the purpose of their existence.

Opponents of the digital humanities have cited how the digital distances viewers and audience from the human authenticity of things, despite the fact that the phrase itself contains both “digital” and “human.” I certainly see this in projects that care more about displaying the ability of the tool (“look at these swirly, pretty patterns that this dataset creates!) than the meaning/significance it is able to illuminate on the issue at hand. In most cases, context facilitates connection. The coolness of the tool should be balanced by how it enriches the conveying of information. Just like any project, a DH one should be able to answer the question “Why should we care about this topic?” Digital projects that work surprise me with the kind of research questions that their specific tools stimulate, and invite us, the audience, to discover for ourselves how the new lens provided by the digital reveals an engaging perspective (see the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative). Easy in concept, but tricky in execution… like most things in life.

So far, we have learned about and considered the pros and cons of four tools: Omeka, Mapping, textual analysis, and topic modeling. These tools are divided into two groups: Omeka and Mapping are more conducive to being final project products thanks to their concrete schemes, while textual analysis (Voyant) and topic modeling (MALLET) assist in the research process by revealing interesting patterns and generating new research questions. For our deliverables, the tool has been the centerpiece. I find this to be a helpful exercise, even when keeping the digital pitfall in mind, because we had to carefully consider the tool’s purpose, capability, potential, and limitations in the research process and in creating the final product. Our imagination was then let loose in our proposals for larger projects – hypothetical scenarios of unlimited time, limitless resources, and most importantly, vast technical ability.

I’m rather intimidated by the approaching transition from the learning phase to the project phase of the internship because of how fast time has flown. I feel like a DH duckling barely scraping off egg shells from my back, eager to stumble my way through this new world, but also dazed by the experience.

Feeling brave

With the nebulous (there, I’ve used it again) expanse of digital tools, I am eager to learn more because at their best, new tools invite a really cool way of approaching research. On the other hand, knowledge is application. By writing abstracts of many student publications these past two weeks, we interns have begun to immerse ourselves in the stories, outlooks, concerns, and celebrations of Amherst students in the last 200 years. With the clock ticking, all I can do is roll up my sleeves.

Catching Sparks

Food for thought: should we strive to be like this spider?

As we fling ourselves into this stage of exploration, a stage of self-guided archival immersion punctuated by workshops and meetings, I have grown to embrace the nebulousness inherent in any research process, not least for a digital humanities project. In fact, the conversations that we have had this past week reinforce the idea that each research project, either traditional or digital, is a unique undertaking. Unlike the neat charts delineating “the components” of the research process and pointing out a progression with helpful arrows, the reality of research design is a much more complex mingling of “things.” Such things typically include research questions, goals, methods, conceptual framework, and validity (see Trevor Owens’ blogpost here), which constantly interact with each other. On second thoughts, “interact” is rather vague and sterile, isn’t it? As I’m sure we will discover in the next few weeks, they will illuminate each other, be in tension with each other, guide each other, interrogate each other; they will open some doors, shut several, keep a few ajar, lock some others, or eliminate the concept of doors entirely…

Well, that escalated quickly.

My keyword from last week, “fluidity,” applies now as much as ever. In fact, as we begin to learn about tools for digital exhibits and mapping, I find that a reasonable answer to my questions last week regarding where is the best place to start (with research questions, digital tools, interesting ideas?) is this: just start. And follow your heart/head. Yes, this is cheesy, but in a research context where time and effort are in great demand, it is important to not just pick a topic that sparks one’s interest, but to also have the courage to let tidbits lead you down a footpath with an indeterminate destination. Who really knows the destination at this point anyways?

With all this in mind, it is just perfect timing that we made our first concept maps this week. Concept-mapping is an organization tool for brainstorming. A quick Google search yields diagrams of concepts, consisting of boxes and circles connected to each other in a variety of relationships.

A “meta” concept-map

For me, who is still a child at heart, concept-mapping is basically making my own spider web. Each string can branch out to another network, connect unlikely objects, or simply hang in space. In a workshop with two Research & Instruction librarians, we learned how to incorporate concept maps into the process of generating research questions. And just like any type of research, the goal of a brainstorming session is to generate without discrimination, which means learning how to eliminate the adjectives such as: is it a trivial question? Too vague? Too vague? Too specific? Too random?

At this stage, asking questions is key. As we start to spend time with tools such as Omeka and TimeMapper, I am less concerned about how to make this a digital humanities project than just thinking about how this project will materialize. I think a Five-College Digital Humanities (DH) post-bac put it best when he told us that digital humanities simply provides a lens with which to approach research. We spend additional time to learn a variety of digital tools, but the essence of the research process remains the same as that of traditional scholarship: immerse oneself in the material, consult ancillary sources, brainstorm questions and ideas while minimizing self-censorship, thinking critically, embracing periods of confusion and self-doubt, figuring out ways to organize information- all with the hope of catching sparks.

Disclaimer: not a concept map. But still valuable.

Optimistically confuzzled

As two separate words, “digital” and “humanities” do hold some meaning for this child of the digital generation, whose liberal-arts education leans liberally toward the humanities. But simply put those two words together, and poof! I am faced with a hazy sense of meaning, which is just a kinder way of saying that my knowledge on the matter is basically non-existent. Thankfully, the description for this Digital Scholarship internship reassures that “no prior technical or digital scholarship experience necessary, just curiosity and commitment.” After reading a number of articles, some of which attempt to clarify the scope of “digital humanities” while others argue for the futility of defining/delineating boundaries for the field, I find some comfort in the collective confusion, at least for these first two days.

In the last 36 hours, one word appears to best characterize my experience with digital scholarship this summer: fluidity. Digital humanities is inclusive in its ability to hover beyond the wall of definition, welcoming vast networks of scholars, projects, and methodologies. But with this fluidity comes more responsibilities. The first half of the internship will be devoted to exploring some of the tools available to digital humanists, but how do I allow the tools to enrich my research project rather than to dictate it? There is a limit to what we interns can learn and apply in the first few weeks, so how does one even begin to maintain a conversation between the digital and traditional aspects of the research process? What kind of questions would take advantage of the potential of digital technology and yield insights that traditional research for a paper could not?

My first foray into the library’s archives yesterday was a mix of glee (combing through just a few boxes of student publications revealed some bizarre ads and an interesting sense of humor in the late 1800s) and apprehension (how can I synthesize all the information in this collection of 36 boxes occupying 90 linear feet?). The obvious challenge of diving into a collection of this size and variety is how to navigate it all effectively: do I studiously go through all of the boxes (a bit ambitious… just a bit), hoping to stumble onto interesting threads one day? Do I identify a theme or question beforehand? Do I take notes of interesting tidbits and try to weave a pattern throughout? Or do I view the brainstorming process through the digital tools that we will learn, thinking about how they can be applied in the formation of my questions? In short, how should I take advantage of the interdisciplinary potential of a digital project? And thinking about the end product, which hopefully will be a concrete presentation-ready thing, what would the experience be like for an audience unfamiliar with digital scholarship?

Just drowning in questions… Be back in a mo’

As much as I anticipate the long periods of ambiguity, confusion, and perhaps existential crisis this summer, I do look forward to experiencing them all (just with my fingers crossed for the light at the end of this purple tunnel of ambiguity). Who knows, maybe I will be able to define what “digital humanities” mean(s)… to me.