Towards the beginning of our experience, we had a lot of workshops, readings, self-guided activities, and readings that were meant to give us an introduction to archives and to get us thinking about what digital humanities was all about. But after doing all these activities, the way I view how history is recorded has changed. I’ve learned to look at things from a more critical standpoint, questioning: who’s recording this history, who’s stories are we hearing and who’s stories are we not hearing? How can we make sure we can tell history from a variety of perspectives?
There is so much that goes into research and archives, including finding sources, determining the best way to catalogue these sources, providing metadata, thinking about the language used in these sources and how we used it, and maintenance. When we come to Amherst, we’re all told to use the library as a resource and that there are many staff members dedicated to helping us with our work, whether it’s for research or for classes. But I still think that very few students actually explore all that the library has to offer during their time at Amherst, or even realize that the library what the library can do for them.
Our project dealing with the disasters that have occurred at Amherst has been a valuable opportunity to explore the rich history of the college. After experiencing such a drastic change in lifestyle due to the pandemic, it was particularly interesting to look at how previous students have responded to disasters. Applying text analysis and data visualization to the sources we found was also gratifying. Being able to apply the information we found to make analyses and inferences, and then transfer that knowledge onto a WordPress site we designed was fulfilling. Just being able to navigate through the site and see all the work that everyone has accomplished is very satisfying. I hope to be able to use the skills I learned and practice in these six weeks in other academic contexts. Whether it is in research in other courses, or for personal projects, the tools we used are applicable and useful in a variety of settings.
Language is very much human. It is not static; it is not just words on paper or sounds coming out of one’s mouth. It is dynamic, constantly transforming and evolving. The full extent of the power that language has is so often underestimated. The documentary Change the Subjectfollowed Dartmouth students on their mission to terminate the use of the term “illegal alien” in the Library of Congress’ subject headings. This film made me reflect more deeply on how language has had an impact on my life, and how its effects our ubiquitous in our everyday lives.
Catalogue titles are not merely words in a catalogue, they are not just a “neutral organizing principle.” We often fail to consider the deeper meaning and value behind words and how these terms can affect the way we view a particular topic. What is considered “neutral” may not truly be neutral, just conventional. Many systems of power rely on language including library archives. When power rely on words, it is important to be mindful of using impartial, unbiased language to ensure fair usage of that power. The term “illegal alien” implies an otherness, and dictates who belongs and who is an outsider, instead of encouraging fairness and openness to all.
Language, just like information technology, requires constant maintenance and repair. Because both are constantly evolving and changing even more quickly in our rapidly developing world today, maintenance has become even more important. The research I’ve done and the information I’ve learned from these past few weeks has helped changed the way I view history. I have also learned much more about the College’s two hundred-year history. I feel more connected to my school, and have also begun to look at history from a more critical viewpoint.
Initially, I wanted to dive deeper into the College’s response to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and compare it to the COVID-19 response. Conducting a project solely on the 1918 influenza at Amherst would have required an extremely detailed search into sources, but unfortunately time is not on our side. Although we chose to do a more comprehensive overview of disasters in general, we were still able to incorporate this as one of the disasters we look more closely into. Our current project allows for a much wider variety of sources to choose from and to analyze. I can’t help but wonder what future archivists will discover when they look into the sources we’ve left behind about the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week’s readings have helped me think more about the importance and implications behind correctly recording metadata. Metadata is not just simply just data about data, it is also a powerful tool that “gives meaning and structure to a collection of items.”1Its effects span beyond just digital humanists and researchers in the library. Well-organized metadata can aid in creating an accessible and inclusive space for its users, in addition to accurately and respectfully describe the history of the community to which it belongs. I will certainly keep this in mind as we continue to work in ACDC and proceed with our project.
In the data visualization workshop, my partner and I choose to look at Amherst’s Report to Secondary Schools from 2013-2022, using the “Snapshot” overview section. We were particularly interested in studying how the demographics of Amherst’s enrolled classes have changed over time. By recording this data and then using Tableau as our data visualization tool, we were able to discover some interesting relationships between some of these categories. I was very interested in studying underrepresented groups at Amherst such as students of color and first generation/low-income students. However, the reports only disclosed the percentage of first-generation students from 2003 to 2011 and 2018 to 2022, and instead reported percentage of low-income students during that gap from 2012 to 2018. The inconsistency in the reporting of data limited the types of analysis we could conduct with this set; but even so, I was still pleased to be able to find some interesting relationships. For example, there has been a noticeable increase over time in percentage of students receiving grants/aid and in percentage of students of color. However, at first glance the same relationship did not exist for percentage of first-generation or low-income students. This makes me wonder if that increase is from an active effort to increase the low-income population or if it is primarily from having a higher proportion of middle-class students who require significantly less aid. In addition, I also wonder what the reasoning was behind reporting low-income instead of first-generation percentage in those six years? The answers (as well as missing data) will likely come to me if I continue my research. This is definitely something I would like to look into further if I have time.
For visual learners, data visualization is certainly a helpful tool. It helped me see the relationships between different factors more clearly and dig deeper into the meaning behind these data points. I look forward to find a way to incorporate something similar into our final project. With only three weeks left of this fellowship, I am definitely ready to fully immerse myself into our project.
1McCulloch, Alissa. “We need to talk about cataloguing: the #NLS9 transcript.” Cataloguing the Universe: A work in progress, WordPress, 11 July, 2019. lissertations.net/post/1177
Since reading Trevor Owen’s blog post1in preparation for the first day of this fellowship, I have learned quite a bit more about digital humanities. In particular, the self-guided workshops have been very informative. While these workshops have allowed me to learn and explore about methodologies and techniques in the field, they have been very much focused on the specifics of conducting research and less about the bigger picture of the research process as a whole. A revisit to the blog post I read at the beginning of this fellowship will help me take a step back and think about our research questions as we begin developing our project.
This past week we also had a workshop and different learning types and personalities. As an introspective person, I am constantly reflecting on my choices and actions. I look at where I am in the present, what I’ve done to get there; this helps aid in my decisions on what actions to take in the future to get to a goal I have set for myself. Trevor Owens makes describes a similar process, except with research questions in the DH research process.
In his post, he explored the relationship between research questions and the project itself. Traditionally, we have generally been taught to focus on the results of a project. Many experiments are conducted with the goal of either proving or disproving a hypothesis. However, DH has helped me approach this conventional methodology from a different angle. Research questions are dynamic, constantly changing and evolving to fit what the researcher has found and learned. There is a bigger focus on the process itself, and is less occupied with producing a presentable end result.
In our project brainstorming session, the rest of the cohort and I were drawn to exploring the College during times of crisis. Of course, this a broad topic that holds many possibilities and can be approached in so many different ways. As I was searching through primary source databases, I originally wanted to find information about the College’s response to the 1918 Spanish influenza in order to compare it to the College’s response to COVID-19 over one hundred years later. Though I did not find a lot of information from my initial search, I did learn about many smaller outbreaks that occurred throughout Amherst history. With the college’s two-hundred year long history, I am confident we will find plenty of events that are worth documenting, possibly more than we originally imagined. But because of the short duration of this fellowship, we will likely have to make some difficult decisions about what to include in our final product.
1Owens, Trevor. “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities.” Trevor Owens: User Centered Digital Memory, WordPress, 22 Aug. 2014. www.trevorowens.org/2014/08/where-to-start-on-research-questions-in-the-digital-humanities/
This first week of the digital fellowship has been interesting to say the least. The remote format of the experience has brought a new meaning to the “digital” in Digital Scholarship Summer Fellowship. I appreciate learning about an archivist’s job and responsibilities through the workshops, but I also enjoy reading about firsthand experiences in navigating the nuances and complexities of this ever-changing field. A particularly eye-opening piece was the blog post titled “No One Owes Their Trauma to Archivists” by Eira Tansey.1 The comments made in this post really got me thinking about the relationship between archivists and history. Because archives are a center of power and archivists act somewhat as “gatekeepers of history,” they hold an immense amount of power and responsibility in their hands. As the amount of records that exist in this world greatly exceed archivists’ storage capacities, there will inevitably be parts of history that will be turned away, disregarded and eventually forgotten. Archivists have the ability to decide what materials to keep and what to set aside, what is important and what is unimportant.
Given that the profession has been predominantly white and female and continues to remain so, much of what has already been recorded reflects their biases. Recently there have been more attempts to record information from underrepresented populations. In times of chaos or unrest, however, this attempt may backfire. The fact that these communities are disproportionately more likely to be negatively affected by these events and may sustain trauma as a result remains a sad truth. Archivists can actively seek to help amplify their voices, but no one wants to relive trauma. Their well-intended search may in fact be an unwanted intrusion. In the end, individuals have the right to choose what they wish to reveal and what they wish to keep to themselves. How do we balance wanting to capture a more accurate reflection of history with not overstepping our boundaries as archivists? Of course, training in trauma-informed practice and interviewing are a great way to start, but in the end parts of history will still inevitably be left out.
I am grappling with the fact that some parts of history will always be lost, that we will never be able to obtain a complete, objective reflection of our past (if that is even possible to begin with). It is also nearly impossible to separate our biases from the material we are working with or the way that we work with them. The history that we pass down will always hold a tint of our prejudices, conscious or subconscious.
I will keep this delicate relationship in mind as I work towards developing a project with my DSSF cohort. I am excited about all the possibilities that this self-guided research project may bring. The opportunity to explore the college’s history and to be able to dive more deeply into an area of interest are two things I have always wanted to accomplish during my time at Amherst. I look forward to working with the vast primary resource collection and gaining a better understanding of the digital humanities field.
I am glad to have been made aware of some issues that exist in the field early in my fellowship experience. However, awareness is merely the first step in creating change. I hope that throughout the summer, I can maybe find some answers to the questions I have, then apply what I have learned in order to become a better researcher.
1“No one owes their trauma to archivists” Tansey, Eira. “No one Owes Their Trauma to Archivists” http://eiratansey.com/category/archivists/ (accessed 6/23/2020)