Come Togetherrrr

So week 5 is now coming to a close, and we as a team are at a crossroads of sorts, in terms of how to proceed with our final project. We were given a week’s time after our July 3rd team meeting to put together a number of small project proposals using a variety of topics and jumping off points from the collection. We each chose a topic or two that (hopefully) captivated us, or that we saw an interesting digital humanities project emerging from, and took to writing up questions, brief prospective methodologies and creating deliverables or showing examples similar in style to our proposed projects. My proposed idea was examining an aspect of Hitchcock’s life which had initially shocked and intrigued us all upon first being introduced to religion, and that was his insistence on reconciling science and religion.

The idea which I presented had two very different possible outcomes, one being a textual analysis project using Hitchcock’s sermons and lecture notes/academic writings to see how his rhetoric concerning science and religion were consistent between the two different fields. This project stemmed from a paper by Stanley Guralnick, who the American National Biography Online database esteems as “the leading historian on Hitchcock’s religious thought.” Guralnick explains that while Hitchcock’s seemingly antithetical loves for both the natural sciences as a geologist and religion as a theologian was not particularly unusual for his time, nor was he unique in his philosophies. Therefore it is not a matter of why he often discussed the two together, but how he discussed the two that could lead to an interesting project.

The second of the two outcomes proposed a data visualization approach to the subject matter, mapping and showing networks between Hitchcock and other scholars to make an argument about the intellectual climate and the conversations happening between Hitchcock and other scholars via journal articles and publications both domestic and abroad surrounding the topics of science and religion. This project fit a little more readily (or lot more) into the category of context, one of the classifications which we as a team have decided to use as a framework for our project. (The framework involving both historical matters to frame Hitchcock’s context, and impact as a way to assess his legacy)

As we presented our individual proposals, it became clear that the four of us still have very varied interests, and as one of our supervisors pointed out, very different styles and strengths. The task now is to try and create a plan for a cohesive project that doesn’t neglect anyone’s interests or strengths. While our projects were very different in terms of focus, a number of unifying principles and themes came through as we discussed them further and our aim since the meeting has been to make use of those themes and try to draw out the similarities in an effort to include all of our topical interests in the collection.

Thus far, although we have only just recently gone back to the drawing board in order to brainstorm for our collective project, a number of ideas in terms of presentation have arisen, although we are still looking for ways to articulate the aim and the relationship between our ideas. (see concept map #596879503924691 below)

I think we are in a good place right now. Again what the proposals showed me is that our individual interests are not as different and irreconcilable as we may have previously imagined. I myself have been drawing up things that look more like family trees than concept maps in order to try and visualize the overlaps and relationships between all or parts of our ideas and proposals and there are many, and probably infinitely more (maybe not infinitely, but you get the point) relationships and connections that could be drawn that I myself would never even think of. I’m sure the same would go for any of my fellow interns, which is exactly why we have yet again found ourselves concept mapping and re-talking through ideas, and then concept mapping again and then re-talking through ideas again. (wash, rinse, repeat)

I am excited for where our final project proposal will take us. I have some ideas about how to format our project now,but I don’t want to jump the gun before we have officially settled on a plan of action. Speaking of which, and this is entirely unrelated but, we had a project planning workshop yesterday during which we learned a little bit about what goes into writing for a grant application, and dear Lord I’d rather just go searching for a pot of gold.


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.

maries post 2

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.

maries post 1

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.


Beneski Museum and the Reaching of the Idea

(I’ve been thinking a lot about Harry Potter recently – had to make a bad syntactical reference)

THE PROMPT: Reflection. How has the visit to the Beneski shaped your understanding of Hitchcock and your research questions? Do you feel ready to begin making the transition from the learning phase of the internship to the project phase?

1) Beneski visit

This visit was one of the most concrete moments of conceptual progression so far – we left with more questions, more answers, and a better feeling of what we will explore. I took notes during the expedition, both of the tour that Kate Wellspring, Collections Curator of the Beneski Museum, and of our ponderings. Some highlights include:

  • Hitchcock was originally interested in astronomy, but after a case of mumps, could not pursue that path  because of his weak eyesight.
  • The Most Coolest Thing: the idea of geological time
    • I need to explain this further. Kate led us to this exhibit on the Oxbow:

    “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow”, by Thomas Cole (1801–1848), commonly known as “the Oxbow” – a moment when we realized we were onto something
  • Kate told us that Hitchcock was standing on this mountain when he he saw the Connecticut River flood. When rivers flood like that, the usually-meandering river decides to forge an easier path – completely ignoring the curve of the oxbow. Here’s how it occurs:
  • Apparently, this was a pivotal moment in Hitch’s life, as said Kate. Before, geological time was huge – larger than a person’s life, each formation taking so much time that it could only be seen from way above the human vantagepoint. Hitchcock witnessed such a huge occurance in the span of a day or two. This got him thinking – if such change can happen in such a short period of  time, how much change could occur during the Earth’s existence? Since change occurs so much, isn’t the world much older than we think it is?
  • A map of the current Northampton Oxbow, courtesy of Google Maps
    A map of the current Northampton Oxbow, courtesy of Google Maps
  • We are not sure if this story is real – none of Edward or Orra’s works explicitly mention this moment. However, as a narrative tool, it functions fantastically. We can easily split Hitchcock’s life into these two parts, one of conventional thinking, and the other focusing on geological time and human mortality.
  • — A week has passsed since I wrote these portions above. The glorylight of the revelation – “we can use time as our umbrella topic!!” has passed, and we have a huge whiteboard to prove it.
    Observe the wall of overrall confusion and a furious wondering: what can we do to make our ideas work? Most of this writing is mine though.
    Observe the wall of overrall confusion and a furious wondering: what can we do to make our ideas work? Most of this writing is mine though.


  • So we realized that our overall interests with the Hitchcock collection veered on two main categories: legacy and context – “why should I care” VS “tell me more about why people then cared,” as I casually put it. Both of these categories deal with time.
    • On a very cool note, we have to do small projects for each tool that we learn. For the initial mapping project, we created this idea of basically recreating the 1800’s through mapping little snippets of info, photographs, and overlaid maps to show what life was like back then and how Hitchcock fit into it. That is still currently our best idea, but we need to find a way to narrow the question down so we could finish it in the next… month? We  only have a month left, wow.
  • We’ve learned how to fiddle with gelphi (I tried to make my own spreadsheet and import it; I now understand the difficulty of data-mongering. I got nothing fruitful out of that exercise except a rewritten spreadsheet and a diagram that makes 0 sense, but hey, the librarians tell me that even a failed project is an addition to academics, so I shall let it go). The work we did with Tableau was the most fascinating so far – it’s a program with quite a lot of potential. I mapped out the winners of Eurovision by year, color, and points on a map. It was so cool, but only useful with specific spreadsheets and data. My question is: ok, great tool, now how are we going to use it?”
    • For this project with Tableau, the idea we came up with was looking into the financial history of Amherst and perhaps plotting out the money in the ledgers, seeing when it came in, from whom, how it waws used, perhaps tallying it up, etcetcetc E T C. We have yet to go do that fully, but we did fiddle in the archives. I must say, we need to spend more time there, because there is so much more there than anywhere else. I need to spend more time in the Archives.
  • Currently, we’re at a strange place. We have found this umbrella topic of time, and are trying to narrow it down to find a suitable research question. Orra has pretty much completely fallen off the radar. We have questions for some other collections – Deerfield, the Jones Library, Amherst Historical Society, Town of Amherst Collection.
  • I’m not quite sure what to do at this point.
  • To be fair, some more time is needed with the collection. Perhaps I’ll find something interesting to explore. During the last team meeting, we specifically asked about this and supposedly we’re in a good place? I sure hope so. Because I want to move forward but there’s nothing that I can grasp to move forward with.
  • Im listening to the Bioshock Infinite OST right now and I simply cannot handle this level of emotion and tragedy and loss and I’m not ok I recorded my reaction to the ending yesterday because this game is Not Okay in the slightest. Filled with American exceptionalism, religious zeal, impossible science, absolutely lovable, amazing, beautiful characters, an atmosphere of freedom and light and joy and I’m not ok. I’m so not ok, and I cannot believe that that game exists. What a beauty. The Bioshock series is completely fantastic and I hope everyone has a chance to take a look at it, not be repulsed by the horror and gore, but look further into what it carries to its players. (I’m not ok, I went from listening to the OST of Bioshock Infinite to the  first Bioshock and now Im thinking about Burial at Sea and I’m Not Ok because Booker deWitt did not ask for that fate and neither did Elizabeth and they didnt deserve what came to them they did not and now they’re in Rapture and its so strange seeing it Before – before the ruins, before the civil war of 1959, before splicers took it over, just as Andrew Ryan sent Fontaine Industries to the bottom of the sea. “It must be horrible,” said Elizabeth, “Imagine the person you would have to be to do that.” Booker asks her what she means. “To send someone to be buried at sea.” And I have to pause because Im crying and looking at her and thinking, “You shouldnt exist! Youre buried at sea too!! Booker’s supposed to be dead, and youre not supposed to exist!” and the game continues on, and I hope that I will have  some answers to this glorious time-travelling, Not Ok series. On a completely hilarious note, Daniel and I were literally  talking about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged and then I go home and watch Bioshock which is literally like 829% based on the ideas of Atlas Shrugged – there’s a freaking character  named Atlas, another called Fontaine (aka Fountainhead???) and  Atlas is also a mythological figure who has an Art Deco statue in NYC for it and the whole  game is made in an Art Deco style?? Then there’s the cool thing that Andrew Ryan, creator of Rapture, the underwater city of free artists and scientists, was originally Andrei  Rayanovski which is a play on Ayn Rand’s name and just. Wow. The connection between the  original and Infinite is also SO tenuous, so tenuous, and somehow the developers made it happen, they created these two worlds, these  two utopian/dystopian cities  that were meant to fail, and drew a line between them in the form of the sharp, helpful, beautiful, amazing Elizabeth Comstock. or deWitt. [I want to know more about the universe where Booker deWitt  joined the Vox Populi and Daisy Fitzroy and led the rebellion and died a martyr for the revolution. I want to know more about the universe where Elizabeth lived with him, as a daughter should, for her childhood instead of being locked up in a tower with songbird. I want to know more about Elizabeth’s connection to Rapture, to ADAM, to these failed universes. If she has the power to tear apart reality, I want to  see what realities she creates. Perhaps they’ll be better than the ones she lived through.]) I’m not ok and Bioshock is So Good. Please at least just watch a trailer or two for the original Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Simply, amazing, amazing games. I havnt felt this energized my media in a long time.
  • Now the question is, is it possible to somehow use this rant/infodump somehow for Hitchcock?
    • So this is a bunch of music from the 1850’s, Hitchcock’s time.
    • And here is a great song from the Bioshock Infinite OST? I hear a bit of a similarity?
    • Did music even get PLAYED at all? Did Hitchcock think dancing was a sin? What were the auditory aesthetics of the 1820-30-40-50’s? What WAS life back then? If Amherst was such a backwater, then why did Hitch commit himself to this area? Why did Orra even choose him? If she was such an exceptional woman, then why didn’t she go  further in her career? I know that she already had one when they decided to marry, and she continued drawing and working even as a mother, but why didn’t she put her name on any of her works? Why didn’t she date her creations? How was Hitch as an actual college president? What the hell did students and faculty think of him?
    • And now before the Internet completely dies and the cat videos take over, I’m going to post this mess of a post.

The Answerable vs. The Unanswerable

An untimely trip home to see my doctor after prevented me from being able to tour Beneski with the rest of the cohort, however I’ve heard quite a bit about the visit and the tour itself. An anecdote which seemed to stick very well with my fellow interns was the story of the Oxbow courtesy of a Kate Wellspring, whom I have yet to have had the pleasure of meeting. The story, as it was related to me, goes that Edward Hitchcock was sitting on a hill somewhere, presumably contemplating life, death, rocks–the usual when he took special notice of a certain river. After a few days of observing this same, misshapen river change course due to erosion, Hitchcock’s perception of life and of the land were revolutionized.

I can hardly say that I feel like my views on any particular aspects of Hitchcock’s life have been revolutionized, although the convergence of concepts such as time, geology and Hitchcock’s psyche proved to give me and my fellow interns a shape, or umbrella if you will, that covered or touched upon each of our individual research interests in the collection. We’ve become familiar with a decent number of methodologies at this point and now we must refine. Iterate. Re-refine. We had a meeting yesterday during which some of the senior members of the team gave feedback on our research process/progress so far, and the primary concern that we had was with the concision of our research question. We discussed some of the pros and cons of simply having a research exploration? (I personally cannot fathom simple exploration. I feel like I would drown in a sea of Archival and secondary source information) A fellow intern referenced some fancy Harvard lit during the discussion, arguing in favor of having a question for the sake of focus. I agreed, as I believe that at this point in our program we need more data, but with such a large collection and no real focus or clear goal, further exploration of the collection would simply mean accumulating more surface-level insight into a lot of different aspects of Edward and Orra’s (but mostly Edward’s) lives.

I’m definitely feeling some tension in our research process right now. Everyone wants to move forward with something, its just that nobody is one hundred percent sure of what that something is. And digging through the collection without any real focus or angle feels a lot like how this guy must feel. And again, simultaneously deciding upon a methodology and a research question feels difficult and unnatural, but I think back to the Trevor Owens post and realize that it is necessary to do so. During our team meeting we discussed a tactic that seems like the solution to all of my personal qualms with the research process at this point in time. One of the Research librarians brought up the idea of exploring a number of mini mock-projects, coming up with small proposals and dream-experiment like explorations of these topics. We are to come up with between 6-8 of these like project proposals, all on different aspects/research topics from the collection and pick the tools and the appropriate methodologies for each so that we can gauge how a larger version of each of these small projects would come to fruition. I thought that the idea was genius, and while the prospect of having a little extra homework typically doesn’t excite me, I feel that these projects will really help us jump over the proverbial brick wall that we’ve run into in our research process.

So the transition from (or lack thereof? Maybe more appropriately named the inevitable coalescence between or convergence of) skills and methodological training and research has been, confusing to say the least, but I think that making the jump will do us a world of good in terms of narrowing our scope. Woo progress! Woo courage! Woo confidence! Now to get to work.

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.

An Unbroken Series of Successful Gestures

In that fusty, carmine-carpeted chapel of the building that bears the name JOHNSON hangs portraits of our former prominenti, those persons who at one point were associated with the College and for now endure in oils and frames. In company with such celebrated figures as Calvin Coolidge (the 30th President of the United States), Harlan F. Stone (the 12th Chief Justice of the United States), Rose R. Olver (the College’s first female tenured professor), and Anthony W. Marx (his reputation precedes him) is none other than the Reverend Professor Edward Hitchcock, Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Laws. Not unlike most of the pictured individuals surrounding him, the third president of Amherst sits close-mouthed, pale and dyspeptic; he holds a compass, which as a suggestion of a clear vision if not an adventurous spirit would belie the staid countenance he wears were his eyes to glint less proudly. From beholding the noted geologist’s likeness for but a minute, the richness of the man’s personality emerges—the collection of deeds, desires, and morals that made him who he was arises where color and canvas agglutinate. [It takes, of course, both a virtuosic painter and an interesting subject to produce a work worthy of contemplation. Alas, this is but a blog post and not a discourse on the merits and faults (the “pure applesauce”, as one could call them) of realism in portrait painting. Suffice it to say that the work to which I refer is good enough to warrant extended consideration here.] It is personality that compels me to keep looking at the artwork, what piques and stokes my interest. Indeed, what would it be like to, say, get a beer with the aforementioned Hitchcock? (Presumably not well, considering he was an avid apologist of the temperance movement.) The question I am getting at, really, is, Who was he? We know of his accomplishments and of his gastrointestinal ailments. But what of the man behind the letters and trivialities? To know Edward Hitchcock, to understand his motivations by reading into the things he left behind guides the vector of this internship’s enquiry. It was at the Beneski our man of the summer literally took shape.

Busted preconceptions
Never mind the profusion of millions-year-old fossils at the College’s museum of natural history, which left me with awe-induced goosebumps; forget about the Exodusian tale of Hitchcock at Mount Holyoke watching the Ox-bow materialize (Darya has already covered it). What I will take note of here is the marble bust of Hitchcock that lords over his eponymous ichnology collection in the depths of the aforementioned museum. Early on this internship, I happened on a few pictures of a statue of Hitchcock—a statue whose current hidey-hole the Archives knew naught of, the statue now parented by Collections Curator and diorama enthusiast Kate Wellspring. Upon encountering the head’s thoughtful, stern and paternal dead eyes, I knew Hitchcock was once a force of the College, if not the varied communities (viz. local, religious, and scientific) he occupied. Discounting tyrants, some members of the leisure class, and others often undeserving of commemoration, men and women with statues are those who contribute positively, significantly to the public, who leave a legacy in the wake of their deaths—at least, such is the ideology of memorialization. (This is not the forum to discuss the politics of idolatry, however.) What I have been girding is the impression the Beneski visit left on me: newfound appreciation for Hitchcock’s accomplishments. It was the statue that underscored the man’s general devise.

My fair seed-field
What’s more, the statue itself (along with what I will call the Ox-bow incident) effectuated thoughts of the importance of time to Hithcock. Already my interns in arm and I have broached the subject of time, the meaning and experience of it, when we discussed how we could use the methodology of mapping to make sense of and present the collection. Our provisory proposal for a mapping project stated that we would seek to recreate living in the early to mid 1800s. Such a focus on time in part derives from text analysis performed on some of Hitchcock’s published writings, which make frequent use of temporal-related words like era, new, and explicitly, time. Perhaps it was a mixture of Hitchcock’s geological and religious exposure, respectively, that primed him for an obsession with sempiternity, in addition to his brush with death as a youth when a case of mumps sickened him severely, permanently (hence, his impaired vision). Whatever the source of Hitchcock’s existential preoccupations, what seems clear is that the man had been “led…to inquire on what foundation I was building for eternity” (from his Reminiscences of Amherst College). Such a profound aim elicited from a visit to the Beneski and research in toto is worthy of extended focus as our project evolves.

Questions, Questions, Questions

We very recently completed week two of our quest for understanding the Digital Humanities, and it seems that the questions never end.  While week one begged questions like “what even is/are the Digital Humanities?” (the simple idea of whether to use the word is or are being a debate in and of itself) and is the field itself simply a precursor to a word whether all scholarship is digital, a field destined to a life of redundancy? But this week we stepped away from some of those more cosmic questions in order to ask a few questions of ourselves. From what I’ve gathered, the schedule of our internship is structured in such a way that we learn methodologies for digital scholarship (creating exhibits, mapping, text analysis, other fancy terms that I haven’t learned yet), put each into practice and then select one for our larger project involving the archival collection to which we’ve been familiarizing ourselves. During a workshop about asking research questions and building concept maps, I found myself at a loss. My prior experience with the research process can be credited to a seminar which I took this past semester, a class which one of the librarians working closely with our team co-instructed. Said instructor asked us to come up with a list of questions we could explore for our grande research project and had us build concept maps and I found myself asking, “about what?”

“what is this all about?’

“what is the larger significance?”

In my research seminar, most students came in with topics that they felt a pull toward, topics which evolved more or less from person to person, but still topics which were relevant to each student nonetheless. We developed lists of topic questions to familiarize ourselves with the terrain surrounding our topics and commenced a semester-long process of refining and refining and limiting scope and refining and limiting scope, etc. It took me up until the last few weeks to secure a concrete research question and even in writing my prospectus for the class I wasn’t entirely sure of the question and the claim which I was trying to make. So here we are drawing up concept maps for a collection with which we were only vaguely acquainted with at this point and I’m feeling lost.

Before long, we started having methodological workshops and creating deliverables, all the while trying to keep in mind which methodologies we feel can use for our grande finale. Based on some of our research questions of course. All the while I’m feeling like I barely know my topic. Sure I know his genealogy and that his sons down to the fifth generation are named Edward in his honor. But where’s the meat? Where is the stuff that I need?

I would be lying if I said that I was completely comfortable with the fluidity of the research process which we’re taking up. But I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what I would be doing even if I went through the same by the book process of the semester long research seminar I took either. The research process is strange and unique, in every field, in every attempt, in every question. In an interesting Trevor Owens post, Owens discusses the order of the research process–whether we must start with the question, the “stuff”, or the tool? In my not-so-extensive experience it only made sense to start with what I knew in order to come to what I what I didn’t know in order to figure out how to, well know it. But in this new scape of digital humanities things aren’t so concrete. Maybe its the tool that inspires the question. In a field where technology enriches scholarship rather than just serving as a reference point, it well (dare I say it) could make sense. And digital tools could help liven this archival collection in a way that answers questions like that about larger significance that a secondary source analysis could not.
So in short, I’m learning to get comfortable with that which has notoriously made me (and let’s face it, a signifcant portion of the human race!) uncomfortable.

And that’s the ambiguity and the uncertainty of not knowing. But I’ll just keep asking questions and getting the tools to help me properly do so in this field.

On Limits

A whiteboard in the room we do most of our work says, “Dissolve all limits!” The line, written by yours truly in fittingly-evanescent black, was a reminder to both self and team of our commitment to remaining open, playful, experimental, innovative—creative, in a word. This last week, our ambitions met reality.

Some context

What we worked on involved two distinct methodologies of research organization: exhibits and mapping. The result of the former approach to presenting knowledge should be familiar with anyone who has ever visited a museum, where often if not always a featured exhibition presents a curated collection of objects that together tell a story, make an argument, and/or speak to a broader idea. The recent Matisse retrospective at the MoMA is one such showcase. Richard Pryor’s Peoria is an example of an exhibit that has gone digital (but sadly, not viral, it seems), so to speak. Many other exhibits abound online, with varying degrees of quality in terms of scholarship, design, and execution. While collectively engaging with these cyber exhibits, we discussed what we liked and did not, all the while envisaging and sharing just how we might want an exhibit to look like, should we choose to create one for the Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Papers.

Installation view at Tate Modern
Henri Matisse: The Cut Outs, at Tate Modern

Afterward, we got to work on creating a mock-up of such an exhibit on—an online platform for “[c]reat[ing] complex narratives and sharing] rich collections, …designed for scholars, museums, libraries, archives, and enthusiasts” as the site so states on its home page. The effort was good exercise in the sorts of skills an exemplary exhibit calls for during its production process: an ability to present information in an accessible, cogent manner (per the gallery text guidelines published online by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which my fellow interns and I read); proficiency with classificatory principles; and an eye for sensible and intuitive UI, to name but a few. It is that final itemized faculty that brought forth our first encounter with the limits of our work.

Facing the shortcomings of the field’s tools

Open source” has never been a term I immediately associate with cool, forward-thinking, fetching, or any other positive attribute usually ascribed to brands like Apple, which privilege considerations of aesthetics in design and engineering operations (or so they tell us in marketing material). I do not mean to disparage, say, OpenOffice, whose pursuit of allowing all without the means or want to buy the closed system that is Microsoft Office in order to aim to create professional-grade documents could be called honorable, when I express a reluctance to use tools that advertise their open source credentials. It is simply a matter of fact that companies such as Adobe, Google, and other corporate heavyweights have the capital—both human and financial—as well as infrastructure to create powerful tools that have the capability of yielding an interminable amount of results. With an open source tool not unlike, I feel limited. Indeed, this was a refrain I reiterated within the workplace, those around me can attest to. And my discontent over limits was not always directed at the aforementioned online exhibition publisher. I felt limited by activity designed to manage ideas raised in a brainstorming session without inhibiting inventiveness; I even felt limited by the clock (a painfully on-the-nose metonym for time itself), by the walls, by the seeming dearth of choices available at our disposal. Yet a recent discussion I have since had with my co-workers has helped me come to terms with the idea that this is the fundamental reality of scholarship, and in truth, life itself: enclosure. There is only so much available out there to academia and elsewhere—only so many experts, articles published, books written, conferences held, &tc. Dealing then with what one can do, possibilities seem less restrictive and more strengthening, insofar as, they establish a framework from which one can develop her own additions, his own insights.

Mapping, and beyond

Without waxing philosophical, I wish merely to convey in my talk of limits the kinds of problems that the process of “doing” digital humanities entails, and how one can resolve those problems with a shift in perspective. Take the other methodology we explored as another case study in the power of frameshifts: mapping. My initial exposure to mapping in DH came in the form of the HyperCities project, which aspired to “integrat[e] scholarship with the world of lived experience, [and] mak[e] sense of the past in the layered spaces of the present for the sake of the open future.” Suffice it to say, I was disappointed with how the concepts were carried out under such an ambitious banner. But, recognizing that scholarship is an ongoing conversation and by no means a static endeavor, that what one does can always be improved upon, I now approach the internship able to recognize that an ascent is all in the steps, a function — relevant with limits.

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.