“Because the data is not going to visualize itself”


Having spent so many hours gathering raw data, formatting spreadsheets, planning a presentation and creating websites, there is no way I can be unhappy with how my final project turned out. That being said, I don’t think I can be satisfied with it either. Beyond the many aesthetic or presentation improvements I could make to the website and final network visualizations, the nature of my project never allows me to be satisfied them. My project is derived from information in the archives and the archives will never be complete. There will always be a new organization overlooked or events missed. More work can always be done.

I’ve been surprised by something at all turns this summer, but nothing has surprised me than seeing how applicable so many of skills I’ve learned from doing research in the Digital Humanities are to doing research in the sciences. I want to both create and complete an interdisciplinary major in cognitive science. Working as a Digital Programs Summer Fellow has helped bring me closer to that by introducing me to extensive research projects and the many trials, tribulations and triumphs  that arise from working one alone.

When I first began working in the Archives and Special collections, I was awestruck by how immense the entire collection seemed. Having spent an entire summer gleaning through several collections for specific information, my eyes are now open to how incomplete the archives really are. I am going to be the B.S.U Historian in the fall and want to do my best to at the very least help the B.S.U Collection be less incomplete.

I can honestly say that I’ve constantly been excited to tackle new challenges at every step of this fellowship. Although I was excited in the beginning of the summer, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to get out of this fellowship. More important than the wide range of skills I acquired, I’ve been inspired.

Closing In

During these past two weeks, I’ve begun to narrow my attention on two topics and the specific digital humanities tools and archives I would need to complete them. I’m very happy to finally be in a place where I can clearly see the directions I have to take to complete either project. Despite this, I’ve come across problems in pursuing both avenues of scholarship.

The first project I’d like to complete is a network analysis based project that maps out and visualizes a wide range of activities and events co-sponsored or accomplished by Amherst College affinity groups working together within the past 50 years. The ultimate goal of this project is to allow students to see the many ways their organizations have accomplished together. The main problem I’ve encountered thus far has surprisingly not been collecting data on co-sponsored events, but has been in visualizing them using the limited range functions of available in the network visualisation tools I have used thus far.

The second project I’d like to complete is text analysis and topic modeling project focused on Black Men of Amherst by Harold Wade and Black Women of Amherst by Mavis Campbell. The problem in completing this project has not been in visualising the information with the tools I’ve been given or interpreting the information I’ve received by  running these books through software. It has been navigating the stories and controversies surrounding the publication of Black Men of Amherst and deciding what I’d like to say or contribute regarding the two texts.

I am confident that I’ll be able to solve these two problem during the time I have left, but I am still unsure about what the final project will look like.

Initial Thoughts on Self-Directed Exercises

Overall, the self guided exercises have been very helpful in introducing me to not only how to use a tool, but also its benefits, drawbacks and history. Although I have enjoyed reading about the history of some of the tools, I find the debates and analysis of their uses more interesting and engaging. The most beneficial aspect of the exercises is the are the different tools I’m given the complete the same tasks in slightly different ways and layouts. A good example of this is the mapping exercise that introduced me to many different G.I.S tools and methods. This exercise showed men how these different tools could be employed to create a diverse range of G.I.S projects. The exercise also encouraged me to critique G.I.S projects examples by listing their benefits and limitations. I also enjoyed how the exercise directly relates to me and a project I might choose to do by showing me examples of different projects done by past digital program summer fellows. These really helped me see the scope of what I can do if I choose to do a G.I.S project.

I also enjoyed the text analysis exercise because of interesting articles about text analysis and the simplicity of using the text analysis tools. The articles attached to this exercise were especially helpful in my research process because they taught me about different research methods, a past intern’s research process and project, how to analyze outputs from text analysis tools, and different misinterpretations that can hurt a text analysis research project. Ngrams and Voyant were both very easy to use and helped me consider different text analysis projects I can do with the outputs I got from using them. By using Voyant on Black Men of Amherst and  Black Women of Amherst, I was able to come up with several project ideas that interested me. More than any tool thus far, text analysis has been the one that has prompted the most ideas.

Libs and Arcs

Beyond learning about and becoming acquainted with the many wonderful people and resources that the library has to offer, I’ve also begun to learn more about the Frost library’s philosophy. I had already known that Frost library was much more than a warehouse for books, and that it was a location for mild socializing and studying, but I had not realized how much the services it provides students diverge from what I had assumed a stereotypical library would. The scope of the library’s focus  isn’t simply limited to books and their importance, but is expanded to incorporate learning and the imparting knowledge through any medium a student finds useful to their education. This is expressed most emphatically though library staff who devote their time towards becoming experts in a vast array of fields, and research and publication techniques for the sake of students who might be in need of that assistance.

Archives are not something I’ve had the pleasure of exploring as much as I would have liked to throughout the year, but through this fellowship I’ve slowly become more acquainted with the criteria for the things that are stored within them and the kind of work the people working in the archives do. While talking to some of the archivist, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for how they are able to gather important historical documents within the archives and manipulate them to be useful for almost any historical project related to the college. I also hadn’t considered the politics and strategy that goes into the work archivist do. Until recently, I hadn’t thought about the power of deciding what documents are preserved and which ones are not. The archives are quite literally the greatest remedy to institutional memory that a college can have.

First Week Thoughts and Shenanigans

Although I feel like I’ve gotten a grasp on several important debates within the Digital Humanities and am beginning to form a working definition of what the Digital Humanities are, I would still greatly appreciate more information on the various techniques and areas of study that encompass it. Despite enjoying a very productive week of learning general knowledge about two areas of study that deeply interest me, I don’t feel significantly or substantively closer to finding an overlapping area of study that would allow me to expand my knowledge in both. While I have really enjoyed learning important events within the history of Amherst College that pertain to black students, and this topic would easily lend itself to research in the digital humanities, it would not allow me to focus on computer science or neuroscience to the degree that I want. Cognitive Science, which is an interdisciplinary field that is largely comprised of study in neuroscience and computer science, is what I intend to study in college, but after extensive searching this weak and reading into topics within this area that interest me, I’ve found that it exhibits little to no intersectionality my other topic of interest and does not lend itself as easily to study in the digital humanities… in fact, it doesn’t seem to lend itself to humanities at all (hopefully I’m proven wrong about this).

I am really looking forward to conducting a research project this summer. Not only because of the novelty of having the opportunity to do a research project (which I have little experience in), but because of the opportunity to explore a topic of MY interest which I am already passionate about. The biggest thing I hope to get from this summer, which I am already so appreciative to have gotten is the TIME to STUDY and LEARN about something of my choosing.

Why Do I Write Like I’m Running Out of Time?

…Because it’s our LAST DAY! :O

[Author’s Note: If you’ve spent any time around the interns this summer, you’ll know that we’ve often and unashamedly burst into Hamilton songs. Hence, this post will include some references; sorry/not-sorry. Consider it an immersive, day-in-the-life DSSI experience.]

As I sit here for one last time in the Room Where It Happens, (AKA the Barker Room), so many thoughts run through my mind. Of course, there were some bumps in the road for us interns–honestly though, this was mostly just with getting software to work–, but there was no way that we were throwing away our shot, and we powered through to create something great! This sounds super cliché, but this internship has truly been an incredible experience. Not only have I learned a ton about digital scholarship, the origins of my alma mater, and the library, but I’ve also made some amazing friends! I’m really proud of all of us; we did some great work [work!] and I’m so glad that we have an awesome final product to share with the world. Interns: We get the job done!

Unaltered image from the Amherst College Digital Collections.
Unaltered image from the Amherst College Digital Collections.

Of course, I will never be satisfied, because there’s always room for improvement– if we’d had more time this summer, I would have added a couple of things to my project. First, I would have loved to add more extensive information to my map project! I learned so much about the people and places of early Amherst this summer, and only a fraction of that knowledge (and excitement!!) was able to be integrated into the website, both because of time and technology restraints. For example:

  • Originally, students were responsible for bringing their own furniture for their lodgings–if they didn’t have any or couldn’t afford  to buy any, then they could borrow some from the college through the janitor.
  • President Hitchcock introduced the stone walkways that line College Row; previously, there were only mud and dirt paths, and the campus was actually pretty ugly–there wasn’t much foliage and gaping holes were found in the ground due to townspeople digging up rocks for construction materials.
  • There used to be a huge hat factory in the area that is now Dickinson Street, owned by the Hills family (who I talked about in this blog post after embarking on a missing-persons detective case), that created hats out of palm leaves.
  • The famous Emily Dickinson daguerreotype was made by John Lovell, the photographer who created most of the early photographs of Amherst, and it is likely that she sat for the portrait at the popular Amherst House hotel in town (currently the site of Bank of America on the corner of South Pleasant and Amity Streets).

As someone who’s truly become passionate about understanding early Amherst, it breaks my heart that there are more [than ten] things you need to know that I had to edit out! As a result of the summer’s research, I’ve imagined 19th Century Amherst so much it feels more like a memory, and I really want our audience to have that deep personal connection, too.

Unaltered image from the Amherst College Digital Collections.
Unaltered image from the Amherst College Digital Collections.

Secondly, I’d like to make a webpage that allows for a more culturally immersive 1800s experience, featuring music from the time period that the audience could listen to, blurbs about national and international history that occurred during this timeframe, and things like that.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I want to look more deeply into the political, social, racial, gender, etc. climates of Amherst at this time in order to view it in a less-biased way with heightened awareness. For instance: The Civil War began just at the conclusion of the 40-year focus of our website, but politics were already boiling at the time and it seems that Amherst was pretty divided on several issues–for example, not everyone would have agreed with the lyric “We will never be free until we end slavery.” Discussions about making Amherst co-ed actually began in its early days, and while some people were for it, figures like William Seymour Tyler were strongly against it for some pretty misogynistic reasons. Furthermore, I didn’t find much about women’s roles in early Amherst (which makes a point in itself). If I were to continue this project, I would love to more comprehensively include women in the sequel.

In all honesty, I have a secret dream of continuing my research on my own time just because I’ve acquired such a deep personal interest in all of this stuff! I’ve been semi-interested in Amherst’s early history since my freshman year, but pursuing that as deeply as we have this summer hadn’t been top priority when considering my commitments as a student. So when this internship opportunity came up, I thought, “I don’t know how to say no this!” Not only was this all an amazing learning experience, it was also the beginnings of fulfilling my dream of discovering early Amherst! This summer’s research has sparked an “I want to be an Amherst historian” flame in me and left me helpless. For example, yesterday I went on a field trip to Morgan Hall with Emma to compare our knowledge of the early library with the (albeit repurposed) building itself, visited the archives to look at what they had on Morgan, and continued reading a book on Amherst’s history that I didn’t get to finish earlier. I (almost) wish I could say that was the last time I’ll read an Amherst book… But I’m sure that in a few weeks, while I flip through more Amherst-y pages, I’ll have the same thought again and think “I said that last time!” I think this will become a pastime… The folks in the archives were right when they told me “You’ll be back!”

In conclusion: Thank you to Amherst College and all of the library staff who have made this experience possible–I hold each of you in a special place in my heart and am so thankful for all of your support, teaching, and general awesome-ness! Overall, this has been an incredible summer and I’m beyond glad that I’ll be in Amherst for the forseeable future–I wonder what other bygone things I’ll discover? And who knows–maybe future DH interns will look back at our work through awesome technologies that haven’t even been invented yet, just as we’ve looked back on the handprints left behind by Amherst’s first students with today’s technologies. Thanks to the efforts of DH, history definitely has its eyes on us. I suppose all that’s left to say is…

Unaltered image from the Amherst College Digital Collections.
Unaltered image from the Amherst College Digital Collections.

What’s Next

When we started this internship just over eight weeks ago, I had absolutely no idea what would be possible for us to accomplish. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very optimistic. As I’ve said before on the blog, I’ve never been a very digital person. When my mom told me I should learn to code, I learned how to make books instead. The moment my computer misbehaves, I call a tech-savvy friend to come save the day. I took this internship because I wanted to change this, and to develop new ways of thinking about research and scholarship, but I also brought with me a whole host of digital insecurities. I’m proud to say that, for me, our website represents a tremendous amounts of growth, and I’m excited to present the final result to the Amherst community.

Digital scholarship required me to be much more cognizant of my methods and how they affected the data and materials I was drawing from. Perhaps this was because I was using tools and methods that were previously unfamiliar to me, but during this summer I often found myself thinking critically about the ways in which  the tools and methods I was using to study and present my data and research shaped and directed our understanding of these materials and the arguments I drew from them. Though this is definitely something I’ve also done while working on more traditional written scholarship projects, it was more present in my mind when I started to work digitally.

Next year, I’m conducting on a major self-directed research project in New Delhi, India, and I’ll absolutely be taking the skills and methods I learned this summer with me. As my work will require quite a bit of travel and my physical resources will be limited, the ability to use digital methods for documenting and presenting my work will be hugely advantageous, and I’m excited to discover new applications of the skills we developed this summer.

To the next group of Digital Scholarship Summer Interns, your most valuable assets during the program will be your peers. Though you may each have (seemingly) disparate interests and project ideas, some of the most meaningful, thought-provoking moments for me this summer came from spontaneous brainstorming sessions amongst the four of us, and whenever I reached a sticking point, team members were there to help me regain the momentum I needed. A related note—don’t underestimate the power of the white boards in the Barker Room. Sometimes the best (or only) way to articulate messy research ideas and aspirations is through series of concept maps and diagrams, unintelligible to anyone but yourselves.

Proof of Concept

People are pleased by narratives. Finding a thread, no matter how fictitious, that ties together the chaos of the world into something comprehensible comforts us.

In our haste to tidy up the past, we often erase the uncertainties, the dead-ends and empty spaces, or else we simply hold them up as foils to our successes. Often this is unconscious rather than deliberate, but there are times, too, when it’s just simpler to succumb to the tidiness of romanticization.

I can’t even recall all the sparks and sprightly ideas that flitted through my mind throughout the summer, each one shining bright with the certainty it would be vital in the final project. There is much I dreamed of that never coalesced into reality, and that’s okay. The messiness of the process is not a byproduct of poor planning or sloppy navigation– it’s a crucial part of creation.

Of all the tools we studied and struggled with and implemented this summer, it is important to acknowledge that our own intellects and insights are such in their own right. Every misstep and detour and all that messiness strengthened them, giving them more practice at interpreting data, synthesizing resources, and being flexible in expectations.

All our deliverables and proofs of concept that linger, somewhere, on the web or our hard drives or on whiteboards soon to be erased, were vital in constructing Early Amherst– a website I am quite pleased to have had a part in creating– even if no visible trace of them rests in its posts and pages.

If I had to give one piece of advice to the interns next summer, it would be this: invest in your proofs of concept. Learn to love learning, if you don’t already, and get excited about exploring. For the first half of the summer, don’t be afraid to circle around cul-de-sacs and dally in dead ends. You’ll still be sharpening your tools and methodologies.

And for the second half, as your heart grows set on certain products, start small. Collect the data for a portion, test out your software, be prepared for multiple iterations. The flexibility you learned from your earlier messiness will serve you well.

In college, there often wasn’t time for messiness. It was easy to stick to the tried-and-true methods of essay production and late night studying. Like that narrative thread, the certainty of those methods was something you clung onto to navigate the chaos.

No matter how tenacious your grip, such a strategy isn’t tenable. We were encouraged to think of our website as a work in progress, as a large proof of concept, and that is perhaps the best way to view all endeavors. Perfection will paralyze you, and no matter how much you might wish to narrativize your past into a straight line, it’s all the zigzags that make things possible. Learning to be flexible, to accept failure, and to understand that most efficient isn’t always the same as most effective, are lessons I will take with me past this internship.

In a sense, this whole experience was a proof of concept– can I work well with a team, can I allocate my stamina for a seven hour day, can I plan and implement strategies for a long-term project?

I’m not sure how much DH will play a role in my future– I am perfectly amenable to it playing a large role– but I know the skills and ways of thinking I’ve developed will aid me in any endeavor. And perhaps that’s its own form of romanticization, another fictitious thread I’m trying to weave into my tapestry, but it does, in this moment, feel very true.

In any case, I can say with certainty that working with everyone, sharing learning and laughter, dancing between the abstract, the concrete, and the absurd– all of it has been an absolute joy. Thank you!



A Field Trip to Early Amherst

Between the Jones Library Archives and Special Collections and the Emily Dickinson Museum, a wealth of information brought early Amherst to life! We, as interns, have spent the past few weeks learning the importance of the digital; from important text analysis tools to the ethics of distribution. However, the value of analyzing source material in the physical form and in space cannot be underestimated.

Particularly striking about our visit to the Jones Library Special Collections was the John Lovell photography collection. Lovell (1825 – 1903) was a professional photographer who came to Amherst in 1856 and established the Amherst Picture Gallery, continuing a long history of College imagery and extending the two-decade old technology of modern photography to Western Massachusetts. Throughout his professional life at Amherst, he produced compelling images of the College architectural landscape of then (more) humble town of Amherst. The collection revealed gems I would not have searched for online such as the view of Main Street in the 1860s shown below. Stumbling into such gems can be a valuable addition to primary research in the digital form.

View west on Main Street toward the Amherst House hotel, circa 1865. http://www.digitalamherst.org/items/show/659

The visit to the Emily Dickinson Museum equally added more context to my investigation of early Amherst. Learning about Emily Dickinson’s connection to the College through her brother Austin, an Amherst College graduate whose involvement with the college extended beyond his graduation, and the social networks that existed around the mid-nineteenth century fleshed out the information I’ve gathered so far on the persons influential in the construction of Amherst College buildings and its guiding pillars.

While the value of digitally accessible sourcing is unquestionable, it need not come at the expense of analyzing physical copies and site visits. Both forms of primary sourcing work alongside each other to paint a holistic picture of spaces and stories in history. Thus, Lovell’s dusty prints and Dickinson’s remodelled bedroom made early Amherst come even more alive.


History Comes Alive! (Sorry for the Cliché Title)

On Friday, us interns took a visit to the Jones Library Special Collections, as well as the Emily Dickinson Museum… And if you’ve either (a) read any of my posts or (b) spoken to me at all in the past month and a half, you can probably imagine just how EXCITED I WAS!

I have really and truly been falling in love with the research I’ve been doing this summer, and have a special spot in my heart reserved for the social and architectural landscapes of early Amherst. Two important things to note here:

  1. I’m definitely aware of RRS, or Researcher’s Romanticism Syndrome (I totally just made that acronym up, but it sounds legit, yeah? I’m sure many of us researchers can relate!), and am trying my best to keep several things in mind so that I don’t make Early Amherst into some sort of perfect Disney town in my mind. It’s important to note the historical, social, racial, political, etc. contexts of the time period, as well as the biases naturally found in any sort of document, but especially in the primary source texts I’m reading.
  2. I’ve been viewing Amherst in a different way this summer compared to how I’ve seen it for my entire four years as an undergrad, and I truly wish I’d known all that I do now about Amherst’s early history during my time as a student. Understanding (or trying to) the history of the place where you’re living and learning enriches your experience of that place in SO many ways, and that’s really valuable. I’ve been feeling so much more connected to Amherst these past few weeks and am beginning to see myself not as merely a passerby through the 01002, but rather as an active participant in its living history.

Considering these things, you might begin to imagine both my apprehension and my exhilaration during Friday’s tours–I was impacted by many things, like looking through photographic prints of town buildings, or standing in the very living room that Samuel Fowler Dickinson (Emily’s grandfather) came home to after helping to secure the founding of the college. And it’s not as if these are new things to me; I’d seen random photos of the early college throughout the walls of Frost during my countless hours of studying there as an undergrad, and I’d been to the Dickinson Homestead a couple of times over the past four years. But something was different this time.

This artwork make me think about the complex and creative mind that Emily Dickinson had--all of my thoughts about 19th Century Amherst have become complex and creative this summer! http://vein.es/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/astronomy-2.jpg
This artwork make me think about the complex and creative mind that Emily Dickinson had–all of my thoughts about 19th Century Amherst have become complex and creative this summer!

This time, I had spent basically a continuous month and a half diving headfirst into the world that supplemented those photos and homestead visits. This time, I actually recognized names like Rufus Graves, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Nehemiah Strong–and I could even tell you which buildings in town they had called home. This time, I nodded in agreement as our incredible tour guide mentioned that the Dickinsons hosted famous landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted, because I had just recently read a firsthand account of the event myself.

This time, I was on a mission that stretched beyond mere personal interest–now, the mission was also for the sake of research, scholarship, teaching, and accessibility (wow, that sounds pretty DH-ish!). How cool is that?! And to be spurred on by a deep personal interest just makes it all the more worthwhile and exciting!

While I’m still mentally processing a lot of what we saw on Friday (mostly at the Dickinson Museum, merely due to the tactility and the verbal teaching that we experienced), I can definitely say that the mini-project that I’m working on for our final DSSI project will be greatly impacted. This is, of course, because we got to do things like see new photographic material and hear recitations of Emily’s poems while standing on the very property that she lived on… But it’s a little more than that, too. I think it’s also because I’m beginning to see these people that we’re researching not as mere characters in some fairytale book, but as real people who lived in this real place that I, another real person, am currently living and moving and breathing in. I’m beginning to truly catch glimpses of how Amherst itself lived and moved and breathed way back in the 1800s, and I’m beginning to realize that the Amherst of 200 years ago is coming alive for me today.

My goal? To make early Amherst come alive for those who view our project, too. And while I know that this is a hefty task, I’m eager and excited to accomplish it!