One Final Reflection

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.

And In Conclusion

From research into the world of digital humanities to written paragraphs on the fire at Walker Hall or the flood of 1938, this fellowship has provided us the opportunity to delve into a plethora of topics, understand more about Amherst College’s rich history, and learn about new concepts, ideas, and perspectives. Discussions on learning types and metadata or about using WordPress enriched our own perspectives on group learning styles, research, and technology. Gatherings with fellow GLAM interns fostered intellectual curiosity and strengthened my enthusiasm for my own research. In working on our project about disasters at Amherst College, we applied methods and tools from the data analysis and visualization workshops and dove into the complexities of the College’s response to such disasters. I felt motivated and driven to answer questions related to defining the word “disaster” and to approaching the layout of my individual topic.

Once we compiled our resources, ran our analyses, and wrote about our investigation into topics related to such disasters, our WordPress page came to life. Within its many pages and posts existed applications of the knowledge learned from workshops and discussions. Within each section, there are in-depth analyses, deep and rich perspectives, and our own distinct understandings of the topics we chose to focus on. I am in awe of our hard work and dedication to our research project and am surprised by how much we were able to complete over the course of the fellowship. I am proud of what we have accomplished and learned over the course of the fellowship and hope to take such information and perspectives into the classroom and work environment.

I believe that the knowledge learned in workshops, meetings, and self-guided activities can be applied to future intellectual pursuits and in many academic environments. It might be crucial for a research project on Spanish women in literature to analyze the texts using topic modeling tools or Voyant. Such tools would allow for a better understanding of themes and topics central to the lives of Spanish women during the 18th or 19th century. For a course in biology or chemistry, it might be essential to research and understand previous letters, documents, and research articles written by women scientists to delve into the challenges they might have faced and how their language differs from the language within scientific articles written today. Scientific researchers, those interested in coding, or those captivated by the world of topic modeling might benefit greatly from utilizing MALLET and learning how it works. It is clear that there are a plethora of ways to utilize and research the programs, ideas, and concepts of our fellowship, and such views could greatly benefit and inform my future pursuits.

Language in Archives

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.

Exploring an unbelievable time in Amherst’s history

Given our current experience in a time of great uncertainty and global crisis, our proposal topic of disaster at Amherst is not only relevant but necessary. Disaster at Amherst is both an aggregation of all the disasters at Amherst, with deep analysis accompanying at least two events, and a study of resilience and will throughout generations. After devising the proposal, our first task was exploratory in nature. We first compiled a working database of relevant sources from the college archives which provided student accounts of disaster. This process of compiling sources was eye-opening as we witnessed the versatility with which students discussed these events and the overarching tendency to both acknowledge the current hardship while looking to the future. Students used poetry, humor, essays, and narrative pieces to convey their experiences regarding natural disasters, war, and epidemics.

In particular, from 1917-1918, students provided rich accounts of their experiences during WWI – which is the topic that I have chosen as my focus. During this time, the college campus transformed into essentially a training camp to prepare students for the possibility of combat. Rather than studying philosophy and the natural sciences students were trained in the military sciences. Given the all-male student population, this experience of enlistment was shared by every single enrolled student, and based on the primary sources, students derived a new sense of camaraderie from this shared experience. In studying this event, one series of documents titled War Letters was especially interesting. In this series, students engaged in combat sent letters to a student publication titled the Amherst Monthly. The creators of these letters often discussed the challenging transition to a life that was unpredictable and filled with danger. Students shared their struggles with maintaining morale under often harsh, unsanitary conditions. They also shared the simple joys of receiving an occasional treat as a part of their rations. Overall, this period in Amherst’s history is extremely insightful though still quite remarkable. There is one picture that I often revisit of students in uniform marching down the path which faces Converse. The juxtaposition of old and new makes me do a double-take as it is hard to believe that at one point this familiar campus life was flipped upside down.

I plan to study this period in Amherst history using the text analysis tools that were taught in previous workshops with a focus on topic modeling. I also hope to produce some compelling visualizations to illustrate these findings. At the least, I wish to unveil a period of time that is often hidden and hopefully create a case for the sheer will and determination of Amherst students during challenging times.

What Does a Disaster Feel Like?

A dead bird of azure and emerald feathers was covered by a fallen leave. People are amazed by its beauty, which makes its death more disappointing. They want to give the bird a formal burial and document this “disaster”. Three steps away was a dead grey sparrow whose unimpressive appearance attracted little attention. No one bothered with a trivial loss, nor would they refer to it as a “disaster”. But who is there to say that the death of a bird without the fanciful colors is not a disaster? Who is there to say that a bird dead for other reasons (shot by hungry hunters) makes disaster more/less intense?

I took a walk around the Frost Library where supposedly I would spend my 6 weeks as a Digital Scholarship Summer Fellow. I stood at its southeast corner, gazing at the reindeer sculpture on the second floor. Just beneath the reindeer is a plate that memorializes the Library’s predecessor, Walker Hall. Constructed of fine Monson granite, Walker used to be the largest and most elaborate building on campus back in the 19th century. Through creating the timeline for disasters in the history of Amherst College, I learned Walker Hall was demolished twice: firstly, a tragic fire that gutted most parts of the building and its archived administrative records at the night of March 28, 1882; then, a less tragic, college-planned razing to make the way for the current Robert Frost Library in 1963.

[The rebuilt Walker is] more than ever, the archives, the treasury, the capitol, the acropolis of Amherst College. (Prof. W.S.Tyler, AC 1830)

The two birds re-occupied my mind. As a creator of the timeline, should I include both birds’ death as disasters, or should I include only the more beautiful one? Similarly, should I include both demolishments of Walker Hall, or only the first one, considering the second one is consciously planned, executed, and approved by the administration? Furthermore, does the arisen Frost Library make the second Walker Hall’s demolishment meaningful, therefore less disastrous? Would the raze of Walker Hall seem more disastrous than other buildings on campus?

Archivists are gatekeepers of history, and they should be conscious of their power in “rewriting” the records. To some degree, what’s not in the archive is equally as important as what’s in it. The principle of inclusion and, inevitably, exclusion challenges my definition and stereotypes about disasters. For example, if I define a disaster as an incident and/or a continuation of events that cause great damages or losses, both demolishments should be considered as disasters (the damage of Walker Hall, planned or not, was the criterion of disaster). However, if I define a disaster as an event that leads to unfortunate consequences, only the fire at Walker Hall should be recognized as a disaster (the event’s positive/negative aftermath becomes the threshold). Let Walker Hall be only one example of the decisions I have to make in creating the timeline. Should the Amherst Uprising be included as a response to a disaster or simply “disaster per se”? What about a sexual assault on campus? National disasters that would surely impact some Amherst people?

What’s a bit consoling, the word “disaster” has also evolved over time. From Italian “disastro”, literally meaning “ill-starred”, we could infer that people in the past times think disaster as a destined outcome, one that cannot be prevented or altered. Speaking with Matthew Hart, the Director of Emergency Management at Amherst, I learned that disaster research and management has been understood as a science. Yet however hard we try to apply our rationality to approach disasters, we are still caged by our emotions– fear, anxiety, uncertainty– that inherited from our notion of uncontrollable destiny. A part of the final project we deliver focuses on analyzing how writers in the Amherst Student use the word “disaster” in their reports and op-eds. Not surprisingly, writers charge the most intense emotion on the “disasters” of sports games– a goalkeeper slipped to give away a goal for free, or a tactic that did not work as intended. Quite in contrast, writers seldom use “disasters” to describe an administrative failure or a misappropriate student behavior. Instead, they may complain about the problems behind the incidents as though a “disaster” is not meant to be analyzed but to be absorbed purely emotionally.

It’s strangely exciting to examine disasters in the history of Amherst College. On one hand, I know what it takes to best analyze disasters in the past– a cool head, a pair of analytical eyes, and a logical narrative. Disasters repeat because people can’t take them seriously or don’t analyze them using scientific principles. On the other hand, I am also aware that I’m living through one of the most memorable disasters of Amherst History– the COVID-19 pandemic. The personal experience feels so trivial in a large pool of archived documents. Perhaps it is inherently impossible for one to truly measure the impact of a disaster just by analyzing the “objective” statements and news reports. I’ve created an index to probe the intensity of each disaster in Amherst history, but I understand there is much to do. Only by balancing between the roles of an analyst and a storyteller could one be a true Digital Humanist.

In some years, future archivists would examine our work on the disasters much like me observing the birds. They will draw their own conclusions– whether I measure the impacts accurately, intervene too much, or include everything I should. But just like there will be a Frost after a demolished Walker, there will be new research about disasters that hopefully builds on our questions and discoveries. My thought process will become a part of the archive.


Let Us Reflect

Throughout the past few weeks, discussions on metadata, workshops on accessibility, a greater understanding of digital humanities, and an investigation into Amherst College Student Publications have enhanced and expanded my perspective of Amherst College and its history. Not merely does the College hold the dreams and ideas of a diverse group of students and the animated buzz of College life but maintains a strong grasp on a rich and dynamic history that makes its way into discussions, classes, and projects on campus. Such a history is powerful; it travels from the mouths of students to the whiteboards in the Science Center to the bricks of the seemingly timeless Frost Library and the plaques located in each building on campus. While I have gained such a grand and unique perspective on and deep appreciation for Amherst’s complex history while exploring the digital archives, I want to understand more about this history it impacts those around me. I would love the opportunity to ask students, faculty, and staff around campus what Amherst’s history means to them. I would love for more peers and friends to understand why I enjoy in getting lost in the pages of an 1868 Amherst Student Newspaper article.

Throughout my research, I have also learned that it is important to highlight the perspectives of those we do not see within the student publications from former Amherst students and to ensure students’ safety and well-being as they witness some of Amherst’s more troubling history. I have cherished discussions about how to present this information to students and about the importance of putting trigger warnings on publications and articles that contain blackface or problematic language. It is crucial for Amherst students, especially those from marginalized backgrounds and disciplines, to feel respected when they look through the photographs of an early play.

I have tried to investigate these questions and ideas within my research as I tried to understand more about the relationship between the local community and its history. I believe my focus on this exchange has brought me to grasp a wide avenue of perspectives; it has also made its way into our final project on the disasters at Amherst College. Initially, I had wanted to pursue a different avenue of research and wanted to investigate the more health-related disasters in Amherst College’s history. While that avenue alone would have been hard to research as there are not many of these disasters, our research project includes these various epidemics. I hope to examine the impact of these disasters on the Amherst community and tie them to COVID epidemic affecting the Amherst community today. While this focus relates to my interests as a scientific researcher, it also emphasizes the importance of responding to such crises and preserving their history; it is crucial, especially today, to reflect on past health crises that have shaped the community and informed our approach and response to the epidemic today. In preserving the history of the COVID epidemic, it is also pivotal to include the voices that we haven’t previously heard from and put these voices at the forefront of such historical narratives. While it is important to reflect on the impact of our own history, we must also look to improve and grow the way we capture such histories in the future.

In the future, I hope to pursue other avenues of digital humanities research. I want to further delve into the collection of the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Collection. Who contributed their artifacts and stories to the collection? In what ways can we trace and map the locations from which these pieces of history have come from. How can we delve more deeply into who and where students who wrote and told their stories, stated their perspectives, and emphasized the importance of new ideas in various student publications come from? What backgrounds, perspectives, and ideologies did these students hold? Such topics and ideas would be intriguing to investigate in future research in digital humanities at Amherst College.

Nobody Wanted to Talk About It. Now Everyone Does.

Haoran Tong, Digital Scholarship Summer Fellow 2020


What’s great about analyzing disaster? Certainly a disagreeable and perhaps dismissable topic to most members of the society, disaster has not garnered the amount of attention it deserves in “the peaceful times”. Take disaster as your distant relatives who exposed your “childhood wrongs” to your father. Understandably, we don’t want news about them to ruin our happiness. Correspondingly, conversations about them exhaust our memories about pain, loss, and cruelty. But every now and then, when their visit wreaks havoc in our house, we have to confront them, most likely alongside their unpleasant image of the past. So a question naturally arises: what do we do before their next visit? 


“What do we do” is only a nanoscopic part of the questions digital humanists strive to answer. Nevertheless, it is receiving more and more attention. Recent writings concerning the purpose of digital humanities have readjusted their focus from “unearthing novel discoveries” to “answering to the societal need”. Digital humanists thus should stand at the front door, ready to interrogate the distant relatives so that the family can prepare better, respond sooner, and relieve easier. Is there a more pressing need than analyzing disasters? The pandemic has exposed a shocking lack of worldwide healthcare infrastructure and brutal negligence of vulnerable lives. Arrogance, coupled with race-class conflicts, enfolds America with an alarming rate of tragedies taking place household by household. The Covid-19 pandemic reveals lingering problems in not only the healthcare sector but also human conditions in general. Hence, it proves the societal need for the study of disaster, through sciences and humanities. 

Joseph Stiglitz talk about the national response to the pandemic
Institutional responses to the repercussions of the ongoing pandemic draw much more attention than student’s individual literary accounts to the same matter.

Yet we deem disaster the focus of our research not because it is a timely topic to exploit. Precisely on the opposite, we find disaster’s gravity and urgency in its timelessness. For too many times, we have had similar responses– physical and psychological– to an archetype of disasters.  For too many times, still, we fear that we haven’t learned from lessons taught by disasters at the expense of disruption and death. The fear is unfortunately valid. However, when we discredit authorities for their meager transparency and competency in dealing with disasters, we seldom reflect on the way disasters have been portrayed in the wake of its troubling waves. People haven’t learned the lesson because researchers haven’t presented the materials correctly (as in the best form to serve the public interest). The want of the audience speaks to the mismatch between our interpretation and objective reality. The purpose of the DH researchers is to craft a comprehensive narrative of disasters through texts and data, across time and place.


Disaster, wide in scope and varied in scale, remains notoriously challenging to describe. What one considers to be catastrophic might not mean a thing from another’s perspective. What causes disasters — natural or human-made– challenges the way we categorize disasters. Disasters’ impacts vary; their strengths differ. Furthermore, this is not a question about disaster only. It is about disaster AND Amherst College. Sophisticated in its demographic composition, the college sustains a community whose unified interests and ideals on education oftentimes shadow its diverse personal backgrounds and priorities. First-hand experience: when the college released its plan to remote learning in the spring, I lingered on the quad contemplating my worrisome stay in the US, while party music had already kickstarted celebration in the distant dorms. Such stark contrast in the reception of disaster has bifold implications: one, the same disaster impacts individuals in different intensities and ways; two, people respond to disasters differently. 

Amherst Student newspaper article writes about community's reflection about a network outage
Some students view the recent network outage as a disaster

There is no consensus on what disasters constitute, not to mention its scope of influence on different groups of peoples who altogether make up this unique college community. These “no”s are the sources of my curiosity. Through various sources of student publications, we are able to systematically trace different emotional and logical footprints to analyze personal and institutional choices. What tools can we use to reveal a disaster’s geo-temporal characteristics? Progress in-text analytical tools e.g. Voyant hopefully provide a lexicon-driven framework for the exploration of such consensus or the lack thereof. Using Voyant, we identify, cross-compare, and cluster keywords in the college administrator’s announcements and student publications about multiple disasters. In particular, we research the different choices of descriptive words from their respective perspectives, posing a question on the varying levels of intensity in which disasters may have impacted their lives. 


Hopefully, by the end of the next week, we will have some of the answers and some more questions. So, what’s great about analyzing disaster? That we are able to see something new when the entire world looks at it. So that when the world stops looking at it, we help the world see it. 


A brainstorming tool to structure the relationship between amherst and disaster
A mindmap that captures the interrelated complexity between disaster and Amherst (by the author)

A Digital and Historical Exchange

“Each library serves a distinct community of users. Our metadata needs to speak their language.”[1] Found in the transcript of the speech “We need to talk about cataloguing” is the dynamic relationship and continuous interaction between a community of researchers and the text or object capturing its history. In presenting such an artifact or text, it is important to learn the nature of such a community to respectfully and rightfully display its history. Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia (A4BLiP) alludes to a similar idea within their “Anti-Racist Description Resources,” summarizing how archivists and researchers can best approach and support black lives within their work.[2] The WordPress workshop with Bridget Dahill, the Digital Library Software Developer at Amherst College, highlighted the connection between the Amherst community and the presentation of its history as she discussed the importance of making websites accessible to all members of the community. During the data visualization workshop, my partner and I investigated New York City Police Department (NYPD) arrests over the past decade; through analyzing the data and pondering the ideologies that might have led to the arrests of people of a specific sex or race, we established a connection between our research and NYPD’s history. 

Initial investigation into a similar exchange between communities of researchers, students, or faculty and their respective histories has already prompted me to deeply investigate the history of disasters presented in Amherst’s student publications and to ask detailed and engaging questions. How can we engage the Amherst community with a project presentation that appeals to community’s interests and values? How can the visual representation of our project facilitate an ongoing dialogue between Amherst students and the history captured in 19th and 20th century Amherst student publications? We can address these questions not merely in the presentation of our work to the Amherst community but in the ongoing research process. While collecting data, how might we best present or organize the data so that it may accurately and respectfully portray the sentiments and worries of 20th century Amherst? In what ways are the students and administrators responding to disasters that have occurred on campus? In reading student publications on these disasters, who are we not seeing responding to various disasters on Amherst’s campus? Why might that be the case? What can we understand about the context of that time that might explain the lack of specific voices? Such questions are critical to conducting and presenting our research and to helping us create a more community-centered, dynamic, and detailed project.

I will start to answer some of these questions in the shift from the learning phase to the project phase. These questions will help me formulate a concrete and rich research question. Throughout the research process, I hope to continue finding sources on the history of Amherst College’s disasters and honing in on important aspects to present to the community. I eagerly anticipate seeing our project come to fruition and writing our project proposal this upcoming weekend. And making this transition will bring to life ideas and focuses from brainstorming sessions, allow us to apply the methodologies and ideas learned in Zoom workshops and meetings, and enrich and broaden our curious minds.

[1]McCulloch, Alissa. “We need to talk about cataloguing: the #NLS9 transcript.” Cataloguing the Universe: A work in progress, WordPress, 11 July, 2019.

[2] Antracoli, Alexis A. et al. Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia: Anti-Racist Description Resources. Creative Commons, 2019. Web. 10 July, 2020.

Pieces of the puzzle

In previous projects, my research process was centered around attempting to find a relationship between two variables, and while the relevant data surrounding those projects may have been direct or indirect measurements of human behavior, there was still an overwhelming desire to find numerical relationships rather than human relationships. The DSSF project differs as it is inherently human-centered and with this characteristic, our cohort has the option of exploring a research question in a variety of ways. But where do we start? — with so many possibilities, narrowing down a topic proves to be a challenge. Currently, I am reflecting on my “research superpower” once more and thinking about how my strengths and the strengths of my colleagues can contribute to a thought-provoking, dynamic project.

Digital humanities researcher, Trevor Owens, illuminated this research dilemma in his blog post, “Where to Start? On Research Questions in The Digital Humanities”. In this post, Owens states that the first step of any DH project is identifying the goals or inspiration for the project. Similarly, I am reflecting on what I would like to get out of this experience. On a personal level, I am hoping to learn more about the digital humanities and the intersections that it has with other disciplines. On a larger level, I am interested in further reinforcing the adage that to make a better future we must learn from the past. I look forward to exploring how students today may relate to the experiences of students in previous classes.

The other day, I really enjoyed meeting with my colleagues for an informal brainstorming session. During this meeting of less than a half-hour, we came up with a primary topic and a backup topic, along with potential methodology. We are all interested in using this current moment ranging from our experiences living during this pandemic to various social and political upheavals to inform our research topic. We are especially interested in how Amherst students, faculty, and administration in the past have dealt with national and global crises. While we are developing the targets of our inquiry, we imagine that our subjects will include natural disasters, conflicts, and socio-political upheavals. This research question could be explored using text analysis to reveal the language surrounding various crises, along with topic modeling to explore if different types of conflicts are associated with different styles of language.

I am excited to take the first steps of our research process and I cannot wait to see the pieces come together!

Owens, Trevor. “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities.” Trevor Owens: User Centered Digital Memory, WordPress, 22 Aug. 2014.

To Question, To Intervene

What is research? Perhaps defining research reflects a larger sense of conceiving of progress, especially epistemic progress in academia. When we invent a novel concept to explain the unexplained or conduct an experiment to show the unshown, we consider them as progress. But progress in humanities, according to Trevor Owens, isn’t necessarily about delivering the final product. In a lot of cases, it is centered on the unfinished or unexplained. When we explore different narratives relying on evolving digital tools, we are almost certainly bound to evolving answers that don’t lead to the same destination. But it is in the different destinations that spur more exciting discoveries from the origin.

Trevor Owens’ framework of research is different from that in the introductory science classes. In science, we start with a question and end with an answer. It is linearly structured, which makes it easier to conduct a hypothesis. However, it is almost certainly exclusive, susceptible to a confined parameter. While the structure is certainly operationalized in most social sciences, even, it assumes that the body of knowledge is a finite circle. Individual scientists conduct researches to push the edge of our known to the unknown, a linear expansion or push known within to find unknown, a linear collapse. This model assumes that there is an objective truth, and the only way we get close to it is by approaching it with refined tools and parameters, so as to construct a valid argument. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge I have in the research process is to accept the final project being a product of a question left unanswered. In DH, for a lot of times, we start with an answer and end with a question. We assume the knowledge is about making intersectional connections. We further assume that we cannot fully remove our bias or ignorance from the analysis or visualization so that every time we take primary sources beyond its scope of influence we are making an intervention. Every intervention has a cost and an award. 

A historical picture of Amherst campus destroyed by a hurricane in 1938
Amherst Campus Destroyed by the Hurricane in 1938

Take “Amherst in Disasters”, a topic to practice in the research workshop, for example. The first question we have (as the starting point of our research) is: what counts as a disaster? We use several keywords such as “disaster*” and “catastrophe” to run down the archive database, and find numerous pieces of publications that contain relevant information. However, further segmentation surfaces in the initial keywords “disaster”– disasters are of different causes (natural and societal) and will yield different outcomes. Therefore, a follow-up question can be like: what are the ways to categorize disaster? How would the student cope with different types of disasters? Consequently, if we notice the contributors of various primary sources, we may observe a pronounced correlation between the type of disaster and the source of the contributor. Our updated question, correspondingly, would be: why would contributors differ on labeling types of disasters differently? Could their perception of disasters provide additional insight into their status in society and in relation to the college? Furthermore, would their unique perception result in a distinct approach to mitigate the disaster’s impact on their lives?

Another debate in Trevor Owen’s article centers around using tools to find questions, which also seems counter-intuitive for hypothesis-driven research paradigm. Just as a question is meaningful in its making, a tool is useful in its development. If we apply topic modeling tools to a dataset, we pay attention to the correlation between keywords, which then shapes our understanding of the dataset’s implications. Conversely, if we run a keyword network on gephi, we may modify our question into one that fits the narrative of network effects, not simply correlations. While we can not remove the limitations or biases of using each tool, we can acknowledge our presumptions and move forward with a question to address them.

Combined with last week’s reading on digital humanities’ purpose, a digital humanist researcher would not stay content with an answer that is already provided and promulgated by the system.  With new collections being introduced, new methods invented, or new paradigms shifted, the necessities for “finding an answer” are disruption, interrogation, and reconstruction of narratives. And the first step to find the answer is to question it.

A blackboard describing the process of research
The Different Processes of Research