Fancy new word for a day of dialogue

The past weeks research was mostly protest related, which is the path along which I am strongly inclined. I dug through the moratoria papers, which in a nutshell is a collection of papers based on different moratoria (read day of dialogue) that have been held on campus to address concerns that had come up as a result of protests.

Moratorium: a temporary prohibition of an activity.                             Synonyms: embargo, ban, prohibition, suspension, postponement, stay, stoppage, halt, freeze, standstill, respite

So I learned that the day of dialogue isn’t a new thing, it has been proposed before on campus as a solution to some of the protests that have previously been held. Moratorium, day of concern, day of dialogue; same thing, different name. On top of that, the response to the day of dialogue as a solution hasn’t changed. The one that was held in my freshman year didn’t seem to bear much fruit, the same goes for the ones that were held 30 years ago. What this revealed to me is that I can take research on protests in a different direction. Rather than picking a specific time period, comparing similar protests that occurred at different points in time and seeing how they evolve over time, or how closely they mirror each other could also be interesting.

I also stumbled across the letter that President Plimpton of Amherst College sent to President Nixon of the U.S, to which President Nixon DID reply (albeit through his assistant). I’m also constantly finding random things in the Student which aren’t necessarily tied to protests but are cool, like for instance, the opinion sections where people weren’t afraid to blatantly express what was on there minds, and then googling the alums with the most controversial posts. I’m constantly finding cool things in the digging in process but at the back of my mind I feel like going through the archives is putting off actually having to start the project. I wouldn’t call it a dead end, but I really am not sure about where to start. Hopefully now that we have Gephi out of the way, I can channel all that energy to figuring out where.

Still trying to figure out which one I am. Maybe a spin on the Internet Researcher – the Archive Researcher

I Spy a Black Hole

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

Smooth transition coming up.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other notable accomplishments this week:

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

Research Proposal = Commitment?


Proposals. I could never shake off the feeling that I’m signing a contract when I’m writing a proposal. In my three and half years of college, I’ve written a variety of proposals. The standard research project proposal. The ambiguously phrased photography project proposal. The stab-in-the-dark film proposal. All of them amounted to feeling like I have committed to something I’m not sure I want. Like buying a dress at Forever 21 and wondering if it’ll still be in style a month from now.

The initial proposals we worked on weren’t that different, despite the many reassurances that we would have time to change our minds. Especially once Norah and I started to dig into The Amherst Student issues from the 60s and 70s, it felt as if the research project already started. I was honestly elated to find abundant material relating to the topic: campus protests. It was the first eureka high I’ve had for this internship.

But I’m still at the stage when I’m still browsing, trying on different topics to see which suits me better, but not willing to commit to anyone in particular. And then the store announces that it’s closing in ten minutes, and shoppers should line up at the door to check out their proposals. Sure, you can always come back and return it, but that’s another commitment, a commitment to saying no.

In terms of moving forward, I think we need to spend less time staring into each other’s eyes, wondering if we all feel the same way or if it’s just me, and start admitting that we are all as lost and uncertain as each other. Maybe we have a nebulous hunch. But if we keep turning that hunch into a research proposal, we’re gonna find ourselves in a two-week relationship with a research project that we had doubts about from the beginning.

At least we learned to avoid Gephi (see images below).


Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.39.28 PM
What we know about Gephi
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What we don’t like about Gephi

Shocking: Moleman Bares All!


Despite my loud mouth, I’m not a very outwardly social person. When it comes to group research projects, I would much rather live in a corner of the archive bunker, scraping off lichen from the walls to eat and subsisting off the dried ketchup stains of messy readers past. Those moleman tendencies push me towards individual research and study, as well as sources of light when I’m digging subterranean tunnels.

When we first drafted our list of proposals, we made a list of the projects we had already begun as well as other general questions we wanted to answer. Some of the new questions were wide-ranging like “What type of writing was popular by each decade, and why?” and others were more specific, ‘Which is more absorbent, toilet paper or Amherst Literary Monthly?”

After we had this list, we committed our first cardinal sin of group research: we broke up into groups of 1 or 2 to each work on individual proposals. This was part selfishness, part-necessity. There were too many ideas whizzing around to be focused into 3 solid proposals by four interns at 2pm on a Friday.

Now, we’re attempting to come together and combine those ideas, which is proving a little difficult because we aren’t sure how wide-ranging the overall proposal should be. I’m sure that we’re probably still very rooted in what we originally proposed.  We’ve summarized our proposals into bullet points and then did some “text-analysis” by highlighting common words and themes in each proposal. These have included:

  • Publications looking outward v. inward
  • Anonymity in Amherst writing
  • Administration and censorship
  • Reactions
  • Wartime Attitudes
  • Protest

However, I think that as we push forward, that protectiveness will slowly drop away. At first, I was hesitant to let go of my issues of Hamster, but I’m definitely now more interested in the way comedy tracks trends present in other publications. Admittedly, it’s hard to come together on a day when Europe decided to fall apart. (#Archivexit)




121 ways to write a research proposal

Putting proposals together was more time consuming than I anticipated it to be. We realized that this was it. There’s more at stake now at this stage. We have to propose something that we can at least try to deliver. Still, it’s exciting that we get to sort of combine all that we’ve learnt and see how it applies to possible final projects. And while we occasionally take our research questions above and beyond, its safe to say that we are building skills of thinking outside the box. 

Moving from individual projects to a group proposal is tricky. The collection is large, and we’ve somehow been able to identify specific subject areas which intrigue us. We’ve started sifting through the proposals in order to find keywords that will guide us in coming up with an umbrella subject which will enable us to pursue our initial individual interests within it. Its important that we each enjoy this process and no one gets forced into dealing with *cough* Gephi an aspect they do not particularly enjoy. Thus a concern is how can we go forward without having to make strong compromises on our personal interests. I’m not exactly sure how we will do this, also considering that there is a high probability that our interests may change as we engage more with the collection. Despite this, I’m hopeful that we will make it work as Amherst students constantly do.

Looking for Buoys

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

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

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

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

Digital Humanities: The Home Depot for the Hammer-abusing Researcher

When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Such a phrase describes my research process prior to this internship. When embarking on a paper, I would frantically skim through documents, desperately writing any fact that could take up footnote space. It was inefficient and incoherent. Many a paper have come back marked “Too sporadic!”

Continue reading Digital Humanities: The Home Depot for the Hammer-abusing Researcher

It’s not me it’s you

The methodology workshops have definitely helped a great deal in understanding what we can do with the student publications. Though we do get hints and pieces of the collection from writing up abstracts, the workshops help us engage with it much differently and more thoughtfully. The deliverables for the most part have been crucial in guiding us through the tools. We’ve had enough practice by now to come up with a ‘system’. Mostly brainstorm on a google doc, vote, then proceed with identifying sources, digging into archives, regrouping and putting together our findings.

The digital exhibit and mapping workshops and deliverables were pretty straightforward. One of the problems we encountered working with both Omeka and Timemapper was having a standardized format with which to enter information so that the tools can yield a consistent pattern and results. But we figured it out and resolved it; though some brushing up on metadata fields is still much needed.

Voyant knots feature which essentially looks like a blind doodle . One of which none of us was able to figure out what purpose it serves.

My relationship with text analysis is superficial and complicated. While initially drawn in by the visualization tools in Voyant such as cirrus and links, Ilater realized felt like there was nothing deeper beyond what it offered at a surface level. Perhaps there’s more to learn, but so far, the text analysis tool doesn’t seem strong enough to stand on its own as the main tool in a digital project, its more supplementary,  rudimentary actually. I have to admit we struggled a bit coming up with abstracts for the text analysis deliverables, even having to move outside for inspiration.

However not all was lost. Topic modeling brought much more clarity to text analysis. I personally find it to be the most mind-blowing tool I have learnt about so far. First of all, MALLET a leading precedent for other forms of topic modeling software was borne in the pioneer valley, at Umass. On top of that, based on the project examples we looked at such as signs@40 and mining the dispatch , the uses are very versatile. Overall I would say one common thing about the workshops is that they reveal the research question doesn’t have to come first, it can come last. On top of that, the more I tools I learn about the more I notice that the research questions become open ended. We’ve shifted from asking what to why which opens up the possibilities for interesting research even wider.

I quite enjoyed working on Monday, where we pretty much had most of the day working on deliverables and digging through the archives on our own, so I am definitely looking forward to the project phase of the internship. I do expect however that I will run into mind-block situations similar to those that happened when working on text analysis as opposed to the other deliverables which have had much smoother brainstorming sessions. I also still don’t have any idea what shape or form my end project will end up taking but lets not come to that until we have to.


Playing Make Believe

Last week and this week, we learned a variety of tools related to digital humanities such as Omeka, TimeMapper, and worst of all, Voyant. Each methodology workshop was followed by a deliverable, a word used in the context of this internship to means: a work produced by playing make believe. We assume that we have an infinite amount of resources and time and dedication to the subject. For a span of two hours, we pretend that we are embarking on a long-term project, knowing that we do not have to commit. We wrap ourselves in the comfort blanket that tells us that we do not have worry about real-world limitations or wonder if this is a project we will be willing to do the next day. Without playing make believe with these tools through deliverables, I would not have had a complete understanding of the tools and their shortcomings. But as useful as deliverables have been, they have been false starts to the “real” project.


As we are checking off the list of deliverables to deliver, I can sense that we are nearing the real start. We have glimpsed into the student publications, we have glanced around to see what interests us, and soon we will have to dive in. The deliverables have helped us get a general sense of what is in and not in the student publications, what we can and cannot do with them. But they have still remained in the realm of make believe. Like children playing house cannot fathom what it means to maintain a house and have responsibilities, I feel that we cannot fathom what lies ahead of us until we start.


Retreating to Advance

At the beginning of his post on the Digital Humanities, Trevor Owens asks whether should “Start with the question, the archive or the tool?”.  The answer he gives is that the digital humanities has no set starting point; The process is not rigid. In our work, I see a similarly fluid approach, despite being greenhorns to the field of DH. The only pattern is the lack of pattern.

Recalling how we planned (or are planning) our projects, I don’t see a strict order for our work. However, I do see a hierarchy of our considerations while brainstorming for each assignment. These priorities are only present briefly- we let them guide us in terms of the borders of first-draft thinking, but drop them once we actually begin moving forward. We can move anywhere within the boundaries and even push outward as long as we are doing research.

The considerations for the structure of our projects have generally followed this order:

  • The tool that has been assigned.

Ex: WordPress, Omeka, Concept Mapping, Timemap, etc.

  • The sources that we can easily obtain

The materials in the Amherst College archives that we have access to and won’t take long to get, basically boxes 1-10 of the Student Publications

  • Topics and questions that we are both individually and collectively interested in

Architecture, music, biting satirical snark,which Val Dining Hall dishes are the worst, etc

In our TimeMap projects, for example, the priority was the tool first and the sources second. We knew that we had to make at least two maps using the TimeMap software and that our deliverables would pull data from the Student & Alumni Publications archives. The initial urge to map each publication and its period of distribution (the most basic application of TimeMap) was disqualified thanks to the nature of our archives. Every publication was from Amherst, which would be a very boring map.

However, we then reconsidered what we could pull from the publications and instead focus on their content. Undoubtedly, our favorite parts have been the humor mags and the Student’s weekly crime log. We were hoping to map each reference to a location on campus satirized by the range of publications. But with such a small range of locations within a small area, we weren’t certain of how accurately on a map we could distinguish each victim of college satire. We had to switch attention to further areas outside of the Amherst campus, such as Panama, New York or Manhattan.

Ultimately, this worked to our benefit. TimeMap, with the help of external GPS coordinate locators like google maps, was able to show individual locations on campus quite well. Still, we decided to keep looking for references to areas outside of Amherst as well, which gave extra breadth to our investigation. This adds more to interpretation of our project. Before, it would have only spoken about the areas on campus that students hated most by time period. Now, it can also answer questions like “How inwardly thinking where publications on campus?”, “What global events/locations were most in the eye of teen comedy writers?” and “Is Florida really the most ridiculous place on Earth?”

I don’t think the aforementioned considerations are inherent to digital humanities, but rather the framework for guided digital humanities. None of us are independent researchers yet; we’re all toddlers waiting to grow into the professor’s tweed jackets that we’re wearing. I’m doubtful that this hierarchy will remain when we reach the more free-form stage of the internship. Once the work-shops slow down and we begin pursuing our own projects, I’m excited to see what we come up with. We’re already thinking outside the box, imagine what we can do without a foot on the brakes.