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. www.trevorowens.org/2014/08/where-to-start-on-research-questions-in-the-digital-humanities/
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.
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.
Within his blog post, Trevor Owens discusses Joe Maxwell’s “interactive approach” to the research process, the importance of focusing on the process itself instead of the more performative aspects of research proposal writing. Like Maxwell, Owens takes a deep dive into the world of reflection and tool-based research and into the implications of theory on research methods. The research question, as Owens describes, is dynamic; it is not merely the end product of the research process but complementary to it. As the research question changes, grows, and develops, it remains in conversation with the formation of new ideas and the growth of their presentation.
Such reflection and thought are crucial to my own research process as I continue to investigate and dive into Amherst’s digital archives. An initial investigation into these resources has helped further an intellectual curiosity towards the digital archives, TimeMapping, and digital exhibits. I have begun to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for this process of reflection that seems to not be a part of many of the research processes of other courses and opportunities. Not merely does it allow me to question and make sense of the material but allows me to really savor reading Amherst Student articles, understanding more about the ideologies and philosophies of former Presidents of the College, and learning about Amherst College’s emergency response through history. Through the Learning Types workshop, I have thought about the importance of metacognition on learning, building a research project, and working in a team. I also have processed through my own ideas on the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection, the finding aid, and discussions on “No one owes their trauma to archivists” by Eira Tansey, utilizing these resources and discussions on them to inform my own research process, something I had never done previously. I have also begun to reflect on the roles of archivists, researchers, and librarians within the research process and the role of the local community in the collection part of the research process. Through this reflection, I am curious to explore further the way that local communities and archivists, researchers, and librarians have interacted throughout history. In thinking about my research question, I am intrigued by the role of the College in public health emergencies. How have students and administrators viewed these emergencies? Have their responses contrasted or conflicted? Who do we not see responding to these public health emergencies and why? What can we attribute this to? I also might want to explore how black Amherst College students responded to events like the Civil Rights Movement or the racial history of the College.
In addition to pondering my research interests and questions, I am beginning to think about the structure of the project. I know I would like to use TimeMapper or topic modeling in some form as I further analyze the ideas, keywords, and events that occur in an article or archival work. I continue to ask crucial questions. How many people/events/time periods do I want to focus on? How do I want to structure the project? How will I present my introduction? How will the visual representation of my work incorporate the more reflective parts of my process? As I continue to formulate a research question, I believe that the structure of the project will become clearer, and I will begin to understand how to build a concrete presentation of my work.
In my application to this summer’s DSSF cohort, I hoped to convey a genuine desire to help produce a project that not only combined humanistic inquiry and technical applications but one that would positively impact our campus community during these challenging times. Due to the current world health crisis, we are all communing in a virtual space and while this presents the perfect opportunity to engage our community digitally there also exists the pressure to produce a project that will supplement the rich in-person experience that gallery and museum exhibits provide. This encourages us to ponder how might our cohort create a project that is more than just a static page but a dynamic experience that can hold the focus of the viewer for over half an hour as Scott Saul’s Richard Pryor’s Peoria did to me.
Additionally, in our pursuit to create a project that is both meaningful and relevant, we may choose to pursue a research question that involves some of the world’s most pressing issues such as race relations, equity, and public health. If we so chose to pursue one of these research topics we are not only encouraged but obligated to ensure that our use of archival collections is ethical and that we avoid commodifying the traumatic experiences of others. This responsibility of archivists and researchers to center the human subjects of traumatic histories and avoid collecting archival material at the expense of retraumatization is expertly detailed in Eira Tansey’s “No one owes their trauma to archivists, or, the commodification of contemporaneous collecting”, one of our introductory readings.
Just in this week alone, I have learned so much about research methods, careers in archives and collections, and archival research. Our independent activities have encouraged me to think about more technical aspects of the project like site design and data collection and visualization.
In this week’s Introduction to Archival Research workshop, the session began with the following icebreaker question – “what is your research superpower?”. My answer to this question was based on different projects that I have completed throughout the semesters, during which I found that my research strength is transforming a medley of information and putting it into context for my audience. More specifically, my strength is going beyond the “what” and answering the ubiquitous followup to most research – “why should we care?”. Currently, I am considering how my answer to the question will present itself in the following weeks.
Following this week’s sessions, I have questions of my own such as how might we use the past to inform our present and future and what role do academic institutions play in shaping community structures. I look forward to exploring these questions next week and beginning the first phase of devising our cohort’s research question.
This first week of the digital fellowship has been interesting to say the least. The remote format of the experience has brought a new meaning to the “digital” in Digital Scholarship Summer Fellowship. I appreciate learning about an archivist’s job and responsibilities through the workshops, but I also enjoy reading about firsthand experiences in navigating the nuances and complexities of this ever-changing field. A particularly eye-opening piece was the blog post titled “No One Owes Their Trauma to Archivists” by Eira Tansey.1The comments made in this post really got me thinking about the relationship between archivists and history. Because archives are a center of power and archivists act somewhat as “gatekeepers of history,” they hold an immense amount of power and responsibility in their hands. As the amount of records that exist in this world greatly exceed archivists’ storage capacities, there will inevitably be parts of history that will be turned away, disregarded and eventually forgotten. Archivists have the ability to decide what materials to keep and what to set aside, what is important and what is unimportant.
Given that the profession has been predominantly white and female and continues to remain so, much of what has already been recorded reflects their biases. Recently there have been more attempts to record information from underrepresented populations. In times of chaos or unrest, however, this attempt may backfire. The fact that these communities are disproportionately more likely to be negatively affected by these events and may sustain trauma as a result remains a sad truth. Archivists can actively seek to help amplify their voices, but no one wants to relive trauma. Their well-intended search may in fact be an unwanted intrusion. In the end, individuals have the right to choose what they wish to reveal and what they wish to keep to themselves. How do we balance wanting to capture a more accurate reflection of history with not overstepping our boundaries as archivists? Of course, training in trauma-informed practice and interviewing are a great way to start, but in the end parts of history will still inevitably be left out.
I am grappling with the fact that some parts of history will always be lost, that we will never be able to obtain a complete, objective reflection of our past (if that is even possible to begin with). It is also nearly impossible to separate our biases from the material we are working with or the way that we work with them. The history that we pass down will always hold a tint of our prejudices, conscious or subconscious.
I will keep this delicate relationship in mind as I work towards developing a project with my DSSF cohort. I am excited about all the possibilities that this self-guided research project may bring. The opportunity to explore the college’s history and to be able to dive more deeply into an area of interest are two things I have always wanted to accomplish during my time at Amherst. I look forward to working with the vast primary resource collection and gaining a better understanding of the digital humanities field.
I am glad to have been made aware of some issues that exist in the field early in my fellowship experience. However, awareness is merely the first step in creating change. I hope that throughout the summer, I can maybe find some answers to the questions I have, then apply what I have learned in order to become a better researcher.
Through reading, synthesizing and processing, the readings and meetings this week led to an intriguing deep dive into the world of Digital Exhibits. “Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display” by Steven Levine and Ivan Karp brought me into the world of presentation, culture, and permission-giving. The 1984 taking of the taonga or treasures from Maori elders for an exhibit on the Maori people demonstrated the dichotomy of the spiritual significance of these taonga to the Maori people and the historical implications of these taonga as presented in a museum. The article continued to discuss the ways in which museums should incorporate the perspectives and input of local and/or indigenous communities and questioned the methodology behind incorporating a diverse range of perspectives on the material being presented. The article prompted me to think more deeply into the role of museums within the community and the space and framework they take up and how within the world of digital humanities this very dichotomy may exist. How might in the future digital humanities scholars seek to incorporate works and traditions of indigenous communities letting these communities be at the forefront of the collection process? How can we create an environment that upholds the values and the ideologies of various communities and populations without infringing on these communities? To me, these questions are never-ending; they must be incorporated uniquely into each project and each ethnological exhibit, project, and collection.
Amherst College Head of Archives and Special Collections Mike Kelly’s description of the origins of the The Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection deepened my perspective on collecting and storing of works from local communities. A community of those wanting to sell their works, leaders in the indigenous communities, professors, archivists, and librarians helped welcome and respectfully situate the Native American collection into its new home. And so after this discussion, I began to think in more specific ways. How have curators/archivists put these ways of collecting information and where? In what ways do these ways of collecting and synthesizing information and material from local communities translate into my own research process? I begin to answer this last question by thinking about the relationship between the materials, the lives of those captured on the pages of literature collections or yearbooks, and the collector, archivist, or researcher. The archivist or researcher is the one that translates both literally and figuratively the lives of historical peoples and objects through their presentation of the material, calling to an audience of fellow researchers and laypeople to interpret the material. While neither the audience nor the archivists or researchers do not know these actual, lived experiences, they might interpret the thoughts and feelings of those captured in the material. And by a solid and in-depth understanding of these historical materials and its contextualization, the archivist, librarians, or researchers will translate the material with greater clarity and precision, closer to replicating the sentiment of the actual time.
And thus, through understanding this intricate pathway of relationship might we better understand the archivist, researcher, or librarian’s role within the community and start to understand how to include “multiple perspectives or to reveal the tendentiousness of the approach taken” (6). I hope to incorporate these same ideas and the same thought process into my own research process as we move forward.
 Karp, Ivan, and Lavine, Steven D. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Smithsonian Institution Press Washington and London, 1991.
These two words put together are almost oxymoron according to most, if not all, prominent scholars nearly a century ago. To them, digital is the future and humanities are the past. In a world facilitated by quantitative analysis and dictated by data explosion, “digital everything” has become a fashion for scholars of various disciplines. Humanities, on the other hand, never lack criticism on its “outdatedness” to change and exclusivity from the practical tools. There seems to be a prevailing but false notion that asserts institutions should defund “old books” and subsidize data and quantitative sciences. Even liberal arts colleges, whose reputation has been relying on the great books and overall quality of argument, have dedicated themselves to catching up with the wave, diverting more attention to building a digital curriculum and a data-supportive library.
But for others, digital represents change, while humanities symbolize preservation. While the results from digital technologies have fascinated scientists and application users, it also reveals flaws in the generation, interpretation, and communication of numbers to society. The change it brings to the table has also created by-products of overreliance and assertive abuse of data in the naive negligence of its application to human beings and human communities in which humanities have delved in-depth for thousands of years. Humanists are regarded by some as the “defendants” of the study of humans by humans, the resisting force of the data-dictatorship through the analysis of human emotive intuitions and rational responses. And now, researchers from various disciplines, including history, music, literature, data science, computer science, and neuroscience, have proposed for their integrated marriage. Since Roberto Busa created a computer-generated concordance to Thomas Aquinas’ writings in 1946, a new way to research in the humanities has been paved. Growing in the soil of vastly diversified computing applications, digital humanities was molded to shape thanks to data of large scale and scope, as well as technologies to analyze and present them.
You see, these are two narratives that different humans can interpret differently. After all, what’s central to humanities as a discipline is the various facets of facts and arguments that altogether construct an explanation or vision for the known and the unknown of human worlds. Narratives matter. So are different ways to advance, condition, and interpret them. When I started to consider the question “What are the digital humanities anyway?”, I think of a narrative constructed by the perceptive scholars and reconstructed with the assistance of technologies. Are they the same or fundamentally different? Are they falsifiable to each other’s arguments? In what ways can we truly call a project a digital humanities one?
I come to the fellowship in an expectation to go beyond the “easy jobs” and “conventional paradigms”. Digitizing dust-filled archives is a critical first step, but it does not create enough impact to be called a DH project– unfortunately, most projects stop here. Burying potential discoveries in the data pool is as wasteful as leaving ancient records on the dusty shelves. Likewise, making an ideologically-oriented hypothesis on the grounds of humanities without referencing relevant data often fails to convince the public and wastes the many “first-steps” institutions have undertaken to trailblaze in the DH field. I am blessed to have Amherst’s trust in working with college digital archives to see something new and something meaningful. Words and illustrations in the past carry weight. They document the history of the college and the society in alumni’s voices. But our job is to use the data to see them in a different light and then engagingly present our findings.
If DH is ultimately centered on “the meaningful contributions” it can make to reflect and engage the world beyond the academy, it has a specific purpose to solve the problems or at least find the clues of the multidimensional humanitarian and social issues that have troubled traditional-methodized scholars for their complexity, intersectionality, and obfuscation. But can it ultimately transform the way we epistemologically know things– because only if it does so would it deserve to be entitled as a discipline?
To me, digital humanities are both overvalued and undervalued. It is overvalued because digital humanities are not transformative in their institutional regard. Analogously, it is not the engine for a jetplane that provides power to change the course of motion. Rather, it is a refined exhaust nozzle of the engine, helping increase the power outlet through either incorporating more air or improving combustion efficiency. It would be unrealistic to say that DH projects completely replace (outwit) analog, linear theories, and approaches because the use of digitization and digital methods still builds on ideological and scholastic presumptions about fundamental theories in particular fields. Nevertheless, neither is its value solely limited to refurbishments and “final ribbons” of already construed humanities projects. DH provides us with not only tools to redefine conventional “humanities research” but also fresh perspectives of how we can deal with the content and evaluate its materiality. It works on both ends, from design to execution, from broad strokes to trivial touches. Its impact is not evaluated based on how much it develops itself, but how much it exhausts itself to serve humanities in general.
And here comes a question I wish to explore further in this fellowship: to what extent are humanities digital? To what extent is data humanistic? Is data only a pathway for a better understanding of humanities, or is it the humanities in its futuristic form? What if our stories, journeys, and communities will be rewritten in datapoints and codes the same way they were written by our ancestors on paper? Would that make or break humanities as a whole? Furthermore, will it help or hinder us to approach the complexity of the big questions in humanities research?
The interaction and alienation of the digital and the humanities represent two contracting forces to pull the discipline in disparate directions. Digital humanists have called for efforts to either normalize or to disrupt the construct. From race to gender, class to culture, we either use substantiated data to legitimize a system for its validity in maintaining social order or, in other cases, uproot a system for its sustenance of societal problems. Furthermore, it seems as though digital humanities is also a tug-of-war (or a handshake) between the subjective and the objective. While humanities research has been attacked for its “manipulative” politically- and ideologically-charged results, will its digitality reinforce or reduce the bias? Is data truly as “objective”, or insulated from political intent, as the general public sees it? Do digital humanities produce signals of social problems or symbols for social change?
Essentially, however, the transformation from signal to symbol contributes to a renewed understanding of DH. The interaction between humanities and data creates a space for communication of disciplines, approaches, and methods. Space, then, gives birth to a re-creation or reconstruction of the normalized themes or projects that have been complacently cast aside, out of discovery with human eyes. Next comes a critical intervention.
To craft a mission statement for this project as well as DH in general, I would call DH as:
Not only data for humanities, but also humanities for data;
Not only reconstructing paradigms but also redefining the parameter of paradigm usage;
Not only operationalizing methods but also empowering agency in the faculty of volition;
Such that, new tools offer new perspectives to draw novel, disruptive insights.
And thus, new researches on DH may likewise unite the contradictions.
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.
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.
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.