Early Amherst Perspectives

After many project proposals, methodology workshops, and blog posts, I think I am ready to start crunching out a final research project website deliverable. Design is an iterative process. Although our brainstorming has somewhat narrowed our focus and pointed to where we need to invest our time for the remaining three weeks (time flies when you’re having fun!), I feel the need to start molding the clay of research accrued over the past few weeks. The challenge, now, is to decide what what sculpture we as interns want to (and can) make in the remaining time (some time has been invested into brainstorming the possibilities), where the online piece will be hosted, and what tools we will call on.

One mini-project that has captured my interest is the “Amherst___through the lens of___” project. Potential fill-ins for the blanks could lead to each of our different projects, which focus on early Amherst perspectives: social networks, the early College library collection, academics as viewed through course catalogs, and architecture. What is interesting about this proposal is its potential to draw the site user into learning about early Amherst in a playful, interactive way. In giving the user autonomy to select their path through the site according to what lens interests them the most (be it Amherst faculty, a specific student or society, or time period, or even a specific building) the site will keep the user engaged as they leap from one section to another. A challenge, however, would be to make the different sections overlap enough to make a scholarly argument about early Amherst, as Este suggested in our team meeting.

As critical as it is to produce an aesthetically pleasing, fun website, it is equally important to see this assignment as a scholarly research project. While we have been absorbing information in preparation for our final product, we should keep in mind that the site must balance between disseminating information and advancing scholarly work on the data available on early Amherst. I can’t believe I’m beginning to sound like my thesis advisor!

So, that said, I shall start site construction this week. I will get frustrated with the tools I have and my shortcomings in using them. I will fail to make the visuals match my vision for the site. I will miss some important data. But I will learn. I will get better at using the tools, and I will research more to find missing pieces to the puzzle. In the words of Amherst alumn William Hastie (1925), “Achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.”

Without further delay, may the site construction games begin!

Archive Pride and Spreadsheet Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged… that I’m somewhat obsessed with the old course catalogs.

I could extol their data-rich virtues, their college-sanctioned information, the meta-layers of their presentation– but perhaps it’s simpler just to say that they’re awesome.

So it’s little surprise that the project I’m most excited about is a constellation of smaller projects on the changing academic environment of early Amherst, whose backbone is the esteemed collection of course catalogs and which runs tangentially to any inspection of the literary societies.

But I’ve spoken enough and stared at enough and spreadsheet-ed enough the course catalogs. Let’s talk about something else– the Archives.


There are myriad collections that could contribute to my constellation of projects. I’ve been combing the finding aids, and it’s almost overwhelming how many potential sources fling themselves at me when I open one.

Though I suppose I should be discerning in which documents I call to help contextualize my catalogs, there are so many delicious options that it’s hard to restrain myself. Here’s a taste of them:

In just the Amherst College Early History Manuscripts and Pamphlets Collection, we’ve got discontented students writing to President Moore about their dissatisfaction with the tutor Lucius Field, the faculty criticizing the “Social Union,” a literary society, for its hurtful anonymous compositions, and two score of the senior class trying to skive off the end of the semester by citing the president’s ill health. So we’ve got students expressing dissatisfaction with the administration and the administration expressing dissatisfaction with the students– a lovely example of the tension between the two.

The value of the Clubs and Society Collection, with its minutes and documents from the literary societies hardly need be mentioned here.

The Historical Manuscripts Collection has a wealth of student perspectives on learning. Some examples include an oration on “The Obligations of Genius to Common Minds,” a literary discussion asking “Are Works of Fiction Necessary to Give a Proper Cultivation of the Mind?”, an essay on the “Influence of Science on the Moral Improvement of Society,” an oration on “Motives to Intellectual Exertion,” and another oration on “Science and the Classics – Their Union the True Basis of a Professional Education.” All this, I should note, is just looking at the first twelfth of the collection.

In short, while I’ve been somewhat myopic in my focus on the catalogs, I’m excited now to take a landscape view, to dive back into the Archives and to situate my statistics within a larger story. For so long I’ve been championing my spreadsheets that I’d forgotten how valuable the anecdotal can be– I’m ready to remedy that.


And Now I Want to Be A Cartographer

Although it was wonderful to have a long weekend, I was a bit worried that only having three days to do research this week would make me feel as if I’d missed out on valuable research time, or that I would have trouble “getting back into the groove,” etc., etc. Well, I am excited to report that I was wrong!

The past couple of days have been quite exciting for me in terms of pursuing a project based on mapping the physical and social landscapes of early Amherst. In preparation for our final project, the intern team has put together a proposal filled with several mini-projects that we brainstormed up. While it’s not likely that all of them will make it into our final project, we are each choosing a project and  pursuing it over the next couple of days in order to see where it will take us.

A project that is of particular interest to me is some sort of interactive map that details both the town and the college sometime during our 1821-61 timeframe. I’m really interested in the ways that Amherst physically developed over time, as well as in the people who lived, worked, and learned  in Amherst as it developed. I really believe that the social and physical landscapes impacted (and continue to impact) each other, which is why this map project is so interesting to me… I mean, you can only read so many love letters, personal anecdotes, and student disciplinary reports until you become invested in the people who wrote them and the place where it all happened. Moreover, learning so much about the social and geographic landscapes is giving me an incredibly new perspective on what it was like to live in Amherst in the mid-19th Century–and it’s impacting how I digest the campus and town in my personal daily life here in 2017, as well! But that’s another blog post.

Anyways, on Wednesday, I used my (very minimal) Photoshop skills to alter an 1886 map to our uses. Here is the original map:

Burleigh, L. R. (Lucien R.), and Burleigh Litho. "Amherst, Mass." Map. 1886. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:x633fd88x (accessed July 07, 2017).
Burleigh, L. R. (Lucien R.), and Burleigh Litho. “Amherst, Mass.” Map. 1886. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:x633fd88x (accessed July 07, 2017).

The website I accessed this map from has a powerful zoom tool that allows you to see each and every detail Mr. Burleigh, the mapmaker, created (yay digitization tools!), and wow was he great at what he did! You can view many more of his New England maps here, if you’re interested. While I realized that 1886 is over twenty years out of our timeframe, I was hoping I could at least experiment with this map to familiarize myself with both map editing and Amherst in this general timeframe. Below is my edit, complete with color-coding (of which isn’t too important at this point, so I’ll refrain from explaining):
Woven Map 3My hope for a mini-project that somehow revolves around 19th Century Amherst maps was to color code it to highlight important points, and then link those points to information about the buildings, roads, or landmarks that they correspond to. Perhaps this information could include things such as the date it was built, its architectural materials and cost, and why it was a point of interest to Amherst College and its students, faculty, and community members. If we’re lucky, we could even link to a photograph, sketch, lithograph, etc. of the landmark in the 19th Century, as well as a photograph of it today, if it still stands.

This mini-project idea really intrigued me, so I continued working on it. My ultimate dream was to find a map that existed sometime towards the end of our 1821-61 timeframe, which would both give us more resources on researching the town at that time, as well as give us a fuller picture of the Amherst that encompassed most of the first four decades of the college. But I figured that it was highly unlikely I’d find a map from the late ’50s…

WELL. Guess who was wrong? ME! After a seemingly-wild-goose-chase through Google, various digital image databases, a sketchy website full of old map prints, a visit to the archives, and a headache, I ACTUALLY FOUND WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR!

Walling, Henry Francis. Map of the county of Hampshire, Massachusetts. New York: H. & C. T. Smith & Co., Publishers, 1860. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2012592249/. (Accessed July 07, 2017.)
Walling, Henry Francis. Map of the county of Hampshire, Massachusetts. New York: H. & C. T. Smith & Co., Publishers, 1860. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2012592249/. (Accessed July 07, 2017.)

I know, I know–you’re probably like, “Um… What am I supposed to be looking at?” This map is basically the mother of all maps. It consists of six sheets, is HUGE (though I can’t tell you how huge, because the Library of Congress didn’t fully complete the metadata on its physical size… Tsk tsk…), and contains detailed maps of various towns throughout Hampshire County. Including… Amherst! And the best part? It’s dated 1860! HOW PERFECT. I can’t even believe it.

For my purposes, I zeroed on in the Amherst map:

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 3.29.09 PMMy heart cried happy tears when I found this. Not only does it list the names of people and businesses that occupied various structures, but it also details some geographic features, the railroad (which was a pretty new feature to Amherst and, as you can see from this map, was still to be completed… Unless I didn’t like my house, I wouldn’t want to be any of the families who lived in its soon-to-be path), and a business directory! I could talk about my findings for hours, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll skip to the image I finished constructing today:amherst1860 CI focused on a section of the map that was both (1) most familiar to me and, I would guess, most contemporary Amherst-dwellers and (2) most relevant, I’m guessing (due to the nature and inhabitants of the structures), to Amherst College at the time. Let’s zoom in so I can make a few points:Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 2.34.36 PM

  • Green: Streets that are still around today. I didn’t color in areas of the 1860 streets that aren’t around anymore, and I didn’t add in any post-1860 streets.
  • Purple: Amherst College structures. Almost all of these are included on a TimeMapper project that Takudzwa and I did a few weeks ago, which is exciting.
  • Blue: Houses where Amherst professors who taught during 1860 lived. I found a list of these faculty members from the bottom right section of the complete map.
  • Pink: Significant people or places that have come up in our DSSI research over the last month.
  • Orange: Structures (other than Amherst College structures) that are still standing today. I found this information through spending a lot of time comparing this map to the Amherst Property Viewer map (which I mentioned in my last post) and digging through its records.

A ton has gone through my mind while doing this research and altering this map, all of it pushing me to ask more research questions and think about ways that this altered map could be of use, perhaps after more editing, in our final project. I think it has a lot of potential, especially when focusing in on the ideas about an interactive map that I mentioned earlier, and I’m so excited to see where the road will lead (no map-pun intended)! Perhaps the best part of all of this research and Photoshopping is that it’s given me a deeper and fuller perspective of 1860 Amherst and its social network–and I LOVE it!

Now, all I have to do is find a time-machine so I can have a picnic by the fountain that used to be on the town common… I’ll save that project for next week.

Visualizing the Final Project…

We have no shortage of research questions—the list is ever expanding. However, at the moment, the question that I think is present on most of our minds is not necessarily one of content, and has much more to do with our methods and approaches going forward. As a cohort, we all seem to agree that we want to produce a project with a strong sense of cohesiveness—though we will all inevitably work on separate pieces,  I think I speak for all of us when I say that our vision is not necessarily one of four discrete projects under a broad, unifying theme. 

However, what our vision will actually look like has been more difficult to articulate—fitting the work and interests of four different brains into a unified final product sounds great in abstract terms, but it has been challenging to define what that might actually look like in practice. Today, we had an excellent improptu brainstorming session (first just the four of us, later with Sarah and Este) in which we sketched out visualizations, lists, and diagrams of how we might go about structuring our collaborative website and integrating our ideas in a (relatively) seamless fashion. We don’t have answers necessarily, but we do have a big pile of thoughts and directions to process over the long weekend!

Our first step will be to each do a bit more individual research, and to get a better sense of the research topic and materials that we’re most interested in. Monday, we’ll get together for a bit more brainstorming, diagramming, and concept mapping to see how we might best organize, connect, and integrate these. I’m still totally drawn to the development of libraries at Amherst—what was in them, how that related to the college curriculum, how student-developed libraries compared to institutional ones, etc. etc. etc… 

In the next working day or so, I’m planning to construct a rough research plan centered around these interests, which I’ll share with my fellow interns. Each of us will share our loosely-conceived ideas, and we’ll talk together about how they connect or speak to larger questions or directions.

We’re still leaving a lot of room for each other to express and explore individual interests, but I’m loving how well this team is working together so far. Unstructured brainstorming sessions and discussions amongst the four of us have really been some of the most compelling moments of the internship for me so far, and I’m sure that what comes next will be a reflection of this incredible team dynamic.

Forest for the Trees / Story for the Statistics

I’ve mentioned it before: I love data. The way each datum interlocks with the next to build a meaningful whole, the way broad swathes of time are calcified in revelatory statistics, the way evocative questions and theories and ideas wrap around a backbone of data– all of it thrills the researcher in me.

As such, I’ve spent a lot of time with the course catalogs, looking at changes in courses, admission requirements, faculty. Time spent digging deep into the data, filling spreadsheets with numbers and names and nested if-then statements. I’ve found it soothing to input row after row of college life condensed into little factoids.

Data is wonderful, but it’s also skeletal. And while dealing with it is soothing, I realize now I need to find the sort of research that is frustrating too.

No matter how much you dress up data with fanciful theories, it's still not fleshed out by context.
No matter how much you dress up data with fanciful theories, it’s still not fleshed out by context.

It’s only where there’s friction that falsehood is burned away. When studying a world two centuries away, any easy analysis is wont to impose modern interpretations instead of intuiting the logic of a bygone culture.

To offer an example– it is easy to see that across forty years, the proportion of classes that are classics drops from 0.6 to 0.5 to 0.3 to 0.06 through the class years. That right there is a barebones fact.

But the meat of the story isn’t hidden in the numbers– it’s found in a student publication and the program of a mock funeral service, which detail the satirical dirge the upperclassmen recited as they brought out all their classics books to be burnt. With a bar chart one might wonder what the students thought of their changing academic fare; with broader archive-combing research one can provide the start of an answer.

The start of an answer, because one could also comb through more student publications for opinion pieces, through student diaries for candid reflections, through lecture notes for the level of detail students paid attention to.

This week we thought a lot about how we want our final project to feel. We’re still debating at the drawing board, but one harmony we’ve thought worth having is that balance between between skeletal data and more fleshed-out context. Charts and figures are fine, but they offer a black-and-white line drawing that student quotes and historical anecdotes color in.

Numerical data is not a dead end, but it’s not the be-all and end-all either. As I go forward fascinated by learning at early Amherst, I want to answer my questions by pairing statistics with snapshots of student life. I’ve spent a lot of time with my nose to the grindstone, crunching numbers and cooking them into graphs, and it’s about time I look up and see the rest of the archives still waiting for me.

Another One! (Blog Post or Research Interest? You decide :)

Somehow, the interval between these blog posts seems too short. However, on taking the time to pause and think about the material we have covered in the span of a week, I realize that I have more to write about than I initially thought. Nonetheless, the challenge remains to articulate my thoughts in a comprehensible, concise way. I will make an attempt.

Last week was my favorite week of the internship yet – a close second to the textual visualization workshops week. What made last week most exciting was the freedom to explore new areas of interest in the Archives, and also the challenge to self-teach Gephi and to lead a workshop on it. Both experiences truly synthesized what we have been learning for the past few weeks: how to approach research systematically and eficiently, and the application of research tools to data collected in research. Having to teach the Gephi workshop also highlighted the strengths and potential of our intern team, which is exciting now that we are diving two-feet into our final research project for the internship. It’s sink or swim from here!

Emma, Katie, Amanda, and I have thus far worked efficiently as a team to meet collective deliverables expected of us each week. Our research interests of the early College library, catalog collection, social network, and architecture respectively between 1821-61 have shaped our approach to working on team proposals. We have worked by delegating portions of a deliverable according to these varied interests to cover as much ground as possible. The challenge now is to find a common theme across our preliminary findings that will translate seamlessly into a visual DH project.

At the end of last week, with the help of Sarah and Este, we brainstormed ways we can use the remaining four weeks efficiently. Our biggest challenge was the chicken or the egg problem – whether to dig deeper into our individual projects, or to focus our attention on finding common ground. The answer is neither and one or the other. There is no wrong or right answer. It’s an enigma! And so is our rearch. Having learned methodology tools to facilitate our learning, however, we can be nimble in our focus as different needs arise. This is the approach we will take.

After last week, I gained interest in looking into the ealry images of the College in the form of sketches, etches, engravings, and photographs in the 1850s, and what they can tell us about the culture and lived experiences of students, faculty and the town community at the time. Yet another rabbit hole, but an exciting one to investigate nonetheless. My hope (I have little choice in the matter) is to continue barrowing through these leads towards a larger, more fulfilling DH project.

MYSTERY DOUBLE-FEATURE: The Secrets of the Old Buildings & The Case of the Missing Theologians

This week has been a most exciting time in the DSSI world! We’ve hit the halfway mark of the internship (!!!), which means that most of our time moving forward (and most of our time this past week) will be focused on research–and gosh, am I excited! I really enjoy research. To me, it’s an adventure, a mystery, a fantastic journey that is just waiting for you to discover something new and exciting. I grew up reading all sorts of mystery novels–everything from Nancy Drew to A Series of Unfortunate Events to Sherlock Holmes and every obscure Young Adult Mystery-Fiction title out there–and have held a secret desire to be a detective ever since. Perhaps that’s why I’m so enticed by research… I can finally be a detective to mysteries that I stumble upon myself! Sometimes I begin with a mystery (as in, a research question) and sometimes I just happen to collect a ton of clues that eventually spark a mystery when lumped together. For example:

Beginning With Research Questions

Last week, I was doing more research on college architecture (big surprise) and thought it would be a good idea to collect information on each of the early college buildings into a spreadsheet. I’ve been learning so many data-driven technologies lately that I figured I could do something with the data I collected. So I created a spreadsheet that focused on each of the buildings, with categories like “Year Constructed,” “Architect,” and “Building Materials.” I realized that, despite all that I’d already learned about the buildings, I had more information on some buildings than others, and much of my spreadsheet was lacking. In a desperate attempt to get some answers, I ended up Googling something like “Amherst College architectural history” and, long story short, ended up finding an amazing website. And by amazing, I mean I was literally close to tears when I stumbled upon it, because there was just so much amazing nd information suddenly at my fingertips! It’s called the Amherst Property Viewer and, among other things, it allows you to use GIS software to find information on various buildings throughout Amherst and the surrounding area. Some buildings have more info than others, but to my delight, practically every building in Amherst with some sort of historical significance has a historical PDF record attached to it–which means that all of the early college buildings I needed information on had records! YAY! I found answers to a lot of my spreadsheet questions, and even added in some new spreadsheet categories due to the information that I found on record. There are some downfalls to the APV–such as not-so-intuitive interfaces and the fact that many of the architectural records haven’t been updated since the 1970s–, but what I eventually discovered definitely made all of the digging worth it. Nancy would be proud.

Beginning with Clues

On the flip side, I also came across some exciting discoveries by means of deduction and having some clues in my arsenal (I was apparently unintentionally channeling my inner Sherlock here, and I am not ashamed). Earlier in the week, I spent a lot of time with the 1861 Olio and created a spreadsheet that inventoried each Amherst College student from the year 1861, their home state or country, and all of the clubs/societies/fraternities that they were involved in during that year. Upon checking off the last student, I went back through my spreadsheet and noticed that there were two names who I had noted as being part of a club, Josiah Ayres and Henry F. Hills, but who didn’t match any names of students. After doing some spell-checking, rereading the entire Olio twice over, and using command-F about fifty times, I still didn’t have a clue who these people were. Stranger still was the fact that both of these “ghost sherlocknames” were part of the same club–the Bible Society–and, to make matters even more odd, there was only one other person listed as being a member of that club, a senior named Horace Parker. For a moment, I wondered if they’d died during the semester, but then remembered that a senior actually did pass away during that school year, and it was noted within the Olio at various points. So, who were these people??!!?!?!?!?!?!?!!

My first thoughts were that I shouldn’t be spending time worrying about two random people who probably weren’t going to have an impact on my research overall, and that I was just going to be wasting time looking for them. But my curiosity got the best of me, and I was bound and determined to find out at least something about them. After spending so much time inputting data about everyone else, I felt that I owed it to Josiah and Henry to at least acknowledge more about their existence than I was able to from the 1861 Olio.

I instinctively went to the bio file books in the little Archives reading room/library/awesome space; perhaps Josiah and Henry dropped out of school that semester, and I knew that the biographical books listed whether or not people graduated from Amherst or merely passed through as non-graduates. To my dismay, I couldn’t find them anywhere.

I then went to the Archives desk and inquired of any other resources that might help me find them, and was directed to another amazing book that contained student files (shoutout to Rachel! You’re awesome!)… But again, no luck. I even looked for alternate spellings of their last names (such as “Ayers” or “Hill”) since I noticed a few discrepancies throughout the Olio, but I still couldn’t find anything about either of them. To say that I was dissatisfied was an understatement–I was more heartbroken than anything else. I mean, they couldn’t have just randomly dropped off the face of the earth, could they? Well, even if they did, I wanted to know.

In one final attempt to gather more clues, I decided to Google their names and see what I could find (honestly, I often forget that Google exists when I’m surrounded by all of these primary sources… I’m failing you, my fellow millennials). Aaaaand… LO AND BEHOLD! DISCOVERIES ABOUND!! nd2

I found a digitized version of a family genealogy that noted Josiah Ayres as being a janitor at Amherst College. Sounds great, right? But the problem was that the book also noted that he died in 1860. So, four options:

  1. The book mislabeled Josiah’s death year
  2. The Olio mislabeled Josiah’s involvement year
  3. Josiah died during the 1860 part of the ’60-’61 school year and was still labeled as having been involved in the society
  4. Josiah is a ghost

Next, I moved on to Henry F. Hills, and found a bit more information. After looking through several digital resources via the Googlenator, I pieced together that Henry was a part of the famous (well, back then at least) Hills Family of Amherst. His family owned the Hills Company, which forged a fortune from their hat factory which was on present-day Dickinson Street, right between the Dickinson Homestead and today’s Amherst College Police Department building. This was exciting to me, since I had come across an 1886 map of Amherst a couple of weeks ago and noticed some sort of factory on Dickinson Street–sure enough, I looked back at the map and noticed that the factory was labeled as the Hills Company.

BUT WAIT. THERE’S MORE! Some of my digging actually landed me back at the Archives–it turns out that the College holds a collection called the Hills Family Papers, which, you guessed it, is the same family. Looking at the finding aid, I found that Leonard (Henry’s dad) built a house on the corner of Triangle and Main Street, and that Henry built his own house next door. This is where it gets really exciting… Upon reading those street names, I was pretty sure that I knew exactly which houses these were, and that they were still standing! A quick Google Maps search confirmed my hunch.

Leonard’s home currently houses the Amherst Women’s Club, and I only know this because I went on a “Let’s Explore the Town We’re Living In For the Next Four Years” walk with a friend during my freshman year at Amherst. We stumbled upon the Women’s Club and, both of us being lovers of all things old and architecturey, fell in love with the house. We then continued down the street, saw what I now know to be Henry’s house, and immediately decided that we were somehow going to buy it and turn it into a cafe-bookshop-art gallery one  day. Anyways. Henry’s house is listed in the finding aid as being the home for the Amherst Boys & Girls Club, but I remembered that, when my friend and I saw the house almost four years ago, it was pretty dilapidated–and I’ve also noticed that, a couple of years ago, it seems to have been renovated and, I’m assuming, is a private home now. Doing some research, I found that the AB&GC has moved to a rented space in the town center as of several years ago.

The Leonard M. Hills House
The Leonard M. Hills House

After looking a little more into Henry, I also found that he was involved in the Christian community in Amherst, and then remembered three short words that I’d written down earlier in the day from data in the AC Biographical Record about Horace, the senior in the Bible Society: “Studied theology privately.” When I’d read this originally, it didn’t mean much–but now, it might be the key to linking my “ghost names” to the Bible Society. What if Josiah and Henry had been doing a bible study with Horace, and ended up calling it the Bible Society? I can’t find any records of this concretely, but all of these little clues seem to at least point in that direction. This possibility is especially exciting to me, since I was involved in multiple bible studies during my four years at Amherst–perhaps we should have called them Meetings of the Bible Society!

There are still questions that I have about Horace, Josiah, and Henry, and if time allows, I’d love to do some more digging. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with the mystery that I partially seem to have solved.

All in all: research is fun, being a detective is awesome, and I think I need to buy myself a magnifying glass and deerstalker cap now.


emiT | Time

This past week has involved a lot of application of the material we have been learning for the past few weeks. Seeing the value of our time spent familiarizing ourselves with DH methodology tools and research techniques is really exciting. Yet, it all comes with a price tag.

Time. Lots of time. Time spent reading. Time spent discussing possible questions. And more time spent questioning those questions. There is no avoiding this. This is the nature of research – insightful findings come at the expense of time spent emmersing in the material and (as in our case as interns being new to the Digital Humanities) time spent learning how to approach our research topics in a systematic, efficient way.

Our work putting together a group proposal was fulfilling. Naturally, we first discussed an encompassing theme into which our individual interests fit. Emma’s fascination with the first college library overlapped with Katie’s beguilment with early learning at Amherst as viewed through the course catalogs, which in turn intersected with Amanda’s captivation with the lived experience between 1821-61, and finally my own attraction to the same topic as it relates to physical environments and boundaries between college and town. All these seamlessly wove into our chosen theme: “Early Learning at Amherst,” which captures our overlapping curiosities.

Writing individual proposals to contribute to our group abstract was as thrilling as it was challenging. I was initially overwhelmed by the possibilities within my chosen topic: an investigation into the physicalities and boubdaries of early college architecture and how it facilitated learning. Yet, I felt constricted by our chosen theme. This push/pull dynamic was mentally stimulating, yielding a project proposal that is challenging and possible to complete within our limited time frame.

My project investigates the lived experiences of early Amherst including, but not limited to, student and faculty life and the intersection between the college and town of Amherst. Focusing attention on learning at Amherst in various forms (academic, physical education, social aptitude), I will funnel my attention towards investigating the physical and social structures that facilitated such learning. Although this investigation lends itself to mapping the spaces and movements of peoples of interest over the period between 1821-61, it is not exclusively confined to place-making. An analysis of visual material, complemented by textual evidence will offer new insights into how Amherst College students, faculty, and townspeople built a conducive learning environment (both literally and figuratively) in early Amherst.

I am still a far cry from mastering DH methodologies and techniques. Nonetheless, I feel more confident to take on an individual project than I was last week. Progress, I presume, is the purpose of learning. Inevitably, however, effective research will emiT | Time. It’s important to reflect on that.

On Methods, Data, and Proposals

This week, was a particularly transitory period of the internship—we were not quite finished with methodology workshops, but at the same time, were poised to begin to construct proposals for more substantive research. This, to me, seemed like a research-process-sweet-spot: we’re pretty familiar with the tools and methods that are available to us, but it still feels like there is enough temporal wiggle-room to be really ambitious with our ideas, to think broadly and imaginatively about potential project avenues. Inevitable limits of time and practicality have not quite set in yet.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how we interpret and understand “data” as a concept. Earlier this week, we read Johanna Drucker’s article “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,” in which she identifies a need for data constructions and visualizations that are more in line with the uncertainty and persistent questioning practices that are characteristic of the humanities. Data is so often taken at face value and as fact, with little substantive questioning of any methodological underpinnings or assumptions inherent in data collection and organization practices. As I start to think about how data visualization might play into our final project, I’m also thinking about how data visualizations work and what they do.

I’ll use my current interest/proposal as an example. After spending a lot of time digging through finding aids and library catalogues, I became fascinated by the college’s original library, and its relationship to concurrent student libraries, the contents of which are documented in the archives. I decided that it would be interesting to consider the differences between student-curated versus faculty curated library collections, potentially comparing both subject matter and locations from which books were sourced in each case. As a first stab at this project, I began compiling a spreadsheet of data on books in the original college library. Immediately, I realized how much my own decisions and biases would affect the results of my research. Before I even arrived at this point, librarians decided on a relevant set of metadata with which to describe the books in the online catalogue. On my end, in order to compile this data, I had to decide which pieces of previously-created metadata about the books were relevant to my project, and also had to decide on a standardized list of subject headings under which the books could be grouped for my purposes. Just like that, I felt my own priorities, assumptions, and prior training “contaminating” the information in front of me… 

Though I have little to offer in terms of ways to rectify this conundrum—Drucker herself calls the task “enormous”—I think that a first step is to make apparent the decisions and biases that contributed to the construction of a project by outlining our methodology and research process for reader-viewers, such that they are equipped with enough context and information to examine DH projects not simply at their face value, but also from a critical/ever-questioning/humanities-informed  standpoint.

On another note, this week was especially fun because I think we really began to see where our interests might intersect or fit together to create a cohesive final project. I’m particularly excited because all four of us are so committed to making sure the final product reads as a cohesive, though multi-faceted, project, and plan to link our sub-projects to one another, compelling the reader-viewer to draw their own connections between pages. We have lots more to do–we’re still pitching new ideas and tweaking projects every day–but I’m excited to continue to draw connections and collaborate as the final proposal takes shape!

From Drifting About to Diving In

There is something to be said for wandering.

I am prone to long walks in forests, eyes flitting from mossy rock to rotten stump to staid trees. I don’t set out searching for certain creatures, so every chipmunk, starling, frog is a wondrous treasure. At times I’ll be mesmerized by flashes of blue sky between branches or the mirror world just beneath a puddle, and I’ll stand, still and silent, for minutes entranced.

That’s how these first few weeks of research have felt. Sticking, at first, to clearly laid-out paths– the Amherst College Early History collection– then wandering, traipsing out to the Dramatics Collection, to carpenters’ ledgers, to faculty minutes, or else following a flickering idea, an elusive bird, from tree to tree.

And it’s been wonderful, this welcome perusal, this pleasant wandering. But after a while, one craves a purpose, a point, a destination. Eyes seek trail markers, hunger for guaranteed views at the end of a hike.

That’s how proposals feel. We know our way around the woods, trust our garnered skills, and are ready to march on with purpose. We’re sitting around a map that we’ve half filled in ourselves and plotting out a course for the weeks to follow. It’s fun. Like kids playing at being pirates, searching for that fabled X.

There were challenges as well, of course. Narrowing down our interests into something researchable, hopefully manageable, has the pain of all the paths not taken. Finding a guiding question for our inclinations is daunting too– moving from that pure joy of exploration to the sedate pleasure of purpose can feel like a loss, even though it isn’t.

I’m glad we had, as it were, practice proposals first. I’m ready for commitment, for rolling up my sleeves and digging deep into data, but I’d not want to rush in too quickly to anything less than the perfect match. Perhaps it’s too limiting to think of the right research path as a some sort of destined affair, but, well, I’m a romantic at heart.

I’ve been hanging out a lot with the course catalogs– we’re pretty close at this point– but I’m not sure if I’m ready for that next step. There’s a lot I like about them– the endless numbers lurking beneath the surface, those statistics waiting to be visualized, the subtler questions of formatting, that culture and mentality embedded in form, and the sheer continuity and scope of them– but I can’t help but wonder what other potential matches are out there.

I am reassured that the decision is not entirely my own– I know my team will help me narrow down my options into one topic that will play nicely with their own. I’m excited to walk alongside my fellow archival adventurers into new territory.

We have disparate interests, to be sure, but our passion for this project will help us bridge those differences. And it’s crucial that we all bring together those different perspectives into something holistic. There are, in all our interests, sites for synthesis. We may need to narrow down our topics into that one thread that weaves best into the tapestry, but it’s still our own colors dancing through the whole.

weaving, metaphor, I'm so week
There’s a lot to be done, a focus to be found, paths to leave less traveled — that can feel like a lot and a loss, like laying down limits just as we’re getting busy. But there’s still plenty of time for wandering, adventuring, as long as it’s in the right direction — we’re not out of the woods yet.