A Unity of Contradictions

Digital. Humanities.

–A Unity of Contradictions.

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. 

big data has a large impact on the society
The Big Data Stream

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. 


A person passing a wall of modern art installations
Installation view at Tate Modern

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.

A blackboard with words about digital humanities
The Author’s Blackboard with Notes on Digital Humanities

The Importance of Absence

So, I missed the field trips. Where that chunk of experience should be is an empty space.

I’ve been thinking about empty spaces lately and particularly the Japanese concept of ma. It’s the space between sounds, the meaningless movement between purposeful motions. It’s not an emptiness in the Western sense– it’s just as important as the action that surrounds it. It is there to strike a balance.

I’ve been thinking about it because there is a lot of material– fascinating, important, beautiful material– that won’t win its way into our final product. Depending on how we craft the site, this could feel like lacunae. Or we could make it ma.

Where big chunks of data could be, we could have tiny asides. Little amuse-bouche reflections that give a taste of what could have been a five-course meal. We’ve talked about stubs– making them purposeful and graceful, a lead rather than a lack, will be crucial.

Notice the empty sky adding atmosphere and emphasizing the rabbit rather than detracting from the whole.
Notice the empty sky adding atmosphere and emphasizing the rabbit rather than detracting from the whole.

At the same time, we must strive to avoid clutter. To accept the emptiness as part of our purpose, an aspect of our argument.

This will be difficult. It requires a patience and craft we might find lacking in the next week.

But I think it’s important. When you have a limited scope, every aspect and absence must be meaningful. If we are deliberate in our details, sensible in our silences, and elegant in our aesthetics, I think we can strike a balance between answers and questions, between argument and exploration, and between material and ma.


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.


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.

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.

Armed for Inquiry

I am not mathematically minded. After my Precalc midterm, my teacher looked at me with a mix of awe and disappointment and asked, “Katie, what happened?” I forged through Psych Statistics wielding rote memorization like a machete. No matter how many times I order the exact same meal at Fresh Side, I still have to break out my calculator app to figure out the tip.

Despite this… I love data.

I also love intuition– the spectral webs of crisscrossing themes and the cotton candy feel of abstract ideas spinning together.

But there’s something exciting about boiling down complex ideas into simple, manipulatable numbers. To see those intuitions finally concrete in scatterplots and percentages– or else thereby denied and replaced by a new realm of phantasmagoric possibilities.

This love of data has been amplified by the various methodology workshops we’ve been doing. Learning about tools like Voyant and MALLET, the ways they can act as not a substitute for analysis but as a supplement or stimulus, and looking at data visualization, the way arguments can be made in images– all of it has been exhilarating. There are so many paths to walk down that ultimately I don’t feel terrible about having to narrow it down to just a few; there are thousands of good and great options, sure, but I just have to find the right ones.

Data exists everywhere– these workshops have convinced me of that. They’ve given me a new way of looking at our archival resources– inaugural speeches can be analyzed for trends, student publications can be broken down into topics, course catalogs can be distilled into graphs, charts, numbers. I’ve always been one to value the anecdote and its place in painting abstract ideas– now I realize that as beautiful as broad strokes are, there’s also power in pointillism.

Me, looking for the right paths and armed for the expedition.
Me, looking for the right paths and armed for the expedition.

So I’m ready to move on from frolicking to focusing– both have their merits– and to start circling in on a final topic. I have all these new, powerful methodologies– I want to sic them on something.

And I feel prepared for the journey– I’ve been armed for inquiry, I’ve got a great team beside me, and I’m eagerly awaiting the challenges ahead.

After all, we’re dealing in data, and data is fun.

Brawl to Ballet (and Embracing the Battle)

Two men, two journals. Or, rather, fifteen men between 1821 and 1861 in Amherst College with an odd assortment of journals, diaries and autobiographies. Or, actually, forty years of Amherst College students living and recording their lives only to have a fraction end up in the archives, tucked away in neat little folders in dark boxes on metal shelves.

rackham mice bird pageBut for me, today, there is only Alfred and Augustus, class of ’58 and ’39, with their patterned leather-bound books enclosing nineteenth century scrawl. And even that is too broad a scope.

Augustus Wing was a philosophical mind, particularly fond of poetry and linguistics, with a keen appreciation of geography and theology and a tendency to jot down bits of history.

Alfred Ellsworth, on the other hand, is a more opaque figure. Not because his journal lacks substance– it was auctioned off with a letter noting its rich Amherst-related contents — but because, quite frankly, I can stare and stare and stare and make little sense of his slender slanting scrawl.

So I spend my time with Augustus.


The data is marshaled into precise little rows, the columns standing side by side. Each student from the class of 1825 with their hometown right up against their place and date of death. As if that weren’t already cold and impersonal enough, another sheet strips away the human touch of “Colerain” and “Woodbridge” and replaces them with lengthy strings of latitude and longitude.

But, strangely, it’s not as austere as it seems. As the numbers shift from from 42 to 33, or 77 to 89, you see a life far flung from the familiarity of home. Lincoln Clark and Robert Coffin, next to each in the class list might now be lying next to each other in their graves– both died in the Massachusetts town of Conway. And of the 31 classmates, seven of them– seven!– died in the decade after their freshman year.

The data waits, geographical coordinates ready to map across the United States patterns of concentricity and change. TimeMapper and MapStory lurk between tutorial and troubleshooting tabs, their infrastructure perfect for the task at hand. And yet…

I am thwarted. I add a layer of my data, but nothing appears on screen. Following the diagram in the FAQs, I publish my Google spreadsheet, only to have the website insistently inform me that I should try publishing my sheet. I stare at the other projects and their pristine visualizations and wonder in despair if the rest of the world will ever see the beauty in my data.


I am used to living, research-wise, in the best of all possible worlds. With all my texts in neat type, with the library making available any article I require, with Word and Scrivener and Powerpoint all mastered — with all this, I am used to threading together themes with data and established theory with original commentary, everything dressed up and bolstered by with alliteration, chiasmus, and tricolons crescens.

Now I encounter resistance in both the material and the medium, especially at the point of welding them together. For how can I honestly present a picture of student life at Amherst if there’s a rich source I neglected? How much worse will that lacuna be when magnified by the data’s presentation? Is it dishonest, as well, to use anything less than the optimal software to display the data if by doing so its representation loses clarity and possibly significance as well?

This battleground between data and its display is a new one for me, and at times I feel unequipped. Which should dictate which? Whose side am I fighting on? Am I paramedic trying to keep both armies alive, or a Valkyrie ready to whisk away the weaker to a different sort of glory?

I think, perhaps, that as I learn to negotiate that space between it will become less of a brawl and more of a ballet, methodology, data, and research questions each a moving piece but ultimately moving in harmony. That is the ideal, at least.

And as I work towards such a state, I’ll keep dreaming up research questions and digging through the archives. My naive hope at the beginning was to meld medium and material, to have one reflect and amplify the other. I realize now that the task will be more difficult than I imagined– by that only makes me all the more determined to achieve such an arduous but ultimately invaluable union. And to do so I will need an intimate understanding of early Amherst. The hard (yet easy data) of birth and death sites alongside trickier anecdotes and opinions gleaned from diaries, journals, publications, lecture notes and letters. I must be even-handed in my research, push back at the resistance, and aim to achieve a balance.

It is only fair, I think, to have one Alfred for each Augustus.


DH and Research and Mapping… Oh My!

Research is in the eye of the beholder. –Not-so-ancient proverb

When I begin a new research project, I feel very much like how I imagine the girl in this painting, A Girl Writing, by Henriette Browne to be feeling–excited by so many intellectual and imaginative prospects, but also easily distracted by the wonder of the world around me and all that I am discovering.

When conducting my own, personal research (i.e., when unprompted by a specific topic for a class exercise), I tend to begin with a topic that interests me. For example, prior to my semester studying abroad in Scotland, I thought it was a good idea to learn as much as I possibly could about Scottish culture, society, geography, history… The list goes on. I began by watching documentaries and reading travel guides geared towards tourists, with the intention of gaining knowlehttps://giphy.com/gifs/fall-unicorn-psl-scarves-legwarmers-bike-funny-cute-illustration-l2Jho5fnv7sfNAAZqdge of the basics (for example, did you know that the bicycle was invented in Scotland? Or that the national animal is the unicorn? Yeah, Scotland is pretty cool). From there, I found that I had deeper interests in specific topics, such as the clan system, folklore, and music. I also wanted to learn more about the town of St Andrews specifically, where I was preparing to study and to live. With these topics in mind, I then sought out resources (films, documentaries, books, poetry, art, and songs) to give me more information concerning them. As I discovered, questions began formulating in my mind, and I took on some side-research to find answers as I continued on. I learned quite a lot this way, and enjoyed how one topic would lead into another, which would lead to another and another… The possibilities were endless!

Today, my research methods in those types of situations are much the same, and have been guiding my first week of the internship. I’ll start with looking at a list of Amherst College presidents because I don’t know much about them, become interested in William Augustus Stearns because I lived in a dormitory named after him, read the program and speeches given at his inauguration, read snapshots of his life written by one of his colleagues, and finally end up digging through the archives to look at his personal letters… All the while finding interesting tidbits that make my mind go in a million other directions.

While exhilarating, this method can also be exhausting while not being exhaustive (though, is it really possible to ever research everything about anything?), which made Trevor Owens’ article “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities” an interesting read for me. While it may seem like the logical thing to do, I don’t usually begin any sort of research with a question–at least, not one that I’m cognizant of. Owens notes that “research questions are useful structures to organize your work and inquiry,” which is a great point, also reflects on the importance of establishing goals when doing research. Both of these points have actually been huge focuses of the last few days of this DSSI Summer, and I’m definitely seeing how valuable they are, particularly when tackling topics that are large, complicated, and laden with historical and archival material to sift through (COUGHthefirstdecadesofAmherstCollegehistoryCOUGH).

I’m quite excited to continue researching and exploring topics within Amherst’s early history–as a team, we interns have come up with some incredible questions and ideas, and the Digital Humanities tools that we’re beginning to use are already proving to be invaluable to our tasks. In particular, I’m excited about creating some sort of interactive map for viewers to engage with that connects the architecture and landscape of the contemporary campus with that of the mid-19th-century campus. GIS mapping tools could provide amazing platforms for this potential project, and I’m really thankful for the various mapping websites that we looked at (such as two of my favorites, The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City and Geography of the Post: U.S. Post Offices in the Nineteenth-Century West), which are each giving me ideas and expanding my conception of what is physically possible to create.

Screenshot from The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City, a website that utilizes GIS mapping to create an interactive map experience.
Screenshot from The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City, a website that utilizes GIS mapping to create an interactive map experience.

Moving forward, I’m eager to continue exploring answers to the questions that the other interns and I have come up with–it’s amazing that we have so many resources at our disposal, and that we’re learning so many new tools to help with researching and presenting! I can’t wait to see what we come up with!

Early Work for “Early Amherst”

The first two days have been a whirlwind of information. I think it’s fair to say that the three of us (Takudzwa will join us soon!) were blown away by the versatility and expressive power of Digital Humanities, the enthusiasm of everyone involved in this endeavor, and the endlessly fractalling potential for our project.

rackham three girls in wind

The Archives already feel like an upcoming adventure. Unassuming as the Reading Room seems, with its quiet tables and gentle book cradles, it nonetheless feels like the edge of canyon or the bottom of a mountain–  the sheer scope of the collections available (90 linear feet of student publications alone!) electrifies the air. Tantalizing too is the long list online of the special collections, the finding aids all lined up for inspection and susceptible to quick control-F.

Though it’s only the second day, I feel as if ideas for the project have been arising, colliding, and coalescing in my mind for weeks. Already I’ve jumped from Jacob Abbott to Noah Webster to Lucius Boltwood and back, eyes lighting up as the same names pop up in faculty minutes, transcribed journals, and history books. I’ve stared, puzzled, at 19th century handwriting and each author’s chirographical eccentricities, parsing out with difficulty “Athenian” and “Alexandrian,” just to have those two literary societies mentioned easily and offhandedly in Fuess’s book (along with the tidbit that people were assigned to either in alternating alphabetical order).

My questions– bifurcating with every new piece of information– are perhaps too manifold to list. Let me focus, instead, on my goals for this internship.

I am enchanted with DH theory and praxis, and I’m hoping not just to immerse myself equally in the DH world and the world of early Amherst but also to have the two inform each other.

Though I acknowledge I will be limited by the tools available and the team’s proficiency thereof, the idea of melding medium and subject matter is too much of a siren call to shake. To have the interface and experience of our project reflect its very content, to mirror the values of research subjects within their own representation, to allow ease of access and friction in ways that imitate the generation of information– such ideals are tantalizing.

But even if the quixotic remains beyond my lance’s reach, I feel certain that the cohort’s endeavors here will never be wasted. Already our ideas spark off each other’s, our passions lending new lenses to the same sources. Humorous tidbits (expulsion for chicken stealing, grave concern over oversleeping ) are shared with the same frequency as more serious discoveries, and it is rare that one observation is not met with another’s connection. I fervently hope that such academic camaraderie continues.

The final goal I’ll mention is more worldly. That I have found a field that synthesizes my love of learning with my deep commitment to effective and aesthetic communication– which I hopefully achieve in my creative writing– feels strangely both inevitable and like a windfall. The future for me– until now always somewhat murky– now opens another possible path. Though I’ve but two months this summer to immerse myself in the theory, praxis, and intellectual joy of DH, I hope it will be enough to allow me to continue further in the field.

And now, since I’ll undoubtedly have a good laugh about it when my dreams from day two meet the research and reality of the upcoming weeks, I’ll name “Learning at Early Amherst” as the topic that entices me the most and that I hope to follow. Among the possible branches of exploration are the student self-directed literary societies, the evolving pedagogy and curriculum, and the sometimes tense relationship between students and faculty. As for resources, there are a few posters, a handful of student journals, and a number of student periodicals that present a promising starting point.

In any case, no matter what direction our research pulls us in, I know I’ve a good team beside me. In a field which embraces the expansion of expression and the tension between interpretations, there is no better way to explore any subject than with a cohort ready to dive in, develop, and debate with you.

I look forward to sharing our future explorations here, and I hope my reflections may offer you something of value!

(As a side note, I intend to include an Arthur Rackham illustration in every blog post. There’s always room in the world for more beautiful art.)


Catching Sparks

Food for thought: should we strive to be like this spider?

As we fling ourselves into this stage of exploration, a stage of self-guided archival immersion punctuated by workshops and meetings, I have grown to embrace the nebulousness inherent in any research process, not least for a digital humanities project. In fact, the conversations that we have had this past week reinforce the idea that each research project, either traditional or digital, is a unique undertaking. Unlike the neat charts delineating “the components” of the research process and pointing out a progression with helpful arrows, the reality of research design is a much more complex mingling of “things.” Such things typically include research questions, goals, methods, conceptual framework, and validity (see Trevor Owens’ blogpost here), which constantly interact with each other. On second thoughts, “interact” is rather vague and sterile, isn’t it? As I’m sure we will discover in the next few weeks, they will illuminate each other, be in tension with each other, guide each other, interrogate each other; they will open some doors, shut several, keep a few ajar, lock some others, or eliminate the concept of doors entirely…

Well, that escalated quickly.

My keyword from last week, “fluidity,” applies now as much as ever. In fact, as we begin to learn about tools for digital exhibits and mapping, I find that a reasonable answer to my questions last week regarding where is the best place to start (with research questions, digital tools, interesting ideas?) is this: just start. And follow your heart/head. Yes, this is cheesy, but in a research context where time and effort are in great demand, it is important to not just pick a topic that sparks one’s interest, but to also have the courage to let tidbits lead you down a footpath with an indeterminate destination. Who really knows the destination at this point anyways?

With all this in mind, it is just perfect timing that we made our first concept maps this week. Concept-mapping is an organization tool for brainstorming. A quick Google search yields diagrams of concepts, consisting of boxes and circles connected to each other in a variety of relationships.

A “meta” concept-map

For me, who is still a child at heart, concept-mapping is basically making my own spider web. Each string can branch out to another network, connect unlikely objects, or simply hang in space. In a workshop with two Research & Instruction librarians, we learned how to incorporate concept maps into the process of generating research questions. And just like any type of research, the goal of a brainstorming session is to generate without discrimination, which means learning how to eliminate the adjectives such as: is it a trivial question? Too vague? Too vague? Too specific? Too random?

At this stage, asking questions is key. As we start to spend time with tools such as Omeka and TimeMapper, I am less concerned about how to make this a digital humanities project than just thinking about how this project will materialize. I think a Five-College Digital Humanities (DH) post-bac put it best when he told us that digital humanities simply provides a lens with which to approach research. We spend additional time to learn a variety of digital tools, but the essence of the research process remains the same as that of traditional scholarship: immerse oneself in the material, consult ancillary sources, brainstorm questions and ideas while minimizing self-censorship, thinking critically, embracing periods of confusion and self-doubt, figuring out ways to organize information- all with the hope of catching sparks.

Disclaimer: not a concept map. But still valuable.