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

Initial Thoughts on A Summer in Digital Scholarship at Amherst College

From a young age, I have been intrigued by the faces and places of the past–as a child, I visited various historical museums, found a home within the pages of historical fiction novels and films, dreamt of finding a time machine or Narnia-like wardrobe, and spent hours poring over the diagrams, photographs, and first-person accounts that I found in my history textbooks. I loved how I was alive in the same world that so many others had once been alive in, and that, while most of the people and events that I was learning about had passed on, handprints of those people and events still impacted my own life however-many years later. I often found myself thinking of historical figures as friends who I’d merely lost touch with, and, as a native of Buffalo, New York, I loved comparing old photographs of Buffalo to the contemporary land and cityscapes that I lived in myself. For me, exploring history was merely a step in discovering where my life and other lives intersected in this big world that we live in.

Imagine my excitement when I arrived as a first-year at Amherst College: an institution of higher learning that was literally built into the historically rich (for better or, oftentimes, for worse–but that’s another discussion) hills of Western Massachusetts. Naturally, I yearned to learn as much as I could about the place where I would spend at least four years of my life, and took every possible chance to absorb information pertaining to the College on the Hill. During the summer of 2016, I became especially interested in the first few decades of the College’s history, and spent time over the following months reading and investigating. But, alas, my senior thesis was then birthed into the world, and as I’m sure I’ll learn whenever I become a mother to a human child, I found that much of my life became re-centered on Caring for My Thesis rather than Pursuing In Depth My Own Miscellaneous Interests. That being said, I was naturally overjoyed when being offered an internship in Frost Library where I would not only be able to explore Amherst College’s history on a deep level, but where I would also be laboring within the framework of the Digital Humanities, a field I’ve been slightly dipping into here and there over the past couple of years.

So far, I have only experienced two days of my internship, where I’ve spent much time exploring information pertaining to the early years of Amherst College. Rather than not having much to say due to how early in the game it is, my mind is absolutely packed with ideas, questions, interests, and random-bursts-of-thought–one of which is, “I could spend the next several decades within the walls and webpages of Frost Library and still not have enough time to explore all of the projects that I’m already forming in my mind.” What a great first day-and-a-half, no?! To make it easier for both you and me (For you: to be able to coherently read my thoughts. For me: to be able to coherently assemble my thoughts), I’ve provided a list of some of these items below:

Topics of Interest on Amherst College, 1821-1861

  • Campus Life
    • Student uprisings
    • Class divisions and rivalries
    • Hazing culture
    • Sports and their impacts
    • Fraternities and their impacts
    • Women involved with the College
    • Amherst students of color
    • Christian revivals
    • Personal narratives and accounts (students, faculty, townspeople, etc).
  • Education & Intellectual Endeavors
    • Relationships between students and faculty
    • Role of the arts and visual media in education
    • Role of Christian ministry and missions in education
    • Amherst as an educational opportunity for low-income students
  • Architecture/Landscape of the College & Town
    • Interaction between students, faculty, and townspeople
    • Architectural development of the College
    • Impacts of the College on the town (cultural, economic, etc.)

…The list could go on, but I’ll stop here. My point is that I’ve found a vast array of topics interesting and worth pursuit–the problem is that, as I mentioned earlier, I could basically spend the remainder of my life researching all of this information and still have ideas and topics left to explore and discover. Truthfully, it seems that every time I find another interesting topic or every time I have a question answered, about six more topics or questions branch out of the original ones. On one hand, this is a problem for my adventure-and-exploration-seeking heart: I just want to learn everything I can (the good, the bad, and the ugly) in order to come to a fuller understanding of who and what Amherst College was and is, both for my own benefit and that of anyone who cares to take an interest. On the other hand, is this not an integral aspect of the beauty, complexity, and value of a liberal arts education? Having only graduated from Amherst two weeks ago, I can reflect on the past four years and say that I have more questions on my mind as an alumna than when I first arrived–and what a blessing that is!

I’ve learned to challenge, to question, to engage, and to disrupt. I’ve learned to utilize resources, to voice my thoughts, and to be critical of those same thoughts that I’ve voiced. I’ve learned to explore. I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a dead end, even when the door is locked. I’ve learned that pursing knowledge is useless unless we are willing to challenge those pursuits, learn about things we’re uncomfortable with, and humble ourselves when we realize that we don’t know everything. Pursuing knowledge is useless unless we make that knowledge accessible, and making that knowledge accessible is an integral step in making our world a more fruitful place.

Each of these things is something that time-machine-searching, old-Buffalo-daydreaming Amanda would never even have dreamt of pursuing. But thankfully, Frost-Archives-searching, old-and-new-Amherst-daydreaming Amanda is excited to pursue each of them (and more, because goodness knows she’ll discover more worth pursing) as she delves into her internship. Cheers to an incredible summer!

Coming up for Air: a Brief Recap on a Week of Research

Last week, we interns had free reign to do our own research relating to a digital project proposal for the KWE Native American book collection. This meant lots of time exploring different books and articles related to Native American studies and digital humanities tools that could be useful for our digital project. I broke up my time reading and gathering info on two broad subjects that tended to overlap as I began to hone in on what I was interested in. In the one corner, there was Native American literary history. In the other, studies related to the history of American publishing and of American print culture. In many ways it was a week of info dumping- searching catalogs for articles, skimming said articles, checking bibliographies, looking up books… you get the idea. With that said, I think an important take away from this is that there is so much to learn about the fields I’m looking at. That can be daunting, but it’s also cool to be exposed slowly but surely to something new. Anyway, I have a few more takeaways that might be best served as questions.  Continue reading Coming up for Air: a Brief Recap on a Week of Research

Men of Soul: W.E.B. Du Bois and Charles Eastman

This is a photo of Charles Eastman's "Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains," one of the many literary works by Charles Eastman in Amherst's Kim Wait-Eisenberg Collection in Archives and Special Collections.
This is a photo of Charles Eastman’s “Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains,” one of the many literary works by Charles Eastman in Amherst’s Kim Wait-Eisenberg Collection in Archives and Special Collections.

The Kim-Wait Eisenberg Collection, the newest component of Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections, is indeed a comprehensive collection of literary works from the Native American past, admirable for both its chronological and thematic breadth. However, when we walk into a collection of Native American books, what do we expect to find? In the American imagination, Native American history and experiences in the United States have centered so deeply on the relationship between Native American people and European settlers. This Eurocentric focus can come at the expense of other considerations in Native American Studies, such as the historic relationships between Native Americans and other ethnic minorities.

Continue reading Men of Soul: W.E.B. Du Bois and Charles Eastman

How in the World?

How do we, everyone working on this project, talk about the KWE Native American books collection as a whole? What sort of project and what kind of tools could make something that speaks to the whole collection? For some reason, I’m particularly interested in broad questions of place concerning these Native American books- How for instance would we present geographic- info on where these authors are from or where their books were published-in a meaningful and accessible way?

Continue reading How in the World?

Digitizing History: My First Thoughts on Digital Scholarship

What was the price of coffee in 1920? Today, for my second day as a Digital Scholarship Summer Intern at Amherst College’s Frost Library, I explored The New York Public Library’s digital initiative, “What’s on the Menu?”. Could questions like the coffee question be potentially answered through digital scholarship? “What’s on the Menu” is a crowdsourcing initiative that seeks everyday people beyond the NYPL staff to help transcribe menus from a vast array of historical periods from around the world. Eventually, scholars could easily look up specific dishes and prices in these menus rather than rely on the menu titles for their research. Evaluating “What’s on the Menu?” provided me with a platform for planning the digital program that I will work on along with other interns and library staff.

Our society seems to like binaries quite a bit, whether they are gender binaries or the academic binaries we artificially create between the humanities and the sciences. Before, I never considered technology and science as potential aspects of my professional life, confining myself in a self-imposed false binary of humanities versus science. Today, I’m starting to work with the humanities and technology side-by-side, learning to respect them as distinguishable but interconnected fields.

Continue reading Digitizing History: My First Thoughts on Digital Scholarship