A Final Monumental Reflection

“Deeds, not stones, are the true monuments of the great.”

— John L. Motley

Change is inevitable. Traits, ambitions, skillsets, ideas — they all evolve, parallel to our own growth. In retrospect, these 6 weeks have proven to be challenging, but also equally gainful. At their end, I have found novelty, both within myself and within my studies.

At the beginning of June, I felt a simultaneous sense of exhilaration and vulnerability. The Digital Humanities summer program provided me with my first undergraduate-level research experience. I was full of ideas, some of which were difficult to verbalize and give shape to. That’s where the vulnerability lay, I think. The doubt stirring underneath my consciousness, with only a few appearances, but many influences. Was my research proposal truly interesting?  Did I, as the only rising sophomore in the eclectic group, have the ability to ask questions and reach answers within the confines of 6 weeks? Was I responsibly conveying these answers through my paper and my project, or was I warping reality through the influence of my own biases?

Looking back, my desire to explore monuments across all of Eastern Europe seems rather nonsensical. I admit that at some points, when I was advised to narrow down my ambitions, I felt hurt. I hid it, but underneath my skin it spread like a mottled bruise. Too many nights in a row, I stayed up late, looking through my database and wondering what could be so wrong that I should change it. In my mind, I needed a tangible reason to change direction — generally put, ‘too broad’ was simply not good enough.

But I realize, six weeks later, that I needn’t have spent those nights in the company of a database, accompanied by a lingering sense of doubt. I should have turned towards myself, instead, and questioned my own intentions. Why had I allowed myself to accept the notion that my first research ideas should be the pillars upon which I would build an empire? Unlike the monuments that I was to examine, I was not made of stone. No. As a human being, I was meant to be swayed by the winds of change, for change is what fuels progress, and progress is what ultimately leads to growth.

Now, I am grateful for the guiding hands on my shoulders, which steered me in the direction of the right path. I remember walking down the steps of Skillman Library and allowing myself but a few seconds to be disappointed: in my over-zealous ambition, in my jumping in head-first, in the fruitlessness of close to 3 weeks worth of work. But I had seen others stumble and fall and get back on their feet right away — and that meant I was capable of that, too. So with a new-found strength in my steps, I made my way home.

Home is where my new project spread its roots, too. Bulgaria. The motherland, where everything just seemed to flow so easily, so smoothly. My research became much more enjoyable, because the monuments that I was examining — at some points, I had actually seen and touched in person. There I was, then, separated from home by thousands of miles and an endless ocean, and yet, I somehow spent my days at this home. I devoted countless of hours in finding the links between the abstract concepts of history, and the tangible treatment of monuments. And nothing could have been more fulfilling, because I had finally found my direction, and reached my place.

Six weeks later, I am returning to my motherland. And if there is one thing I know for sure, it is that I will gaze upon Bulgaria’s communist-era art (which was, once upon a time, built upon the thrones of fallen heroes and dictators) with brand new eyes.

An Ending

Scholarship is a strange endeavor, the foremost knowledge one gains from it is the realization of how severely one lacks it. The pursuit of scholarly work demands time, intellectual rigor and creative patience. And yet, once the research objective is achieved one is left convinced of the dwarfness of one’s research. To realize the potential of different or future research on my subject was the most hard hitting. Academics often, I’ve noticed, surround themselves with impenetrable hubris, maybe it is something that accompanies expertise. In that sense, I probably am not an expert. This research woke me up to the possibility of that hubris taking over my analytical faculties, an occurring I wanted to actively avoid, and I think I did. 

A little deserves to be said about the collective analytical setting of our cohort. A striking lesson that I take away from this gem of an experience is the purely analytical and conceptual merging of our works for mutual critique, not the act of critique itself but the setting that fostered an intellectually inspiring atmosphere.

Much has been talked about the specifics of my project (in previous reflections and papers), I would thus stress a little on the general, underlying theme that inspired, steered and furthered my project – the battle against mis/ill information. The lack of insight on issues, people, cultures and traditions different from one’s own could take strong, imperturbable root in the psyche of societies, much of what happened to Iran. The lack of information that surrounds conversations about Iran is astounding. I felt it to be a pity that people from one great civilization, even in the age of such access to information, are grossly misinformed about another, older civilzation. Iran’s Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove is my contribution in shaping a better informed discourse on Iran.

All in all, the journey from being mere academic aspirants to being DH scholars, the journey has been rather tiring, in the most charming way however. The flexibility of one’s ideas, I realized, is truly a remarkable trait that separates an average academic from a profound scholar. I only hope that such programs keep falling my way, and that one fine day the journey from being an ‘interested’ academic to a prolific scholar will be complete.


Until next time,

Abdul Manan

Final Reflection- Synth Guide

The Digital Humanities Summer Scholars internship has helped me to expand my interests and given me a whole new set of tools for exploring future research questions.

Having the whole of six weeks to focus on one topic has given me the opportunity to explore other interests I did not even know I had before.  Before this internship, I felt that working with online digital tools was a skill just beyond my reach.  Once I first began to work with tools like Scalar and TimelineJS, I realized that creating digital content can be a surprisingly intuitive and creative process.  Now that I am hooked on digital media in a similar way that I am hooked on music creation, this internship has added many entries to my list of academic interests.  I have even registered for an introductory computer science course in digital media and I am looking into the possibility of adding an art class in media art.  My main interest in digital media, as my project suggests, is in exploring sound.  I think I can gain multiple perspectives on this topic from different disciplines.

As an Anthropology/Sociology and Music double major, I am very familiar with using sound in a musical context, but the most fascinating and revelatory research I completed for this project was in the field of sound studies.  The idea that musical and unmusical sound can be studied throughout history in its cultural and technological aspects in an academic setting is new to me.  I think that there is a tremendous amount of unexplored potential for using digital tools to portray and explore sound. My work with different synthesizer technologies in the Synth Guide is only the tip of the iceberg for ideas that I have to explore sound in these ways.

The thing that most excites me about my finished project is that is easily accessible to others.  Unlike most of my other academic work, the Synth Guide is published online.  Beyond the fact that it is open-access, I hope that its interactive aesthetic will welcome the user and its multiple content layers will persuade them to keep exploring the site.  The Synth Guide is my first real step into the online world of Digital Humanities.  I hope that the site will connect me to likeminded individuals and perhaps serve as a small forum in the larger discussion surrounding the legacy of sound in electronic music synthesis.

Johnny Gossick

Final Reflection!

“At exactly which point do we start to realize
that life without knowledge is death in disguise…” (Talib Kweli)

From the moment we started the program, my topic was already close to me and my heart. Growing up, I never really learned much about my cultural background form my parents and this always left a void for me. As most curious childs/teens, questions like “who am I?” and its numerous variations can very much swell our very being. The lack of positive representations of Islamic societies and the way in which my early education tended to minimize these alternate histories only made that void wider. It took time for me to really understand how I could access information on these narratives and, for me, this project has been a step in that longer process. As I don’t want to over essentialize cultural heritage as being born “within,” rather than a thing that is taught/learned, I am very happy with what I was fortunate enough to have access to learn and explore.

The things that I have learned throughout this program have definitely been more abstract than tangible. While I am extremely happy to have learned how to use Neatline, Omeka, and ArcGIS, I think learning how to manifest my ideas in such a short amount of time has been very rewarding and important. It’s hard to really separate the tangible from the abstract because even in the process of learning tangible things like how to use ArcGIS or Neatline, I was also re-working on abstract things like the value of patience, humility, and being able to sustain a long-term vision in order to overcome short-term obstacles.

When I think about my experience with this program, I think that the timing is definitely something I would have changed. Even just an extra two weeks would really go a long way with such a big task as creating a website. Also, while the individualized tool review/live demo was very helpful, I think maybe having a group session where we mess around with a tool can also be useful just in terms of building confidence. I know for me, I was very intimidated with the tools I had to use and maybe getting my feet wet with the class as a whole would have helped demystify the complexity of some of these tools. However, at the end of the day this was an independent project, so either way I think I learned what was intended.

Moving forward, I will definitely hold the lessons and tangible skills/information I have learned close to me. I am happy to say that I will be pursuing further research on a similar topic to what I did in the program. I plan to do research during the semester on Yemeni identity in relation to Indian Ocean history and post colonial studies. As Yemen is much larger than Hadhramaut, it will be interesting to learn more about other parts of the country’s history and how migration, the political landscape, etc. are connected with identity.

Overall, all the failures I had during this program were not really failures. I don’t think there was ever a time that I didn’t learn something that if not immediately applicable would help me in the long-run academically and also in life. Even the presentation affirmed the importance of being able to express myself clearly and concisely, because even the best of projects can be overlooked if not presented optimally. I am very happy with how my project came out and the atmosphere we were able to build during our time, and I hope that this continues with future members of the program and DH community!

Last reflection!

When I embarked on this internship, my main emotion was doubtful. Was I good enough for the program? Was my idea scholarly or simply “cool” enough? Did I love my topic enough? What even was my topic? I knew that I would have many opportunities to narrow down my project, but the anxiety that came with my family and friends asking me “so what exactly are you doing this summer” and not quite having an answer still accompanied me going into the summer.

Once we got started, the value of throwing myself deeply into meaningful work assuaged my fears and doubts significantly. Here I was, finding roots and a context for my topic. I was enjoying delving into research, collecting data from the newspapers, and thinking about ways to visualize my data. The low point came midway, like most of my peers, when I was basically told that I had no true argument or scholarly basis behind my project. However the harsh critiques compelled me to create much better research that gave me more time to spend on my project as a whole. I’m finishing confidently, proud of myself, and defying all the doubts I had along the way by completing my project, ready to talk about it and present and write about it to whoever will listen.

In class we talked about what we had learned from this project. The intangible aspects are hard for me to put into words, but I will attempt my best to describe and connect them to some of the guiding questions. Perhaps the largest takeaway from this project was how much I simply learned, despite that seeming like a cop–out answer. I think back to last summer, where I worked three days as an intern and four days as a waitress. I certainly was busy, and enjoyed the work I was doing–but I remember missing the intellectual engagement of Lafayette and the classes. This program allowed me to immerse myself in the act of learning, in learning for the sake of creating something exciting and new that I would not have anticipated myself being able to create even a few months ago. I grew as a student and scholar, giving me a new perspective on what it means to research. No longer do I define it by the typical classroom definition of research. Instead, I see research as an act of creation–particularly digital humanities research. Perhaps that is how I would define digital humanities–research where you create beyond the written word using digital tools. However, I do not see DH as its own field, but rather see us at a time in academia where the direction research is headed is toward digital, and DH is an intermediate movement to help scholars get there.

Continuing on the thread of intangible learning, the other main takeaway I want to discuss is the collaborative nature of this program. There was something comforting about having seven other people to look to who were going through the same ups and downs as I was. It was also really helpful to be able to see how other people’s projects were coming along and transforming. This is not a program one can go at alone. However, I do wish we did more feedback earlier on, especially related to the project. I have some other thoughts on how to improve the program as a whole. Initially, I thought that more time was definitely needed for the program, but since it’s the last week and everything is basically finished, I’m not so sure anymore. I definitely think redistributing when things happen would make the six weeks still sufficient. Most importantly, I believe that shifting the librarian critiques and solidifying a research question and thesis as soon as possible is crucial to making the process less stressful. It would also allow for everyone to have a more cohesive concept as to what their project would look like earlier on. Another suggestion I have is to meet more often. I found that the independence to work on my project was nice, but it did make me feel a little lost with so many hours to myself. I think an additional lab hour would be helpful, since times to do focused work were really helpful.

To shift to my project itself, the question of how my love for the topic has changed is a very interesting one. Certainly my love for The Lafayette has taken a different shape. There is certainly something about learning the history of something that makes you love it even more. Going through the archives of The Lafayette made me feel both connected and disconnected to those on the paper who came before me. I felt connected because I saw the struggles and joys we go through currently reiterated in past decades, and disconnected because the student body at Lafayette is so different now–there is no universe in which I would be in charge of design for The Lafayette in the 60s and 70s. But overall, it was fascinating to me to see how the newspaper has changed, in ways I mentioned in my conclusion and in simpler ways that are cool to me from simply being on the paper. Despite not being involved with the writing/content aspect of the newspaper, it still makes me want to take the best parts about previous incarnations of the paper and put it in our current one.

My project has also made me think more critically about the nature of political engagement I looked at in my research. Certainly academic engagement with politics is not bad, but is it really activism? As in–is it going to make wide changes to systemic issues like protests did? I really do not have answers to this whatsoever, but it’s certainly interesting to think about. But going back to the idea of love–I know for certain that I love the questions my project leaves me with. Perhaps they will sustain my desire to learn into the rest of the summer.

Losses and Gains

There is a word in Greek that I am found of, ἀπορέω, which means something approximating “to be at a loss.” From it we take the word “aporetic,” which means to “inclined to doubt” and also “aporia,” more or less “puzzlement.” But I like the original phrase, “to be at a loss,” which is an odd construction in English, mimicking the phenomenon it describes. The gaps, the losses, lead us to puzzlement, skepticism, and also wonder. But first we have to admit a loss.

This is what I wanted for you: to begin to articulate questions and to articulate them in many ways. I wanted, at the beginning, for you to write about your personal interests in your topics because that is how you know that there are stakes to the work that you do. I’m proud to see that, even though your topics were narrowed, you didn’t (apparently) lose interest in the ideas surrounding them. That you began to see scholarship, digital and other, as a conversation, not a soliloquy. At some point all of you realized that to do what you wanted to do well, you were going to have to (a) rely on the grounding work of other scholars, and (b) to resolve not to do everything. That is the best ethos to have as a true scholar, a true researcher.

And in the same way, I was glad to see your methodologies reflecting your priorities. Building where you could and relying on the tools of others to finish or display or reveal what you couldn’t, in this time frame, on your own. My hope was that you’d see building not just as an afterthought, but as intellectual work that could enrich your thesis or work against it. As a teacher, I have room to grow here, in figuring out how to introduce tools, allow exploration and choice, but also to deeply explore the impact that each choice you make while building has on the overall argument. In the future I’d like to do more “user experience” workshops, where students test out each other’s work and try and deconstruct the visual arguments.

At points I wondered about my positioning. These are your projects; this is your work, from start to finish. Sometimes I wondered if I was pushing you enough; sometimes I wondered if I was not giving you enough freedom. These are smaller questions deriving from a bigger question: what am I offering you? Is it enough? I hope you can answer the smaller questions for me in the evaluation tomorrow. The bigger one is a landscape for me to revisit over and over.

The hardest week, for me, was the week I was away, and perhaps the first class of my return, when morale was low and I felt you all swimming with newly-refined topics, surrounded by drifting old-datasets and tools. I am so glad my colleagues came to class, because it is a good reminder to me that I am not an expert, either, and that I, too, benefit from opening up my “project” (the class) to other eyes. Your theses were so much better for it.  

The best insights I had during this period came not from the readings or writings but from my students. You all said, in your presentations, papers, discussion, and panel responses, things I wish that I had thought to say. How little our work is in the wide-eyed scope of works before and after us, this collective litany of failures (Joe), and yet how valuable, to have the privilege and luxury to read and meditate on a question we love (Abdul). How community is essential (Mila), because it makes us better. To employ a Biblical metaphor: iron sharpens iron (but also, equally as important, solders soften iron, hammers and tongs bend iron, and so on and so forth). We are not only about sharpening but also about expanding and narrowing and making something solid and beautiful. It’s a lot of work, and we need others.

To that point, we, as scholars, participate in something that extends before us (Tawfiq) and could extend beyond us, with a transparent process and a degree of generosity (Will). How, at this moment, looking at the world, we have to first acknowledge our understanding is incomplete (Jillian), and that the terms we use to voice our understanding change over time (Caroline). In order to pin down anything, we have engage our critical, our common, and our musical (broadly speaking) selves with our work (Johnny).

I care very much about what you made; I care even more about you. I’m at a loss to say more.

Congratulations on finishing a very small thing. I hope this is just the beginning.



Last Reflection — Supreme Court Project

As the digital humanities program comes to an end, a lot of questions I had about my project in the beginning still remain unanswered. I thought I had realistic views for what I would be able to do within a six week time span, but even those proved too vast. Besides that, I wasn’t able to draw any concrete conclusions from my topic modeling analysis. In a big way, I’m left with more questions now than when the program began (What would happen if I increased the sample size? Limited certain variables? What else is there to know about the Supreme Court using the topic modeling approach?).

But I think that is the nature of research: more research leads to more questions leads to more research—the cycle continues. It’s something that I’ve learned throughout my education that’s only been reinforced by this program.

I think, though, that the digital humanities program really enhanced my research skills and ability to narrow down a topic. Within a short period of time, I was able to familiarize myself with the ideas and well-respected authors in an academic community. Now, when researching other topics for class and my future employer, I will be able to use these skills to have a full understanding of whatever I am working on.

Narrowing my topic was painful, but necessary. After realizing the amount of research I would have to do just to do a narrowed version of the project I originally envisioned, I was already stressed. But more importantly, narrowing an idea to something that one will be able to do quality and sufficient research on is essential to learn. In order to do a project right, one has to do justice to the scholarly research that came before, and that would be much, much more difficult with a larger scope. It is imperative to understand these limits and judge time frames realistically when approaching problems so one can plan ahead and realize the work he or she must do.

I do still wish that the digital humanities program was a few weeks longer. Doing a project in five weeks (with the sixth week for presentations) is stressful and can feel rushed. With more time, I would have been able to perfect my web scraper and get a larger sample size of Supreme Court cases. And, if the group were to meet and get feedback from the other librarians earlier in the process, our research would have been more focused and our expectations for our project would change sooner rather than later.

A lot of the work in digital humanities involves learning how to approach topics with the right tools. Although I don’t think my thoughts on the digital humanities have drastically changed over the course of this program—perhaps because I was exposed to some of these projects and this community before the summer—I have a greater respect for the intellectual challenge of picking the right tools to present one’s data. In many cases, the way in which someone presents an argument can be an argument in itself. Digital tools have enabled scholars to express their ideas in new ways, and those decisions that academics make when presenting their projects should also be viewed as academic challenges.

When I think about the skills I will carry with me after this program (besides tangible ones like knowing Python and WordPress), the one that stands out the most is the confidence to do a substantial amount of research alone and independently work on my own ideas. More than ever, I feel that I know how to approach a topic, what questions to ask about it and how to find out new information. I think this skill is invaluable practically, in the work force, or for just being able to ask the right questions in everyday life.

And I can now use this skill to answer the leftover questions I have about my project. With more time, I can work independently to see what would happen if I had a larger sample size or limited the cases by issue. Going forth, I hope to add more to my project and continue to question and research in other areas of my life.

The Beginning of the End

As I reflect back on this process I feel nostalgic, but also excited for the future. I learned so many valuable things not only about my topic, but myself through this journey. I was challenged but I overcame, I was nervous but I persevered, and I was lost but then I found myself. Originally, when I was deciding on whether or not to apply to this internship I felt confused about digital humanities and was unsure if my topic and my science background could even be enveloped by this world. Nonetheless, here I am. I am moving forward and have worked hard on my project and dove head first into the world of digital humanities and it was an experience that I truly will hold dear to me. Looking back to where I began I was initially very nervous coming into this experience. I felt great anxiety because I am a science minded individual and for me I felt out of place surrounded by humanity majors. Many of my peers and the staff we worked with were well versed in not only beautiful and unique languages and cultures, but also spoke with such fluidity and elegance on their topics or specialties. This to me was intimidating at first. However, as the weeks went by and my project developed and became more clear I began to gain confidence. I was challenged by the technology I had to use, but I practiced and played around with the software until I could finally get it to perform the way I wanted. I was nervous that people would not like my project because it was science based, and everyone else’s was more humanities based. I became lost several times along the way, but eventually managed to regain my course with some soul searching, web browsing and a little help from my mentors (Sarah and Doc R). As this journey comes to a close I know it is not really the end, but actually the beginning. The beginning of my journey onward, out into the real world with a big problem to face. Tackling environmental issues is not an easy task and can become extremely depressing when things just seem to keep going from bad to worse. However, the skills I have learned in this course have added a whole new dimension to me as a future scientist and also, they have opened up new possibilities with how I can challenge and take on environmental problems. I began this journey googling endlessly what digital humanities actually meant and could not find an answer. I now know that digital humanities does not have just one answer, and does not simply encompass one field. It is a diverse, intriguing and welcoming community and the term can only be defined by each individual digital humanist and what it means to them.

Sarah’s Reflection

My scholars, here is something to read and think about, as you encounter frustrations that may feel like ends more than generative spaces.

Be capacious, allow room within yourselves for all that you do not know.



“The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.

We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end.

There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. “What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. “You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.

It is as true of vision as it is of justice — distorted, flat, horizontal worlds become more full when we accept that the limit of vision is the way we see unfolding, infinite depth. Painted and printed images used to be just flat bands of color until the invention of perspectival construction and with it, the vanishing point — the void, nothing, the start of infinite possibility. Moving toward a reality that is just, collectively and for each of us individually, comes from a similar engagement with an inbuilt failure. A fuller vision comes from our ability to recognize the fallibility in our current and past forms of sight.

The moment we designate the used or maligned as a state with generative capacity, our reality expands. President John F. Kennedy once mentioned an old saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Failure is an orphan until we give it a narrative. Then it is palatable because it comes in the context of story, as stars within a beloved constellation.

Once we reach a certain height we see how a rise often starts on a seemingly outworn foundation. . . .

When we take the long view, we value the arc of a rise not because of what we have achieved at that height, but because of what it tells us about our capacity, due to how improbable, indefinable, and imperceptible the rise remains.”


Read More through The Rise by Sarah Lewis, or here at Brainpickings.org:

Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Crucial Difference Between Success and Mastery

The Charming Setback(s)

The real thrill of an academic endeavor lies almost entirely in trying to scale the mammoth walls of conceptual and logistical impediments. If every nuance of a concept is simply accessible, not to be confused with a nuance that is explained simply,  the researcher’s adrenaline ceases to flow. The past week saw much brooding, for hours altogether, to construct cogent, detailed arguments in support of the founding thesis. In re-examining, reevaluating and intensely cross questioning my own argument, the frailty of it became more evident than ever. There is a strange sense of achievement in locating the fragility of one’s own argument, I learnt. It’s thrilling. Discovering a flaw in the conceptual machinery of one’s work, besides being rewarding in the longer run, is much like an adrenaline shot, dramatizing the proceedings that one could otherwise mistakenly consider ‘boring.’

At the technological end, unprecedentedly, there has been much progress. The “elusive first crush” is beginning to confide into her suitor which is progress of a kind. I did however realize that the grandiose manifestation of the project that I have in mind seems unlikely to transpire into reality. But, the shape that my project might/will actually take is equally effective and inviting if not as seductive.

To the impediments and the thrill to/of overcoming them, and also to our imagination taking palpable shape, let’s raise a toast.