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.

Reflection Four — Supreme Court

After meeting with the research librarians, I realized that I still had a lot of groundwork to still do on my project. I think they were right when they said to not think about our research tools until we had some solid research done.

During our first meeting, I narrowed down my project even more. Now, I will be choosing three justices to perform a topic modeling analysis on their written opinions. Based on their Martin-Quinn scores and propensity for language, I’ve chosen Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Antonin Scalia. According to their scores, Sotomayor is the most liberal justice on the current Court. She usually writes her opinions in plain language. Kennedy is now known as the “swing justice,” and has a flair for drama in his writing. Scalia is the second most conservative (with Justice Clarence Thomas as the most conservative). Scalia is known as one of the founders of the originalist theories and without a doubt is known for his distinctive and biting opinion-writing style.

But, still, with all this research and the deadline for the project approaching fast, I had to seriously focus on my tools, as well. For most of the day today, I focused on getting my web scraper code to work. Right now, it works for nearly every case from 2009 on, the year Justice Sotomayor joined the Court. The opinions that don’t work can be copy and pasted off the Internet.

All in all, I think I’ve had a productive week and learned a lot, but I think the quickly approaching project deadline may make me need to simplify my project once more. It will certainly be a stressful end to the first session of the summer, but I look forward to the challenge.

Reflection 3 — Supreme Court

This week has really made me realize how much I need to buckle down and get to work on my data collection and building the tools. I think right now I need to work on building a web scraper to get collect all the Supreme Court documents I need online, and put them into text files for each justice. I found a website in which the URL of each case mimics the docket number, so now I just need to write a code that will collect the documents. This should be fairly easy to do, but I will need help from computer science professors. However, that is what I will spend most of this week doing. Since I already have a lot of my research done and some of my literature review written (because my outline consisted of parts of my literature review), it shouldn’t be too hard to dedicate my time to building the code for this part of the project. After that, I just need to run the topic modeling analysis on MALLET—which I already did with the sample text MALLET came with. So, that should be fairly easy to put together. My goal for the end of the week is to have successfully collected by data and to begin the analysis.

Reflection 2–Supreme Court Project

As the due date for this project comes close, and every article I read opens up new avenues for research, I feel overwhelmed with amount of reading I have to do. However, while I still need to do more research, I think I have created a good outline for my project, and established the different avenues of research I need to look into. As I read more and more scholarly articles and books, I am noticing tangible steps forward in my familiarity with the names of prominent scholars and theories. These improvements in my fluidity with scholarly language encourage me to read more, and make my reading list seem less overwhelming. Overall, I think these first couple weeks—familiarizing myself with the literature and designing the project—will be the most challenging.

I look forward to building my research tools and coding. I hope to start doing that after I create a solid theoretical basis for my research and write a literature review. Of course, there will stumbling blocks along the way, but I think this process will be—for the most part—enjoyable, since it will combine a lot of my different interdisciplinary interests. It will also allow me to build skills I want to develop to produce the best project possible.

But for now—with the goal of focusing more on the tools needed to build my project in the future—I feel the need to keep reading as much of the literature as possible. While I will look into what tools I will use as part of my research process, the project’s final design will not come until later.

Reflection–Supreme Court Project

Although Supreme Court justices may be the arbiters countless Constitutional issues, they all are human—which means they are fallible. As Erwin Chemerinsky points out in his book The Case Against the Supreme Court, it is important not to see justices as strict interpreters of the Constitution, but people with opinions and experiences that shape their judgments. Of the many kinds of decisions it makes, the Court looks at cases in which the law and social justice intersect. That’s why it is essential to remember that those appointed to the Court have their own views on social issues and the law, which may lead to different, and many times irreconcilable, interpretations of the Constitution.

By doing a textual analysis of Supreme Court opinions, and maybe transcripts of arguments, I hope to shed some light on how justices talk about social issues. This project combines my passion for law, politics, rhetoric and technology. To present my research, I plan on creating a website that uses charts and blog posts to talk about the questions presented and track my progress. This way, it is accessible to both the general public and academics. I will use textual analysis tools, and read articles on different types of cases and social justice issues in order to look at how to approach a textual analysis and figure out what questions to ask about the rhetoric used by justices.

One big challenge will be narrowing the project’s scope. I will need to pick a time period for the Court, preferably a modern one, or look at one or two series of precedents for specific issues. To find out the best ways to limit the scope of my research, I will consult academics and texts. I am flexible on the scope of my project, but I am not flexible on making it accessible to anyone interested and answering questions about how the way justices talk about these issues may glean information on how they interpret the law (or, if their rhetoric does not glean information on how they interpret the law, what does it tell us?). Answering these questions on narrowing its scope will be the first step in figuring out how to have a project that is both interesting and manageable to be completed within the six-week time frame.