What a ride! I’ve been thinking a lot about where I was one calendar year ago, before the start of last summer’s CURI project, and the difference is enormous. I had never heard of ArcGIS, I had no idea what the letters “CSV” stood for, and the information I knew about Josephine Baker would have been summed up in a single sentence. Even thinking back to the beginning of the semester the amount I’ve learned is immediately evident. I have done battle with the mapping platforms; I have become the master of my own data entry (for better or for worse). Yet despite the fact that I can concretely list so many new things I can do now, I still feel like I’m at the tip of the iceberg. Some of this feeling probably stems from the fact that I’m still a novice when it comes to data management and a below-novice when it comes to coding. However, I don’t think that feeling is always a bad thing- after all, its refreshing to understand that there is so much out there that I could be learning. In that sense, this semester has widened the scope of how I think about visualizing history. Through our discussions with other scholars and our analysis of their projects, I have started to see how much exciting possibility there is in the world of DH. Our work in class has also made me think about how so often we aren’t trained early on to think in a “DH” style. For most of us, our instruction in geography stopped at age 12! The opportunity to read scholarship like that of Monmonier, who talks about how mapping always involves some kind of bias, has made me think more critically about the maps that I encounter in daily life. I have a new kind of “geographical literacy” in the way I now view the maps in Facebook articles and on the news, for example.
In the same way that my awareness of the field has grown, so has my familiarity with the research process. In many ways the actual research process was much different this semester than it was over the summer. Then, I was working much more heavily with primary sources- both because I was looking for information that had less scholarship published about it, and because I could read the language of the society we were studying! This time around the situation is the opposite: Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet both have extensive biographies published about them, so for the vast majority of events I didn’t need to burrow all the way down to the level of the primary source. When I did need to, however, I faced some real challenges: because I was mapping their international travels, confirming a date or location in a newspaper suddenly involved the prospect of searching digitized archives in, say, Swedish (I didn’t get very far with that one). One of the big lessons I finally (somewhat) succeeded in teaching myself was to keep going rather than getting bogged down in the details. Last summer, I would spend hours looking for the address of a now-demolished theater or something of that sort. Now, it’s easier for me to structure the process in a way that’s much more time-efficient while still maintaining the level of depth I want.
As I’ve been reflecting, I’ve come back to thoughts not only about how much I’ve learned, but also about how much I’m grateful for this project. The opportunity to do this kind of research, to get completely lost in a new field without the fear of failure, and to work closely with such thoughtful people are all things I’ll never stop being thankful for.