Mapping Walden

Group Members: Clare Corbett, Jenna Doolan, Madyson Gillanders, Sophie Schapiro, and Tayler Thompson

The purpose of our project was to create a map to display the locations Thoreau mentions in Walden. We chose the places we felt were most essential to the text. Creating the map allowed us to put together images and names of the locations to visualize the places in Walden instead of just imagining them. The map also allows us to see where locations are in relation to each other. We are able to see where the locations he visited are in comparison to Walden Pond and compare this with the approximations of distance he gives in the text. Creating the map helped further our understanding of locations that were important to Thoreau and share this information with others.

Of course, we had to breakdown the creation of this map into different steps. To begin, we had to read both Walden and Selections from the Journal in their entirety to curate a list of places from both texts. We found that Thoreau mentioned quite a wide array of locations, which is somewhat surprising since most believed he lived in complete solitude. We divided up both texts to ensure each group member was doing equal amounts of work. Once assigned our sections, we each created a list of places that were included in the texts. After making individual lists, we combined our hand-picked places into one list. Afterwards, Dr. Schacht provided us with a list that was generated by the text-mining package, Spacy. This list included every place (and some just capitalized words) that was mentioned in Walden. This contained around 300 words; some of which we had missed, but we knew we had to narrow down the list. Our next step was to review the lists and delete every place that was not near Walden Pond and Thoreau’s cabin. Our next task was to put these places on a map. For places not already documented on Google Maps, we read their quotations in Walden and consulted sites like The Walden Woods Project to come up with a general location of each location with respect to Walden Pond. Next, we wrote descriptions on each place point on the map in regards to their significance in Walden, Thoreau’s life, and the world. Once we completed this step, we made sure to include a photo of each location to make our additions more detailed. Finally, we created comments in the margins of Walden where the places were found with a link to each point on the map and added a permalink for these comments to each description on the map. This was done so that while looking at the map, the direct quote in Walden could be accessed, and while reading through Walden the map could be accessed to give readers an image of where this place would be within Thoreau’s Walden. Although we worked as individuals for a majority of the time, we also worked as a group to check for consistency and detail.

As we progressed through the creation of our map, we did run into some challenges along the way. As mentioned, our group received a list of every place that was mentioned in Walden. This list was very useful when picking out the majority of places that Thoreau did frequent and visit. However, the list generated over 300 places, the majority of which did not have much significance in the text, such as India, China, and the Finger Islands. It did take time as a group to comb through the list and eliminate places like these. After this was completed, we needed to eliminate a variety of locations that Thoreau may have went to, but described in little detail. The goal of our project was to take the viewer on a ‘Virtual Tour’ of Walden, and to provide photographs and descriptions for significant places throughout the text. If we were barely able to describe the places on the list, we decided that it would be best to not include them on our map. Additionally, with certain places that we did choose to include, there was no geographic location for them in Google’s database. An example of this is Walden Woods. Walden Woods does exist, as it surrounds Walden Pond, however, there was no marker predetermined for it on Google Maps. We had to draw a line around the outskirts of the woods, and this took time to figure out how to effectively do this. While there were aspects of this project that were relatively simple, we still faced roadblocks that we had to resolve as a team in order to move forward.

Since none of us have ever used Google Maps before, we were determined to figure out how it operates and what features it has. In the process of doing this project, we learned that we can make the map either public or private. We also learned how to embed visuals and descriptions, which was helpful when sharing important places that Thoreau discussed throughout Walden. Google Maps is a great learning tool to utilize and it makes it so that people who view our map can visualize how close in proximity some of the places Thoreau mentioned are. Another great feature of Google Maps is that it can easily be facilitated to make other maps, whether it be for educational or personal purposes. While connecting our map with the text, we also discovered that we could make the link shareable so that other people reading the text have access to the map.

After researching the places mentioned in Walden and Selections from the Journal, our group gained a deeper understanding of Henry David Thoreau. During his younger years, he was educated at Cambridge College, representing the fact that he was very intelligent. Before officially settling at Walden, Thoreau spent a significant amount of time exploring the area surrounding the pond. This led to his decision to find solitude in the woods. While most people might think that he stayed at Walden during the entire time he was secluded, he actually left his cabin and the area of Walden on multiple occasions. Thoreau mentioned places on land and bodies of water throughout the world that he visited and researched. His detailed descriptions of these places shows that he knew a great deal about the United States and other nations. Thoreau’s love for nature and travel translated into his extensive journals about his time at Walden. This information allows readers to gain a better understanding of Henry David Thoreau’s life.

Check out the map:

My Life in Folders

As illustrated in my first blog post of the semester, I would consider myself the exact opposite of being “technologically inclined”. Before beginning my journey to technological greatness in the beginning of this course, I had very basic skills of computation (I essentially knew how to use Google and Microsoft Word efficiently).

Since then, however, I have acquired many skills with my computer. While I have learned how to navigate and operate advanced computer applications like Virtual Box, Atom, and Omeka, the most groundbreaking skill I’ve learned so far in this class may seem rudimentary. In this class, I have learned how to make and use (wait for it) … a folder.

I will give you a moment to react. Laugh, show it to a friend, become genuinely concerned for my well-being, these are all reasonable responses. However, before taking this class, this is quite literally a skill I did not have and never thought to learn how to apply. Work saved to my computer were regularly titled with “My name, the title of the class I was taking, the name of the assignment, and the date”. All files were simply saved in my documents folder (pre-installed on the computer) and searched for in the search bar every time I needed access to them. While these bits of meta data were beneficial, I was not being as efficient with my computer as I could have been; and that’s exactly what this class, Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age, was supposed to help me in doing.

To quote Jeffrey Pomerantz in his novel Metadata, “a roomful of books is not a library”. Before my application of folders, my computer’s File Explorer was this roomful of books. Now, I have separate folders for every class I’ve taken, even with subfolders within them to separate and organize different units. This simple skill has made the way I organize my work significantly more efficient and easier to access, similar to the way meta data is categorized in a library.

Technically speaking, this was not a hard skill to learn. My very first Atom journal, titled “How to make a folder in Windows!”, contains literally two steps. The first, “Click new folder tab at the top left for standalone folder”. The second being “To create a folder within a folder, right click on an existing folder, then click new, then click folder”.

Conceptually, however, my application of this skill connects deeply to the topic of meta data and organization. To refer back to that “roomful of books”, a library would not function without methods of organizing meta data like this. In a library, books are shelved in categories like genre, and subsequent sub categories like author, and title. These bits of information in turn creating a call number. This method has been used by librarians for thousands of years, and we would virtually not have libraries without it.

In addition, the skill I learned from learning how to make folders was not simply to press a few buttons to create a folder. It was, in fact, how to apply these folders to my computer’s filing system. With each folder now comes a class name, with each sub folder a unit, and within those sub folders came my work. In essence, I have since created a library of my own works and writing, containing the basic means for a call number, and that’s pretty cool (if I do say so myself).

Besides ease of access on my computer, the application of this new skill has truly affected the way I think in the “big picture”. Upon realizing how much more sense it makes to organize files based on categories of meta data, I have begun to think about what other metaphorical “folders” I could create in my life. The way I take notes has changed, I now outline topics in the form of topic, subtopic, sub-subtopic, and so on. Even the way my drawers are organized have changed. I now have a clothing drawer for just my pants. Within that drawer, a section for yoga pants, a section for jeans, and a section for dress pants. While this may seem insane to some, my life has become organized entirely by meta data, both metaphorically and literally, down to my underpants.

This application of a simple computer skill to my real life is exactly what I’ve come to learn the digital humanities to be. The metaphorical bridge between technology and life as we know it. Essentially, our world is composed of information. In digital humanities, we work to apply this information to ourselves and the human condition. However, without an understanding of simple organizational methods using meta data, sorting and working to understand this information would be fundamentally impossible.

Me and My Computer: A Toxic Relationship

As far as I’ve ever been concerned, computers and general technological work have been a source of constant struggle and frustration. The first computer I ever owned, at the ripe age of five, was a 1999 Dell Dimensional. Bought at a neighbor’s garage sale, this piece of machinery is probably in a museum now, regarded as the slowest and most nonfunctional computer in history. This computer (which was sans internet due to my parents’ legitimate fear for me and my two brothers surfing the web precariously), was used primarily for the applications Microsoft Word and Paint. The fond memories I have of this technological masterpiece we dubbed the “Kid’s Computer” (because of it’s lack of operation and primary users being myself and my two brothers), are predominantly comprised of me spending the entirety of my allotted thirty minutes hitting the side of the monitor, slamming on the keyboard, and screaming just about every bad word I knew to really let the computer know how I felt. As you can probably imagine, having this be the start to my relationship with computers was not especially beneficial, as well as super annoying to my poor parents.

To get an image of what this bad boy looked like

In the fourteen years following, I have learned little about computers. I have always tried to avoid extensive use of these elusive machines. For the most part, my computer’s sole operation has been for online shopping. This strategy worked well for me for a while, but proved to be incredibly difficult, and quite frankly very frustrating, to maintain when I started college. In my first semester of collegiate education, my laptop was mainly used for Microsoft Word and Google. Microsoft Word to type up important papers, and Google when I didn’t know how to perform a certain function in Microsoft Word. Whenever I needed assistance beyond Google, I would contact a close friend of mine (who builds computers for fun) or bother the associates at Milne Library’s CIT Help Desk for hours.

It was in a physics lab when I realized I couldn’t keep up this inability, and truthfully, fear to use extensive computer functions forever. In this lab, we were required to enter several data sets into Microsoft Excel and produce multiple different graphs and tables. While our lab instructor did walk us through basically every step, the lesson was fast paced (assuming that most people of college-age have used Excel before, a fair assumption to make), and apparently easy for me to miss one step and become completely lost. I called the instructor over to my desk a total of eleven times that day. Eleven times. I asked myself the question, “Is it acceptable to cry during a lab out of confusion and frustration?” About an hour in, I found that my personal answer was indeed: yes. After this incident that I’ve deemed the “Excel Debacle”, I concluded that I needed help. I want to work as an English teacher after graduating college, and in today’s ever changing technological world, it is essential that I learn basic functionality with computers.

While browsing Geneseo’s course catalog for the 2019 Spring semester, I came across this class: ENGL 340: Lit & Lit Study in the Digital Age. I didn’t know quite what this meant but knew that it would most likely have something to do with computers. This fact, of course, intimidated me. However, having known Dr. Schacht from a previous course, I knew that his passion for technology and indefinite willingness to assist his students may just be exactly what I need in my journey to learning how to use my computer more efficiently.

Upon entering said course, I learned quickly that I would learn much more than basic computational functions. In fact, our introduction to this course was focused heavily upon the “digital aspect of the humanities”. My instinct was to question this. Being a life-long lover of the humanities, and self-proclaimed humanist, I was dumbfounded by the correlation between the digital age and the humanities. How could something with such a strong focus in before computers were even a thought harmonize with the digital world? Throughout the introductory weeks of this course, I have learned the basic association between these two elements. Humanists are essential to technology in order to give humanistic meaning to the mathematics and computing that works behind the scenes in computers. However, I am admittedly still unclear of the deeper meaning of the connection of these elements. Nevertheless, I am excited about the prospect of what this class, Lit and Lit in the Digital Age will teach me about both the inner workings of my computer, as well as the humanistic relationship to the digital age. Hopefully, after the conclusion of this course, Geneseo’s CIT employees will be seeing a lot less of me!