This post details my experience of the virtual Fall 2020 semester as an International student taking up two highly demanding courses, AIT 590: Natural Language Processing and CSI 777: Principles of Knowledge Mining at George Mason University in the United States of America, during the tumultuous times of Election 2020, while working as a Digital Scholarship Digital Humanities Specialist Graduate Research Assistant at the University Libraries and Data Science Intern at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
The collective shared trauma of 2020 is yet to unravel us all in ways we cannot foresee now, but here is my attempt at processing the most manically productive season of my life during the last 6 months.
Life & Times of An International Student in the United States of America
Even as my summer internship at the Gallery was in progress, ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had a confusing statement out for us international students. Indeed I could barely function as the week progressed and it was only the kindness of my supervisors that kept me from feeling guilty about not operating at 90%. The takeaway was that if the students were taking online classes they were to do so from their home country, even the ones in the middle of their program. After some backlash and some countering from major US universities, that statement was rescinded suspiciously easily. I had decided to enroll for a hybrid (on-site and online) flexible Directed Reading and Research course with a professor on Knowledge Mining to feel safer with the possible increased restrictions. Now, the National Gallery of Art was taking the unusual step of extending my internship through to the fall semester. So the Directed Reading and Research course became titled “Museum Data Science Internship” course. While this flexibility itself was wonderful, the ideal situation would have allowed me to take up the internship as part-time Co-op – or cooperative educational experience; without having to pay for the internship experience in the form of course credits, but oh well, my university international office is only trying to protect any possible unpleasant eventualities for the F-1 student visa holders.
So now, I was going to work 10 hours a week with the National Gallery of Art, and continue as the Digital Scholarship Digital Humanities Specialist Graduate Research Assistant with the University Library, but for 10 hours. The 20 hours work restriction for international students is meant to encourage educational goals over workplace experiential ones, or so it goes.
Life & Times of A Graduate Student
My coursework was, I knew, the toughest I had had yet. Virtual coursework broke my heart initially. I thrive in the teacher’s recognition environments. I like interacting with fellow classmates and tapping into the professor’s quirks and side-stories. Eventually the wealth of time I could spend learning in more depth held more sway.
Combining the concepts in various fields to enhance the possibilities in my own interests was also an exercise in creative explorative application in practice. Computational Sciences and Information 777: Principles of Knowledge Mining was a course on machine learning, data mining, and artificial intelligence. Dr. Kennedy was also the departmental encouraging, guiding presence for my internship on the university end. I would update the professor with the various projects’ progress, taking into account the outcomes of his suggestions and his suggestions in general.
I do have a critique for the learning resources and style of concepts in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence and to a much higher degree, multidisciplinary courses like Natural Language Processing which are supposed to incorporate much much much more humanities and social sciences way of studying. Not only was ethical considerations of these tech completely lacking in this classes, they were a mere afterthought only because of the current events like Dr. Timnit Gebru’s firing. Moreover, the style of teaching must – simply MUST go beyond reading out from text-heavy presentations. It simply does not do any critical reflection, to read out from a paper or the previous instructor’s notes which are bullet points synthesized from a textbook. Digital Pedagogy could take advantage of the array of engaging entertaining setups especially Twitch Streaming, interactive tools like these Museum Education kits, interactive digital tools, and visual mini-projects. A thread on Twitter mentioned an online course offering in the name of a professor who had passed away and really, that brings in so many conundrums over what exactly students- especially out-of-state students, were paying for, when it came to higher education. I acknowledge that most educators did the best they could while at their thread’s end but my critique is for the education system with all its pressures on the whole.
Then, there was Applied Information Technology 590: Introduction to Natural Language Processing, which had no business being a 590 level graduate course. It was to be for Python beginners, but very quickly it expected us to replicate IBM Watson researchers and Microsoft Neural Networking researchers’ code, on our own. Nothing prepared me for the sheer workload that the course syllabus was indicative of. And that was after clearing an assignment or two off the syllabus! 3 hour midterms on a Saturday (at least it did not eat into work hours), moving deadlines, bonus points for on-time submission for certain assignments, and assignment submission deadlines on Sunday meant no weekend, no moment, was off this semester. Now the textbook (Jurafsky and Martin’s Speech and Language Processing) had me revisiting Pirates of Penzance, Noam Chomsky, Greek Mythology, etc. gladly. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I simply cannot in good conscience say I have learned all that I wanted to. Besides the pace of the workload being so overbearing during already tough times (read: ICE statements, the pandemic, the contentious US Election of 2020, protests back at home as well as immediate surroundings) we were being graded on discussion board assignments, our presence in class, 4 mini projects, 6 optional mini projects, reports on existing research paper reports, presentations on existing research papers, 3 lecture reports, a mid-term (on a weekend), aaaand a final working model project complete with a research paper and presentation. Whew. That was all one course. The over-extending achievement-yearning, academia-validating, teacher’s pet, people pleasing, (if it is not obvious enough already) inner child in me wanted to do my best for each and every one of them, and so I did.
The knowledge mining, text analysis, information theory analysis, natural language processing of the ancient Mycenaean Greek language Linear A was my mega-project for the semester, for both the courses with Dr. Anamaria Berea’s guidance and input. SciConnect was an interesting exercise in connecting with the entirety of college of science, especially to connect with other professors, students, via fun trivia quizzes. I got to present my projects from my internship to my department too, once again on my Digital Humanities awareness “crusade”. When I presented my internship experience to the rest of the department in SciConnect, Dr. Berea mentioned her own brilliant range of research projects and I simply had to contribute to the forthcoming Computational Endangered and Undeciphered Linguistics study. Moreover, it definitely tickled the fancy to be a researcher “deciphering” historical texts and secret code in a forgotten language a la one of those fantastical paleo-geo-archaeologist treasure hunter storylines – all from a dataset of 96 unique logograms (which turned out to be inventory of goat, olives, and the like; exciting nonetheless). Using Python and R, the corpus was run against n-gram analysis, summarization, prediction, Zipf Law, Entropy analysis, Word Embedding with Word2Vec and Cosine Similarity, as well as Topic Modeling with Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) analysis, soon to be published officially, hopefully.
The University sent in emails over every event taking place reassuring the student body and faculty of all the work going into the pandemic planning, international student support, USA specific news, etc.
To keep score, my GPA is a robust 3.78 armed with various array of CSI, CSS, AIT courses’ knowledge in my transcript and brain; 2 A+, 6A, 2 B course credit grades, and 3 major Digital Humanities Data Scientist work positions so far.
Life & Times of A Data Science Intern and Graduate Research Assistant (… At the Same Time)
I was incredibly grateful and delighted to be back at the National Gallery of Art. I set to work on the agent-based model of the visitor experience. I might go into the details of researching, understanding, communicating the model better in another post but it was an interesting exercise if quite time consuming. The main carryover from the Summer Internship was the Tableau NGA Performance and Accountability Review Visualization Dashboard updates and creating a robust data input pipeline to present to the Treasurer of the Gallery, and eventually the Director and XOs. The other projects were all about deep diving into the conservation data analysis and records text analysis. I greatly enjoyed exploring the actual art historical data that the Gallery houses. Weekly intern sessions, town hall meetings, CASVA colloquiums (including one on Mughal-era Indian Temples by Dr. Madhuri Desai!), staff coffee hours somehow fit into my 10 hours schedule for NGA. Overall I was less inclined to obsess over the details and squeezing out the most of the internship this time around, since it was a bonus round of sorts, was reduced from full time 40 hours a week in the summer to 10 hours a week in the fall, and I had other responsibilities to keep track of. Yet again, I am incredibly grateful to have gotten a extended shot at the internship experience in a cultural institution. I like to think I made a favorable case for Digital Humanities projects amongst all my conversations with various Department Heads and Museum Educators and I take no credit for it but this time around, there are more digital humanities adjacent internship programs at the Gallery this time around! When December rolled along, the standard Gallery staff trip to New York City and the Annual Gallery Gala was no longer a possible reality (I still am yet to come to terms with this! They would try to catch the Broadway matinee show because it would be too cold… Sigh.) but we all got a box of brownies goodies and a cool note! The internship was also featured in the George Mason University’s College of Sciences Computational Sciences website so here’s hoping the concept of Digital Humanities in cultural institutions becomes less alien than this niche within niche within niche of mine.
Over at the Digital Scholarship Center Lab, the main project for the semester was working through ProQuest TDM (Text and Data Mining software) and as a Graduate Research Assistant I also hosted the virtual drop-in hours. We had quite a few regular workshops, and I gave presentations on Text Analysis, attended Digital Scholarship Working Group meetings, and even presented on my internship, as well as Ancient Silk Route project. More on my experience as a Digital Scholarship Digital Humanities Specialist Graduate Research Assistant here.
Overall, this Fall 2020 semester had me leveling up my text analysis expertise in Digital Humanities, just like the theme for Spring 2020 being Visualization and Modeling side of Digital Humanities.
Life & Times of an Academic
My Twitter presence was to be only exclusively for academia and specifically Digital Humanities academia related topics alone. This meant a prevalence of North American academia, (unfortunately or fortunately) with the smattering of European intellectuals here and there. The value I have received from this side of Twitter however has been immense apart from knowing the various ongoing events, webinars, conferences, seminars, and thoughts in general of the Digital Humanities academic world I also learnt so much about the state of affairs in higher education outside of India. I learned about the masochistic tendencies required to be a part of academia, the shared reality of overwork, and imposter syndrome; the jargon filled terminology that goes into understanding the concept of higher education in this digital platform. Moreover there was a sense of community and a collective grief that emanated from the walls of Twitter when everything was getting a bit much. There was an outpouring of collective exhaustion by the end of the Fall 2020 semester while dealing with so many external pressures and stressors.
I could vicariously whine and complain about my own workload via these tweets. I was privileged to have a roof over my head with my relatives (and that was the only reason I could actually keep up with my schedule and the schedule itself was packed to the hilt on most days). I do understand the trepidation of people who are hesitant to reveal their thoughts on a social media platform and with good reason however what with the data scandals and I also aim to be careful about splashing my thoughts about but I believe that having an outlet of recording information and sort of public journal of my daily activities in my work and studies was incredibly helpful in my brainstorming process, remembering exactly how productive I have been, plus there was the bonus of having someone to turn to when there was a knowing question and in my mind about something in this NLP assignment that I had or the simulation model that I was working on. Every time someone in the Digital Humanities community recognized anything on my website or my wall it sent a thrill to know I was a part of this world in some way even if it was in a very distant and superficial form.
My Instagram presence on the other hand, became the personal pop-culture Digital Humanities musings antidote to the work-study stress. I would have, in an alternate universe, created a TikTok account exclusively for Digital Humanities and Computational Social Sciences research, however, the public nature of the app freaks me out, to put it mildly. Even though my Instagram account is technically set to public, I dread to think of random oddballs on the Internet. I am also extra careful to declare any expertise in the subject given that the nascent stage at which we are still understanding the topics in the field, while exciting, can easily be led astray. Nevertheless, every once in a while I allow my my invisible audience to perceive my thought processes; the domino effect of inspiring connections I make, and any rebuttals I see fit, and hence, me, in that moment. I cannot ever emphasize the kind of impact TikTok had for me, even academically. My little hyper specific corner of the internet, my For You page was imperative for keeping me going as a source of pulling energy and good will from. I learned so much in such condensed amount of time. Of course, the dangers of misinformation and data misuse, are perils of their own but the sense of community and unique perspectives shared were a lifebuoy in these times. AcademiaTok, MedievalTok, RenaissanceTok, ScienceTok, EthicsTok, GradTok, and all.
I attended 65+ online webinars and workshops regarding Digital Humanities, Art History and related content. They were an informal source of knowledge and I am not yet sure if taking notes or blogging about each of them would have enriched the time I spent on them more but I am sure of their worth in that moment for me. It was a way to keep myself occupied passively. I also made sure to find ways to connect and thank the presenters via Twitter or LinkedIn (which is quite… high effort for low gains in the actual job applications phase) – an exercise in networking of some minimal effort. Otherwise I was attending virtual quiz games, murder mystery nights, one of those calming exercises classes what-have-you. I read 100 or so books (visualizing it on The StoryGraph) and research papers within and outside my immediate field.
While the online nature of conferences proved to be more accessible, after a while, the debates and discussion seemed to merge from one session to another. Yes, diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and? What now? Yes, Covid-19 has had an immeasurable impact on all our lives, and we were all ill-prepared – and? Now what? The main topic of contention became the effects of pandemic and the way forward whereas there wasn’t any concrete evidence to what that way was to be which was unfortunate for the Spring 2021 semester. One year into the pandemic lockdowns, and the world was more and more in shambles. The constant state of dread, high stakes nature of the pandemic (I am too terrified of the very possibility of testing my pitiful yet expensive international student health insurance, and university mental health resources are available only to in-state students), the hyper-awareness of all that is horrifying news from around the world… Phew.
With all the webinars on faaascinating topics with wider access than ever before, with accessibility, time-zone considerations often in place, all the virtual exhibits, widening scope of the knowledge inventory to almost unbearable overwhelming scale, the pandemic showed the democratization of content – as long as internet access was a possibility; not a reality in many parts of the world.
I struggled with the balance of slowing down my pace for my mental health, however. In my darkest, bleakest, most exhausted, vengeful moments I would passively note that I am angry. Here I am, having fought my way through a deep distaste for STEM wrangled into becoming the strongest proponent for Digital Humanities, Computational Social Sciences, and adjacent ethical considerations studies. I am disappointed, disillusioned in this world, even with my privilege of even being able to get here, to have a job and then two, to be able to study, to have a roof over my head, food to eat; all of which very starkly evidently I was incredibly lucky to have access to. And yet, and yet. I cannot help but wonder the difference the bare minimum of support, reassurance, kindness, sensibility, and care for everyone could have made.
Alas, empathy thy name is not the ones in power that be.
When I was on-campus I was a fearlessly brazen consumer of the university resources. Many of the “free” resources, I was palpably aware, had their sources from the unjustly much higher out-of-state full tuition that international students are often subjected to with barely any scholarship or fundinf reprieve. Without the access to them, paying the full tuition fees, especially for the three course credits I was forced to sign up for my internship, genuinely hurt.
When a PhD student reached out for advice regarding the course structure and degree requirements, my word of caution was that the college experience will be much much more disappointing than expected. That is not to say, I am blind to the sinkhole of efforts that were undertaken to try and ensure the running of universities, given the circumstances. I do believe teachers, professors, teaching assistants, graduate assistants, lab technicians, and academic admin workers were also heavily short-changed majorly. Our collective disappointment is to do with the blatant disregard to what is humane. Teachers had to draw up their wills before schools were to be reopened during a unique pandemic situation. Non-Tenure Track Professors in precarious working conditions, already overworked, had to move their entire syllabi to virtual environments. Zoom fatigue is very real. The first and only day in the semester I did not have a video conference of some kind for the entire semester was the day of Thanksgiving Holiday. Very often I had back to back meetings and forgot to have meals until well into the evening, even with all the conveniences of food magically appearing for me. I wonder how I could have survived this semester if I were on my own. Across the country, student workers were on strike over the under-compensation with regards to their University’s Covid-19 quarantine measures, conditions, and food boxes which were dismal.
Academia and BigTech simultaneously had huge profits and public image hits.
Life & Times of a Career Seeker (in this Economy???)
The effort and time that goes into Job Search is a full-time job of its own, except with no pay. One has to wonder, how it came to be such a wretched practice that it is today.
Curriculum Vitae, customized Cover Letters for each company or role, letter of references, transcripts aside uploading these documents also involves reentering the entirety of the documents over and over again into often faulty application portal. I think it is justifiably irritating to waste precious time this way. Only to receive an automated email of their regret, if even that. And yet, this is apparently the way of the world. How frustrating.
I do not have regional, family, or particular time zone commitments and would have comparatively easily moved but I imagine the remote internships and job postings were quite a boon for those with preoccupations although the state of childcare access is… only serving to remind me of the trepidations of real adultnhood. Handshake and LinkedIn quick apply options were great but one wonders of their efficacy. My mother asks me about the concept of campus placement, but how do I explain to her that most of them have the requirement of applicants being US citizens right off the bat? Nevertheless, I have been applying for internships, fellowships, part-time, full-time, contract roles, any which might appear my way and have a whiff of Data Science, Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, Machine Learning, Statistics, Data Engineering, Natural Language Processing, and their associated Venn diagrams of related fields.
Applying to a million and one roles, conferences, PhD positions meant being swept away oceans of rejections. And then bouncing back, over and over and over again. Amongst all the PhD positions I applied for, interviewing for the Data Storytelling and recognizing bias in data using AI and NLP techniques at KNAW was a learning experience. Interviewing for the positions was insightful, getting to talk about my own research and interests with such a committee had me fretting over the details of my slides, and perusing Twitter threads on interviews from all kinds of academicians, and truly believing in the possibility of pursuing a PhD someday. Some interviews were much more fruitful in that now I get to work with the Department of Interior’s National Park Services in association with National Council for Preservation Education as a Digital Humanities Intern this Spring 2021 semester!
CPT process here I come again.
In the interim I applied and participated in The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations’ (ADHO) The Association for the Computers and the Humanities (ACH) Mentorship Working Group as a Graduate mentor student, Dr. Quinn Dombrowski’s USS Sinclair DH Trek project, III-F Consortium, co-chairing 6S WG on Research Design and Methods, MSU DH Conference 2021 Panel, Canadian Society for Digital Humanities Conference 2021 Panel…
How did I do it? Did I sleep at all the last 6 months?
- What worked for me: Virtual Work / Remote Learning Edition
- Dress up like you hold purpose, it is slightly easier to care for the work when in the mind space for it
- Always have a (hot) drink, salty snacks, berries, dark chocolate, CLOVES to munch on, at hand
- Play that Mario Kart 64? Or a instrumental study playlist or Broadway or movie music soundtrack on repeat in the inner recess of mind
- Keep multiple sets of earphones connected to various devices, Bluetooth Earphones for being able to move around.
- DANCE. Dance in between interviews, every other line of code you type. Move, breathe, jump, remind yourself you exist, in small measures.
- Fixed well-lit workspace with proxy objects to remind you of tasks that go by.
- Pin important emails, snooze emails you mean to consider in time. Tag them in color by function.
- Enter all assignments, tagged by course, with metadata and input to a calendar.
- Download and rename all research papers, textbooks, reading materials, by author, publication date, title, and theme to Zotero in advance.
- Whiteboard thought processes, workflows, deadlines.
- List out work priorities in Notion Kanban board style
- Use FocusMate, University Writing groups, “Double-Bodying” with friends and family to keep yourself accountable while studying, writing, coding.
- Time management with post-it notes.
- What I would have liked / Ideally
- To slow down, take breaks from the screen more.
- Actively pursue creative interests.
- Multi desktop setup with standing workspace maybe?
- Timed air diffuser or external (from laptop and phone) timer – so a clock?
- Putting up slightly distracting memorabilia like posters, postcards, photographs, pressed leaves, all that jazz in immediate surroundings.
I am not entirely sure if I have come to terms with the loss of a year and half of my graduate studies the way I had envisioned it when I applied to universities in the winter of 2018, but I tried to make the best of it. I emailed professors, fellow classmates, researchers, and formed collaborations around my own wavelength almost every week. My notebook of things-to-do was tightly controlled, regulated, and consulted just this side of over-extending myself while saying “no” to commitments way beyond that.
Will it be enough?
I hope so. I am tired.
But look, another internship on the horizon…