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Digitizing the Past


Most people would agree that history should be accessible, and for Zhaosen Guo ’21, digitizing the past is the way to make that happen.  

Guo, an interdisciplinary major with a focus on data science, has been spending the summer working as a Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) CLASS (Culture, Liberal Arts, & Society Scholars) Research Fellow. He plans to take his research, which focuses on Chan Laisun, the first Chinese student to enroll and study at Hamilton College, and Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university, and make it available online. Guo’s adviser is Sidney Wertimer Associate Professor of Biology for Excellence in Advising & Mentorship Wei-Jen Chang.

About Zhaosen Guo ’21

Major: Interdisciplinary in data science

Hometown: Beijing, China

High School: Church Farm School, Pa.

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Having spent an Emerson project from last summer and the first half of this summer collecting letters to and from Laisun, transcriptions of Laisun’s speeches, and other primary documents relating to Laisun, Guo intends to transfer the documents to an online database that others can contribute to and use. Guo hopes to then, more broadly, make that database into an online space for documents involving others in the first wave of Chinese students in the United States. 

CLASS fellowships are competitively awarded to three students working with faculty to make information more public and interactive via technology. Using interdisciplinary research methods and models, CLASS research fellows spend the 15-month program creating multimodal presentations or publications that open academic research to greater audience. As part of the fellowship, selected students spend two summers and an academic year conducting research and working on technological aspects of their project. The DHi also provides them with a trip to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria, where students learn technical skills.

To Guo, sharing research is an essential part of his CLASS project. He said, “Part of the digital humanities is to make sure that your project is sustainable,” he said, and creating a widely available and exchangeable database achieves that. The project has also been personally fulfilling to him as a Chinese international student, and he said that his research has provided a “historical context.” As such, the information that Guo is helping provide could give others the same sense of historical placement.

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With his research, Guo also plans to run data analysis on the contents of the documents he has gathered. In doing so, he will be better able to identify the topics of importance to the creators of the documents. For example, he has already run analysis on Laisun and determined three recurring key terms: “history,” “opium,” and “tea.” Guo has surmised that the prevalence of “history” and “opium,” which refers to nineteenth-century opium exploitation in China, demonstrates Laisun’s efforts to educate Americans about Chinese history and political issues. The “tea,” according to Guo, might then show Laisun’s attempts to compare Chinese culture to Western culture.

Aspiring to be a professional data scientist, Guo anticipates that he will be doing similar work in the future. Wherever he goes and however he implements his technical skills, he knows that he wants to continue to “make the world a better place.”

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