Teaching with TEI: Encoding the Lizzie Johnson Papers

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During the Spring 2016 semester, I taught an English class at Southwestern University titled “Digital Frontiers in American Literature.”  (Check out the Digital Frontiers in American Literature Syllabus here.)  As part of a collaboration with Southwestern’s Smith Library Center Special Collections, our class encoded a selection of letters from the Lizzie Johnson Papers using the Text Encoding Initiative guidelines.  For their indispensable support as I developed this assignment, I’m grateful to Laura Mandell, Sarah Connell, Sarah Stanley, Grace Thomas, and Philip Palmer, my collaborator on the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) micro-grant project “Teaching Digital Approaches to Special Collections: TEI as a Mode of Primary Source Engagement in Undergraduate and MLIS Pedagogies.”

Text encoding enables the creation of digital editions of texts that can be searched and queried based on how they’re marked up.  As Sarah Connell puts it, encoded texts are “texts that know things about themselves.”  Encoding is a highly interpretive process.  People encode texts differently depending on what they think is important to draw out and emphasize.

In our class, students worked in pairs using oXygen XML Editor Academic 12-Month Subscriptions.  Over the course of four in-class TEI lab sessions, students collaborated to transcribe and encode a letter, display their thematically color-coded encodings on TEI Boilerplate, and blog about their results.  I am indebted to Sarah Connell and Sarah Stanley for an assignment they created that was an invaluable model for my assignment.  You can read students’ reflections on the TEI process on our class blog below.

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Each pair of students started with a digitization of a letter from the Lizzie Johnson Papers.

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After reading the letter carefully, each pair transcribed their letter in a Google document.

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They encoded their letter in the oXygen editor.

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And they displayed their encodings on TEI Boilerplate using a little bit of project-specific CSS.  (Again, I’m indebted to Encoding the Archive for that bit of assignment brilliance!)

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The assignment was a success.  It was well-paced: four 1-hour-and-15-minute class sessions was just about exactly the time the class needed to complete it.  Despite some students’ initial apprehensions about the techy-ness of it all, every pair succeeded in generating a valid encoding that they could display on Boilerplate.  According to their blog posts, this was an empowering experience and a fun alternative avenue for literary analysis.  One student, Rachel Robinson, blogged that before the transcription and encoding process, she “primarily noticed the addresses of the author and the receiver, the postmark date, and the general content of the letter, which included references to the Civil War and reports on social life.” Over the course of the assignment, however, she “realized that there were many unanswered questions in the letter.” In the process of encoding the specifics of the letter, Rachel researched a passing reference to a “protracted meeting,” which she learned connected her letter with a fascinating history of 19th-century Protestant revivalism in Texas.  Rachel concluded, “This would be an interesting topic to pursue and see if and how Lizzie’s correspondents or family were involved in this phenomenon.”

The digital humanist in me likes that in addition to enhancing close-reading and serving as a launchpad for research, this assignment provides a subtle introduction to XML and CSS.  Want to experiment with TEI in your own teaching?  Feel free to check out my English 10304 Text Encoding Initiative Project Directions and adapt them for your own purposes!

Archives at the MLA: A Review of Archives-Oriented Panels

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Archival study plays an increasingly central role in academic humanities conferences.  The Modern Language Association (MLA) 2016 Conference was no exception to this movement.  Check out my review of archives-oriented MLA panels by clicking below!

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Archives, Digital Humanities, and the Latina History Project at #MLA16

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One of the most dynamic conversations charging the atmosphere at this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention has to do with how archivists and academics relate to each other, both practically and theoretically.

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The excellent panel #s258, “What We Talk about When We Talk about DH: Interdisciplinary Vocabularies,” has been a highlight of the conference so far for me and many other attendees.  Panelist T-Kay Sangwand, Digital Scholarship Librarian at UCLA, encouraged scholars to stop asking “what is the archive?” and to start drawing on terms that have already been established in archival theory.  Angel Nieves, Co-Director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, on panel #s280 titled “Disrupting the Digital Humanities: New Radical Publics” called for educators to incorporate critical theory into the very foundation of digital humanities projects, rather than “sprinkling” it on top.  (Thanks @ShawnaRoss for tweeting this talk.  See Nieves’ position paper here.)

I presented this morning on panel #s460, “The Digital Humanities and the Archive.”  (Huge thanks to my fellow panelists for a great panel and discussion!)  I used the example of the Latina History Project at Southwestern University as a point of departure for a discussion of role digital archives can play in theoretically informed, community engaged, multidisiplinary higher education.

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I’ve talked and blogged about the nuts and bolts of the project elsewhere, but in response to calls from the Twittersphere, below I’ve included the part of my talk on the theoretical contributions that the field of archival stewardship has to make to studies in the humanities.  I look forward to continuing the conversation during the rest of the conference and beyond!

On bridging archives and academia:

“I’d like to tap into current scholarship on archives, higher education, and the digital humanities, in order to think about how the encounter with digital archives can enhance critical theoretical engagement in contexts of humanities study. Recent scholarship by Lauren F. Klein, Lisa Darms, and Kate Eichhorn, among others, suggests that there is a rift between archives and academia. Klein, Darms, and Eichhorn all use the term “invisible” to describe the labor of the archivist from the perspective of the academic. Klein considers that “As scholars, we do not see the labor involved in… the development of the encoding standards and database design that allows us to perform our search queries… [T]his digital labor remains not only invisible, but also unacknowledged by most humanities scholars.” In an editorial introduction to the latest issue of Archive Journal, archivist Darms reinforces the point that archival processes and practices remain “invisible to the theorists most likely to write about [them],” while co-editor Eichhorn validates concerns archivists have expressed about “their invisibility in contemporary scholarly, activist, and artistic discourses on archives.” Eichhorn regrets that the archival turn (so expertly theorized in her own seminal book on the topic in terms of feminist studies) is enacted by academics in such a way as to “celebrate ‘the archive’ and all the things that ‘the archive’ apparently encompasses (politics, desire, longing, death, memory, history, and list goes on) in lieu of grappling with the material questions that archival practices invariably raise.” Is archival practice so alienated from humanist theory?

Certainly, it is crucial that scholars cultivate awareness of and respect for the labor that enables access to archives as the raw material of humanities inquiry. Projects such as the LHP and the proliferation of others like it do important work to expose a rising generation of scholars to the work, craft, and expertise involved in the archiving process. Yet to bridge the perceived divide between archivists and academics, it is also necessary to recognize the theoretical contributions that the field of archival stewardship has to make to studies in the humanities. The notion that archivists operate “outside academe,” as Eichhorn terms it, fails to account for a growing field of scholarship produced by archivists and associated archives and library staff that intersects with the digital humanities, race and ethnicity studies, and feminist studies, among other fields. I resist the idea that the material conditions and practical pressures that impact archival work impede unique theoretical perspectives on the scope and significance of the archive. On the contrary, it is exactly these material conditions that premise some of the most socially and theoretically engaged work in the field of archival practice today, with implications for humanities study.

Archival practice has long encompassed scholarly and teaching components, but the designation in 2012 of an annual pedagogy issue in the Oral History Review, as well as recent pedagogically-focused articles in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage, American Archivist, and Libraries and the Academy, suggest increasingly important roles for archives and archival stewardship practices in higher education. Scholars such as Douglas A. Boyd, Janice W. Fernheimer, and Rachel Dixon suggest that involving undergraduates in digital archival stewardship allows students to grasp the interpretive nature of metadata creation, which is an important exercise in critical thinking. Jill Goodman Gould and Gail Gradowski, in an article titled “Using Online Video Oral Histories to Engage Students in Authentic Research,” indicate that guiding students in incorporating oral histories in multimedia projects provides an engaging exposure to primary sources that equips students with skills in information literacy and primary source research—both areas marked by experts as priorities in twenty-first century higher education. And Douglas A. Boyd and Mary A. Larson emphasize that participating in oral history initiatives provides students with opportunities to hone skills in collaboration and curation, both key principles of digital humanities practice.

A related body of scholarship points out the utility of digital oral history stewardship methods not only for teaching, but for community-driven research, as well. Fresh takes on archival provenance informed by critical theory, such as Joel Wurl’s work on ethnicity and Michelle Caswell’s on survivor status as forms of provenance, emphasize the values of multiplicity, counter-narrative, and the contingent, constructed nature of historical narratives. In our work on the Latina History Project, the very process of “grappling with the material questions [of] archival practice” has exposed students to the ethics and politics of archival provenance, which in turn has meaningfully informed our examinations of analogous issues of representation, privilege, and inequality in studies of Latina history. Moreover, training students in digital archival stewardship offers an intimate encounter with the theoretical notion that values and ideology are embedded in the acts of curation and metadata creation. This exposure allows a natural transition into broader conceptions of constructed, contingent nature of history and memory making.

With the central question, as Lisa Darms formulates it—“how we can become better collaborators?”—guiding contemporary archival practice, it is clear that digital oral history stewardship has something to offer the community-engaged digital humanities classroom not only in terms of digital skill-building, but also in terms of education in critical theory. Feminist and critical race theoretical perspectives provide useful guidance for reading archives against the grain, between the lines, and with an eye to perspectives that are not represented, in order to contend with the legacy of archives as institutions of hegemonic power that represent the interests of groups that dominate in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and/or class. In archiving and curation processes for the Latina History Project, the theory and practicalities of digital archival stewardship are heavily entwined. Students have opportunities to apply critical theoretical principles they are learning in class to an immediate context. If, as archives theorist Joel Wurl proposes, an archived community is an enfranchised community, student collaborators gained an immersion in the causal relationship between oral history documentation and the conditions of social equality. Digital archival practice thus has an important role to play in interdisciplinary higher education attuned both to digital skill-building and to currents in critical theory.”

 

New Article on Teaching with Digital Archives in the World Literature Classroom

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I’m glad to report that my article “Digital Archives in the Wired World Literature Classroom” is now out in the journal ARIEL!

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You can access the article here, or check out the PDF here: Digital Archives in the World Literature Classroom.  The article includes several striking visuals from the archives, as well as case studies on how I incorporated selected primary sources in classroom teaching and assignments.  I also touch on the ethical implications of digitally archiving collections with relevance in the world literature classroom.  I conclude with strategies for enhancing undergraduate student engagement with archival materials.  Huge thanks to everyone (you are legion, and you are in the acknowledgements!) who supported my work for this article.

Favorite Resources for Teaching with Archives

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Increasingly, exciting initiatives such as TeachArchives and Archives Alive! provide support for educators interested in incorporating primary sources in undergraduate education across the disciplines. Following is my running list of favored resources for teaching with archives.  Have a resource to add? Let me know and I’d love to include it (with proper credit to you, of course!).

Resources I’ve developed:

Archival Research Glossary and Exercise. This glossary pulls from the Society of American Archivists Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology.  The accompanying exercise enables students to familiarize themselves with common concepts and terms they’ll encounter in physical and digital archives.

Archival Research Glossary and Terms for Digital Collections. This glossary and accompanying exercise are very similar to the ones above, but geared toward digital collections.

Archival Artifact Analysis Worksheet. This basic worksheet challenges students to make analytical observations about a selected archival object.

Close-Listening Worksheet. I assign this worksheet to get students started analyzing audio and audiovisual primary sources such as oral histories.

Transcription as Close-Reading Worksheet. I assigned this worksheet for a component of my Spring 2015 English class involving transcription tasks for the American Prison Writing Archive. The worksheet is premised on the idea that transcription is an effective mode of close-reading as a humanities practice.

Teaching with social media? If your students will be posting on WordPress, Twitter, or other social media platforms, consider distributing this Social Media Privacy Agreement at the beginning of the semester.

Other resources:

The National Archives DocsTeach.  This project of the U.S. National Archives provides ready-made activities and selected primary sources searchable by time period and historic theme. Extensive supplementary resources include this simple but brilliant formulation of how to guide students through a step-by-step analysis during their initial encounter with a primary source.

The Claremont Colleges Library Early Modern Studies Primary Source Lab. This series of worksheets is highly adaptable for a variety of disciplines.

Analyzing primary sources undoubtedly facilitates student learning in terms of humanities content and research methods, but how to assess this learning? The student-generated rubric is one promising avenue for assessment.  Danica Savonick offers her experience guiding students in setting the priorities of a given assignment in HASTAC blog posts here and here, while her article in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy provides a complete case study.

Pertinent for digital archives projects that may entail including digitized archival objects on publicly accessible project websites or platforms: Society of Authors Guide to Copyright and Permissions.

Summer DH Sizzlers: SHARP and the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference

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With support from Southwestern University, in addition to bursaries from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) and the Association for Computers and Humanities (ACH), I attended two exciting conferences over the course of July 2015: the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) Conference, which took place July 7-10 at the Longueuil Campus of the University of Sherbrooke and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference held July 22-24 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  Highlights follow!

The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) Conference (#SHARP15)

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My main takeaway from this conference was that digital projects in academic libraries interact in important, generative, and various ways with physical collections.  It’s easy to think about digital projects in academic libraries such as the Provenance Online Project and the Book Traces Project as diverging from a tradition of librarianship stewarding material collections.  In fact, as the Book Traces Project itself points out, the rise of the digital can threaten the existence of print collections.  The project appeals to users to help identify unique copies of books with interesting ownership features (bookplates, striking marginalia) and inserted ephemera (locks of hair, dried flowers, personal notes, etc.) published between 1820 and 1923: “We need your help identifying them because many are in danger of being discarded as libraries go digital” (http://www.booktraces.org/).  Many presentations at SHARP touched on the role digital projects play in preserving and enhancing access to physical books and material collections.

For example, on the panel on which I presented, “Old Books and New Tricks: Regenerating the Library Visit,” Karla Nielsen, Curator at Columbia University Libraries, emphasized that the Book Traces Project ultimately exists in order to make a case for maintaining extensive print collections that include multiple copies and editions of a given text.  Moreover, far from alienating student users from physical collections, the Book Traces Project in fact provides many students with their first exposure to the library stacks, since the project actively involves students in surveying areas of the stacks looking for items to digitize.  Thus, the Book Traces digital project does crucial work to advocate print collections, demonstrate the value of retaining multiple editions, and promote student engagement with the rich materiality of these collections.  Despite its identity as a digital project, the Book Traces Project ultimately makes a case not to replace print editions with digital surrogates.

Over the course of my own panel as well as others such as “Generations of Readers: Appeals to Audiences and their Reactions Across Editions” and “Archive Accumulation : Antiquarian Affect and Obsolescence” I enjoyed learning useful tips and strategies for launching and running successful digital projects in libraries.  For example, in order to engage faculty, it’s important to make very specific pitches, suggesting how particular library or archive items might figure in a course syllabus, and providing sample assignment prompts and assessment models.  Gale Burrow of the Claremont Colleges Library provided great models on this front; see her highly adaptable series of exercises and prompts for her Early Modern Studies Primary Source Lab here.

The Keystone Digital Humanities Conference (#keyDH)

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This conference blended long paper presentations with punchy digital project lightening talks.  Keynote Miriam Posner‘s thoughtful talk, “What’s Next?: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” encouraged digital humanists to frame projects that illuminate marginalized histories and perspectives, in a spirit of solidarity rather than charity.  Posner referenced a tradition of ethics that holds the “gesture toward plenitude and contingency,” not the encompassing of these (which is impossible), as the ethical act.  She pointed to The Knotted Line as a digital humanities project that embraces a non-linear, de-centered, deconstructivist approach in the service of one pressing humanities question: “how is freedom measured”?

A list of every exciting digital project showcased at the conference would be impossible long, but here are a few that I especially enjoyed learning about:

Goin’ North.  This Omeka project, which involves contributions from graduate and undergraduate students at West Chester University, synthesizes oral histories and digitized regional archival materials to highlight narratives of the Great Migration of African Americans from the southeast to northern regions of the U.S. during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Our Marathon. The Boston Bombing Digital Archive.  Also an Omeka project, Our Marathon marshals images, videos, social media, and other digital primary sources responding to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Doctor or Doctress?  This project centers the unique perspectives of African American female physicians in order to examine U.S. history during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Story of the Stuff.  This web documentary examines the phenomenon where sites of devastating mass shootings–Sandy Hook Elementary School and Virginia Tech, for example–are flooded with “stuff” (teddy bears, paper cranes, cards, etc.), thus creating impromptu, ephemeral memorial sites.

College Women.  This digital archives project documents the history of women in higher education through a focus on pertinent digital collections at the Seven Sisters.

In addition to the multitude of fascinating panels and digital project showcases, I also enjoyed tours sponsored by the conference of the Library Company and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where we had the privilege of visiting the digitization lab.

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These 19th-century fabric samples archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are being digitized for an online exhibit.

The tours reaffirmed for me the very fun relationships among digital humanities, archives, and special collections.  A big thank you to the organizers of the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference for their hard work on this hugely successful conference!

A Day in the Life of a Digital Humanist: Day of DH 2015

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May 19th’s Day of Digital Humanities 2015 (#DayofDH, #DayofDH2015) is over and done with, but I can’t resist the urge to participate for posterity!  I love the concept behind this international project.  Registered digital humanists everywhere document what they do in a work day, in order to crowd-source data that will be processed using digital humanities methods in order to provide us all with a better sense of what DH encompasses.  It’s a DH feedback mechanism extraordinaire!

Even if it’s too late to provide a data point for the project, it’s important to make DH work visible.  Although no two days in the life of a digital humanist are exactly alike, I would say that yesterday was pretty representative of my professional life these days.  Here’s what I got up to:

  • Blogged about my Spring 2015 digital humanities class, “Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition.” My post cites several student posts from our class blog.
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Screenshot of our class blog for “Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition.”

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Themed graphic for the Modernist Studies Association 2015 Conference.

Here’s my description of the workshop: “This interactive workshop will focus on how to incorporate digital archives into research and teaching on modernism.  Participants will 1) learn about digital archives and digitization initiatives pertinent to modernist studies; 2) mine selected digital archives and databases for primary source materials that speak to their research interests; and 3) learn strategies for incorporating these archives into their teaching.”

  • Communicated with colleagues in the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium about logistics for making a recording of a recent TxDHC webinar on the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) publicly available on the TxDHC website.  Matt Christy of Texas A&M has been the point of contact for the TxDHC website, while Jennifer Hecker of UT-Austin has been coordinating closed captioning for the webinar recording using Amara.  Accessibility is one of the core values of the digital humanities, so we look forward to posting a video that is accessible to hearing-impaired users.
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Screenshot of the landing page of the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium website.

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Screenshot from the GLIFOS editing page on the Human Rights Documentation Initiative website.

In addition to the above, I wrote a slew of e-mails (naturally) and had some nice hallway chats with fellow library staff, including Head Research and Instruction Librarian Joan Parks, who clued me in to this webinar introduction to Native American primary source databases.  All in all, it was an enchanting day of DH-related work and activities!

What did you do during Day of DH 2015?  If you tweeted, blogged, or otherwise participated in Texas, consider logging in and linking as appropriate to this running list on the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium website.  It would be great to get insights into a day in the life of DH across Texas.

“Connecting to the Ideologies that Surround Us”: English 10-714 Students Reflect on Digital Tools, Texts, and Narrative Itself

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It’s been a whirlwind of a semester in “English 10-714: Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition: A Multidisciplinary Approach”!  Now that the class has drawn completely to a close–all digital projects and reflective essays turned in, grades submitted, and digital archiving commitments to the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP), the Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI), and the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) wrapped up–I’d like to report on some themes that emerged from students’ final reflective posts on our course blog.  The students’ reflections not only provide immensely useful considerations as I look forward to future adventures teaching digital humanities; they also provide great insights into what the digital humanities can do and be in undergraduate liberal arts education.

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The TAVP partners with the HRDI to make oral histories pertaining to the death penalty in Texas digitally available to the public. As a class, we digitally archived approximately 15 hours of oral history testimony.

In addition to regularly blogging, tweeting, and building independent digital projects using platforms such as Annotation Studio, Tiki-Toki, Omeka, and HistoryPin, our class transcribed 17 prison essays for the American Prison Writing Archive and digitally archived a whopping 15 hours of oral history testimony for the Texas After Violence Project.  In this time- and labor-intensive enterprise, students took responsibility for transcribing, auditing, formatting, and synching transcripts with video for five oral history narrators whose stories are collected at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative.  Students also created tables of contents and abstracts for the interviews, which will be made available to the public pending finalization by HRDI archivists.

I commend the students of English 10-714 for their openness to experimenting not only with new digital technologies, but also with traditional notions of genre and narrative.  The multidisciplinary goals of the class–to deepen our understanding of how freedom, imprisonment, and criminal justice have been variously conceptualized in the U.S. imaginary–called for a broadly construed understanding of the “prison narrative.”  While we encountered many texts that comport directly with the genre conventions of the prison narrative (including readings from Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America edited by Doran Larson, and pieces archived at the American Prison Writing Archive), we also encountered texts that challenged us to expand our idea of what the “prison narrative” might be, to include ostensibly non-narrative texts as well as the perspectives of writers and narrators far outside prison walls.  Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, oral histories from family members of victims of crimes, the documentary Crime After Crime directed by Yoav Potash, and speeches by Angela Davis enriched our discussions of the generic boundaries of the prison narrative.  Over the course of the semester, we framed our humanities inquiry in terms of questions like these:

  • Explored collectively and comparatively, how do these multidisciplinary texts narrate shifting ideologies with regard to U.S. criminal justice?
  • Whether explicitly narrative or not, what stories do these texts tell about about how criminal justice policies and practices impact people and communities inside prisons and beyond?
  • What do these texts reveal about the power of narrative to establish, sustain, overturn, or transform widely held assumptions about prisons and the imprisoned?

One student wrote that reflecting on the semester, “I see narrative in everything that we have read and watched and listened to. I learned a great deal about how the narratives Americans are exposed to about imprisonment and punishment have a great impact on how we view prison — views that I saw in myself, and that have definitely been impacted the way that I think about punishment in general.”  Another student remarked that our course readings “destroyed the dissociation that I have had with those that are incarcerated and rather humanized them.”  Yet another student concluded that “the work of listening and contextualizing that needs to be done around crime… broadens the discourse around capital punishment by urging us to think about corporal and mental punishment, almost akin to death, perpetuated by prisons… While we need to fight for reform and specific policy changes, there needs to be a vast overhaul of this system.”  These students’ reflections, as well as many others not cited here, evidence how effectively our course readings challenged students to confront their own assumptions, beliefs, and thoughts about future directions with regard to U.S. imprisonment practices.

In their thinking about the power of narratives to register and react to U.S. criminal justice, students cited a range of texts as favorites, but oral histories at the Texas After Violence Project and the Rule of Law Oral History Project reigned in the students’ appreciation.  Students interacted with audiovisual oral histories using this Close Listening Worksheet as a basis for analysis.  They also interacted with TAVP oral histories by transcribing, auditing, and archiving them for the Human Rights Documentation Initiative TAVP Collection.  As one student remarked,

“Oral history interviews were my favorite types of texts to work with and analyze. I really liked being able to see a face to a narrative and hear the voice behind the story…. It was a way to get closer to the content and analyze it on many levels. I was able to draw different responses from these type of texts that I wouldn’t be able to draw from something in print.”

Another student agreed, commenting that the “oral history aspect of the project was very affecting…, and I am glad this class exposed me to oral history projects, as I was previously unfamiliar. Watching people talk about their own experiences and beliefs, being able to see them process their own thoughts, is powerful in a different way than a carefully crafted story or essay.”  The student added that the Rule of Law Oral History Project provided him with a valuable access point to “the philosophy surrounding law,” since the project includes diverse perspectives from “experts, activists, psychologists, and those who have personally experienced extralegal detainment or torture.”

With regard to oral histories, yet another student put forth “two specific nuggets of knowledge I learned in class: new ways of close-reading (transcribing, auditing, etc.) and the activist power of narratives.”  For this student and others, the values of interactive close-reading and community engagement were closely tied in our interactions with digital oral history collections.

Following are some further themes that emerged in student reflections on course learning outcomes, demonstrated with more quotes from their blog posts.

How digital archives, digital archiving practices, and digital tools introduced new ways of close-reading and enhanced interactivity with course texts and topics:

“Although we were already engaging with the texts in such an analytical way this course pushed us to a different level. Using digital technology to annotate, archive, respond to, and discuss texts we were thinking about the texts in so many different ways. All the different forms of digital technology gave us different insights to what we were working with and helped us communicate our thoughts about the texts with others.”

With reference to archiving TAVP oral histories and transcribing APWA essays: “This type of close reading deals with the narrative/text physically… obviously, for literature classes, reading is that physical activity, but often times it is hard to engage with a text and read every, single, word.  But when transcribing, auditing, or syncing a narrative, it is almost necessary to overly pay attention to every word—therefore another way to close-read texts. Looking at texts and narratives by using digital technology in class, has been a valuable avenue to deal with texts in a new way.”

How working with digital tools and texts enriched our conception of narrative and shifted students’ relationships to narrative:

“Poetry, oral narratives, scholarly articles, and even documentaries are all some ways we’ve explored the prison narratives in our course this semester… When we think about a text we think about something in print or online that can be read but this course taught us to broaden the term “text” in such an interesting way…We focused on the content but also on the media that we received the text from.”

“All of the tools and texts we have worked with this semester have made me start thinking differently about the act of reading and listening. Reading is not a passive activity, as I had once thought. Putting my responses down on paper (or rather, a blog) made me realize just how much I reflected during the reading process. I was not simply taking in information; I was interpreting it and forming new information. The same goes with the act of listening. Transcribing and auditing another person’s words makes them seem like your own, which is an interesting feeling. As a reader and a listener, I have been able to understand an author or narrator’s point of view much more quickly and with a much more open mind than I did before this class… We are connecting not just to each other, but to the ideologies that surround us.”

“[T]ranscribing pieces [was] a deeply new thing for me. The first time I listened to the Jeff Hood interview [at the Texas After Violence Project], I found myself enjoying his story, questioning his motives, finding places where his activism plays into other systems of power that I have been taught about, and absorbing the story but not being changed by it.  After auditing, and syncing this interview I found a new take on it entirely. The places that I would write off from his story because it doesn’t align with my experience (whether seeming unbelievable or merely not recognizable), in the end became the parts that really stretched me a lot… Normally, I would only listen to a long video such as this over and over again if I wanted to remember it, share it, somehow take ownership of it. But what I found with the Jeff Hood interview was that I engaged with the story not because I wanted to use it, but because it was a voice that mattered and it was my job to listen.”

How social media challenged student writers, enhanced community in our class, and connected us with communities beyond our class:

“Using Twitter as a productive and efficient way to respond to the “texts” we worked with made it really easy to attach other media aspects to what we were already talking about and add a more “real” feel to it all. We could join in conversation with current events and topics on Twitter and tie them into what we were thinking about in class.”

“While I enjoyed the use of a popular social media platform such as Twitter, I found it particularly challenging to narrow my thoughts down to 140 characters. This challenge made me think more carefully about each word and letter used in order to effectively and concisely make my point. I think it was very beneficial, however, to have all the thoughts in one place such as the feed. In other classes that require daily or weekly responses, it is usually for the professor’s benefit and is not shared with the rest of the class.”

“[A]t first I really disliked having to comment on weekly readings via Twitter, because of the extremely limited space, but eventually I realized that most of what I disliked was the way that the short format pushed me to very carefully consider my thoughts, and condense them into the best, purest form possible.”

How working with digital technologies and digital narratives opened up possibilities for advocacy, activism, and community engagement:

“Narratives are crucial aspects of activism. Reading someone’s story—being placed in someone’s metaphorical shoes by reading their work—creates a bond; and then this bond creates a meaningful connection for the person to the narrator. Therefore, I think that learning about injustices of the prison industrial complex through narratives like the TAVP [oral histories], the Rule of Law Oral History Project…, Fourth City: Essays from the Prisons in America and our other course texts—completely achieve this goal, of creating a bond with the reader.”

“The tools we have interacted with… have shown me the depth of accessibility for a wide variety of audiences that comes along with open air digital blogs and projects, and that is a necessary hinge of activism.”

Relatedly and in conclusion, one student reflected that in our “class about freedom and imprisonment,” she was frequently struck by the fact that her “own access to information and digital tools is very apparently a rare privilege.”  Over the course of listening to audiovisual oral histories, reading from texts such as Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in AmericaPoems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, and Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons, and as a result of our class’ volunteer relationship with the Inside Books Project, our class learned that access to texts, oral histories, and other digital media is an important measure of freedom.  By the same token, the lack of access to educational tools and texts faced by many people in prisons is a major factor of their imprisonment.

Update, May 22, 2015: Course evaluations are in!  Following are some of the problems, issues, and challenges that students identified in the class.  Some of these were articulated in their blog posts as well, so I’ll synthesize them here:

  • The emotional component of the class.  The controversial course topic, sensitive course material, and provocative voices and perspectives we encountered in course texts sometimes made for an emotionally charged classroom experience.
  • With the exception of the final project, in which students selected a digital platform from which to conduct a literary analysis, the digital skill-building did not always interact with the literary texts.  Over the course of the semester, we learned Annotation Studio, Omeka, Tiki-Toki, and HistoryPin in preparation for the final project assignment.  This, in addition to learning video-editing skills and the digital archiving software GLIFOS, was indeed a lot (probably too much) to cover, in light of our heavy reading load, regular social media contributions, and task sessions for the Texas After Violence Project and the American Prison Writing Archive.  Several students suggested spending less time on skill-building, and more time independently applying selected digital tools to course texts.
  • Assessment.  Assessment is a big issue in both digital humanities and community-engaged classrooms, and ours was both.  While I provided consistent feedback to students in the form of individual responses to blog posts and tweets, project management e-mails and meetings in and out of class with regard to tasks for the TAVP and the APWA, an in-class digital project proposal workshop, one-on-one consultations on final digital projects, and in-depth written responses to final projects, I did not assign grades until the end of the class.  For the most part, students responded well to this format.  Our class had great momentum.  Every student completed all requirements for the class, quite a number of them going well above and beyond.  But some student evaluations indicated that the gradelessness of the class was a challenge.

I take seriously issues of assessment in a course where the work does not neatly correspond to a system of letter grades.  The question of how to assess digital scholarship and community-engaged learning looms large at this juncture in higher ed.  Is it a matter of channeling student work into grade categories no matter what and however uneasily?  Is it a matter of front-loading the class with extensive discussion about how their work will be valued and evaluated outside of the traditional grading system?  What are the best strategies for providing students with the feedback they need to learn and succeed in the digital humanities/community-engaged classroom?  This semester was undoubtedly a valuable experiment for me as an educator when it comes to assessment.  The students’ feedback has provided me with a lot of important food for thought, and I look forward to implementing their suggestions in future teaching.

More immediately, I look forward to connecting with other educators and taking on questions of assessment in my upcoming presentation centered on my spring class at the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) 2015 Conference taking place at Michigan State University May 27-30.  My panel, titled “Thinking Outside the Archive: Engaging Students and Community in Special Collections Digital Projects,” will be a great opportunity to talk through issues of assessment with educators and archivists facing similar challenges.

“Taking History Out of the Box”: Fun with Archives at the Latina History Project

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It’s been a busy few weeks at the Latina History Project! Having processed, selected, and digitized primary source materials pertaining to a 1992 Southwestern University photography exhibition titled “Rostros y Almas/Faces and Souls” including the work of photographer Mary Jesse Garza and featuring influential Central Texas Latinas, student workers Tori and Nani have been hard at work building a Latina History Project online exhibit.  Since the photography exhibit represents an important intersection between Latina history and SU’s institutional history, the students are using Omeka, a web-publishing platform to build digital collections and exhibits, to highlight primary source materials pertaining to the planning and execution of the 1992 photography exhibition.  We still have work to do before the site goes public, but here’s a sneak peek at the landing page:

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And here’s a shot of us collaborating on the site:

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Left to right: Nani Romero, Charlotte Nunes, and Tori Vasquez making important decisions about aesthetics, organization, and metadata for the Latina History Project online exhibition!

In order to get the site up and running, we had to decide on an Omeka “theme” to determine the aesthetic identity of the site.  We also had to decide what metadata fields would be most relevant and useful to identify and describe the assortment of digitized primary source items we want to include in the exhibit.  Establishing the basics of the site turned out to be a great opportunity to talk about the identity of our project at large, and relatedly, what descriptive categories we want to prioritize in order to convey the significance of the selected primary sources to Latina and SU history.  We hope to launch the public site in Fall 2015.

In addition to establishing the Omeka site, the students also recorded their own oral histories, which we will include as primary sources on the site.  We took advantage of SU’s newly acquired sound booth in the Smith Library Center (acknowledgements to the Mellon Foundation for the grant funds that enabled us to get the sound booth!).

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Sound check! Left to right: Charlotte and Nani

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Tori (left) and Dr. Brenda Sendejo (right) have a laugh before getting down to oral history business.

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Dr. Sendejo facilitates an oral history interview with Tori (left) and Nani (right).

Dr. Sendejo brought her extensive experience conducting oral histories to bear facilitating the session with Tori and Nani.  She invited the students to share their experiences and thoughts including:

-impressions of Southwestern University upon arrival, and current perceptions of SU from their perspectives as Latinas.

-experiences with the Latina History Project.

-connections between the Latina History Project and their lived experiences at SU.

-reflections on the 175th Anniversary of SU, including representations (or lack thereof) of the Latina/o experience in campus anniversary celebrations.

Tori and Nani shared their dynamic perspectives on experiences of both inclusion and exclusion at SU.  Nani shared that for her, one of the most valuable aspects of the Latina History Project is the opportunity to literally “take history out of the box.”  In the process of selecting, digitizing, and exhibiting Latina history primary source materials that were delivered to us in a mid-sized paper storage box, we’re thinking “outside the box” about SU’s institutional history: highlighting the history of the 1992 “Rostros y Almas/Faces and Souls” photography exhibit is a way to insert a Latina historical perspective into our university’s institutional narrative.  Hear Tori and Nani’s oral history below.

For our LHP semester finale, Tori, Nani, Dr. Sendejo and I enjoyed a day trip to UT-Austin’s Benson Latin American Collection.  Dr. Sendejo arranged a fantastic introductory session with Benson archivist Christian Kelleher.  Christian provided some useful tips and strategies for approaching archival research, then showcased a selection of fascinating materials from the Gloria Anzaldúa Papers housed at the Benson.

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Christian Kelleher provides a tour of the Benson Latin American Collection finding aids.

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Tori (left) and Nani (right) view an archival photo while Christian Kelleher (center) discusses its context.

After our session with Christian, we decamped to the Reading Room to conduct independent archival research.  Tori and Nani submitted folder request forms and got busy exploring the Anzaldúa Papers.

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Arriving in the Benson Reading Room. Left to right: Dr. Sendejo, Tori, and Nani.

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Tori (left) and Nani (right) explore their selected folders of archival materials in the Benson Reading Room.

Archival research makes you hungry!  We concluded our session with a well-deserved PIZZA FEAST.

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YUM

Congratulations to Tori and Nani on a semester of hard work and great development on the Latina History Project.  Thanks also to faculty co-Directors Dr. Sendejo and Dr. Alison Kafer.  Wishing a great summer to all and looking forward to continuing our adventure in Fall 2015!