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.

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“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!

Digital Texas Round-Up! TX Digital Humanities Conference and TX Conference on Digital Libraries

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April has been a big month for digital scholarship in Texas.  The Texas Digital Humanities Conference took place at UT-Arlington April 9-11, and the Texas Conference on Digital Libraries took place at UT-Austin April 27-28.

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I had the privilege of attending and presenting at both conferences with the generous support of Southwestern University. Check out the Twitter hashtags for each conference (#TXDHC15 and #TCDL2015, respectively) for a useful rundown of attendees’ responses to and interactions with presenters. You can see my live-tweeted responses to events and panels @CharlotteLNunes. Following are some highlights and take-aways!

Texas Digital Humanities Conference

Presentations of note:

  • Rebecca Frost Davis provided a tour of the curateteaching/digitalpedagogy resource on GitHub associated with Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, forthcoming from the Modern Language Association. Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Dan Garrette presented a fantastic poster on their OCR (Optical Character Recognition) efforts in Latin American colonial archives. Matthew Cole LaFevor presented the idea of “toggling between quantitative and qualitative research methods” to teach historic maps alongside Google Earth images of the same regions.
  • Opening keynote Adeline Koh‘s much-tweeted Storified live-tweeting of Alan Liu‘s closing keynote, “Against the Cultural Singularity: Towards a Critical Digital Humanities” does a great job of distilling main points. I especially liked Liu’s remark that advocating open access (pardon the paraphrase here) “is the modern equivalent of storming university administration buildings in the 1970s.” I was delighted and inspired by the consistent support and enthusiasm for open access I encountered at both TXDHC and TCDL. The potential of open access to ensure the more equitable distribution of knowledge and information is immense. George Siemens picked up the social justice thread in his remarks, as well: “If you’re poor you’re going to stay poor because the education system isn’t going to help you.” Ultimately Siemens’ presentation was implicitly optimistic in that he provided a roadmap for a “more human digital university.” I’m proud that, as evidenced by Koh’s opening keynote on social media and revolution and closing keynotes by Liu and Siemens, the digital humanities as conceptualized at this conference was strongly tied to values of social justice.
Digital tools, resources, and projects I was happy to learn about:
  • Courtesy Adeline Koh: Mukurtu, a free, open source digital cultural heritage platform geared toward indigenous communities.
  • Courtesy of Rebecca Frost Davis: the Century America digital history project.
  • Courtesy of Tanya Clement: a useful Digital Humanities taxonomy.
  • Courtesy of Liz Grumbach: the TAPAS (TEI Archive, Publishing, and Access Service) Project.

Texas Conference on Digital Libraries

Presentations of note:
  • In “Elements of Successful Online Publishing,” Dillon Wackerman made a case for the library as publisher in the era of open access. Matt Christy, co-Project Manager on the Early Modern OCR Project (eMOP), encouraged libraries with OCR needs to take advantage of eMOP workflow documentation and project code, all of which is publicly available since the project is funded by the Mellon Foundation.
  • Jennifer Hecker, Digital Archives Access Strategist at UT Libraries Technology Integration Services, presented with a team of UT Libraries collaborators on a “Zine Party” they hosted to catalogue the UT Fine Arts Library’s collection of zines. The team offered fascinating reflections on the challenges and rewards of involving the public in metadata tasks. The discussion brought to mind recent scholarship including Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage (edited by Mia Ridge), which debates the merits and shortcomings of public crowdsourcing projects in libraries, archives, and higher education. Although the Zine Party was a great success in terms of fulfilling the library mission to engage the public, the metadata produced by the event required the intervention of an experienced metadata librarian before it could be used in the library catalogue. To me, this is not evidence that the public shouldn’t be involved in crowdsourced metadata/cataloguing/transcription projects; on the contrary, such projects represent a proven fun and effective way to engage the public with special collections. But librarians and archivists need time and resources intentionally earmarked to support labor- and time-intensive crowdsourcing initiatives.
Digital tools, resources, and projects I was happy to learn about:
  • Courtesy of keynote Bess Sadler: the Stanford University Libraries EarthWorks project, which allows users to superimpose historic maps over GIS-generated maps; and Project Hydra repository software for digital asset management.
  • In general, over the course of the conference I learned more about Islandora, Fedora, and Amazon Web Services, all of which seem to be getting a lot of traction among libraries for digital asset management needs.

A good time was had by all! Huge thanks to the TXDHC and TCDL organizing committees for their hard work on these fantastic events!

Transcribing the “CellDweller Journal” with the American Prison Writing Archive

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As part of our community engagement opportunity in “English 10-714: Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” students recently transcribed part of the “CellDweller Journal” essay series archived at the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) hosted by the Hamilton College Digital Humanities Initiative.  By transcribing the essays, students enhance access to the archives by making the essays searchable by keyword.

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Landing page of the American Prison Writing Archive

The APWA is the only digital archive that centrally collects the unmediated perspectives of incarcerated people in the U.S.  The growing archive includes writings from people in prisons in New York, Arizona, Nevada, California, and elsewhere.  According to the Collection Description, the APWA is “a place where incarcerated people can bear witness to the conditions in which they live, to what is working and what is not inside American prisons, and where they can contribute to public debate about the American prison crisis.”

The APWA’s goal of connecting people across prison walls was strongly appreciated by students in the class. Reflecting on our class blog on the experience of transcribing APWA writings, students expressed their eagerness to feel a sense of connection with those writing from prison. One student wrote, “This is what I had been waiting for all semester! We finally received the opportunity to read and transcribe essays written by people in the prison system.” Another expressed that she “was incredibly excited to have gotten the opportunity to not only read, but go so far as to transcribe a letter from someone incarcerated.” Our class is very grateful to Doran Larson, Project Director of the APWA, for providing this opportunity to engage closely with the perspectives of people who are incarcerated.

Using this Transcription as Close-Reading Worksheet, students reflected on the significance of their experiences transcribing essays by Levert III “Sékou” Brookshire, an inmate at the Arizona State Prison Complex.  Brookshire, aka “CellDweller,” composed a series of essays employing striking formal features such as single quotation marks, metaphors, and rhetorical questions in order to convey pointed statements on broad issues such as education and white-collar crime.

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An essay archived at the American Prison Writing Archive, titled “Fractured Mirror of Society” by Levert III “Sékou” Brookshire

In their blog posts, many students noted the unique style, both visually and in terms of voice, that distinguishes the CellDweller series.  According to one student blogger, “The fact that the works are handwritten creates such a deep and personal connection with the letter and easily allows me to [empathize] with its narrator”; another wrote that CellDweller’s “unique literary style” powerfully expresses the “agency [of] the author.”

Many students appreciated the sense of connection and identification with the author that is enabled by the transcription process.  “As a Latina,” blogged one student, “I have always felt oppressed. The dominant culture and race in the United States has never felt welcoming to me and I have often felt like I am resisting the oppressor even when I just go to school… When I first read Cell Dweller’s essay ‘Swimming Against the Current’ I felt a strong sense of connection with the author. The essay talks about resistance and perseverance found in those who have been oppressed unjustly… [B]eing allowed to transcribe the essay and be part of the process to get these words born within walls built by the oppressors out to the free public was an empowering experience.”

Other students reflected that transcribing the essays offered specific and unique insights that did not present themselves upon initial reading. Wrote one student, “In transcribing this story for the APWA, I had to engage more with the text by not just looking at the words but at each individual letter, making sure I transcribed it exactly the way the author meant that letter… This process really encouraged me to slow down and take my time with reading certain pieces.”

Some student bloggers emphasized the significance of specific formal features that struck them during transcription: “As I began the transcription process, I began to notice certain stylistic choices that the author made. The use of quotation marks and commas definitely struck me as unusual, but only because they were used in such abundance… looking at them made me read more closely… simply by attempting to comprehend the reasoning behind the placement of each quotation mark and comma. In some cases, I believe the quotes were used to emphasize sarcasm while other times it marked what the author believes to be a social construct with no reasonable foundation.”

Still other students were struck by broad meanings that were revealed in the transcription process. The student who transcribed part II of CellDweller’s “Fractured Mirror of Society” essay remarked that her understanding of the essay after transcribing it differed vastly from her understanding upon her initial reading. “The implication… that those imprisoned are reflections of those on the outside, albeit broken, albeit warped; that was the understanding that I took away after my first reading. That is the assumption, of course, that prisoners are the broken ones…. However, as I transcribed, as I wrote with my fingers what he wrote with his, I came to realize that outside society, not prison, is where the fractures occurred.”

As an instructor, I was both moved and impressed by the insights and reflections that students conveyed in blog posts about their transcription experiences.  One student provided a fascinating study of the implications of the CellDweller’s handwriting based on her own experience growing up in El Paso.  In a post titled “What Does It Mean To Write Hood?” the student wrote,

“In El Paso there are many gangs and a lot of ‘at risk’ youth. In middle school and high school students start getting into gangs or start to affiliate with them in some way or another officially or not. Being involved in this kind of lifestyle kids start talking and writing differently. The style kids adopt is very square and blocky, usually in all caps. The penmanship Cell Dweller was using was just like that style… Teachers would not accept assignments written in this style. They would make us rewrite the assignments or give us zeros if we didn’t turn something in that looked more decent and less aggressive. I was trained to discredit anything written in this ‘hood’ style.”

The student blogger continues that although she initially discredited the essay as a result of this training, she was soon drawn in by the philosophical depth of the CellDweller’s voice and message.  The student concluded,

“The style I was taught to discredit deserved so much more attention and credit for being so enlightening. The ideas that Cell Dweller presented were resonant of those I find in my philosophy text books. How in the world could someone who writes like this be so intelligent and thoughtful when the society I grew up in told me they couldn’t be? I was forced to look at the essay in a different way and thus look at myself and my upbringing more reflectively.”

Thanks again to the APWA for providing us with such a meaningful and unique public humanities opportunity! As a class we are glad to help enhance the accessibility of the CellDweller essay series.

 *All student bloggers in the class, including those cited above, completed this Social Media Privacy Agreement at the beginning of the semester.*

“An Out-Of-This-Classroom Experience”: Students Engage with the Texas After Violence Project

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As part of our ongoing partnership with the Texas After Violence Project in “English 10-714: Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” students in the class recently completed an orientation session on GLIFOS Social Media, the digital archiving software used by the Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) in order to host digital primary source collections.  Kathryn Darnall, Digital Asset Management Intern at the HRDI, provided us with a comprehensive yet highly accessible overview of GLIFOS, including many opportunities for students to interact with the technology and experiment with its functions.

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Screenshot from the GLIFOS page for a TAVP interview with Ireland Beazley. Students will input metadata on editing pages like this one in order to make interviews available on the public page of the HRDI.

Student responses to the GLIFOS orientation on our class blog highlighted the centrality of digital archiving tasks to our class’s commitment to community engagement.  In one post, titled “An Out-Of-This-Classroom Experience,” a student commented, “This is a chance for me to gain valuable skills about real-life computer technology. More than that, I am most excited about the chance to do something substantial for an organization outside of an academic setting.”  Another student pointed out that while participating in digital archiving tasks advances the TAVP mission, just as importantly, these tasks enhance liberal arts education:

“Even though the main goal of working with the TAVP is to help a non-profit and engage in activism, which I personally believe is central to feminist studies, as students, when we transcribe or create a table of contents for the video, we are better able to engage, critically think, and basically have a more meaningful interaction with the TAVP videos.”

Both student blog contributors mentioned the insights they are gaining into the profound “ripple effects” of the death penalty throughout Texas communities.  One student blogged that at this point in the class’s work with the TAVP,

“I have been able to expand my perceived web of peoples affected by the death penalty. First it starts with the victim and the person sentenced, then to the family of the victim, then extending towards the perpetrator’s family, next to the lawyers on both sides of the case, after that the jurors of the case, and somewhere in between, the friends of the victim/perpetrator and witnesses of the crime. I hope that my understanding of this web continues to expand through more experiences with the TAVP.”

Another student blogger echoed this sentiment:

“I am most excited about working with the Texas After Violence Project because of the vast array of perspectives they collect regarding the death penalty… Since I am interested in a career in the field of law, whether that be as a lawyer or a law enforcement agent, I am excited to be able to learn concrete ways the legal system effects not only those incarcerated but the ripple effect it has on family and friends as well.”

In addition to completing the GLIFOS orientation, students also engaged with the TAVP this past week by contributing to a class HistoryPin gallery featuring selected clips from TAVP oral history interviews.  You can explore our gallery here.

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Screenshot from class HistoryPin gallery of TAVP oral history interview clips.

*All student bloggers in the class, including those cited above, completed this Social Media Privacy Agreement at the beginning of the semester.*

Presenting on Archives and Digital Humanities at the Coalition for Networked Information Fall Meeting

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Last December I had the privilege of reporting on the Latina History Project at a panel titled “Archives and Digital Humanities” at the fall meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information in Washington, D.C. I really enjoyed hearing about the work of my fellow panelists, Mary Elings of the #HackFSM Project at UC Berkeley, and Jen Wolfe and Tom Keegan of the Archives Alive Project at the University of Iowa.  Hear our conversation in the video above.