“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.