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!
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.
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.
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.”
The Digital Public Library of America just unveiled an exciting new Education component. In addition to providing access to a host of excellent primary source sets on such topics as the Black Power Movement, American Indian Boarding Schools, and the Bracero Program, the site features Education Outreach Materials including a PowerPoint presentation I’ve given many a time around campus here at Southwestern University. (I hope versions of it will now make their way around other campuses, too!) The presentation is aimed at undergrads and its goal is to get everyone on the same page about what primary sources are, why we should engage with them in the humanities, and how to research them. You can access the complete PowerPoint including presentation notes and discussion questions here: Nunes_Primary-Sources-in-Undergraduate-Education-Presentation. Or check out the PDF below.
*UPDATE May 12, 2016: This updated and condensed Generic Omeka Lab covers setting up an account, selecting a theme, activating plug-ins, adding an item, starting a collection, etc. I’ve come to use this document as a general introduction to Omeka.net for students and faculty.
Omeka.net is a free online platform that allows users to build digital exhibits. Omeka has fabulous applications in the humanities classroom (a topic for another post!), so I’ve developed a suite of help documents to support students here at Southwestern to build writing-intensive Omeka projects.
Omeka itself offers great resources on the teaching front, including these user guides for students and educators. There’s certainly some overlap with these guides in the documents below, but I tailored my help documents to forefront and pre-empt sticking points and questions that I’ve found students commonly have, at least in my particular experience teaching with Omeka.
First, a fine example of a student-built Omeka site:
I consulted with Dr. Hajovsky’s class over the course of this Omeka project, and the help documents I created subsequently were inspired in part by that experience. Since Omeka’s many functions and features can be daunting at first, these documents are meant to guide students through the process of building an Omeka project in a fluid, intuitive, integrative progression, where one step–starting an account, adding an item, building a collection–leads to another.
Without further ado, here are the help documents! Your comments and additions are most welcome. Don’t hesitate to get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have feedback or ideas for documents to add to this series.
I’m glad to report that my article “Digital Archives in the Wired World Literature Classroom” is now out in the journal ARIEL!
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.
With the generous support of both Southwestern University and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), I recently had the privilege of attending the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) 2015 Conference at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.
It was an utterly stimulating few days of reconnecting with my fellow CLIR Postdoctoral Fellows in Academic Libraries and making new connections with people building exciting digital projects all over the country. Check out the HASTAC Panel and Event Schedule here. Following are some highlights from #hastac2015.
Inspiring digital tools and projects to explore:
- The web-based Palladio data visualization platform. Andy Wilson uses Palladio to map and examine international aspects of the Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution. He blogs about his research here. In response to Wilson’s presentation, Devin Higgins made a great point by tweet: “Nice to hear about network visualization being used as one step in a research process, not as the final product.” We need to remember that data visualization and spatial analysis tools are good for more than providing flashy visual research products; they can also transform research methodologies.
- The Homestead Nebraska Project. Rebecca Wingo presented on this fascinating digital project, which uses the platform Gephi to visualize ethnic communities, neighborhoods, and identities of place on the Nebraska plains.
- Open Folklore. This comprehensive online resource for folklorists represents a partnership between the American Folklore Society and the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries.
- Library Juice Academy. This online professional development site is the Lynda.com of the library world.
- The AfroLatin@ Project, the LatiNegrxs Project, and Afro-Digital Connections, presented by Amilcar Priestley, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Eduard Arriaga, respectively, on the panel “African and African-Descendent Cultures in the Digital Age: Adoption, Adaption and the Emergence of Complex Identities.” The panel, which also included Dorothy Odartey-Wellington on born-digital African literature, offered an in-depth examination of the digital tools engaged by Afro-Latino, African American, other Afro-descended users and communities. Arriaga discussed the function of the Afro-Digital Connections repository to illuminate the variety of ways African and African-descended artists, academics, and activists use digital tools to construct digital identities. I look forward to keeping in touch with Arriaga about possibilities for involving students in contributing to the Afro-Digital Connections repository in future World Literature classes I may teach.
- HASTAC Forum on Colonial Legacies, Postcolonial Realities and Decolonial Futures of Digital Media.
Selected pearls of wisdom from HASTAC presenters and panels:
I had opportunities to present on two panels: “Tales From the Library Basement: Doing Digital Humanities as CLIR Fellows” (with co-panelists Rachel Deblinger, Emily McGinn, and Alicia Peaker”) and “Thinking Outside the Archive: Engaging Students and Community in Special Collections Digital Projects” (with co-panelists Chella Vaidyanathan, Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Robin Wharton, and Elon Lang).
Both panels were followed by extremely useful discussions. During our discussion, gracefully moderated by former CLIR fellow and current Director of the Center for Digital Learning and Research at Occidental College Daniel Chamberlain, about doing Digital Humanities as CLIR fellows, we compared tensions and challenges in various institutional settings where we circulate not exactly as faculty, and not exactly as librarians. It can be a very productive (if sometimes uncomfortable!) place to be. Despite our very different project responsibilities and position descriptions, all of us function as “human hubs,” or “Collaborators-in-Chief” (Dr. Chamberlain’s term), working as intermediaries between libraries, academic departments, and other bodies on campus.
All of my fellow panelists on “Thinking Outside the Archive: Engaging Students and Community in Special Collections Digital Projects” are doing fabulous work to enhance undergraduate education through engagement with archives and special collections. Check out the Hoccleve Archive project run by Elon Lang and Robin Wharton. And see Caitlin Christian-Lamb’s absorbing blog posts about archives-oriented digital projects she’s undertaken at Davidson College Archives and Special Collections here. Christian-Lamb recommends that DH practitioners hone a “DH and Archives elevator speech” to effectively and directly articulate the benefits of allying digital humanities work with archives and special collections.
During the panel discussion, I posed the question of how to assess student work on digital archives projects. Here are two ideas from the audience that I look forward to implementing:
- Badges. Beau Case, Head of the Arts & Humanities Team at University of Michigan Libraries, suggested implementing a digital skills badge system as a way to incentivize and assess student work on digital archives projects in the semester-long classroom setting.
- Student-generated rubrics. Danica Savonick offered her experience guiding students in setting the priorities of a given assignment by collaborating on rubrics for assessment. Her HASTAC blog posts here and here offer insights into the collaborative process, while her article in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy provides a complete case study.
Other pearls of wisdom from the conference at large:
- With regard to building digital humanities projects in libraries: Julie Bobay of Indiana University Libraries emphasized that libraries need a “digital humanities consultation checklist” to work with faculty to anticipate audience, impact, sustainability, rights, grant-funding prospects, and other crucial criteria for successful and sustainable projects. She added that it’s important to align project goals with existing support and infrastructure. Nancy Maron of Ithaka S+R suggested the Sustainability Implementation Toolkit as a first step toward building sustainable digital projects.
- With regard to digital archives projects: in her presentation on the 9/11 Digital Archive, Dhanashree Thorat reminded us that we must examine not only the content but the structure of archives to learn how they may privilege and/or de-privilege certain voices and perspectives. Dorothy Odartey-Wellington argued for the preservation of “inactive voices” (such as discontinued blogs) as crucial for the historical record. And Rebecca Wingo analogized digital humanities and archival research: we can go in with an agenda, but we must be open to a journey elsewhere, since both digital humanities and archival projects often take on lives and identities of their own, regardless of original intentions.
Huge thanks to the HASTAC Conference Organizing Committee for making this dynamic, inspirational, and beautifully-run event possible!