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!

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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.”

 

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.

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.

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.*