four robot figurines; furthest one is in focus

Public Archives, New Knowledge, and Moving Beyond the Digital Humanities/Digital Pedagogy Distinction

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Lenaghan and Maha Bali / مها بالي
don’t step out of line” by Mik Efford; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let’s stop talking about “students” as some undifferentiated mass or referring to “my students,” a phrase that smacks of proprietorship, and start giving them credit by name for the work they do and the knowledge they create. George Oppen made the bold statement in 1968 that new knowledge “could” be made — new thoughts invented — by anyone, a claim that flew in the face of a postwar world already burdened by history and racing to new levels of specialization. I am making a similar statement when I say that knowledge comes up, it doesn’t always trickle down, and that’s the way it ought to be. Teaching is about give and take, active dialogue, making knowledge, and welcoming new thinkers into the world of ideas and problems.

All too often distinctions are drawn between the work of digital humanities and digital pedagogy, assuming that the output of digital humanities is knowledge and the output of digital pedagogy is student learning. It’s as if the active dialogue prized in the classroom must be limited to the classroom. According to this reasoning, digital humanities work is celebrated as a collaborative approach to scholarship in which there is a circulation of skills and ideas in multiple vectors. Practitioners, web developers, librarians, and graduate students pool knowledge and labor to create lasting contributions to public history. Testifying to the success of this collaborative research model, examples of digital humanities archive initiatives include The Margaret Sanger Papers at NYU directed by Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, and Peter Engelman, and The Rossetti Archive, directed by Jerome McGann at the University of Virginia, and the University of Virginia etext center (now the Scholars’ Lab), where I used to work as an encoder.

Such DH archive projects are generally undertaken at R1 institutions, unfold over multiple years, and require the support of external grants. There is some undergraduate involvement, but these roles can be limited by an assumption that while some labor, others learn. By contrast, digital pedagogy is classified as the light and lively little sister whose ability to use digital tools in the classroom engages students in a variety of interactive learning formats. According to this model, the classroom is for learning, not laboring, or rather, the work of learning is not recognized as laboring toward the creation of knowledge. In this false binary, digital pedagogy projects take the form of short-term assignments through which students are assessed based on their ability to demonstrate proficiency. So too, syllabi list “learning outcomes,” but seldom, if ever, do we find “research outcomes” listed, an absence which indicates an enduring ethical problem we would do well to address: How do we appropriately recognize learning as labor? To distinguish between an undergraduate student’s efforts to acquire knowledge and skills and a researcher’s efforts to contribute to a common fund of thought perpetuates a hierarchy of knowledge. Doing so also suggests that there is no easy solution in a university system which increasingly frames students as consumers.

That’s a bad distinction to draw. The result is that digital humanities projects are too often funded because value is placed on the human resources that are needed to create knowledge. Digital pedagogy receives far less funding as its output is considered to be not knowledge, but student learning. Because digital pedagogues are really good at being resourceful and making do with what is available, we find and share with each other useful and free out-of-the-box software that we can quickly put to use in the classroom. But, even small financial burdens like requests for funding for server space or domain names can face an uphill battle since academic funding traditionally is allocated for research rather than for teaching. Administrators may ask, why would we want the domain to be maintained after the course is finished? Haven’t the students completed the course? What good is a public-facing course project? We shouldn’t abandon our resourcefulness, but we should adopt some strategies for seeking support for the labor of learning. After all, students can and do create new knowledge.

Projects like Lauren Klein’s Science Fiction Fanzine Archive model the kind of nonhierarchical collaborative work that bridges the erroneous distinctions drawn between pedagogy and research. The Fanzine Archive is not only the product of two separate classes Klein taught at Georgia Tech, but also of the Georgia Institute of Technology Archives & Records Management Department, plus Jentery Sayers and students at the University of Victoria [I’d like to name the students involved in Klein’s projects, but I respect that without permission and in accordance with FERPA, students need not disclose and associate their names with college assignments. The students I have worked with at New College have given permission to have their work presented and their names associated with their work]. The fanzine project links institutions as well as different kinds of knowledge workers in an ongoing multi-year project to create an online exhibit of the fanzines contained in the Bud Foote Science Fiction Collection. The exhibit features the full text and images of fan-generated graphic novels, comics, and editorials about science fiction characters and worlds. Klein and students enrolled in any one of her archives courses have created visual and textual reproductions of rare original science fiction fanzines. During the first phase they collaboratively used OCR software to convert scanned images of text into readable .txt files. Then, finding that mid-century typewriter technologies are poorly deciphered by Islandora, Adobe or freeOCR, they reverted to manual transcription — a more labor intensive but effective form of transcription. The current site offers just under a dozen fanzines, including text transcriptions, scans, and metadata.    

Of course, blended Digital Humanities/Digital Pedagogy projects such as Klein’s require instructional support as well as labor hours that exceed the parameters of a traditionally-conceived course. But instructors need not assume that all worthwhile digital pedagogy needs to be so elaborate. Instructors can also overcome these limitations by developing a project over multiple semesters, or — as I have — conducting such intensive work in a nontraditional course like an immersive interterm.

I piloted an elective liberal arts undergraduate course on digital public archives at New College of Florida during the January 2015 interterm. This was an ideal format for organizing the course around a central project, that of making a class-generated digital public archive for John Ringling’s personal library. I wasn’t an expert on Ringling — far from it — but I was curious, and I wanted to share my curiosity. I designed the project “Networks of the Archive: The John Ringling Rare Book Collection” as an off-campus seminar to be completed in a four-week period in the Ringling Art Library’s special collections and involved seven student researchers who I will refer to by name since they made intellectual contributions that warrant recognition. You can read their researcher bios on the project’s website. It attracted students interested in careers in libraries and technical writing as well those interested in extending their technological skill set. During this period students were expected to devote forty hours of work a week to their chosen project, thoroughly embedding themselves in a field and a problem. We met twice weekly for three-hour meetings designed as discussion and lab. The project aimed to introduce students to collaborative and archival work through directed research in book history, fine press and commercial printing conventions, and early twentieth-century collecting practices. In doing so students gained practice with digital annotation, basic archival visualization protocols, and collaboratively designing an Omeka database and wordpress site. By the end of the seminar students could articulate how bibliographic codes reinforce linguistic codes, describe the political implications of archives, and apply the terms of analytic bibliography. Furthermore, students gained experience working in a professional setting with librarians and archivists.

Hybrid projects like Klein’s or like my own require at least a modicum of funding and institutional goodwill. My project received encouragement from my institution, without which I, as a new visiting assistant professor, wouldn’t have possessed sufficient authority to make a cross-institutional collaboration. I’m thankful that I had invaluable planning conversations with NCF faculty, technology staff, and librarians which gave me the confidence to approach the Ringling librarians and administrators with the project.

The archive we have made is a hybrid of database catalog, descriptive book bibliographies, visual images, and emphatically authorial-centered entries on archival curios. “An archive,” student Katia Diamond Sagias concludes, “is not meant to be a story,” but is nonetheless, as student Joseph Estevez advises, “a controlled network.” The WordPress section “Delights of the Archive” presents singular “finds” that created affective resonances for us. This section is as important as the catalogs (some student researchers including Stetson Cooper and Rachel Ceciro reported this as their favorite section), as it captures the curiosity that drives research and the pleasure of deciphering marginalia, inscriptions, and the handling of old books. With this section we also hope to entice online users to visit the Ringling and examine in-person the material objects themselves.

We have decided to invite everyone to retrace the process of creation through the syllabus link, found under the Documenting our Project section. As student Rory Sharp reflects in “Challenges of the Archive”:

Each library is […] defined by its process of archivization and the utility thereof. But there is no perfect system. Each library would be forced to make concessions on utility and accuracy. Any attempt at archiving will encounter these problems. Creating catalogues too specific runs the risk of losing information in the masses of diverse categories. In the same way, attempting to archive too much will render the archive useless. An archive in which nothing can be found is almost the same as no archive at all. Even in the library with a “universal” system, the archivable material will never fit perfectly into the system’s schema.

In a co-authored section with student Amber Standridge, we write,

Each archive attempts to anticipate an audience, yet in its acts of gathering it must remove the very objects it wishes to preserve from circulation, an act that, in effect, limits the object’s future audience to those able to access the archive. Still, imperfect as the gesture is, its value is real and ranges from the maintenance of national history (the Smithsonian, for example) to entertainment (a community library’s DVD collection) to future use, only to be anticipated, such as the seed bank in Norway’s Svalbard or the golden records aboard Voyager. The seed bank and the golden records indicate two opposing yet compatible visions of the archive: one in anticipation of environmental catastrophe, the other in the expectation that launching a bottle into “the blue cosmic ocean,” as Carl Sagan writes, “says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” Whatever the purpose, archives are valuable, practical tools, varying in scope and material, gathered and maintained for anyone with the inclination and opportunity to use them.

Digital public archive projects can help us move beyond the Digital Humanities/Digital Pedagogy distinction and focus on collaborative nonhierarchical and cross-institution knowledge creation. As Jesse Stommel writes, “the digital humanities reframes the work we do in the humanities as less consumptive and more curatorial, less solitary and more collaborative.” Further, funding for digital public archive projects can redress what Adeline Koh notes as a dearth of “digital work that focuses more on culture than computation.”

Students advance more quickly through theoretical and practical problems when they can work collaboratively on a specific project with a real audience. One student said that his interest in pursuing library and information science had made this independent study project particularly appealing. Another remarked that collaborative work had never been as communal and enjoyable as when working on a project intended for public use. Bringing digital humanities methods into this archival project, Corey Culbertson graphed the occurrence of Tales of a Traveller in print media, proving that Washington Irving’s work “peaked in popularity in the ten years following Irving’s death.”

The students I invited to become researchers alongside me made new discoveries about book provenance and found cataloging anomalies, proof that knowledge trickles up. Each of my co-researchers approached the work with his or her own knowledge base and readiness to learn — a degree of diversity that enriched our overall project. Nonetheless, the value of their phenomenal archival work raises an ethical question about how best to assess student experience. Based on the reflection essays students wrote at the close of the project, learning seemed to be reward enough for their labor. But, it is important for instructors to solicit feedback on these projects since student labor such as this is unpaid labor.

Indeed, we have an obligation to reflect on our methods and seek response from the students who participate in these kinds of digital projects since there is a danger of reproducing the very system of invisible laborers who are enlisted by the false promise of play (see below) or coerced by necessity into creating much of the internet’s content, which is, of course, sold back to them and to us — tailored to meet our inner desires, the desires we have shared freely on Twitter, Yelp, Strava, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, and elsewhere. The invisible workforce of Mechanical Turk and other such internet labor markets have inspired Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse’s Invisible Threads Internet Sweatshop, a project which stages a virtual sweatshop on Second Life. Through their made-to-order jeans factory, Rothenberg and Crouse hope to make explicit the human cost of emerging virtual economies. Thinking broadly about user-generated content and exploitation, a collection of essays, Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, explores the ways in which our data and freely-produced Internet content as a form of labor is exploited by corporations as well as governments. Although the classroom or the archive might seem relatively distant or impervious to these neoliberal forces, we have only to cast our eyes to various technological “efficiencies” that have made privatization inroads into the modern university. represents just one of these so-called efficiences.  

Moreover, digital pedagogy raises new ethical problems and puts us, as well as the students with whom we work, into dialogue with larger economic and social forces as well as with different professional constituencies and a diverse public. For this increased possibility of dialogue, we, as instructors, can and should make opportunities for public engagement a regular part of the undergraduate curriculum. Although my interinstitutional collaboration required months of advanced planning, I can look forward to an ongoing relationship with the Ringling Library which will give students a wider exposure to more diverse actors than those afforded by a traditional classroom. To be sure, there are challenges. It was easy to forget and good to be reminded of the fact that the institutional culture of the university — its protocols and rhetoric — are not universal, and therefore I needed to learn how to articulate explicitly my goals and to learn about the Ringling’s mission, finding ways for both parties to be satisfied.

After all, the archive itself is a site of resistance. Rare books are fragile objects and need to be handled with care. Training new researchers in these protocols, although it takes extra time, is necessary. Inevitably, archives have an absent center — which is to say they will never yield a total image or a complete narrative. Our hybrid finding aid, catalog, and archive project, “Networks of the Archive: The John Ringling Rare Book Collection,” is intended to be viewed by a public interested in Ringling as a figure in circus history, early twentieth-century collecting practices, or as the initial port of call for researchers. It is also a project-in-process. The next stage to be completed in January 2016 will include enhancing the Omeka site to differentiate a number of the library collections and the relationship between the Ringling personal library and the larger research collection. Additionally, we may incorporate BuddyPress and Commons in Box frameworks so that other online users can contribute comments and images of pertinent Ringling ephemera or other secondary materials. We are happy to present our work, as it currently stands, for the use and enjoyment of the public. 

Even without a special collections library, universities and colleges have interesting stories to tell in their own library book collections. Go to your campus library; talk to the librarians. They are allies in digital pedagogy and public knowledge projects. Tools like Omeka and WordPress are free. When your class project needs more server space, you can easily migrate your projects to cloud-based hosting services. Begin by applying for small internal grants from your institution, then pipe that money directly into student-learning-as-knowledge-creation projects. Finally, don’t wait until you feel you have mastery over the materials. It’s better that you do not. Get started by inviting students to work with you, as fellow researchers. As we gained more knowledge about the structure and provenance of the Ringling personal library and its relationship to the contemporary research library, our initial vision for the final project had to be readjusted — a shift that marks not a setback but an evolution in the process. Digital curation projects make public archives and the cultural heritage they contain accessible to broader and more heterogeneous audiences. Considerations about how these digital archives are assembled and structured are critical questions that ideally we should ask each time we undertake a project. The benefit of involving students in the planning and ongoing assessment of a digital archival project such as this is that it is a necessary and fruitful exercise to articulate our assumptions about who interprets the archive and who controls historical narratives.

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1 Response

  1. Because DH is so difficult to perform at my teaching-intensive institution (lack of research funding, overwhelming course load, convincing higher ups of the value of DH projects, etc), I took it to the classroom quite a few years ago in the form of various levels of projects (see my Polymath article:

    The last successful use of DH and DP are from the Beardstair project:

    Hopefully, we will run this project again in Spring 2016 to culminate in a scholarly edition now that the entire foundation has been laid by the previous 2 versions of Beardstair research teams.

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