by Paul Fess, Department of English
Last month I had the opportunity to attend the annual HASTAC conference through the generous support of the Arts & Sciences Dean’s Office and the Department of English Similar to Nathan Loewen’s description of his experience at this conference, I found it to be an enlightening, refreshing event, comprised not of starry-eyed visions of digital utopia but of critical, humanist perspectives on technology’s role in the academy. In this post I would like to drill down on a specific way this humanist skepticism manifested in the conference programming: presentations that offered different views of the role of archives play in instruction.
I’m prompted by a tense moment during the Q&A at the end of Cathy Davidson’s keynote address when, after having discussed strategies for creating student-centered learning environments, one conference-goer asked Davidson the provocative, if ham-fisted, question, “What do we do if our students are delusional?” After the hisses in the room died down, Davidson explained ways instructors could help students learn to guide themselves out of wrongheaded or outmoded thinking without the instructor having to revert to the traditional posture of sage-on-the-stage style pedagogy. Her advice: have the students bring those ideas to their research in the archive.
A month on, I find myself returning to this question. How, I ask myself, can we responsibly identify and undo delusional thinking and the institutional structures that support it?
I’ll focus on three presentations: Patricia Carlton’s “Filtering the Flow: Interrogating Digital Culture through Web Archiving,” Amardeep Singh’s “The Archive Gap: the Kiplings and their Indian Interlocutors,” and John Nelson and Stacey Berry’s “Honoring the Dead—A Digital Repository of Documents Related to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians 1903-1934.”
Filtering the Flow
Patricia Carlton’s presentation focused on her work with the Library of Congress’s “K-12 Web Archiving Project,” which gives students opportunities to act as archivists of the web, selecting, saving, and compiling websites for future generations. For this program, the LOC has partnered with Archive-It, a pricey subscription service offered by the Internet Archive that enables organizations to collect and preserve digital content.
In her and her students’ work with this platform, Carlton has homed in on the power of metadata—those invisible bits of information that define how digital objects behave and where they travel. Long concealed behind a veil of tediousness, such information, in Carlton’s view, tends to reproduce the “hidden hegemony” that has always accompanied knowledge structures.
In addition to having students add metadata to the sites they archive, they also use tools in the Archive-It platform to examine the relationships between metadata and the embedded images, documents, and advertisements that accompany the sites, exposing how this information determines the relationships between the textual and paratextual material encoded in digital documents. Through this assignment, Carlton shows how digital tools can demystify metadata for students and challenge “the hegemony of market-driven algorithms” that structure the web.
While Archive-It might be cost prohibitive, Carlton’s work highlights the fact that, as texts and learning materials have moved online, a whole new perspective on the descriptive information associated with this material has become possible. Here’s a list of other web archiving tools.
The Archive Gap
Amardeep Singh’s presentation focused on the surprising turn his archival work took when the material he was finding caused him to shift his focus from Rudyard Kipling’s family’s time in India to the broader cultural context within which they lived. This has led him to deemphasize this canonical British author’s centrality to his story of late-stage British colonization and highlight the roles Indian activists played within social movements that are often left out of accounts of this historical period.
From this new perspective, Singh is building a site with Scalar that represents these findings, allowing the viewer to see visualizations of the networks within which the Kiplings and political activists worked as well as the dynamics of the social movements of the period. Through this work, Singh exposes what he calls the “archive gap,” which describes the discrepancy between the overrepresentation of white, male, Euro-American writers and the underrepresentation of minorities and people of color who have been traditionally absent from archives. Singh’s work helps close this gap by placing Kipling’s journalistic writings about India alongside writings by Indian activists and commentators.
To see the power of this kind of project, one need look no further than the social movements visualization that Singh has posted. This project gives us an intriguing example of how digital tools can allow scholars and students to more nimbly respond to surprising finds during the course of their research.
Honoring the Dead
John Nelson and Stacey Berry demonstrated their work on the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. Located in Canton, South Dakota, this asylum housed Native Americans from around the country who were deemed “insane,” a slippery, ill-defined diagnosis in the early twentieth century. Though much of the history of this institution has been scattered throughout the U.S. and the site of the asylum itself has become a golf course with only a slight acknowledgment of its significance, Nelson and Berry are using Omeka to build an as yet unpublished website to represent what happened at Canton.
To do this, they are using the very bureaucratic documents that supported the institution—those that declared Native Americans “insane,” for instance—to recover the lives of the Native Americans incarcerated there.
During their presentation participants were handed a sample of these documents and asked to think about what was being left unsaid and to work out the institutional logic these documents conveyed. This exercise had the effect of showing the productive possibilities of not only interpreting archival documents through a hermeneutics of suspicion but also deploying these suspicious readings in service to a counter-archive that would constitute a reparative counter-history.
One could imagine such an activity being deployed in a process of encoding documents like this in a classroom exercise using TEI, which would enable students to represent the underlying institutional assumptions of the documents that they determine through their close readings.
Paul Fess is an instructor in the Department of English.