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Pedagogy of a Digital Archive
Pedagogy Practice and the Suffrage Postcard Project
by Seth Spencer, Fall 2016
As an instructor with six years of experience at the secondary and post-secondary levels, I signed on to participate in The Suffrage Postcard Project (SPP) as a graduate research assistant expecting a framework similar to my time in the classroom: organize meetings, delegate responsibilities, assess students based on certain criteria, etc. However, my time with the SPP proved to be much more than checking a series of boxes; it helped me more clearly define who I am as a mentor, and it challenged the way I viewed archival work by introducing me to feminist digital methodology.
As a graduate research assistant, I was tasked with teaching the undergraduate research assistants the ins and outs of the project as well as the intricacies of Omeka, a digital archive platform. To begin, I discussed the research objectives and digital methodology with the project’s founders, Dr. Kristin Allukian and Dr. Ana Stevenson. Most importantly, I also had to familiarize myself with feminist digital archiving practices in order to demonstrate them to the team as we sought to build and improve The Suffrage Postcard Project’s database.
I sought to accomplish two primary goals in my internship: perform quality control (that is, ensure that every entry in the archive contained basic background information: publisher information, publication date, a short visual description, etc.) on postcards that had already been uploaded to the archive by Dr. Stevenson and previous undergraduate research assistants at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as track down new postcards to add to the digital archive. Seeking an effective framework by which to achieve these objectives, an article was recommended to me by Dr. Allukian, “Feminism in the Age of Digital Archives: The Women Writers Project,” by Julia Flanders and Jacqueline Wernimont. Among other things, Flanders and Wernimont posit that feminist digital methodology requires fluidity in textual interpretation and intersectionality at all levels of a digital humanities project. Translating these elements to a visual rhetoric context, my first few meetings with the undergraduate research assistants were spent explaining the long-term goals of the project and describing how Omeka would contribute to achieving these goals.
To accomplish these objectives, we spent several meetings performing “close readings” of postcards; we scoured the internet for background on publishers and came to a consensus regarding the kinds of tags we felt most accurately described each postcard, thereby making the metadata as comprehensive as possible. To be clear, “tagging” consists of assigning a descriptive term from a bank of pre-existing terms to a postcard. The tags range from broad thematic words and phrases like “everyman,” “liberty,” and “masculinized woman” to simple descriptions of objects in the postcards using words like “cigar,” “dress,” and “newspaper.” By doing this interpretive work, we sought to ascribe the postcards with meaning while recognizing the limitations of our small team and acknowledging that tagging is a recursive process. At the same time, I showed the research assistants how to use Omeka while ensuring that the historical context, descriptions, and tags associated with the postcards were as accurate as possible. The tags needed to reflect the feminist digital methodology described by Flanders and Wernimont and further developed by Dr. Allukian and Dr. Stevenson. After several of these collaborative meetings, the research assistants were ready to begin tagging postcards on their own.
I worked with two groups of undergraduate research assistants during my time with the project as a graduate research assistant. The first group taught me the importance of establishing clear goals and creating incentive to follow through with the tasks we needed to accomplish. While the students with whom I worked expressed a keen interest in the SPP, none of us understood the amount of time that the project required each week in order meet our goals. I decided to learn from the mistakes I made with my first group of research assistants. After meeting with Dr. Allukian, we established a much clearer work flow chart and communicated expectations to the undergraduates at the outset. We also established weekly face-to-face meetings and used these settings to ask questions, define terms, tag postcards, and talk about long-term goals related to the project. Whereas other archiving practices might thrive on the establishment and maintenance of strict boundaries and categories, feminist digital archiving practices (as defined by Flanders and Wernimont) seek to break down these boundaries and recognize the intersectionality at work in a piece of text or a postcard. In this setting, the fluidity of interpretation became apparent to the research assistants.
For example, we would agree that a postcard should be tagged one way, and then, following a week of reflection, revisit the same postcard and decide to modify some of our tags. This kind of fluid interpretation was only viable in a face-to-face setting. Another factor that contributed to the group’s success was recognizing and utilizing the diverse professional and academic backgrounds of each research assistant, i.e. intersectionality. One student used to work in print and digital media, one was an interpreter for the military, and one had an extensive background in dance and movement. Taking these skill sets into consideration, three different but equally valid interpretations of a piece of visual rhetoric were put forth by the research assistants. Thus, it was imperative for all of us working on the SPP to carefully document our archival methods in a running log updated on a weekly basis. This insured that the group’s diverse backgrounds and interpretive skills worked for us, not against us.
Overall, my experiences with the Suffrage Postcard Project were valuable not just from a practical standpoint, but from a pedagogical standpoint as well. Every week I had to assess myself to ensure that the project was progressing in a manner complementary to the framework of Flanders and Wernimont’s feminist digital archive. I also had to come to terms with the fact that, under this framework, interpretation is never truly finished, so my overwhelming desire to “complete” the archive or to achieve all of our research goals for the semester was unrealistic and impractical. Working on this project has taught me that, as a scholar in the humanities, we have to move away from binary ways of thinking and reductive categorization methods and embrace fluidity and intersectionality in our research methods. Fortunately, projects like the Suffrage Postcard Project are challenging these outmoded frameworks and, consequently, moving digital humanities scholarship to revolutionary heights.
Wernimont, Jacqueline and Julia Flanders. "Feminism in the Age of Digital Archives: The Women Writers Project." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 29, no. 2, 2010: 425.