Archives: Tools for Proxy Conversations & Critique in 2017

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-9-47-20-amIt wouldn’t be a blog post from an academic without a subtitle!

It’s been awhile since I wrote or posted anything, mostly because – like many of the folks out there, it sounds like – I’ve been feeling flooded, overwhelmed, and disconnected to varying degrees. I’ve been trying to be more present in myself, acknowledging and observing those feelings and emotions, rather than being defined by them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails, but it’s a helpful exercise – more than anything, it reminds me that the actions and rhetoric we’re all seeing are not normal – though there is a remarkable amount of historical precedent, let’s not kid ourselves – and that feeling this way is a normal reaction to abnormality.

So – what does this have to do with critical inquiry and archives in 2017? I’ve been redoubling my efforts on working with faculty to create instructional opportunities which utilize primary sources as tools for critical inquiry, specifically those that promote proxy conversations for where we are in 2017. This has been most fruitful in writing and rhetoric classes – in part because the faculty have a great deal of flexibility in what they use to teach writing and rhetoric, and in part because critique is built into the discipline.

Example: Teaching Writing & Rhetoric With Materials Re: the Experience of Students of Japanese Ancestry During WWII
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Many of the faculty in the courses I work with choose to have students do document analysis using materials by and about students at the University of Denver – in particular, the student newspaper. This grounds the instructional experience and exercise, to some degree, in the students’ own lived experience, and – anecdotally, at least – seems to promote a higher level of engagement with the materials and content.

What does this look like in practice? One example: the University of Denver received a number of Japanese and Japanese-American students relocated as a result of FDR’s 1942 executive order relocating people with Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. We use a number of sources – several of which are included here (apologies for the fuzzy scans – I don’t have Photoshop or any advanced editing tools on this laptop), to discuss how student newspaper articles like these can be used as evidence to support research – and not only what their uses are, but what their limits are – whose voices are not included? Who are the writers of the articles, and who are the interview subjects? Even in the first article, “Japanese Student Says D.U. is Tops…” one of the few instances where a relocated student is himself interviewed and his voice is present, it is heavily mediated by the interviewer and the editor – something that is not always immediately apparent to new researchers, but which can be drawn out in an analysis exercise. In the second article, “ENEMY: Accusation Hurled at D.U. Honor Graduate…” a student of Japanese ancestry is subject to anonymous accusations which the editors of the student newspaper decided to print (misspellings included), with their reasoning being, in a later editorial (which we also examine) that this would shame the letter-writer. The later editorial also acknowledges the consequences to the student who these accusations were directed at – something that they did not apparently realize until after they’d decided to include the anonymous letter.

These are two examples of the rich possibilities of student newspapers for critical inquiry in archival instruction. The primary goal of these sessions is always to deepen students’ research skills – but the secondary benefit, which I always strive for, is to deepen their critical engagement with the world around them, to recognize patterns of inequity, and similarities in how systems of inequity are framed and maintained over time. An additional critical contextual detail: DU is a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), I’m white (and cisgender, heterosexual, etc.) – my goal is to create a space for our (again, mostly white) students to explore how these patterns and systems may have played out in the lives of students who came before them, and by extension, how they may be playing out in their own lives.

The real power of these sessions is that the students become the interpreters, the interlocutors ,they draw their own connections and conclusions – sometimes with the help and context of secondary sources or me and their instructor, but we’re there as “guides on the side.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t (I’ve had more than one student tell me they prefer secondary sources because “they’re easier”) – but some really do get it, and you see that spark, that empowerment. That’s not just learning, that’s love – that’s freedom (to paraphrase the great bell hooks). And that’s what we need more of in 2017.