Sabbatical Research Log, Days 7-14ish: I Don’t Have the Range

Annie Marie Cox, AB 1910. Student yearbook vol. 13, 1909-1910

As I’ve progressed on this project, I’m wrestling with a couple of things.

First, as context (and just in general) I recommend that you read Gina Schlesselman-Tarango’s excellent recent article in Library Trends “The Legacy of Lady Bountiful: White Women in the Library.” It has me shook, in a good way (and, again, you should read it – and the other articles in the issue, they’re all great). Got me thinking a lot about whiteness, its relationship to femininity, the patriarchy, and how all that manifests in LIS – all things that are deeply resonant in general, and definitely related to this project. Second, and related – I’m feeling a bit unmoored on this project.

Robertann Barbee Cuthbert, AB 1911. Student yearbook vol. 15, 1910-1911.

Some of the “why” about my unmoored-ness might be obvious given the context – I’m a white woman researching and writing about Black women at the University of Denver (DU). I started this project with a main co-author/co-lead (Dr. Nicole Joseph) who, at the time, co-led a group of graduate women at DU (the Sistah Network) who identify as Black . Our goal was, ultimately, to mount an exhibit to coincide with the university’s 150th anniversary, celebrating the history of early Black women alumnae. Due to time and resource constraints, we weren’t able to complete the project at the time, but it was an example of the kind of work that both Dr. Joseph and I felt that our archives needed to be doing – and that, to be frank, we didn’t do, for a lot of reasons that are too obvious and mundane to go into – as a part of the celebration of the University’s sesquicentennial.

Kate White Harris, AB 1912. Student yearbook vol. 16, 1911-1912.

Fast forward to 2017 (DU’s 150th was in 2014), and my sabbatical proposal, which I made about this project, was accepted. I’m now deep into the throes of original biographical research. As a related aside, it’s a good thing I put aside the whole of a summer to work on this because doing original biographical research, especially on women, and especially on African-American women, is NO JOKE. First, ladies get married – they change their names, sometimes multiple times. Aside from all the usual transcription and other errors with census and other readily accessible public records, you also have to contend with all of the issues with how census enumerators dealt with race and ethnicity. For just a glimpse into this, read Christine Hickman’s “The Devil and the One-Drop Rule” which is not only a foundational text of critical legal studies, it includes, in a footnote, an example from her own family which I found particularly illuminating: “In reviewing the 19th century census records for my own family, I noted that a “W” had been crossed out and replaced with an “M,” suggesting that my great, great grandparent may have gently corrected the mistaken impression of the [enumerator].”

It is this footnote that, I think, gets at the crux of my concern. The goal in this project is deceptively simple: document early African-American women alums at the University of Denver. However, the records that we have at our disposal – or at least those that we’ve been able to identify – have the same, and in some cases, even more issues than those noted in Christine Hickman’s article. The University (and my guess is, most universities) did not retain race or ethnicity data on admitted students until fairly recently (2001-on). So, in 2014, we decided that the place to at least begin to identify students was one of the few places where we did have at least some data – yearbooks. There are numerous flaws in this method. First, not all students appear in the yearbooks, even by name, and definitely not all students are pictured. Second, even if a particular African-American woman happened to appear in an image in the yearbook, we’re using visual cues to identify students as either “African-American” or “not African-American.” (again, see the Hickman article for a far more detailed explanation of the legal implications of hypodescent, i.e. “the one-drop rule”). We added in a second “check” to this process – each potentially African-American woman, once identified, would be cross-referenced in these super-problematic historical records that denoted race/ethnicity. So – we could take one of two routes: either, we could circle back and look at another set of records – say, commencement programs or even student transcripts – and take each name in each commencement program or transcript and cross-reference those names against the census – or, we could take a shortcut. We could use yearbook pictures to In order to identify some early African-American graduates, and cross-reference our visual analysis with census records.

The issue(s), I hope, are obvious. These women, all of whom graduated prior to 1940 (1960 if I have additional time), are now deceased. We can’t ask them how they self-identify.  The University of Denver is now, and has been since its founding, a predominantly white institution (PWI), and the number of African-American graduates, let alone African-American women graduates, is statistically very low relative to other race/ethnicity categories. In addition, I only have 10 weeks to not only identify women, but do a significant amount of additional biographical research on them. In additionally addition, though the first round of identification was done by a generous group of women from the Sistah Network, the remainder of this ID’ing and cross-referencing is being done by me.

I’m left wondering: how much of Lady Bountiful is at work in this project? Do I have the range? How can I circle back around to ensure that this project serves the community it was initially intended to serve, now that my co-lead has moved on to literally greener pastures at Vanderbilt? I think I have the beginnings of answers to these questions, but they seem like important ones to keep circling back to as I’m doing this work. I’m sure there are questions I’m not considering. But, as Dr. Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” So I’m going to keep trying to do better.

Sabbatical Research Log – Days 1-?

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 10.36.20 AM

Grace Mabel (Mabelle) Andrews from the Kynewisbok, the University of Denver yearbook (vol. 11), representing academic year 1907-1908.

As some of the folks who know me IRL (in real life) know, I’m currently on a research sabbatical to continue a project that I began in partnership with then-University of Denver (DU) Assistant Prof in Curriculum & Instruction, Dr. Nicole Joseph. One aspect of her research focuses on using primary sources to surface the histories of Black women in STEM education, particularly at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). As a Black woman teaching at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), she is also interested in the retention of Black women scholars, and has focused some of her service efforts on bringing together Black women in the academy. My research interests focus on centering the experiences of marginalized communities on historically white campuses in the historical record, and specifically in this case, surfacing the histories of individual students, faculty, and staff who identify as part of one or more of these communities. As an undergraduate in history, I was entranced by Gerda Lerner and Merry Wiesner’s feminist analysis of history, bringing in primary source analysis and individual women’s voices and stories – and I wanted to do some of that work myself.

As we’ve written about in several co-authored articles and chapters, our interests literally dovetailed during the 150th anniversary of the University of Denver in 2014, when Dr. Joseph reached out to me to ask if we could collaborate on an exhibit to highlight early African-American alumnae. We very quickly realized that there was little to no information on these women readily available and visible in the archives, so we got to work. The Sistah Network, the group for Black women in graduate programs at DU co-run by Dr. Joseph, began digging through yearbooks and student newspapers, in search of these early students. We quickly realized that there was no good way to determine who might have self-identified as Black women during the early years of the University. We landed on an imperfect initial method of cross-referencing women who, based on halftone photomechanical prints in early 1900s yearbooks, may not have identified as white, with census records that listed race and ethnicity as prescribed by that particular decennial census. Due to time restrictions, we were unable to identify these women in a sufficient amount of time to get an exhibit up during the 150th, but by this point, I could see how much work needed to be done, and I was committed – thus the sabbatical proposal.

Fast forward to 2017, and restarting this process, using this methodology, is still something I am deeply uncomfortable with, as it doesn’t allow the women to speak for themselves with any real certainty about how they identified. As Christine Hickman writes in “The Devil and the One-Drop Rule,” her detailed examination of the legal and cultural implications of hypodescent in America (i.e. the “one-drop rule”), “unlike in the modern census, the classifications were ascertained by the enumerator, they were not self-ascribed.” (1185). She follows this up with a personal example in a footnote on the same page: “In reviewing the 19th century census records for my own family, I noted that a “W” [for “White”] had been crossed out and replaced with an “M,” [for “Mulatto”] suggesting that my great, great grandparent may have gently corrected the mistaken impression of the ‘beardless boy.'” That said, we have no other records (that I’m aware of, if they’re out there, I’m all ears) that would allow for cross-referencing names of known students with self-identified race/ethnicity. So – I’m going to keep plugging along.

More as research progresses.

Assessment Word Cloud – Comfort with Discomfort

Here’s my word cloud for 2016-2017 assessment of my instruction sessions. The question is: “What three adjectives would you use to describe your experiences in the archives today?”

I think a lot about assessment – and I think a lot about assessment in the context of why and how we assess what we assess. I’m all for it if it helps us improve student learning, evaluate what’s not working, where there are gaps, etc. I have read and re-read the work of my lovely colleagues Maria Accardi, Zoe Fisher, Emily Drabinski, Kevin Seeber – and today, the fabulous Chayla Haynes, and so many more about how to enact critical, intersectional, feminist pedagogy, how to do the work of not enacting the “banking model” of education. I think a LOT about the affective components of instruction. And in that context, I…like what I see, but I don’t like all of what I see.

I guess what I’m saying is that next year I want to see “uncomfortable” as the biggest word in that word cloud.

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
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.

Creating an Inclusive Classroom Environment – Syllabus Edition


Federal Art Project, Sponsor. [Books are weapons Read about… “The negro in national defense,” “Africa and the war,” and “Negro history and culture” at the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library / / J.P]. [New York: NYC WPA War Services, between 1941 and 1943] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed December 27, 2016.)

Over the past few years, I’ve been on Faculty Senate at the University of Denver, and serve on the Student Relations Sub-Committee. One of the project we’ve worked on as a committee is an Inclusive Learning Environments initiative, which aims to create support for teaching faculty who want to create inclusive learning spaces for them and their students.

As an adjunct faculty member in the Library and Information Science program, I’ve thought about how I might include this in my syllabus, both in terms of course readings (working on it), and in terms of the expectations I set for the classroom environment. Here’s the language I’ve chosen to include in my syllabus about the kind of classroom environment I envision and intend to enact. I also included a section encouraging students to inform me of their preferred pronouns so that I can make a note in my records and can address them properly. So – the section about classroom environment – much of the language is from Ch. 8 of The Art of Facilitation.

Classroom Environment

I encourage you to think of this classroom as a “brave space,” where we will:

  • Approach controversy with civility. Different views are to be expected, and should be honored, with a group commitment to understand the sources of disagreement and work cooperatively toward shared understanding. (Astin & Astin, 1996)
  • Own intentions and impact. I expect all students to acknowledge and own that even questions and statements from a place of positive intent may still have negative impact.
  • Challenge by choice. No one is required to participate in every discussion, but I encourage all of us to challenge ourselves to share and question. If you aren’t quite sure how to phrase something, you can preface it with something like “This is a first draft thought.”
  • Respect. I encourage you all to think about what this looks and sounds like to you, and to enact that when interacting with others in the classroom.
  • No attacks. This is closely tied to the above guideline, “respect.” I encourage everyone in the classroom to closely examine and be aware of the difference between a personal attack on an individual or group of people, and a challenge to an individual or group’s beliefs that may evoke a defensive emotional response. In the latter case, self-reflection and examination of the root of that emotional response and discomfort can be both productive and enlightening.

I intend to cover some pretty heavy topics in the ten weeks of this class, so I’m hopeful that setting these ground rules (and maybe some more specifics depending on the particular topic) can provide some useful structure.

A long time ago, in a land called Kansas

I graduated from library school in 2007, and during the last year of grad school, I kept a blog where I mostly wrote about what I thought it might mean to me to “be a librarian.” Fast forward to 2016, and here we are again. It’s almost 2017 (aka 10 years later), and it’s probably time – past due, in fact – to re-examine what it means to me to “be an archivist.”

Here we go.