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.