All posts by Ravynn Stringfield

I care a lot about books, and telling people about the books, and writing about the books, and writing my own stuff. I like reading comics and talking about race in America and reviewing things. And making things. I also really enjoy making things.

Research Reverberations: Learning to Feel, and Embrace, all of the Complexities of Archival Research

Archival visits have always been challenging for me, even when I’m there for my own projects. They require you to be strategic, organized, and diligent; and oftentimes, because you are visiting from plane and/or train rides away, getting in, getting your information and getting out in a timely fashion is imperative. It requires a lot more work in advance than a new researcher might anticipate, from scouring the archive’s database to see what it has (and doesn’t have), to emailing/calling the archivist to schedule a visit. It is maddening to have to know exactly (or even vaguely) what you are looking for in advance when you may just want to casually take a look. It can also be daunting when you know exactly what you have to look for, but the search becomes like finding a needle in haystack.

This is exactly what I was doing most of the second half of May and into June– except I was looking for needles that I knew were everywhere and yet still artfully obscured. My assistantship tasked me to look through the York County Records Project (as one of many potential sources) to see if I could find out if any of the faculty, Board of Visitors members and Bursar’s office officials of my institution owned enslaved people.

While my first reaction might have been, “It was pre-Civil War Virginia. These guys were essentially the aristocracy. They owned enslaved people,” I did understand the necessity of discerning for certain who among them owned enslaved folks. With a memorial to the enslaved coming to our campus, it will be powerful to add the names of the enslaved as we find them.

I felt I was doing important work, but always left each day feeling mentally drained, physically uncomfortable, and spiritually depleted.

There were the academic reasons: I don’t do a ton of physical archival work. When I do, it usually isn’t Historical work, with a capital H. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do the work the way it needed to be done. I didn’t know the words or phrases of the day to look for which would indicate the presence of a Black body that weren’t explicit. I didn’t know the most effective way to break into an archive. I’m not a Historian. Capital H.

There were the physical reasons: I sat in a stiff chair for intervals of five hours a session, bent over box after box of half sheets of paper, thankfully type written and not by hand. I had to handle each sheet of paper individually, read what was on the sheet, put it back and go in for another. I was often alone, save for the archivist who worked with me on the project. I got up only to exchange one box for another. By the time I left for the day, I thought I’d never get the smell of old papers off of my hands and the daily tension knot out of my neck.

There were the mental reasons: My brain, at the point when I began this research project, was shot. I had just finished my comprehensive exams and week long intensive writing retreat when I began this project. Then, in the middle of this research project, I had to go to Canada for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI)– and then come right back to researching. I had stretched myself so thin that by the time I got home, around 4:30, I would immediately fall into bed, trying to recover from the day’s work before I had to do it again.

Then there were the emotional reasons: It was an ordeal to even get inside the library to do my research. Despite being a public library, one has to ring a doorbell and have someone let you in. One day in particular, the volunteer who opened the door stood in my way and wouldn’t move until I told him what I was there for. Once he had deemed it was appropriate for me to access this “hallowed” space, I quickly went inside and buried myself in work, trying not to think too hard about the look he gave me when I said I was a researcher.

Once I managed to get inside the archive, after passing through the cold foyer under the watchful eye of the circulation librarians, there were the boxes. Inside were hundreds and hundreds of records belonging to people from in and around York County from as early as the 17th century and as late as the 19th. To reiterate, my task was to investigate the records of the dead white men who had run my current institution to see if I could determine who owned enslaved people. It was demoralizing to have to look under the names of white men, who had last names and titles, and hunt to find any trace of (often unnamed) Black bodies. I knew how slavery operated, and yet my stomach still found new and inventive ways to rise into my throat whenever I found a name– usually listed as a runaway, described as if this human was no different than a “strayed horse.” I understood in theory and yet it still broke my heart to see enslaved people counted in deeds and wills, packaged as property. There are no words for the feeling one gets after finding the names of 86 enslaved people, while also taking in with horror that one person could own 86 people.

I wanted to find their names– their names were so important to me, because they deserved to be remembered by their name and not as “Negro, aged approximately 36 years.” But at the same time, I never wanted to find a name because then I could imagine, that perhaps, this particular white person had not owned a single slave. If I found a Black person’s name in the records, they were often enslaved. I found myself rooting for the runaways, and still feeling indignant that this was even a world in which they had to runaway. I found myself wondering who had given the enslaved people their names, because a part of me didn’t want to call them by a name the white slaveholder had given them and yet they so deserved to be named.

The physical distress was nothing compared to the emotional and spiritual anguish of this labor. It made me question how Historians, particularly Black Historians, study slavery and Jim Crow, and how they care for themselves while doing so. I did this for 40 hours– this project was by no means the foundation of my career. Some people do this for a lifetime.

There is nothing more confusing than sitting in a cold, sterile, environment that some might call neutral and wanting to cry over “nothing” but reading a sheet of paper.

This research experience was by far one of the most complicated experiences of my life. In that archive, I felt a range of emotions and sensations, but none of them were safety. When I managed to extricate myself from the stories I was having to piece together via runaway slave ads and wills, I remembered that I was in a space where it was assumed I did not belong.

I left the archive on the last day feeling a sense of relief wash over my body. I exchanged pleasant words with the archivist who had worked with me (she was truly wonderful), and I remember wishing, regretfully, that one person being nice was enough to cancel out the general feeling that I was unwelcome.

I have carried this experience in the pit of my stomach ever since, waiting for the right moment to get it all down and share it. I wanted to make sure I had the time to do it justice, because it seemed impossible to untangle the mess I had been feeling for weeks. There were so many different feelings and threads to follow, and almost all of them hurt.

I now know for certain what I have always known in theory: our institutions, including libraries and archives, are not neutral. I share this story because I wanted to be brave enough to feel it all, to process how it feels to peer between the lines and find that which was hidden in plain sight.

#RaceDH: Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) 2019

I have, on multiple occasions, discussed my hesitation to label myself as a digital humanist.

Honestly, it’s hard to say you’re not a digital humanist when you spend approximately six hours on a plane traveling across North America to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute– more fondly known as DHSI.

DHSI is part professional development, part summer class, and part summer camp. You pick a class and spend five super intense days in said class, taking a deep dive into your chosen digital humanities topic.

Some people might have been poring over the course schedule as soon as it was available, but I waited until I knew for sure that I could even afford to go. Tuition by itself was something like $950– but as luck would have it, I got a tuition waiver from W&M Libraries. There was still the matter of flying cross country and housing, but I figured I would be able to scrape together some money from my program to help cover the cost.

Once the matter of money was settled, then I looked at course offerings– for a solid ten seconds. I knew as soon as I saw the Race, Social Justice and DH: Applied Theories and Methods course offered by two of my DH heroes, Angel David Nieves and Dorothy Kim. I had been exposed to their work at Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities and My Mother Was a Computer symposia, respectively, and getting a chance to work closely with them was an opportunity I was not about to pass up.

So I hopped on a plane headed for Victoria, British Columbia, traveling to Canada and the Pacific Northwest for the first time. The cross country flight to Seattle was relatively uneventful, as I waited for my connecting flight to Victoria in the airport, I began to make friends. In typical Ravynn fashion, I sent out a tweet using the hashtag, #DHSI19, to see if anyone was traveling to DHSI on my flight. The tweet attracted a small group of people, which seemed to bode well for my digital hijinks over the course of the week.

After a quiet first night in the dorms, I was ready and eager for class to start. Compared to the rest of the institute, my class was filled with a lot of different types of people, most of them women. I was excited to be surrounded by them, and my excitement was met with lively discourse from a range of viewpoints on the various topics Drs. Nieves and Kim had devised for us: archives, mapping, social media, digital ethics, multimodality, data, labor, games and data visualization. Our nearly 1,000 page course packet included thought provoking articles and chapters from authors such as Roopika Risam, Robin DiAngelo, Nick Sousanis, Wendy Chun, Lauren Klein, Lisa Nakamura, Adrienne Shaw and Tara McPherson.

While all of the conversations that happened in that room on UVic’s campus were valuable, I find myself returning to project that we collectively created for the end “showcase” at the end of the week. It was a four-part project digital (and analog) project that questioned the infrastructure of DHSI by doing a break down of who is represented among the instructors at the Institute; that offered guidelines for creating an ethical digital project; questions to ask yourself before and as you get started on your project; and a reading guide for pieces to get you started on your journey with race and social justice in the digital humanities. We created a google slides presentation that was displayed on a laptop, but we also wrote each of the sections on huge sheets of paper and occupied an entire corner of MacLaurin Hall, plastering our signs on the walls– a display that was all but impossible to ignore. As Nalubega Ross aptly stated as the class admired our handy work, “We came, we saw, we took up space.”

One of my long standing concerns with the digital humanities is how often we create projects because they’re “cool” or because “we can,” without thinking about how these technologies can be harmful to communities or even weaponized. The questions we developed (and circulated via Twitter to the DHSI community) encouraged people to stop and reflect on the projects they were creating in their own classes. Technology inherits the biases of the people that create them; they are not neutral and it is imperative we stop treating it as if it is. (If you want an excellent study on this phenomena, check out Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression.)

It took me until DHSI to realize just how deeply invested I am in the digital humanities. I care about justice in the work itself, the spaces we inhabit to do the work (both digital and physical), and for the marginalized people in the field, creating “digital alchemy” as Moya Z. Bailey would say. I realized that in order to do justice oriented work, we have to work on the infrastructure of our institutions to make sure that we are safe and supported. It is astounding to me how much magic comes out of a system deliberately crafted to keep us out, but it is my goal to ensure that, at some point, doing this work will not be so soul wrenching of a task.

Digital humanists, as Jacque Wernimont said in her Institute lecture on June 3, 2019, are the “makers, breakers and killjoys.” We are wired to break things apart and reassemble them so they work better, faster, smarter. I am wired to make and break. When I care about something, I want it to be the best possible version it can be. It will drive me to work and will drive me to tears, but once I start, I am unstoppable.

It took me until DHSI this year to truly claim what I have known is true for months now: I am a digital humanist, and I belong.


If you’re interested in more about Race, Social Justice and DH, tweets about our class can be found using the #RaceDH tag on Twitter!

Notes from a Writers’ Retreat

In a previous BGDGS post (“Daydreaming: An Ode to Life Post Comps”), I wrote about how I would care for myself after comps. One of my suggestions was to do a writing retreat, but when I imagined this, I figured I would have to pay for it out of my own pocket. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a writing retreat would literally fall out of the sky and into my lap.

And yet it did. William & Mary Libraries hosts a week long writing retreat for faculty in the spring after graduation (and I believe in the winter, too). This was the first time they decided to open it up to a limited number of graduate students and I jumped at the chance. I applied for a spot before I went under my exams rock, and by the next Monday, I was in.

I have been riding a high since I finished and passed comps last Thursday, so this retreat came at a perfect time. I was still so jazzed and energized that I wrote a solid draft of my prospectus* in four days of work, wrote a draft of a 200 word abstract for a journal submission and worked on a strategic plan for a new project I am developing.

In addition to all the good work I’ve been getting done, being a participant of the Writers’ Retreat earned me a swag bag filled with a nice W&M notebook and pen, as well as a travel cup. Not to mention, breakfast and lunch each day were provided. Did I mention I didn’t have to pay for any of this? They literally set up ideal conditions in which you have your own private space to work, nourishment, meetings with research librarians if you need them and a pretty steady supply of caffeinated beverages.

Despite being alone in my writing room for hours at a time, I found that I have met a bunch of really amazing people here. Breakfast and lunch are communal, and we share space with a bunch of other faculty retreats happening, including May Seminars, the Film & Media Studies Retreat, and the Coll 100 workshops. So I got to see a lot of faculty that I love, as well as meet new folks, including many of the librarians and a particularly cool Classical Studies professor.

The Provost Fellowship Writing Retreat is also happening this week. A few of my American Studies pals got Provost Fellowships and so they’re here in a different part of the library working away, though I do get to see them upon occasion during lunch.

It’s been a really nice week. I got a lot of writing done and had a lot of good fun with my buds while doing so. I hope to do this again in the future when I’m in the throes of actual dissertating.

William & Mary Libraries was right on time with the Writers’ Retreat– this was the perfect way to jumpstart my summer.

*The prospectus is the next milestone I have to conquer. This is essentially the proposal for your dissertation project. Different programs have different ways of dealing with the prospectus, but at W&M in American Studies, our handbook requires that the prospectus be 3,500-5,000 words (14-20 pages) and it should include: the problem, your intervention, a brief investigation of the fields and studies this work will build upon, an outline of your chapters and the work you seek to do in each section, primary sources you will be drawing from, methodologies, and a timeline for completion. After getting this document approved by my advisor(s) I will then have a colloquium where I will present my prospectus for feedback as I move into the formal dissertation.