Category Archives: Projects

#KeioChronicles: Round Three

Summer weather is dwindling to a close and the semester has already started. But before I launch full swing into this semester’s work, I want to take a moment to reflect on my experiences with the Keio Cross-Cultural Collaboration, a two week long exchange program with students from Keio University in Japan.

2019 was my third year working with the program– I was a Course Instructor in both 2017 and 2018. This year, however, I decided I was more interested in the administrative side of the program. I take pride in my organizational and logistics skills, and after seeing the program from one side, I had been taking note of things I could potentially improve if given the opportunity.

So I applied for the Academic Director position, and after sweet-talking my friend into applying for the Assistant Director job, we were selected in early March. One of the biggest differences between between a Course Instructor and being on the Director team is that despite the students arriving in Virginia-in-August heat and humidity, Keio starts when it’s still cold outside. My new position required me to conduct interviews for the Course Instructor jobs, held by American Studies graduate students, and for the Peer Assistant ones, held by W&M undergrads. I alone was responsible for planning the Academic portion of the program, so I had to immediately begin reaching out to potential lecturers, making sure that we had a good trajectory and flow through the various facets of American culture that we would be introducing them to. By the time early summer rolled around, I had a full staff, an academic plan with lecturers on deck and a long list of other miscellaneous things which had to be taken care of before the students arrived on August 5.

Even with the five months of preparation time, the summer flew by and August 5th was staring me in the face. I hurried to prepare the blog on which the students would write their reflective journal entries, do roommate assignments for the hotels, update the handbook and syllabus, and get the students all the information they would need for the program well in advance. I was also prepping for our staff orientation the morning before the students’ arrival, making sure staff was set, while also generally panicking (as I tend to do. I’m a worrier).

On the day of the students’ arrival, I rode to DC on a charter bus along with a PA to meet the group at Dulles Airport and to escort them back to campus. We waited with dwindling enthusiasm as an hour passed after their scheduled arrival, then another, and another. Finally, three hours after they’d landed, the group finally made it through customs after being caught in a traffic jam of six other international flights landing at the same time. We made a quick pitstop for dinner before pulling into our hotel for the trip around 10 PM.

Naturally, everyone was jet lagged and exhausted when we started our program in earnest the next day. Our lectures were interesting and also challenging: Professor Kitamura did an introduction to cultural studies while Professor Knight did a history of Williamsburg; Professor Ely managed to distill 400 years of U.S. Race Relations into 45 minutes and Professor Johnson gave an interesting talk on megachurches for our U.S. religions day. Professor Losh did an excellent talk on digital feminism, followed by an impressive talk on pop culture by American Studies Ph.D. candidate Khanh Vo and ending with a lecture on U.S. social movements by Dr. Singh. Each lecture was followed by break out sessions called Dialogue Classes, where Grad Student CIs helped students through the more difficult aspects of the lectures in smaller group settings. The lecturers would visit each small group to answer questions and talk about their lecture more in depth.

Some days were supplemented with extracurricular activities such as visiting local churches on our religion day and talking a walk through Colonial Williamsburg following Professor Knight’s lecture. We also spent a morning visiting a local business, the Canon company!

Afternoons were typically spent in Swem library where the students could work on their group research presentations on topic of their choice. We had groups doing everything from a comparative look at transportation to elementary school in U.S. and Japan to the function of vending machines in the two countries. In our final full day in Williamsburg, the groups presented their final projects, which we recorded to send to Keio University, before we went off to Washington D.C.

In D.C., the students were much more on their own than they were in Williamsburg. Due to the difficulty of getting around via public transportation and/or cabs and ubers, we (and by “we” I mean the CIs) shuttled the students around the city in 12 passenger vans. But in DC, they were free to metro, take taxis and walk any and everywhere they wanted to go, so long as they met us for the required activities. As dialogue classes, groups visited the Smithsonian museums; we went on a group tour of the national mall and we visited the Japanese Embassy, where two selected students gave a presentation of what they had accomplished over the last two weeks.

Before I knew it, we were at the last night of the program, which included a Farewell Dinner and Talent show. It was filled with singing and dancing and merrriment, gift giving, tearful hugs and so many selfies. I was really proud of myself for having gotten through most of the goodbyes without crying, but the next morning, after everyone had hugged their new American friends and teachers for the last time, I boarded the bus taking them back to Dulles for a final headcount. When I had the right number of students, I took a deep sigh, smiled and waved at them. All of them waved back at the exact same time and I immediately started to cry.

As the bus rolled away from the hotel, I took a breath, realizing with pride that I had not only managed to get through another Keio, but that I had successfully planned and executed this whole thing.

**

I continue to do Keio because a part of me, the 16 year old part of me that learned about Japanese culture for the first time at High School Diplomats, never grew up. I never get over the joy of learning about a new culture, or seeing others experience a new culture. It reminds me that the world is so big and that I have a lot to see.

So, until next year, Keio.

Thanks for everything.

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!