Category Archives: Research

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!

Week 14: My Scholarly Philosophy

I often ask myself what type of scholar I want to be, and not in a hypothetical way. I ask myself this question so that I can think through how I write, for whom I write, and why I write. I ask myself this so that my scholarship matches the way in which I live my life, so I’m not just words, but so that I live my beliefs as well. I also ask myself this so that I know how I will orient myself in my classrooms and how I will approach teaching my future students.

In order to figure out what type of scholar I want to be, I often look to senior scholars for examples. This process was admittedly very stressful at the start of my graduate school career because I was not sure how I wanted to market myself as a scholar. As time has gone by, the more experience I get, the more I read, and the more people I interact with, the more I can add to my “scholarly philosophy,” or my personal approach to scholarship and how I will maneuver the Academy.

This time when I asked myself what type of scholar I want to be, it was a direct response to reading Dr. Roopika Risam’s new book, New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. The arguments themselves were compelling, but I found myself captivated by her methodology. As advertised, the book was indeed equal parts theory to praxis to pedagogy, and I found this endeavor to be postcolonial in and of itself. I admired the way she took care with her terms, sacrificing no nuance in her quest for clarity and readability, something I am to do myself. In the book’s orientation towards both postcolonial scholars and digital humanities scholars, arguments had to be clear to both audiences, resulting in using many rich examples of digital humanities projects which do postcolonial work to illustrate her point. For me, the high point of the text was the chapter on pedagogy, which offered very tangible ways to bring the postcolonial and the digital into classrooms to spoke to my heart, such as using comics, editing Wikipedia pages, creating podcasts and social media pages for characters from books. Risam ends with a “Call to Action:” a cautiously hopeful rallying cry, which I heard and took to heart. In her work, Dr. Risam gave me a model for the type of scholarship I ultimately would like to do.

I want to write scholarship that is rigorous, but still accessible.

I want to cultivate a dynamic classroom environment in which my students feel safe to question, learn, grow and create.

I never want to be trapped by my own words; that is to say, I want to build infrastructure to change the way we think about higher education and knowledge production and its dissemination, not just write about change.

I want to engage in critical making as it pertains to world building in the real world. I want to create communities, scholarly and otherwise, where people are cared for and nurtured.

I want to be an advocate for my students.

Fortunately, I have had a whole host of good examples of scholars who have shown me how to do the work I desire. Dr. Roopika Risam gave me a model of how to write book that does that work. Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson has shown me how to think critically about citational politics; how to express gratitude for everyone and everything that has impacted your thinking. Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman and Dr. Lynn Weiss have shown me how to truly care for students. Dr. Liz Losh has shown me good mentorship, how to organize a careful syllabus, and how to think ahead.

Thanks to them, I look forward to creating classes which incorporate theory, guest speakers, project analysis and critical making; classes that experiment; and which take input from the students. I am already looking forward to teaching an Afrofuturism class that draws from literature, film, comics and music, while employing digital humanities final project ideas. I aim to be firm but reasonable, rigorous but kind in the classroom. My goal with teaching will not only be to teach my students the content, but to also have them consider new ways of showcasing that knowledge. There will always be something to be said for a well-written paper, but why does knowledge production and dissemination have to know bounds when the content defies imagination?

I will write the traditional dissertation so that one day I can advocate for the grad student that wants to write a novel, create a digital humanities project, or start a nonprofit for their degree. But this is not to say that my dissertation will not have a signature Ravynn flair.

I will find a way to not only write peer reviewed articles but fiction as well, and I will start that magazine. Making art, not just analyzing it, is going to be a critical part of my praxis.

I am going to get through this doctoral program and I am going to demystify this process for those that come after me. Assuming I work with graduate students, I am going to be the mentor that asks my students to co-author with me, that helps them network with my peers, that sits down with them and helps them chart a trajectory through grad school. And assuming I work with undergrads, I am going to hope that they leave my classroom better than they did before walking in.

It comes down to this: while I was preparing my comps lists, I showed my dad what I was working on. After the shock of seeing that I had to read nearly 300 books in less than a year wore off, he asked me, “Is reading these books going to make you a better person?” I hesitated because the truth was, I knew this process was going to make me smarter, but ultimately he wanted to know if this would help me become a good person. So, I told him the truth: “I hope so.”

The truth is I just want to be a good person that does some good in this world. I hope having a philosophy for how I will approach my chosen career path will help me do just that.