Jeremy Boggs, Jennifer Reed, and J. K. Purdom Lindblad
In the 2014 documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Nick Broomfield investigates how Lonnie Franklin Jr. killed between ten and 180 working-class black women across three decades without being apprehended. The exact number of murders is unknown partly because some Los Angeles police officers used the code NHI, or “No Humans Involved,” when reporting on the crimes. Of course humans were involved, but the officers decided not to count murdered black women as humans. Following Saidiya Hartman (1997), such instances of institutional racism and oppression prompt “us to question whether the rights of man and citizen are realizable or whether the appellation ‘human’ can be borne equally by all” (6). All too often, we conflate humane with just or justice. Yet examples like NHI, where prejudice and discrimination establish a scale of humanness, illustrate why relying on “humane” to convey justice and empathy can be problematic.
Deb Chachra (2015) criticizes a pervasive tenet of the maker movement: “artifacts are important, people are not.” She resists the imperative to label people as “makers” because the label carries with it a gendered history that values objects to be produced and sold at the expense of the people who make them and, more detrimentally, the people whose labor — repairing, thinking, caretaking — is not considered to be making. In this chapter, we confront biases that some people, practices, and places are more valuable than others, and what those biases mean in terms of making. How do we build considerations of bias into the process and products of making? For instance, how do we construct platforms that not only confront biases but also create spaces for people who are unheard, dismissed, or oppressed? What does it mean to make things in humane, empathetic, and just ways? And how do we encourage the humanities to engage in this kind of reflective, aspirational making?
For making to matter in the humanities, we need to show how humans and labor are involved in using and maintaining as well as making. We must focus making in ways that attend to, and advocate for, varieties of human experience and interactions with the world. Whether the act of making is one of production, praxis, theory, or a combination of the three, thoughtful making in the humanities should seek a better understanding of activities and impacts.
Here, we build on work in the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library — including the Lab’s charter, Praxis Program, and Makerspace — to argue that making alters the nature of individual and collective agency. Making things can and should help us to empathize with and advocate for just engagement across local and global scales. We elaborate on three interrelated areas of making:
- • A theory of making that is driven by a holistic concern for social justice and also positions making as a mode of advocacy,
- • A praxis of making that establishes spaces for experimentation and is anchored in empathy for the people involved, and
- • A product of making that relies on reflexivity and polyvocality in design.
Our work in the Scholars’ Lab privileges iterative practices toward inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability (Sadler and Bourg 2015; Caswell 2014; Olson 2002). These practices are not destinations because they are never finished. We return to them again and again in our daily work. Attention to these values encourages conversations about how to best incorporate compassion and advocacy into our projects. In this chapter, we share examples of how we have approached issues of representation and responsibility in Scholars’ Lab projects. The following definitions ground our evaluations of inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability:
- • Inclusiveness: Cultural bias and a single perspective can be, intentionally or not, enforced in the things we make. We strive to include many perspectives, voices, and modes in our projects.
- • Transparency: We seek clarity and justification in design, development, and ethos. We document our choices, the things we have tried and abandoned, and moments when something is unclear and why.
- • Accountability: We develop awareness of how what we make can and should impact others, and how that influence should be considered and measured.
These three broader concerns are then translated into specific approaches to project design, documentation, and use. For example, transparency and accountability are realized through Take Back the Archive’s publicly available notes, which detail collection decisions, provide a history of iteration and design choices, list names of collaborators, and articulate the archive’s intent. Likewise, the Makerspace aims for inclusiveness by fostering a space where it is safe to tinker, learn, and experiment. Similarly, the Thistlewood project attends to respectful and just ways of representing people through archival interfaces.
Together, the Scholar’s Lab’s Makerspace, Take Back the Archive, and Thistlewood projects demonstrate how we put inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability into practice. However, our approach is not prescriptive and does not claim to offer the best solution for combining making and social justice. Rather, we offer documentation for the recent work we have done and a guide for the work we hope to do.
The Makerspace in the Scholars’ Lab advocates for people as learners, thinkers, and explorers. It takes accessibility as its starting mantra and builds on the concept of the Imagination Playground (Jost 2010). Instead of providing rigid, locked-down structures for play, the Imagination Playground emphasizes loose parts and lets children construct the playspace themselves. The playground makes a clear statement: loose parts afford children agency, allow them to use the playground imaginatively, and encourage them to confront the responsibilities of freedom and choice. Children can decide how to play, and in doing so they can develop interesting ways of playing. Of course, children already do this, but — by eschewing stationary equipment for loose parts — Imagination Playground critiques how decisions about playspaces are made and how our environments shape play. Children come to terms with independence, freedom, and choice on their own. Of course, the ability to choose between loose parts and prefabricated systems is a privileged one. One goal of the Makerspace is to critique those pre-built systems, but also consciously reflect on how making changes our perspectives. The aim, then, is not tinkering for tinkering’s sake. A “hermeneutics of screwing around” can be revealing, but inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability require deliberate attention to that hermeneutics, its biases, and how making shapes our thinking (Ramsay 2014; Thomas and Brown 2011; Elliott et al. 2012; Grayburn 2016).
Devon Elliott et al. demonstrate how making in the context of historical research requires space and support to conduct experiments, which “imaginatively remake past technological artifacts” (123). Their work explores turn-of-the-last-century magic, using 3-D modeling and printing to re-create magic tricks, with historical documents describing and illustrating particular tricks. Their goal is to neither re-create the past nor create exact replicas of artifacts. Rather, they illustrate the affordances of play and experimentation with things as ways to provoke new questions about history and historical research. Meanwhile, Jennifer Grayburn, a technologist in the Scholars’ Lab’s Makerspace and a Ph.D. candidate in architectural history, conducts research and teaches using models and fabrications of historical artifacts. Grayburn notes the affordances of desktop fabrication and fab labs, particularly when studying cultural heritage artifacts that are being systematically destroyed. For a class assignment, she has students consider how modeling and fabrication — actually making an artifact — affect their understanding of that artifact. In addition to using fabrication to ask new questions about historical materials, Grayburn notes its relevance to not only observing but also remembering artifacts and, more important, the people who made and used them:
Obviously our priorities today must fall firmly on the living people who are suffering the deprivations of warfare and occupation; but it’s important, too, to remember that the value of these sites and objects doesn’t really lie in their physical remains. It lies in the fact that this is all we have to remember the dead, to remember the acts of past peoples — workers and kings, everyday families, mothers and children, farmers, travelers and priests — real human beings whose lives are commemorated only by the tactile remains they crafted.
Grayburn’s iterative approach and corresponding documentation embody a transparency and accountability that benefits her as well as the faculty and students who visit the Makerspace.
We present the Makerspace to humanities scholars as an intellectual space, where they are free to explore questions in experimental ways. Learning how to make things not only fosters a community of practice but also helps people to strive for a conscious and deliberate sense of responsibility for making and the ability and freedom to make. To achieve these aims, the space itself, its resources, and its staff all have to contribute to inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability.
Take Back the Archive
Created by University of Virginia faculty, students, librarians, and archivists, Take Back the Archive is a public history project to preserve, visualize, and contextualize the history of rape and sexual violence at the University of Virginia, while honoring individual stories and documenting systemic issues and trends. All aspects of the project — design, access, labels, interface, content — advocate for victims and survivors of sexual violence and for the people who encounter their stories.
Imperative to the project’s success is the need to attend to the collection and presentation of materials in ways that advocate for rape survivors and challenge a community of complacency and ignorance. For instance, Hope Olson (2007) critiques traditional subject hierarchies rooted in Aristotelian logic and prescribes a feminist approach that rejects universality and treats traditional information hierarchies as some among many possible structures to use (509–10). Especially relevant to an archive that includes rape survivors, Michelle Caswell (2014) argues for an archiving practice that embodies community-centric values and respects the need for survivors to maintain decision-making power in how materials are presented and shared (309). Going further, Bess Sadler and Chris Bourg (2015) argue for feminist interfaces and computer interactions that encourage advocacy and pluralism: “A feminist rhetoric and agenda for the future of library discovery would leverage technology to promote the feminist values of plurality, self-disclosure, participation, ecology, advocacy, and embodiment.” Several of these principles shape Take Back the Archive, including: activism, by deliberately positioning the archive not as an objective study of sexual violence, but as a clear advocate for its end; stewardship, by acknowledging we are caretakers of content, not owners or custodians who exert rights on archival materials; and pluralism, by eschewing design and presentation that universalize archive contents.
Attention to advocacy requires developers to understand, critique, and modify the tools and methods they use. Take Back the Archive is built on Omeka, an open-source collections management system developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Omeka is a web application platform that is designed to give archives, museums, and individual scholars the means to publish an online database and use that data for interpretation. Omeka relies on open-source tools, and it is designed and developed for easy installation on most web servers. It does not attempt to be everything to everyone. Instead, it provides the mechanisms whereby users can more easily alter that functionality to suit their own needs.
The default labels and presentations in many content management systems and metadata standards are decidedly agnostic; they attempt to be as neutral as possible to make repurposing or exporting data more fluid. (By default, Omeka provides Dublin Core for describing collections and items, as well as a number of public-facing views for users to browse, search, and sort a given collection.) But in doing so, those systems tend to make our collections data friendlier for computers than for users of our resources or, more detrimentally, for the people whom our collections represent. Therefore, project developers must attend to the responsibility of tailoring the labeling and presentation of data to goals specific to their project, subject matter, and audiences.
With records described and saved to the database, we have developed interfaces that encourage discovery and exploration and advocate for users and the people represented in our collections. Rich-prospect browsing helps us to accomplish these aims, and it contributes to several of our guiding principles for the Take Back project. Developed by Stan Ruecker, Milena Radzikowska, and Stéfan Sinclair (2011), rich-prospect browsing focuses on building meaningful browsing interfaces for an entire collection, instead of developing search-first interfaces that often obscure the contents of a collection. It relies on two related concepts: prospect and affordance. Prospects are the allowances and restrictions that a given environment or situation presents. Similarly, f fordances are the opportunities for action perceived by someone in a given environment. From these, rich-prospect browsing offers a set of principles that can help to guide design decisions for discovery interfaces:
- • Present every record in the collection in some meaningful way;
- • Provide obvious, intuitive methods for organizing and adjusting the presentation of records;
- • Provide prospects for sorting and faceting the presentation of records and for getting more data for each record;
- • Provide item metadata that inform the kinds of interfaces used;
- • Present options for how to represent the item in the interface; and
- • Allow researchers to mark items for tracking and revisiting.
The principles of rich-prospect browsing fit perfectly with the goals of feminist discovery interfaces discussed by Sadler and Bourg, in terms of people represented in a collection as well as those who would use it. Rich-prospect browsing inherently shares a set of values with feminist interface design, centered primarily around empowering users and valuing a polyvocal representation of a collection. It also corresponds with our investments in inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability. By presenting users with the entire collection, it gives equal importance to all records. At the very least, researchers become more aware of the many voices in a collection and the perspectives they have seen and not seen in any given research session. This awareness is especially important for archives and collections with materials about people who are victims and survivors of traumatic events. More than simply collecting and sharing this material, we plan to ensure that practices of collection and presentation used across the project help contributors and users to dismantle passive acceptance of rape culture.
The Thistlewood project explores how sympathy is mapped cognitively and culturally in the eighteenth century. As a case study, it uses Breadnut Island Pen, a Jamaican plantation owned by Thomas Thistlewood. Thistlewood lived on Breadnut Island Pen from September 1767 until his death in November 1786. In that time he committed 1,584 acts of rape on women he owned, as documented in his detailed diaries. The Thistlewood project maps the plantation to show where Thistlewood’s individual acts of brutality, stigmatization, and caretaking took place.
Louis Nelson (2013) points out that “sites of terror,” such as whipping posts and scenes of rape, neither survive physically nor appear on plantation plans. Moreover, the people who suffered at these sites rarely leave records of their own. As Barry Higman (2001) observes, “The people who did the hard work of the plantations remain essentially voiceless in the narrative, reduced to the tools of capital and themselves literally to human capital” (xiii). The Thistlewood project seeks to represent these people, if not their voices. As a result, it has provoked serious consideration about what constitutes an ethical representation of violence and what kinds of ethical representations the digital permits. Hartman asks, “How does one give expression to these outrages without exacerbating the indifference to suffering that is the consequence of the benumbing spectacle or contend with the narcissistic identification that obliterates the other or the prurience that too often is the response to such displays?” (4). The Thistlewood project responds to that difficult question, and it uses maps and illustrations to represent slave experiences along a fine line between “the benumbing spectacle” and “the narcissistic identification.” These representational practices demand transparency and accountability in design.
The rapes that took place on Breadnut Island Pen are mappable because Thistlewood kept very detailed, even obsessive accounts of exactly where on the Pen he raped women. Thistlewood documented his rapes of 33 women in total. The project represents each of these women. When representing violence, the major challenge in this project is to preserve the humanity of the rape victims while having very limited historical material about their experiences. There are no existing narratives or documents produced by the slaves who lived on Breadnut Island Pen; the only voice available is that of their oppressor and serial rapist, Thistlewood. In an attempt to reject the domination of Thistlewood’s voice and to articulate a polyvocal narrative, the project dedicates a map to each victim of sexual violence on Breadnut Island Pen and then examines Thistlewood’s diaries for every reference to each victim.
The map is obviously limited in representing hundreds of rape events. Instead of creating a visual marker for each rape, the interface shows the large number of rapes that took place in multiple locations across the plantation. On one map, we use a differently shaped marker for each woman who was raped, and we place it on the locations of the rapes. From a design and social justice perspective, it was important to differentiate each woman as much as possible and mark her experience on the land. In addition, we include, where possible, a scan of Thistlewood’s diary as it relates to the rape. This gesture is intended not to increase Thistlewood’s presence but rather to present evidence of rape — to make the woman’s experience more material and lessen its distance from the viewer. The hand that wrote the diary entry is also the hand that oppressed these women.
Toward a Working Model of Making
The act of making is not neutral, because we — the makers, the consumers — are not neutral. Thus our goal is not neutrality. Instead, we strive to incorporate reflection on the process of making. Such reflection can lead to self-disclosure and transparency around the choices informing the made object, toward clear, more deliberate choices that advocate for social justice. The process of making has significant potential to not only render visible the bias of a single reflection and experience but also expose adjacent possibilities. While making neither immediately scaffolds a reflective practice nor automatically confronts social issues, it affords opportunities to do both through iteration.
1. Omeka employs PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor) as its main scripting language and MySQL as its database management system. Templates in Omeka are written primarily in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and styled using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Omeka also features an Application Programming Interface (API) for writing plug-ins that allows developers to extend the functionality of Omeka in any way programmatically possible.
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