September 2018

This special issue explores digital humanities as a designation, as an associated constellation of technologies and practices, and as a site of convergence for inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary scholarship. Rather than defining and policing the boundaries of American studies and digital humanities, which thrive precisely because they are complex and not easily disciplined, this special issue is more interested in what it means to bring these fields, methodologies, and communities together toward a critically engaged digital practice.

The special issue is divided into four sections: articles, digital projects, forums, and a review essay.

The first set of articles offer alternative and transformative approaches to digital humanities, while the second cluster of articles examines digital engagements with race, ethnicity, and disability. The third and final set of articles focus on materiality, the virtual, and metadata.

The second section of the special issue features overviews of eight online digital projects. The third section of the special issue features several forums on the topics of Methods, Institutions, and Forms of Knowledge & Practice. Finally, the fourth section is a review by Jason Heppler of "Renewing Inequality: Family Displacements through Urban Renewal" and "Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America."

A Children’s Book, Nineteenth Century-News, and Multimedia Approaches to American Studies
Sara L. Schwebel

This article discusses the multimedia strategies employed to bridge the gap between the scholarly study of children’s literature and the use of popular children’s books in K-12 schools.  The Lone Woman and Last Indians Digital Archive, the Channel Islands National Park subject site on Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition (University of California Press, 2016) together provide primary source material, interactive tools, teacher lesson plans, and accessible scholarship that invite students, scholars, and the larger public to explore a familiar text in new ways.

As a public humanities project, the digital and print resources strive to develop more complex understandings of the United States as an empire and settler colonial society, as well as a land in which vibrant Native communities persist, despite centuries of oppression and dispossession.  The multimedia materials interrupt ideas about Indian Vanishing embedded in narratives of the Lone Woman’s story (including in Island of the Blue Dolphins) and introduce, in the curriculum portal, topics that are underrepresented in textbooks, including Native cultural and linguistic persistence and the Pacific maritime trade that pre-dated California’s Gold Rush.  There is also a sample syllabus for an undergraduate course centered on Island of the Blue Dolphins and the Lone Woman of San Nicolas that can be used in conjunction with service learning initiatives.

The Channel Islands National Park subject site on Island of the Blue Dolphins additionally serves as a forum for the presentation of new research on the Lone Woman.  In 2009, archeologists uncovered two redwood boxes containing a range of raw and manufactured materials of Native Alaskan, Native Californian, and European origin, suggesting that they were stashed by the Lone Woman during her eighteen years of island isolation (1835-53).  Jon M. Erlandson describes some of the objects found in this brief conference presentation.  Just three years later, in 2012, a team led by U.S. Navy archeologist Steven Schwartz located the opening of a cave likely used by the Lone Woman, and by her ancestors long before her (see conference presentation).  Both findings attracted great interest among researchers and the public, and they also raised concerns in Native communities.  San Nicolas Island has been controlled by the U.S. Navy since the 1950s, and thousands of artifacts and ethnographic objects are stored on the island, which is inaccessible to civilians.  Following demands by the federally-recognized Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, excavation of the Lone Woman’s cave was halted, as the L.A. Times reported.

On the mainland, new archival research in the papers of California anthropologist John Peabody Harrington and in Los Angeles-area baptismal records yielded both Native accounts of the Lone Woman’s story and the identities of other Nicoleños, members of the Lone Woman’s community, who arrived on the California mainland in the 1830s.  Academic articles reporting these findings have been published and are forthcoming, but details of the new research also appear in easily accessible formats on the Channel Islands National Park’s Island of the Blue Dolphins subject site: in “Voices from the Field,” where researchers from a range disciplinary backgrounds describe their efforts to better understand the Lone Woman’s story; in the Peoples and Cultures section; and encoded (via TEI) in the historical annotations of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century documents collected in the Lone Woman and Last Indians archive.  In each instance, efforts have been made to restore the Native identities and perspectives omitted or obscured in early accounts of the Lone Woman’s story.  The digital archive also draws attention to the mechanisms of omission via data visualizations and an essay detailing the mythic tropes that have operated in more than a century of popular and academic writings about the Lone Woman (including in the recent L.A. Times article linked above).

New textual scholarship on Island of the Blue Dolphins and on the sources Scott O’Dell used in writing the novel appear in Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition, which includes two chapters cut before O’Dell sent the typescript to Houghton Mifflin (notably, these chapters include Karana’s captivity and the threat of rape).  A blog on textual variants and errors in editions and printings of the novel provides some advice for those who might include Island of the Blue Dolphins (or for that matter, other works of twentieth-century children’s literature) on their syllabi.

Scott O’Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins in a beautiful stone house that formerly served as an apple storage and packing facility in the Gold Rush town of Julian, California.  The documentary film West of the West: Tales from California’s Channel Islands (2016) captures the setting—which looks remarkably the same today as it did in the late 1950s.  The “tale” in which the O’Dell’s Stoneapple Farm is featured also summarizes recent research on the Lone Woman’s story.

In 2016, Heyday Press published Dear Miss Karana, by Eric Elliot.  Like countless American ten-year-olds, the protagonist is studying Island of the Blue Dolphins in school.  Equipped with knowledge and insight from her Luiseño community, however, she questions some of the ways the Lone Woman’s story has been told, even as she finds herself forcefully drawn to Scott O’Dell’s character Karana.  As we engage in desperately needed conversation about whose stories are told, whose are silenced, and by whom, Dear Miss Karana serves as a helpful companion text to Island of the Blue Dolphins. 

Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform
Will Fenton

Digital Collection: Approximately 2,500 pages of free (CC 4.0), print-quality images contributed by a dozen archives, research libraries, and cultural institutions. About one-third of the corpus is fully-transcribed, with new transcriptions added regularly.

Scholarly Edition: The project includes two forms of critical context: historical overviews and conceptual keyword essays.

Historical Overviews: When visitors access Digital Paxton, they automatically enter an introductory pathway, which provides an overview of the project and a series of historical contexts related to the Paxton massacre and pamphlet war.

Keywords: Modeled upon the work of Raymond Williams, and more recently Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, keyword essays provide conceptual and interdisciplinary approaches to the Paxton corpus. Similar to historical overview essays, all five keywords develop or extend arguments that authors originally pursued in books or journal articles.

Teaching Platform: Digital Paxton hosts several lesson plans designed for secondary and post-secondary educators.

Over the next two years (2018-2020), Digital Paxton will expand significantly as an educational resource, thanks to a generous grant from The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. To learn more about the next chapter ofthe project, visit the grantee page for Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America.

Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration: The American Prison Writing Archive
Doran Larson

Due to the US prison’s sheer size, recent public conversation about the effects of mass-scale incarceration has been carried on largely by social scientists using quantitative methods. The voices of incarcerated people are often lost amid their very status as units of a mass population. As the largest and first fully-searchable digital platform for essays by incarcerated people writing about their experience inside US prisons and jails, the American Prison Writing Archive seeks to disaggregate this population into singular minds and ideas; at the same time, broad reading in the APWA reveals cohesive sets of problems experienced by incarcerated people across the American archipelago of over 6,000 carceral facilities. The APWA presents the voices of distinct individuals, facilitates collective witness to current carceral conditions, and it brings into the digital age a history of US prison witness as old as the prison itself. Only incarcerated people understand the full sweep and causal momentum of the failures of public policy and civil society effecting homes and communities, and resulting in policing, judicial, prison practices that maintain US incarceration at its current mass scale.

This 1,000-word abstract briefly describes the history of The APWA and its mission: to aid the broad public, scholars, students, and lawmakers in understanding the capacity of incarcerated people to document the human costs of the carceral state and to map the way beyond it. By hosting a living, growing, and inclusive literature of prison witness, the APWA hopes to show the service that incarcerated people can render to attempts to create a fair, humane, just, and democratic society.

Teaching with Scalar
Genevieve Carpio

In my American Quarterly piece, “Toward a Digital Ethnic Studies: Race, Technology, and the Classroom” (September 2018), I discuss teaching with an open-source publishing platform with eBook and blogging qualities called Scalar. Academic publishing platforms have great promise for scholarship growing out of the classroom, such as blogs, online exhibits, and collaborative projects. This essay shares resources I developed for teaching with Scalar and links to assignment prompts that can be adapted to a range of online publishing platforms.

How is Scalar a Useful Platform for Course Adoption?
Scalar has multiple features that can be applied effectively towards use in the American studies classroom, including:

How to Prepare Students for Using Web Authoring Tools
I begin my courses with a Scalar workshop that introduces students to its capabilities and its differences from other blogging platforms and eBooks. This video designed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC), does so succinctly and effectively.

Scalar regularly offers free online webinars at two levels. The first provides an introduction to the platform and the second addresses advanced topics. The webinars are particularly useful for an instructor using Scalar for the first time. You can find the most recent schedule here,

I then lead students step-by-step through the process of creating a profile, for which they can use their real name or a digital proxy. This offers an opportunity to talk through questions of privacy and students’ digital presence, while offering a practical hands-on exercise in using the platform. As students work on their profiles, I add them each as co-authors to our shared Scalar “book.” This allows them to add content by creating new “pages.”

I also take this time to talk about copyright, fair use, and the public domain. I recommend Eric Faden’s “Fair(y) Use Tale,” which knits together snippets from Disney films to teach copyright law.

How to Design Web-Authoring Assignments
For every assignment, I create an online prompt that students refer to as a model. Doing so provides a how-to-guide for students new to online publishing platforms. More so, when students know they can expect a guide, it helps dispel anxiety around uneven digital humanities training. And, it helps create cohesiveness between students’ work when we bring their individual pages together into a shared class project. Within each prompt, I include guiding questions, links to data sources, and directions for using new web features.

In order to provide examples of what a finished page will look like, I fill them with Lorem Ipsum, or dummy text. Since page limits do not translate to online writing assignments, a Lorem Ipsum model offers a helpful visual reference for assignment length. Lorem Ipsum generators are available online, some with a particularly strong sense of humor.

Assignment Examples and Prompts
My prompts are all online and available for any educator to use or adapt. The assignments are cumulative and each builds on the authoring tools students used in the previous assignment.

Blog Prompt: This assignment examines the intersection of storytelling and digital media. Each week, one student examines one course reading in conversation with a contemporary issue related to race and ethnicity. Online comments from their fellow classmates engage the blog content in relation to course themes.

Research Paper Prompt: Using course readings, statistical data on Internet usage, and their own analysis of a new media source (i.e. a website, app, blog, forum, twitter account), students write a report that describes an aspect of the digital divide. In their evaluation, they consider the ways race shapes the nature of access/participation with information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the broader significance of ICT access or inaccess for communities of color.

Digital Ethnography Prompt: In this assignment, students are asked to consider new media’s potential as a site for critical engagement with race and ethnicity, both on and off the Internet. Using digital ethnography and course readings, students examine how a social movement of their choice is engaging new media. Further, they create a 5-10 source multimedia supplement with resources for a public audience interested in the social movement they have selected.

Where Can I Learn More?

Doing Digital Wrongly
Ruth Nicole Brown, Blair Ebony Smith, Porshe’ R. Garner, Jessica Robinson

Our article explores doing digital wrongly as a music-making process rooted in Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), a collective space of organizing with Black girls to celebrate Black girlhood. Using first -person narrative, reflection, and photography, our essay highlights a litany of listening practices and responses to our personal lives and participation in SOLHOT, foregrounding how music became a critical iteration of how we worked together. Guided by our love for Black feminist and womanist theories and practices, we demonstrate the usefulness and nonuse of a sonic ritualized creative practice that allows us to critique ourselves, as well as structural conditions, in relation to doing collective work with Black girls, based on how sounds arrived to us and what we brought [to our sound].

As We Levitate gets to know our own creative process better, it’s exciting to bring our music back to SOLHOT and then in turn create new songs. There are many artists who have partnered with us, taught us studio basics, and provided beats for Black Girl Genius Week studio and We Levitate tracks including Miss Air, Plainro, Danitra, Mother Nature, and Rynea Soul. We also invited musicians to perform with us for BGGW: Sammus, Ausar Bradley, CJ Run.  Music/noise/dj’ing by band members: (Jessica Robinson) F.M. Lourdes, (Blair Smith) lovenloops, and (Ruth Nicole Brown) DJ Sarah Grace.

Visuals are important to the narrative we remember about our coming together. We have two music videos: Miss Me  and Free Women, both recorded and edited by TwoBrainz during Black Girl Genius Week 2014. The videos were a lot of fun to make, and allowed us to collaborate with other local artists.

Black Girl Genius Week (BGGW) is a SOLHOT organized anti-conference that exhausts the rituals of SOLHOT to widen the cipher and experience the imaginative possibilities and artistry that only occurs when Black girls and women are together as homegirls.

BGGW Reflections: 

SHEMovement TV (Feb 2016)
Photos by Twobrainz (Oct 2016)
Smile Politely BGGW Recap by Tyler Courtney (Oct 2016)
Feministing Reflections by Sesali Bowen (2014)
Reflections by Porshe Garner   (March 2016)
Reflections by Blair Smith (Jan 2017)

We Levitate is multimedia ritual concert experience we’d love to share with your community. Please do invite us out to where you live so that we may sing and make Black girl songs together. We are also interested in thinking more about our work as digital humanities and the possibilities for purposes of collective engagement, wider listenership, mapping homegirl knowledge, and circulating music made for and with Black girls. Currently, our collective dreams include a[n] artist residency or opportunities where we work with Black girls and those who love them to make spaces, art, scholarship and Black girlhood as freedom...

Mapping Violence
Monica Martinez

Mapping Violence aims to expose interconnected histories of racial violence, the legacies of colonization, slavery, and genocide that intersect in Texas. It is a multifaceted research project that includes compiling a digital archive of cases of racial violence in Texas from 1900 to 1930, research for documented case, curated content for public audiences, and an interactive map where users will be able to search the database. The archive builds from a database of cases of racial violence I compiled when researching my first book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas. Cases of racial violence include multiple forms of violence that targeted multiple racial and ethnic groups (African Americans, Mexican Americans, Mexican nationals, Asian Americans, Native Americans and European immigrants).

The forum essay that I contributed offers a glimpse into the pedagogical methods for developing an interdisciplinary research team. This work requires spectacular collaborators.

As a humanist wandering into the world of codes and metadata and user-testing, I am grateful to have the support of incredible digital humanists like James McGrath, a postdoctoral fellow in digital humanities at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities at Brown University. I am inspired by the committed team of researcher collaborators on the Mapping Violence team. Felicia Bevel, Jonathan Cortez, Emily Esten, Maggie Unverzagt Goddard, Ricardo Jaramillo, Anni Pullagura, Edwin Rodriguez, Nicole Sintetos, and Jeremy Wolin are current members of the team. Nicole Sintetos made the timeline below to visualize the longer history of contributions by students and advisors. Amelia Grabowski, for example, then a student of the Masters in Public Humanities program at Brown University, helped design this project in its earliest stages and contributed to grant applications that helped launch the effort.

Mapping Violence is just one project exploring new digital methods to recover histories of racial violence and make them public. Efforts by legal scholars, political scientists, sociologists, and historians are inspiring our collective effort. Readers should learn from the short list of projects briefly referenced in my essay. These projects are highlighted below here because they include efforts to recover and research histories of racial violence, but they also seek to engage public audiences including students, teachers, advocates, elected officials, and policy makers.