Archiving Learning as a Messy, Partial, and Political Process


What follows is the talk I’ll be giving at the Digital/Pedagogy/Material/Archives conference at the Bard Graduate Center on Friday, April 5.

When I first arrived at The New School, in 2004, one of my service responsibilities was to [SLIDE 2] coordinate our student thesis projects. At the time, we had about 500 Masters students in the program, roughly 10% of which complete theses. Even as our program has grown, that proportion has stayed relatively consistent. Because the Masters Program in Media Studies was founded as a praxis program, one combining theory and practice, we’ve always had students producing work in a wide variety of formats. Finally, in the late 1990s, we extended that format-inclusivity to our thesis projects. In my eight years there, I’ve seen plenty of traditional 80-page thesis documents, as well as a graphic novel; [SLIDE 3] a few interactive audio maps; lots of film and video; a research podcast series; a couple installations; an artists’ book; a multimedia performance; and, perhaps among the most ambitious, a live chamber orchestra performance. [SLIDE 4] The latter was by a student, a composer, who was interested in film music. She took the infamous shower scene from Psycho, rescored it 13 times, rented out Judson Church, and had a chamber orchestra perform her 13 variations alongside the projected film.

And there are plenty more where those came from.

[SLIDE 5] My first office was on our building’s “secret” 13th floor, [CLICK] which is kind of like the 7 ½-th floor in Being John Malkovich, except we can actually stand up. To find us, you have to take the elevator up to the 12th floor, then find the one set of stairs that will take you up to 13. Some of the guards don’t even know we’re up there. [SLIDE 6] Anyway, beside my desk was a wall of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets that contained department files, reams of copy paper, cables for faculty computers…and all student theses for the past decade or more. Probably more, since some senior colleagues confirmed that we’ve been collecting and diligently cataloguing theses locally since Media Studies’ inception in the 70s.

[SLIDE 7] Wondering why the library wasn’t storing these projects, I eventually found myself in a meeting with the University Librarian, the Director of Digital Library and Technical Services, and a faculty member from another PhD-granting division of the university [SLIDE 8] We talked about what we’d like to see in a digital repository and addressed the possibilities of using d-space.

And then, despite a few attempts to follow up, it never got off the ground. This might be in part because we had some shifts in our library leadership, or because The New School is regularly negotiating its relationship to NYU’s libraries, which serve us, too.  Faculty who’d made similar appeals to the library before my arrival indicated that lack of storage space – [SLIDE 9] and the variety of formats our theses come in – have presented perennial challenges.

Despite the lack of institutional movement on the thesis front, we did decide to make some changes in-house. Within two years, we began asking students to submit everything digitally: no paper copies of anything – unless the student had created an artifact for which the material form was an integral part of the project, as with an artist’s book. We started storing everything on a dedicated hard drive, which was regularly backed-up. And we developed guidelines for submitting projects in different formats – audio, video, film, websites, etc. Perhaps our guidelines didn’t reflect best archival practices, but they reflected what we – a bunch of non-archivists – could reasonably be expected to handle on our own.

[SLIDE 10] Handling it on our own. DIY – a term that, nowadays, we tend to romanticize, but which is often simply a euphemism for getting by in the absence of institutional support that probably should be there. Yet for years we’ve been doing it our way – [SLIDE 11] Laverne & Shirley-style. When it came to my teaching it seemed to make sense to me that I’d be the one responsible for collecting and storing student works, particularly since I chose to forego the course management resources our university provided for us. [SLIDE 12] [SLIDE 13]

For projects that served the entire program or university, however, I aimed to work with our central Communication and External Affairs office. [SLIDE 14] When a colleague and I received funding for “Project Media Space | Public Space,” a year of events and courses exploring the ways that various media technologies transformed how we understand and experience public space, we created a robust website listing not only our own events – which included cross-divisional classes, [SLIDE 15] guest speakers, student showcases, screenings, [SLIDE 16] master classes with visiting artists and scholars, [SLIDE 17] an audio show, [CLICK] and a major exhibition – but also relevant events and resources all across the city. It was really a fabulous resource and a chronicle of an exciting set of programs.

And then, once the year ended and the university undertook one of its regular summer “refreshings” of the website, our Media Space sites [SLIDE 18] disappeared. I’ve come to realize over the years that sites like ours – those that serve primarily current students – aren’t really the communication team’s top priority. They’ve increasingly come to regard the University’s website as a marketing tool. [SLIDE 19] Their concern is creating a public face to attract prospective students and funders, and their assumption seems to be that faculty profiles, lists of classes, and factual info about innovative programs and resources are what appeals to outsiders. They don’t seem to see the “marketing value” in highlighting student productions or research projects, which, if you ask me, would have tremendous value in showing the vibrant work taking place at The New School.

I also have to acknowledge that the folks in our Communications department are lovely and talented people, and they’re terribly understaffed. And it’s completely understandable that they can’t make archiving their concern.

[SLIDE 20] The upshot of all of this is that the only remaining traces of Project Media Space | Public Space are on my own website. The same can be said of a multimedia student journal I advised in 2006. [SLIDE 21] I taught a class in which a team of students learned a bit about editorial theory and explored the past, present, and future of the journal landscape – and they applied those lessons in theming; soliciting submissions for; editing; and publishing a issue. Various faculty advisors over the years had hosted issues on their own New School webspace. So, we had no consistent site architecture – and when the university phased out the dedicated personal webspace a few years ago, some older issues of the journal failed to make the transition. Our issue was among the lost. [SLIDE 22] It lives on only in this screen shot on my own webpage[CLICK] where you can see the dead link at the bottom – and in the syllabus that documents the process of its creation.

I’ve had my own domain and shared hosting since 2003, and I’ve been creating websites for most of my classes since 2005. [SLIDE 23] The early sites were basic html sites that functioned primarily as repositories of syllabi and relevant links. I tried building some bulletin boards, to make the sites more interactive, back in 2006, but these platforms proved a little too clunky for students. [SLIDE 24] But for the past four years or so, each of my courses has had a blog, or, in the case of a large lecture course I occasionally teach, [SLIDE 25] its own rather extensive Ning site, which contains all the course material, all the readings and supplemental material, videos of all the lectures, and all the online student discussions. This site is reused each semester, so I’ve chosen to create my own archive of each semester’s work.

These websites have become rather comprehensive “archives” of not only the classes themselves, but also of student learning. I should say that I’m one of those folks who bristles at the colloquial use of the term “archives” – as in, [SLIDE 26] I’ve archived these “women laughing alone with salad” photos on my hard drive – because such usage tends to trivialize or ignore the specialized knowledge and specific values that “real” archivists embody. [SLIDE 27] But it is true that our course sites do manage to chronicle, or “archive,” the richness of student learning: it’s the class architecture, the learning materials, the students’ learning processes, the interaction among students and with the instructor, and the students’ projects. In regard to the latter, [SLIDE 28] at the end of each semester, I create a summary blog post for each class, in which I document what we’ve done, highlight some of our greatest accomplishments, address what we might do differently next time, and describe – and link to – each of the students’ final projects.

[SLIDE 29] But I don’t consider myself the class archivist; honestly, I’m a little too busy trying to be an effective teacher. I don’t ask my students to submit their work “for archiving.” And although I do what I can to fix broken links, there’s not much I can do when the material we’re linking to disappears. Because students usually have the freedom to choose their own platforms, which is an integral part of the design process; because they sometimes make use of platforms that fold or evolve in ways that compromise their designs; and because students sometimes elect to host their projects on their own webspace in order to add them to their personal portfolios – I have little control over what happens to them after the semester’s over.

I’ll offer a couple examples from my [SLIDE 30] Media and Materiality course in which we examine “media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication.” The students create online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship.” The particular formats of the students’ projects offer them an opportunity to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their material natures?

[SLIDE 31] While we explore a variety of platforms, most students have chosen to make WordPress blogs or Tumblrs, and some have created Pinterest collections, designed e-books-as-exhibitions, [SLIDE 32] or custom-designed their own sites. [SLIDE 33] One fashion student re-purposed the Facebook page – detourning the real estate of the profile page, using it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used – to create an exhibition about fashion and mediated identity. This project no longer lives on Facebook; I have to assume that the student deleted it. Its only trace is in a screenshot on my end-of-semester summary post.

[SLIDE 34] A few other 2010 students elected to use a platform called Vuvox to create “multimedia collages.” [SLIDE 35] Vuvox, it so happens, is owned by ebay, which also owns PayPal – and PayPal’s servers were attacked in early December 2010, right before finals, in retaliation for the company’s decision to cut funding to WikiLeaks. Hence, no VuVox, and no work on final projects, for nearly a week. Thus, while my students probably weren’t the hackers’ intended targets, they felt the wrath. [SLIDE 36] And the students learned a difficult, although valuable, lesson about Internet infrastructure. These projects are (currently) still alive online – but they certainly wouldn’t be if Vuvox permanently folded. Or if my students elected to use any of the myriad platforms simply evaporates each year.

[SLIDE 37] In another of my courses, Urban Media Archaeology, we investigate historical urban media infrastructures – from newspaper delivery to the use of carrier pigeons, from telephone switching stations to independent bookstores, from video game arcades to the evolution of New York’s street signs. [SLIDE 38] The students conduct archival research and produce their own primary documents: oral histories, ethnographic videos, field recordings, etc. [SLIDE 39] And these materials are woven into arguments they make on a map – a map we’ve been collaboratively developing with programmers and designers at Parsons the New School for Design for the past five years.

[SLIDE 40] Our map is hosted on Parsons servers – and the developers have chosen to host locally as much media as possible, rather than linking out to it. But students using video still typically choose to embed codes from YouTube or Vimeo – or, if they’ve created their own video or audio, they post to YouTube or Soundcloud and embed the content. Thus, while we can be relatively assured that the map will always be there as long as we want it to be, we have no such assurances that the media on the map, particularly those resources stored externally, will always be around. I’m sure we’re not consistently using best archival practices – but if we’re successful in securing funding for further development of the tool, this would be a priority.

There are some other promising developments, too. [SLIDE 41] Media Studies’ new Technical Director has been working with a former student to develop a searchable archive of student thesis projects. It’s still a work on progress, as is evidenced by the fact that I haven’t been able to get access to it for the past few days in order to capture a screen shot. But it’s a vast improvement over the days when most students didn’t even know there was a collection of theses up on the Malkovich floor – and if they did, they’d have to review a print-out of our catalogue, sign out a project – and maybe return it later on.

[SLIDE 42] We also have Wendy Sheir, recently promoted from director of the Kellen Archives – that’s Parsons’ archives – to Director of the University Archives and Special Collection – who, with her fantastic staff, has made tremendous strides in gathering up our less-than-tidy institutional archives and digitizing some fabulous material. And they’re committed to working with faculty and administrators to archive student work, too. [SLIDE 43] Some of their recent digitization projects – including work with The New School’s publicity scrapbooks – have been supported by grants attached to classes; those materials were integral to the work taking place in a recent lecture course on the New School’s history.

They’ll be working with my students next year, too. [SLIDE 44] I regularly teach a seminar on

Archives, Libraries, and Databases, in which we look at the past, present, and future, and the politics and aesthetics, of the institutions we’ve created to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge and collections of information. [SLIDE 45] Next year, as a follow-up to this class, I’ll be collaborating with The New School’s Libraries and Archives to create a “Digital Archives and Institutional Memory” studio, a chance for students to put into practice some of the theories we address in the seminar. The New School’s digital archiving efforts are relatively recent, so it’ll give students a chance to shape the direction of future archival work – perhaps the archiving of their own student work – and create new opportunities for future pedagogical uses of the archives. And maybe we’ll even create a few aspiring archivists in the process.

*   *   *   *   *

During the afternoon session, each presenter will be asked to share an ideal scenario or a provocation so that everyone in attendance can perhaps identify concrete steps we can take together to develop new archival strategies. What follows are my (not terribly provocative) provocations:

  1. What if we sought to archive artifacts of the learning process – including the drafts and detritus – rather than focusing primarily on “finished works,” which provide proof of “having learned”? What if we archived not only finished projects, but also student-generated data, component pieces, drafts, etc. – and what if this material was then made available for reuse and repurposing in other student and faculty projects?
  2. What if students could post their research and production material to a university archive and indicate, Creative Commons style, if – and if so, how – they’re allow it to be used by others?
  3. What if we linked our archives to fair use advocacy groups like Critical Commons, which supports the “transformative reuse of media in scholarly and creative contexts” – and extended that advocacy to incorporate other copyrighted cultural forms?
  4. What would it mean to embrace the basic principles of Alan Liu’s RoSE (research-oriented social environment) project and to “treat individual works of media as proto or micro networks” – networks of people, of texts, of learning practices, etc. – and then to trace the “macro-networks” that emerge from these micro-networks? How might this allow us to use the archive to map research communities and collaborations and shared resources?
  5. What if we allowed students to “opt-in” to archive their final course projects, which would then obligate them to format their work according to specified criteria, but would also ensure that their work would be preserved by the university? And what if instructors could then generate a list of all officially-archived course projects, which they could then format into a summary document or “exhibition” of student work.
  6. [Disingenuously phrased as a “what if”] What if we also recognized the right of students to opt out of the archive – to allow their work to remain private, un-networked; to destroy their work or to allow it simply to fade away? What if we honored the value of erasure and forgetting?



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