Witness to the Archive

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From One Black Home…

Since my father (unlike many of my OTHER family members) does not read this blog or any blog and hates the internet, I can tell all his biz’ness here with impunity.  I will use him here to think about digital archiving and its implications for my classroom.

DuctWorkAs I seem to always stress, my father’s working class status and disposition have never meant intimidation or lack of confidence, as many seem to associate with working class folk of color.  As a heating and A/C specialist, he works in many homes/churches/companies to install heating ducts, central air, etc.  If it has a motor, engine, or some such, he can fix it …BUT if you start telling him what he should do when it is obvious that you have NO knowledge or scientific background with the task at hand, he will nod, tell you to do it yo-damn-self since you know so much, pack up his stuff, and walk right back out the door. If you can’t see that he has knowledge and a skillset that you NEED and do NOT have, he ain’t dealin with you.  Ever. If you don’t know how to talk or respect someone like him, well then he ain’t gon give you the time of day.  He will watch you freeze to death, quite literally, without a morsel of regret.  It should go without saying: I think this is one of my father’s greatest attributes. I aspire to be like him each and every day!

And this is where technology comes in.  Just so he won’t forget your dumb behind, my father will add you to his archive, a routinely UPDATED database (names and all possible phone numbers) of people who shouldn’t get any answer when they call. He prints these out and posts them by the phone and at other strategic locations. He has other uses for technology like keeping up with sports stats and staying in touch with his 14 brothers and sisters, but maintaining his database is a main priority. I love to dig through the database rather than just read the posted lists because it gives so much more detail.  I am wildly entertained by the new names and the things folk have pissed off my father about.  I even like to issue warnings: “watch out now— you bout to get on the list.”  Hours of entertainment right there!  I don’t have a database like my father’s, but these days, I am certainly considering it and have plenty names and attributes ready.

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…to Other Black Homes

aretha-franklin-ebony-2As a child, I often went on jobs with my father.  Yes, I enjoyed when he would get mad and leave because, then, I could do my special dance on the walk to car: a bop to match our walk, quick pause every now-and-then for an “in yo face” side-to-side head bap, and then bop to the car door some more.  On the occasions where we stayed, I loved that too. I got to sit down and read Ebony, Essence, and Jet magazines and, since I was appreciative of the content, I was always given access to the stash of back issues that were always stored somewhere close by.  No one threw these out— they were archived as data of our lives.  And, yes, I consider these archives, NOT collections, ones that were freely accessible.  What was the point of collecting black wisdom if you weren’t going to share it?  I loved flipping through the well-worn pages and seeing which articles were the most read.  That’s where I would sink in.  Of course, those times do not match the politics of these magazines now, but they once offered dynamic polemics of and representations into black life.jet-1960-08-25

With every fix-it job that my father did, I was immersed in some kind of an archive.  It is a memory that I would like to carry with me as I imagine how to re-frame the annotated bibliography that is part of the freshman comp curriculum in my program.  While the digital component of my assignment was clear enough (students had to create e-pages for different kinds of websites, articles, videos, etc), I didn’t make the scope and purpose critical enough.  Archives help you live your daily life; they are not just the purview of privileged digital scholars who use the newest tools to (re)center the same white actors of history and aesthetics.  I needed to offer my students the opportunity to create their own archive of knowing and I needed to allow them more control of what that should look like and do.  Once again, it is a black framework that gives me this new approach and disposition.  I am never without a model in this newly technologically automated world, even for alternative archives.

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AfroDigital Consciousness (ADC): Definitions and Callings

Last week, at this time, I was with teachers, parents, and activists at ABEC (A Black Education Congress) who collectively offered a vision for what it means to live and be in AfroDigital spaces. This week, I am thinking about those conversations more deeply, understanding the ways that  I am accountable to a history and set of ideals for education (and technology) that go far, far beyond the scope and imaginations of the schools where I work.

ADC PosterAfroDigital Consciousness (ADC) was a term that I thought was brilliantly defined at ABEC and captures exactly the kind of ideal that goes beyond what schools intend for us.  ADC= SPIRIT+ COMMUNITY+ TECHNOLOGY (“Ego-Tripping 2.0″ is an interconnected notion inspired by the opening performance at ABEC that included a reading of Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego-Tripping.”)  ADC is multi-sensory oriented and steps into our practice and spirit. ADC creates community instead of destroying it. ADC means you play the game better… because you are on another level. 

Perhaps, one of my favorite moments was the emphatic declaration that ADC goes beyond what students of color most commonly receive in schools: a MINIMAL COMPETENCY, SKILLS-BASED apparatus.  We ask: what spirits have our ancestors left or what is the knowledge that can propel us forward in a culturally relevant way? ADC recognizes that technology is power and power is defining your own reality (see Dr. Akbar’s work here).  

When we talk about ADC, we are fundamentally talking about IDEAS. AfroDigital Ideas offer a Pan African vision, work globally, and represent an uncensored bearing of an African American/global perspective. AfroDigital Ideas preserve our history, culture, and arts and RESTORE our culture.  In particular, ADC directs a new vision of teaching:

  • Children CAN code and design; they can do it if provided the opportunity
  • Students need to be provided the opportunity to use their creativity and develop that capacity
  • We must tell the story and history of ourselves and our ancestors utilizing technology

We even talked about an AfroDigital Universe that is non-intimidating, user-friendly, AND economically freeing apps, websites, and digital experiences and includes (but is not limited to):

  • An app for health & beauty for African/African Americans that promotes natural beauty for young, impressionable girls
  • Mental health apps that will deal with: bullying, depressions, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder (these resources will be linked to help black families receive authentic, genuine assistance)
  • An online search engine geared towards our African culture
  • An online African/African American company where all groups can create, edit, and publish books on various cultures.  This includes illustrators who have access to spaces where they can upload their art
  • An online African-centered virtual school that is developmentally friendly
  • A digital archive of our lesson plans and best practices as a resource for teachers that is community-informing
  • Online examples of a Hip Hop based education for teaching
  • A gaming platform/experience that takes you back to Kemet (with Baba Asa Hilliard as guide/avatar)
  • Kwanzaa principles that are digitally lived and offer self-love
  • Resources-focused search capabilities that access resources across the Diaspora

Of course, these apps and technologies will not be developed overnight.  That’s not the point here.  It’s about the ideological apparatus behind what we do, how and why.  And, for me, it’s about always remembering that fundamental UNDERSTANDING:  we are accountable to a history and set of ideals for education (and technology) that go far, far beyond the scope and imaginations of the schools where we often work and the dominant systems of education that enroll many of us.

CSS, Color, Design & Lab-Pedagogies

Youth workshop in a college computer lab.

Youth workshop in a college computer lab.

For the first time in my teaching career, I have access to a computer lab.  It simply was never possible before.  My classes will only visit the lab three times in the semester (beginning, middle, and end) for design-work but I am just now incorporating this into my pedagogy.  I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first time that I am understanding how significant the changes in pedagogy are based on the lay-out of a computer lab.  I have read about these issues, for sure, but honestly, I ain’t read all that stuff closely.  What I need to think about all of this for when my students’ university-supplied laptops die at the second year?  Or what if we ain’t got no labs?  Those texts didn’t relate to me and maybe I was hatin a little bit on them folks with resources.  I shoulda been listening though.

So here is what I have worked with:

  1. classrooms where all students have a laptop that they bring to class with them
  2. a large lab with long rows and computer-station/screen at front
  3. a medium-sized lab with concentric squares and computer-station/screen at front
  4. a small lab with desks with the computer-station at the back of the room and the screen at front
  5. no tech at all (very few students have laptops, there are no labs, and there is a long waitlist for a classroom with computer and screen).

By far, I like #4 the best though that spy-cam stuff could give the same effect (where you see what each student is doing on their computer screen on your own screen).  I also like #1 for everyday classroom activities but when you are doing design or  introducing CSS, there’s just something about those large, television-sized screens that really offer a unique dynamism.

Your whole body movements shift in these labs.  For #1, you are sitting at small group tables with students.  For #2, you are pacing rows after you demo some design issue but you can walk to the back of the room and get a sweeping, panoramic view of what everyone is doing.  For #3, you are circling rows after you demo some design issue (there is no room at the back so you never get the panorama).  For #4, you are hidden from view, only your design elements are visible to students.  You offer highly individualized instruction because you can see what your students are struggling and hesitating with as you look on their screens during your demo.  Each room lay-out offers different possibilities that I now need to think about before I select the lab location.

Click here to go to this digital interview.

Click here to go to this digital interview.

All in all, my students’ CSS design so far is impressive.  They still have some work to do and I did not teach things like left navigation hovering (I barely understand it myself), but all is good.  There are ironies though.  For the first time that I have this much ability to design my e-pedagogies, design is not really valued as composing, literacy, or thinking in the 21st century here.  There are more ironies.  I have many colleagues across the country where ePortfolios are mandated or saturated across the curriculum who often complain to me, quite bitterly at times, at how unthoughtful and uncritical their students’ visual design is.  On the contrary, I asked my students to think of what they want to convey— just with color— in the context of a course that makes culturally relevant pedagogy central, and they soared with flying colors on that (pun intended).  But hardly no one around them seems to see or value that as literate behavior or 21st century composing.  It’s a damn shame.  I’m not worried about students though because they are entering a digital world with a whole different set of expectations and requirements than the digitally-illiterate folk who marginalize them.  To my students: keep flyin high.  I see you!

Decolonization, ePortfolios, and Students of Color

Though I have had some reservations about ePortfolios, I am more turned off by the ways ePorts get used rather than with the actual ePortfolio technologies available.  These platforms are already pre-packaged and pre-formatted so I am deeply disturbed when faculty create a master template where students (or staff) just input data.  It amazes me that ePortfolios can become just another 5-paragraph formula so quickly.   Here is what I mean by a template:

Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 11.10.11 PM

The box wrapped in a gray line is called the top navigation bar of an ePortfolio.  You click on a word/item and then you get a series of corresponding ePages that have another series of left navigation options.  What happens in many of the classrooms that I see is that teachers set the topics of the navigation bar to match the requirements of the department, state standards, etc.  Students just load in their work, almost like sifting recyclables into the correct bin.  While that kind of automated sifting is an important task for one’s daily household chores, it most certainly does not qualify as digital literacy or even LITERACY.  For me, it is simply tragic that this sifting passes mustard for writing classrooms.

This sifting into digital templates is yet another kind of standardization and corporate cloning.  That kind of ePortfolio robs students of even minimal levels of digital design in already pre-formatted platforms.  The technology actually allows you to remove the line around the box, thicken it, shadow-box it, color it, round its ages, make buttons, add a background color, etc.  You can do the same with the left navigation (click here for my own ePort as a sample).  You can have multiple backgrounds in all of these spaces. The examples are so countless that you need an actual design plan.  In fact, most websites start with a sketch, a practice that stirs significant conflict since far too many teachers do not see sketching as composing and writing.  I am always so wonderfully surprised when I hear web designers talk about their design choices in the same way that an interior designer does.  It makes sense since we are, in essence, designing a space.  So if students are not allowed to think about any of these design elements for themselves, then can we really call their work an ePortfolio? I remain stunned that writing teachers do not think design has any part of literacy in the 21st century.  While that fact alone is not shocking, such teaching practices are especially violent for students of color.

The images of smiling, happy students of color are masterfully manipulated in college marketing for every brochure, poster, and college webpage— images that, once again, are not controlled by people of color. The overall saturation of images in a multimedia era has not meant anything positive for people of color.  When you do not control the resources, you certainly do not control how your image is portrayed.  I am talking about decolonization here: what might it mean for people of color to (re)imagine their image inside of  the violence of a visual/media culture that denies them this kind of self-determination?   Self-determined visual cultures will be vital for digital literacies in the 21st century, all the more so given the stunning number of college teachers who use educational technologies to strip students of their own cultural-visual rhetorics.

Giving students control of their own visual image has meant that I have had to introduce a little CSS in my class. It’s not that difficult.  While many of my rather crotchety colleagues might seem to think that the sole focus of college writing in the 21st century is grammar in print texts, I know better than to trust such systems and teachers. I am disappointed by how many remain intent on denying my students the REALEST and most basic of human rights/literacy in the 21st century… self-determination.

Value of Self-Reflection/Self-Honesty: No Greyhounds Here!

It’s been a rough few weeks moving to a different job, meeting new people, learning a new cultural system (otherwise called a college or university), figuring out where things are, setting my codes for the phone, printer, scanner/copy machine.  My new colleague, Sara, has been wonderful—we started this year together and we have pretty much vowed that this will be a place we really like because we are just too damn old to be doing all this re-locating and starting all over again.  Despite the fatigue, I am quite happy, value my new colleagues, and just love the students who I get to teach.

fyw course

Please look for this image in the right-hand column for a link to the website.

The very first assignment for the semester was pretty low-key: write me a letter with comments about the website, syllabus, and general feelings.  For my 101 class, I asked students to do a “Mic Check”, an assignment inspired by Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin Out”. For my 201 students, I asked students to connect their work in the previous semester of 101 to the new course in 201, an assignment inspired by Erykah Badu’s “& On.”  These assignments were created as eTexts on the course website with the music playing in the background.  I was so pleasantly surprised at how self-reflective and brutally honest my students were.  They were critical of the things they believe they do well in their writing and writing processes AND what they need to work on.  It was a wonderful reminder just how much of a vital skill this is, one that not many folk have.  It was an important reminder to me to fuse this kind of thing into the semester all along because, like I just said, it is a skill not many possess.

italian-greyhound-pairMaybe this is an academic/professor thing but I am often perplexed by self-aggrandizing and conceited college faculty.  I remember when I first started on the tenure track and was surrounded by folk who thought their scholarship was the most impressive and deepest thing ever.  It was perplexing because these folk weren’t the least bit interesting to me, much less offering some kind of new Kuhnian shift to the world.  It was like these folk had no sense of themselves, what they did well and what they didn’t do well.  It became very dangerous because you could end up working on a project/committee with someone who claimed an expertise on the subject at hand, only to find out they didn’t know/do jack! The folk who I actually thought were brilliant scholars and teachers NEVER spoke of themselves, name-dropped their famous advisors, patted themselves on the back for the comp exams they took 10+ years ago, quoted from their unpublished/old dissertations, or sent emails/tweets announcing the brilliance of their newest publications/talks!  They were somewhere writing, organizing, working with students, and actually BEING brilliant, not talkin about themselves.  The lack of self-awareness could even extend beyond scholarship. I remember once talking with a colleague who had spent hours shopping, picking an outfit, doing her hair and make-up, and getting ready for a campus event because she needed/wanted to aesthetically compete with one of the women in the program.  Here’s the thing: the woman who was the mark is a former model with a wardrobe/collection of labels rivaling Michelle Obama’s… and also one of the nicest people around (I knew her outside of the campus from common friends).  She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen and yet she doesn’t think of herself this way nor is she the type to compete with women for men’s attention.  Now here’s the real twisted part.  The woman who saw HERSELF in competition is a dead-ringer for an Italian Greyhound dog.  Yes, I know I am being triflin’ and mean, but I just gotta call it like I see it.  DEAAAAAD-RINGER!  ItalianGreyhoundI realize that people love greyhound dogs and I mean them no offense; greyhounds do seem quite unique but you gotta admit they are some scraggly, weird-looking things. The point remains: if you look like a greyhound dog on your best day, what makes you think you are a shining star next to one of the most beautiful women in the world?  Really, how does someone anoint themselves as Miss Universe when in actuality they could be racing around a dog-track chasing a fake rabbit?  Maybe these folk just need some black friends because ain’t no way I could even walk out the door so falsely convinced of my superflyness without my peoples setting me straight real fast (my family talks about you BAD to your face for much LESS than the examples I have offered). Just this summer, I tried to purchase some $8.99 finger nail polish and the 19-year-old black male sales clerk assured me  that it made no sense to spend THAT much money for a color that had NO chance of looking good on my toes. I put it back and saved myself that 10 dollars.  When black folk offer constructive feedback, they really CONSTRUCT!  My toes can’t even make it out the stores in my neighborhood without some real honesty.  Academics don’t choose their profession because of their good looks so this kind of vanity is a REAL strange and misplaced thing anyway. If you think this greyhound-dog-woman had an inaccurate sense of something as irrelevant and materialistic as physical beauty, well, honeychile, you need only imagine how delusional and impressed she was with something serious like her scholarship.  If women get away with these levels of fantasy, conceit, and delusion, imagine what men in such patriarchal structures do.  In fact, at every “third-tier” university where I worked/interviewed, male administrators stayed proclaiming the university’s similarity to the University of Illinois.  I have been to UI campuses: there are NO similarities. The last time I saw such grand delusions of grandeur was when I lived in Hollywood, Los Angeles for a summer in my 20s.  This is why self-reflection is important: if you are convinced you are the BOMB, then you don’t ever look deeply at yourself, at what you are doing, at who you are, and why you are making the decisions you are making.  You just walk around proclaiming to be one thing when you are another altogether and stay STUCK on stupid forever.

Maybe it’s because they are students and they are getting a grade.  Maybe it’s the concrete goal of getting an A in the class and making a life for one self via a college degree. Or maybe it’s because they are working class people trying to survive in a place like New York City at a public university and so are not cocooned in the kind of privilege, elitism, and stupidity that defines mediocrity and sub-mediocrity as the hallmark of greatness.  I don’t know.  I just know that my students get it.  There are no greyhounds here.