Criticalizing Our Work: Timucua Language Collection

I came across this piece about a collection of Timucua language imprints that had been digitized by the New York Historical Society. It piqued my interest in particular because the Timucua were an indigenous nation in what is now known by us settlers as central Florida, my home.

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Title page from a Franciscan catechism written in Castellan and Timucua. Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

The piece itself is interesting in that it talks about the historical and linguistic importance of these imprints—how they represent the only remaining evidence of a rich native language that is thought to be an isolate, i.e., a language not related to any other language. The piece traces the story of how these imprints came to be housed in New York and how they came to be digitized. All very neat stuff.

What the piece fails to acknowledge is the fact that the reason these imprints are the only things left of the Timucua language, and much of the culture, is because of the white European religious settlers who invaded the area. Indeed, this entire collection of imprints consists of Catholic religious documents that were created in both Spanish and Timucua in an undoubted attempt to force the Timucua to assimilate on pain of death. Nowhere in this piece are these historical facts laid bare. Nowhere is there a critical reflection on what it means that the only remaining evidence of a people’s language are translations of books representing the religion of their invaders and oppressors.

As information professionals—librarians, archivists, curators, digitizers, whatever—we have a responsibility to bring a critical lens to every instance of our work. We cannot erase difficult or oppressive histories from the materials we collect and preserve. We should not hide them. There is no neutrality in that kind of whitewashing of history, only more oppression.

I don’t fault the writer of this NYHS piece. They were just “doing their job” like so many of us do. But I do challenge this person and all of us to take more care in how we contextualize the materials we work with. Let us be careful not to perpetuate the oppressive power structures already represented in those materials. We can best do that by criticalizing our work whenever and wherever we can.

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April M. Hathcock | Movers & Shakers 2018 – Advocates

How did April Hathcock go from corporate litigator to librarian? “I was working away on multimillion-dollar suits every night when I noticed the law librarians, who left at a decent hour, did much of the same research I did,” she says. “I realized I could do…the information wrangling I loved without [working] myself to death.” Now, as scholarly communication librarian at New York University (NYU), Hathcock still does legal work, helping with copyright or intellectual property research, library contracts, or access and rights issues. “But it’s combined with the values of librarianship,” she says.

Source: April M. Hathcock | Movers & Shakers 2018 – Advocates

Floetry: Only One

Do you know what it’s like to be often the Only One?

If not, then consider yourself privileged.

Field of yellow daisies with one purple daisy in the foreground.

You don’t constantly find yourself walking into a room and noticing people noticing you, wondering why you’re there and if you belong. You don’t what it’s like to look around and realize that you’re the only _______ in the room. That sinking stomach feeling of being exposed as a token _______, representative of all _______s in the world.

You don’t know the feeling of anger and hurt and fatigue when you hear people making jokes or comments about _______s and you realize they don’t even know or care that you are a _______ person and you are there listening to them.

Or if they do look up and notice you standing there, you don’t know the feeling of anger and hurt and fatigue when they turn to you and say, “Oh, but not you. We don’t consider you to be a _______ person. You’re not like the other _______s.”

Or maybe the room is filled with more “progressive, liberal-minded” folk and they’re talking about issues affecting _______s, full of their own authority and knowledge and big-heartedness. And randomly someone turns to you and says, “Hey, you’re _______! What do you think? How do you feel? Bare a bit of your soul, willya?”

They mean well and you know they mean well, but your _______ soul is tired and you just can’t deal.

Even when you do call them out on their wrong-headedness, so full of kindness and sweet notes and milk-and-honey to avoid hurt feelings, you are met with tears and defensiveness and anger. “My best friend is _______! How dare you correct me!” You look around for support, but rarely do you find it. And why would you? You’re the Only One.

You want to be able to retreat to a land of other _______s and compare notes and resentments and shed tears, but you can’t. You’re the Only One.

It can be a lonely feeling. Being _______ in a world of non-_______s, of anti-_______-ness.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you are well and truly privileged. May you never know what it’s like to be the Only One.

Learning Agency, Not Analytics

I’m sitting watching this Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) presentation about learning analytics, and I’m cringing throughout. It’s so corporatized, so capitalist, so reductive. In fact, one of the slides in this presentation showcases a Gartner Business Information graph that correlates the progression of analytics sophistication to business value. The presenters relate this progression to the kind of analytics that can and should happen in education to improve learning.

Graph showing Business Value on Y axis and Data Analytics Sophistication on X axis. Information optimization moves up the slope from Descriptive to Diagnostic to Predictive to Prescriptive analytics.

Screenshot of Gartner BI analytics graph from Oakleaf and Brown’s March 2017 CNI presentation on “Institutional Learning Analytics: How Can Academic Libraries Connect?”

When I watch presentations like this, about plugging business metrics and corporate assessment values into education, it makes me sick to my stomach. Have none of these folks opened a history book or taken a look at our socio-political present? Do you know who and what, throughout history, has gotten “analyzed” and “assessed” to “determine value”? Property. Animals. People considered property or animals. Indigenous people to this day are sorted and “analyzed” by colonizing governments based on the quanta of their blood, like purebred dogs or horses. Enslaved people were “assessed” by their physical characteristics and breeding capabilities (again like prize-winning animals); and today, their descendants continue to be monitored and analyzed by the violent police state. To think that we want to take this kind of legacy, these kind of tools, and use them on our students? Often without their knowledge or consent? Absolutely repulsive.

Granted, my disgust is nothing new or original. I followed the conversations several months ago when Zoe Fisher laid out the history of learning analytics and the growing resistance and critique against it. I read LibSkrat’s tweet thread about the absolute importance of protecting our students’ privacy and data. And I pored over Emily Drabinski’s blog post calling for us to do more than cry “Resistance!” but to actually formulate action to push back against the encroachment of the neoliberal corporatization of our work as academic librarians and higher education more broadly. I’ve been taking all this in and reflecting on what I think should change, how it should change.

Ideally, we should get rid of learning analytics altogether. It is a colonialist, slave-owning, corporatizing, capitalist practice that enacts violence, yes violence, against the sanctity of a learner’s privacy, body and mind. It is not in keeping with our professional values as librarians or educators. But, as Emily points out in her post, there are very powerful people in our institutions who are demanding that our learners be analyzed, that our value be quantified—even going so far as to insist that it’s all being done for our students’ own good. How can we keep our jobs so we can continue to dismantle the system from within, while making actual progress to protect the interests of our students, all in keeping with our values?

For me, I think the first step lies in providing students with that one thing that property, animals, and people treated as property and animals never get: AGENCY. Lisa Hinchliffe talked a bit about this during the big discussion months ago, though she focused mainly on students wanting to opt in. I’m not as interested in that because I think learning analytics is so pervasive, opting in just isn’t a problem. It’s like worrying that people with privilege won’t have space to exercise their privilege in the fight for equity. Just. Not. An. Issue.

No, instead, I’m talking about agency for learners who may not choose to participate in being analyzed, those who want to push back. You can’t object to something if you don’t know it’s happening to you. You also can’t object if you aren’t empowered to speak up. One of the things we can do for students is help enact their agency by educating them about what’s going on. Rather than continuing these conversations about learning analytics behind their backs, so to speak, let’s engage them in these discussions. Let them see the slide decks and presentations and analytic reports being crafted about their learning. Let them have access to all these data being gleaned from them, so often without their knowledge or consent.

Then, as we provide them the knowledge, let’s empower their agency by amplifying their responses to this knowledge. It could be a simple matter of collecting and reporting on student opinions about learning analytics practices and the way they affect their educational well-being. We could help arrange meetings for students with library and university administration to discuss their concerns or share their ideas about gathering their data. We could collaborate with students on research projects and presentations relating to learning analytics, instead of just reporting on them. Essentially, it’s the difference between exploiting a community to study and report on them versus collaborating with that community in studying their needs. It is the very essence of feminist research methods, rooted in an ethic of care, trust, and collaborative empowerment.

We still need to “reject metrics” and “reject learning analytics,” as Emily says. But as we engage in that resistance, let’s join forces with the students and researchers we both study and serve. Let’s empower agency in our communities and work with them to push back against the corporatization of our work and our values.

 

How to Become White Famous

With Jamie Foxx’s new Showtime comedy series on tv this past fall, it’s got me thinking abut what it takes to become “white famous.” You know, when a person of color in the entertainment industry goes from just being known and celebrated by their communities to being super-famous and widely celebrated because white people “discovered” them. (It’s kind of like how Columbus discovered America. Actually, it’s just like that.)

There are so many examples of entertainers of color who have achieved white fame—Beyoncé, Jackie Chan, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx—I thought it’d be interesting to look at some common threads that pop up when entertainment by or about people of color suddenly makes it big among white folk.

So, here are a few tips on how to become white famous:

Tell a story about famous white people.

White people love nothing more than to read/watch/listen to stories about themselves. They love their accomplishments. And if you can manage to make their stories even cooler than they actually are, all the better. Ask Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the musical Hamilton. He retold the story of one of the many white founding fathers in musical form with rap and R&B and presto! white people the world over lost their shit. Many of the rest of us knew Miranda from his show In the Heights—it also had rap and salsa and even some Spanish. But nah, that was about colored people living in a colored neighborhood; it wasn’t white famous material. When he tells the story of a famous white guy, he can even go so far as to remake the entire cast of characters with actors of color and white people still fall head over heels for it. (Well, not all of them. A group of white performers tried to sue the show’s producers early on for “discriminatory” casting.) The key, though, is that the entire story is about white people. (In fact, the only actual character of color in the show is Sally Hemings who makes a minute appearance during a Thomas Jefferson number at the beginning of the second act.)

Tell a story about white people being “reverse oppressed” by people color.

Not only do white people love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves, they love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves being “reverse oppressed” by people of color. It lets them cross their proverbial arms in self-satisfaction and say, “See, they don’t have it so bad. We don’t treat them any worse than they treat us. We all are hurt by racism.” Ask Kumail Nanjiani, the creator and star of The Big Sick. His film is about how he fell in love with a sick white woman and bonded with her family while his Pakistani family and community, in all their backward non-Western ignorance, refused to accept the interracial relationship. White people loved this film and are really mad that it wasn’t nominated for any Golden Globes. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s got ignorant, stereotypical brown people, with extra points for the overbearing maternal brown women characters. It’s got the innocent heart-rending love of a beautiful white woman, the prize of any brown heart. It’s got the kind, accepting, well-meaning, super-progressive white family full of support and racial utopian-kumabaya-why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along “color-blindness” (apologies for the ableist language here). My goodness, people, the white woman is sick! And the brown people are so unaccepting of her! The film is based on actual events, so it’s horrible that Nanjiani’s partner had to suffer so much with her health. Nevertheless, with the caricature brown folks and the up-play of white sympathy, it is a white person’s dream romantic comedy.

Tell a story about people of color being oppressed and then rescued by the timely arrival of a couple “white saviors.”

Yes, this is still a story about white people. Look, do you want to be white famous or not? But in this case, you can actually tell a bit of the story of race oppression. The only caveat is that you’ve got to include at least one, preferably a few, white saviors to rescue the poor oppressed people of color from their degradation. Some of the best examples of this aren’t actually created by people of color but they do feature people of color as the main characters and have helped catapult some of colored folks’ careers, so that’s something. Basically, take any slavery movie—Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained, whatever—make a spectacle of the real degradation and violence of slavery, then add a well-meaning, abolitionist Quaker or two and you’ve got yourself a white famous hit. It even works for other time periods. Like, The Help wouldn’t have been so white famous without the sweet Emma Stone character to help the help tell their stories. Oh, thank goodness for kind white women! Or in the modern-day tv show Longmire that centers on the story of a Wyoming sheriff who often leaves his jurisdiction in the white world to invade life on the local Crow and Cheyenne reservations and lay down the law in aid of the poor natives. What would we all do without a strong white man to take charge of us! White people love stories like this because they can completely ignore their complicity in the ways of the “bad whites” and only identify with the grace and goodness of the “good whites.” Every white spectator reads/watches/listens to these stories and immediately sees themselves as the Quaker, the sweet young journalist, the fair and impartial lawman. It’s a sure shot to white fame.

Finally, if all else fails, tell a story full of racist stereotypes…BUT dress it up as irony.

Nowadays, even in this political climate, white people know they shouldn’t say or do blatantly racist things. They know better. And even when they mess up, they know they can always rely on irony and high humor to save their white skins. But what they enjoy even more is when they’re given the opportunity to enjoy some good old-fashioned racist humor without feeling bad because hey! it’s ironic! There are just too many examples of this to even go through them all. Apu, the supposed South East Asian convenience store owner from The Simpsons. Anything starring Jackie Chan. Madea from practically all Tyler Perry movies. (I know what you’re going to say about that last one: Hey! April, I thought Black people loved Tyler Perry? How is that white famous or even racist? Please. We pretend to love Tyler Perry the way Black folks pretended to love shuck and jive minstrel shows back in the 1830s. That kind of unabashed coonery has always been and will always be for “massa’s” amusement.) White people know they shouldn’t sing the “We Are Siamese” song from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or “What Makes the Red Man Red” from Peter Pan, by the same company (Disney has always been hella problematic, y’all), but they figure they can laugh all day as thick-accented Jackie Chan kung-fus his way through rush hour with loud-mouthed Chris Tucker cooning it up at his side. These caricature characters of color are no problem in the name of modern-day irony. And mega-bonus points if you can combine these racist stereotypes with white characters from other types of marginalized identities. So Gloria, the young, buxom, heavily accented, shrill, money-grubbing, violence-prone Colombian wife of a wealthy old white man is totally fine because she plays opposite the old white man’s gay son and his husband. It’s totally fine, everyone, they’re a Modern Family. Also, irony. Ha.

As you can see, it’s not too difficult to become white famous. The formulae are pretty clear. The challenge, though, is staying white famous. Thing is, you can’t stray too far from the scripts. Remember when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade and white people suddenly remembered she didn’t belong to them? Yeah. They didn’t like that much. Of course, Queen Bey had already built up so much white fame that it didn’t faze her profile at all. But still, entertainers of color walk a fine line and have to be careful. In any event, if you’re aiming for that grand prize of white recognition, I hope these tips help. And good luck. Remember, though, us folks of color still see and love you. No matter what.

Making Space

Some friends from church and I recently read an essay by Christian theologian Henri Nouwen called “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry.” (It’s a really good piece if you’re the Christian type. Though I will say that Nouwen always breaks my heart because of how he considered his faith and his queerness to be sources of conflict and struggle.)

Anyway, in it, he talks about how spiritual discipline isn’t supposed to be about control but about making space for God to do the unexpected. And he goes on to say that this discipline or space-making begins with solitude. Not loneliness. But clearing out one’s mind, heart, spirit, life to allow for more centeredness and communion with God.

I’ve really been struggling with making space this past year. I’ve fought to do the work I do while maintaining my self-care. I’ve tried to be who I am for others, while still maintaining the identity I hold for myself and my Creator. I have by no means figured it all out. Nor do I expect to, really. But I do feel like this season is a good time for me to really strip away some things to make space for God’s presence and unexpectedness in my life.

So, I’ll be taking a step back for a while to engage in some spiritual solitude. You won’t find me on Twitter or on my blog. (But if you’re ever in my area and want to get together in person, I’ll always be game for that!) I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. Probably until the end of the year. We’ll just see where God takes me.

I’m very grateful to have all of you in my life. And I wish you the very best this winter season has to offer. Take good care of yourselves.

Floetry: Be still 

Sitting quietly and still until the dust settles

Until the roaring and thundering fades

Peering into the gentle waves, I can see the bottom so clearly

Straining my ears to the sudden quiet, I hear the whisper of the still, small voice 

And imagine:

All that dust, all that noise 

Comes directly from me;

I stir up the tempest with my fears, anxieties

With my desperate attempts to scratch my way to truth beneath the surface 

With my desperate attempts to scream my way to a perfectly pitched calling

It is I who obscures 

When all You ask is that I be still 

And know You 

What’s Legal Is Not What’s Ethical

I’m at an archival tour for a health sciences special collection at an institution that will be unnamed, and I am extremely uncomfortable.

My group and I have been shown patient records for children and senior citizens and immigrants and transgender and intersex people from as recent the 1980s. Some of these people are still alive. I may have passed them on the street on my way in.

My group has heard a lot about how HIPAA is not being violated and how legal counsel has okayed this practice and that practice. We’ve been shown some signed forms. But I still feel incredibly gross about all this. It’s exploitative and wrong. It may be legal, but it’s certainly unethical.

Did these patients understand how their personal materials would be used? Did they know that in 2017, a group of scholars would be pawing through their procedure images and notes and photos? Are they okay with that? I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anyone knows. And that’s the problem.

I’ve talked about this before and others have talked about this, but I just had to share. I don’t have anything else to add really; just the same thing I’ve been repeating over and over:

WHAT IS LEGAL IS NOT WHAT IS ETHICAL AND VICE VERSA.

Please, fellow library and archive folks, let’s be more thoughtful, more critical about our work.

One of the only records I felt comfortable seeing and sharing. An autopsy report from 1918 during the flu epidemic.

Floetry: I love walking through graveyards 


I love walking through graveyardsThe dead don’t say much

Don’t get me wrong 

I didn’t say they don’t say anything

I said they don’t say much

They understand the value of silence 

Of time

They’re in no hurry to explain accuse exculpate 

There are no arguments debates soliloquies 

Just quiet

And the occasional whisper 

A reminder to honor the dead

And the living

And time