Teaching & Researching Feminist Rhetorics:

Digital Curation as Collaborative Archival Method

post by Pamela VanHaitsma, Cassandra Book, Meagan Clark, Christopher Giofreda, Kimberly Goode & Meredith Privott

Collaboration has long been a central practice within the research and teaching of feminist rhetorics (Lunsford and Ede). Yet as feminist scholars take up “invitations” to embark on “meaningful engagements” with digital humanities, the fruitfulness and even necessity of collaboration takes on new valence (Enoch and Bessette; Enoch, Bessette, and VanHaitsma). In digital contexts, “archives 2.0” are participatory (Ramsey-Tobiene). Scholars not only examine but produce digital archives, and digital production often involves collaborative practices of curation (Kennedy). Indeed, as we have found through our work together in a graduate seminar on women’s and feminist rhetorics, the digital curation of archives may function as a collaborative method for scholars interested in bringing together our field’s strengths in historiographic scholarship with emergent digital practices.

To illustrate this pedagogical and historiographic potential, we discuss a collaborative digital curation project from our seminar on women’s and feminist rhetorics. Pamela’s design of this project assignment was inspired by communication scholars Cory Geraths and Michele Kennerly’s pedagogical engagement with the social networking platform Pinterest, as well as rhetoric and composition scholar Krista Kennedy’s work on “textual curation.” The assignment invited graduate students to use Pinterest to curate collections of links to archives, digital archives, and other materials related to women’s and feminist rhetorics from across historical periods and cultural contexts. Working together as a class, we located, selected, and “pinned” these materials; the pins were captioned and arranged into various “boards.”

As this collaborative project developed throughout the semester, we reflected on how digital curation informed our evolving understandings of feminist research and archival processes. Here we focus on three affordances of our collaborative digital curation project in terms of prompting such critical reflection.

Screenshot of Pinterest Board featuring articles about Rosa Parks, Digital Transgender Archive, and the Stonewall Riots.

Screenshot of Pinterest Board featuring articles about Rosa Parks, Digital Transgender Archive, and the Stonewall Riots.

1. Accessing Digital Archives through Curation

First and foremost, Pamela envisioned the digital curation project as a way to increase access to opportunities for primary research in existing digital archives. As scholar of digital archives James P. Purdy writes, accessibility is one the “gifts” of digital archives, as they eliminate many of the “temporal and spatial obstacles to archival research” (40). In the case of the women’s and feminist rhetorics course under discussion here, one “obstacle” was the distance education component of the PhD program. Not all graduate students in this program have access to the same brick-and-mortar archives, because many attend their synchronous courses via two-way streaming video from dispersed geographic locations. Although this PhD program may be unique, limited access to brick-and-mortar archives is not. A collaborative digital curation project confronts this obstacle by encouraging graduate students (wherever they are located) to identify, collect, assess, and share links to digitized collections that (wherever they are) may enable primary archival research.

Along these lines, we used our Archives of Women’s & Feminist Rhetorics board to begin curating archives of potential relevance to our course. In some cases, this process of curating links to digital archives served the graduate students’ primary research for final projects. For example, Christopher and Meredith embarked on feminist rhetorical studies of Rosa Sonneschein’s American Jewess, digitized by the University of Michigan’s Jewish Women’s Archive, and Indigenous women water protectors in the #NoDAPL movement, represented in video-recorded interviews from the #NoDAPL Digital Archive. However, while enabling this sort of research in existing digital archives was an initial goal of the assignment design, our collaborative curation process quickly led us to other possibilities pushing at the boundaries of what constitutes archival work in feminist rhetorical studies.

2. Unsettling Relations between Archivists & Audiences

A second pedagogical affordance emerges from the ways that digital curation unsettles the relationship among archivists and audiences. Central to this unsettling is an understanding of “archives 2.0,” such that user participation in digital curation may be understood as a form of archival construction (Ramsey-Tobiene). Archival hierarchies are destabilized, allowing us, as users or audiences, to act as archivists. In keeping with feminist methodologies and methods, we thus become more critically reflexive about our position(s) and power within archives (McKee and Porter).

Consider, for instance, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) Archives board we created when engaging with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality and police brutality against African American women. Kimberly pinned to this board an article that juxtaposed the generational pain of such violence alongside pins of protest footage. As a critical viewer of this archive constructed by the class, Kimberly recognized an omission in the board, and she used her position as a collaborative archivist to fill the gap. She felt it was an important addition because the brutality against all black lives, especially black families, is an important issue to Black Feminists. What is key is that, in the context of the collaborative digital curation project, Kimberly knew she had the authority to participate in altering the archive.

Equally, external audiences had more dominion than usual. Instead of being passive bystanders, they were collaborators, circulating many class pins to unrelated boards. Christopher witnessed an unsettling instance of external participation when his pin from the BLM board was re-pinned to an anti-BLM board. From this repinning, we learned that digital curation continuously challenges power and critical consciousness. In curating through a social media bookmarking site, we had relinquished control of our material. The sometimes unsettling work of a secondary audience resulted in a deeper critical reflexivity on the part of class collaborators; our class boards were dynamic, causing us to constantly (re)evaluate how audiences (ourselves included) process, work with, and make sense of the materials (Enoch and Bessette).                                

3. Adapting Assignments

Third and finally, as our digital curation project unfolded, our dual roles of archivist and audience allowed us to consider content through new lenses and use it for shared purposes. A turning point occurred when we decided, during an in-class discussion of our process, to adapt the original assignment criteria in order to better meet our needs as collaborators, archivists, and researchers. We decided to shift from contributing to boards related to students’ individual research interests, to collaborating more fully on boards connected to the shared topics of each week’s assigned readings. This turning point was, as Kennedy reminds, an example of the “always-in-process nature of textual curation, particularly in networked environments” (181). Pinterest allowed us to easily shift both our process and goals.

Pinning content for weekly topics channeled our collaborative energy. We curated more robust archives for the weekly topics. For example, on the Women’s Presidential Rhetorics board, we curated a total of 49 pins, though our initial plan required only 22 (two per person). Most of us consume media daily, but as we pinned sources to the board, we began to “see” this content through the lens of the weekly course theme. This process made it easier to identify and add multiple pins even when we were not intentionally searching for material to add to the archive. Many of us have continued to pin to these boards after the week and even after the semester concluded.

The ongoing nature of our collaboration illustrates how digital curation is an ongoing process (Kennedy 181). Our collaboration also underscores the importance of class community to such a project. As Ramsey-Tobienne acknowledges, “questions of trust and community are central to concerns about this developing archival space” (5). We would not have experienced one of the most beneficial aspects of the digital curation project if we had not taken the time during class meetings to share our experiences as archivists and audience members–if we had not shared a willingness to adapt the initial assignment expectations to better meet the needs and functioning of our community.

Our collaborative digital curation project allowed us to access existing digital archives, unsettle relationships between archives and audiences, and adapt assignment purposes through collaboration. In so doing, we were able to develop feminist historiographic, rhetorical, and archival scholarship through emergent digital practices. Though our digital curation project as a class has officially ended, our respective understandings of feminist research and archival processes will undoubtedly continue to evolve–and we are left with still other questions about curation and collaboration that we hope to take up further in our future writing about the project.

Author contact info:

Pamela VanHaitsma, pamelavanhaitsma@gmail.com and @pvanhaitsma

Cassandra Book, cbook002@odu.edu

Meagan Clark, meagan.clark@icloud.com and @Meagan_A_Clark 

Christopher Giofreda  cgiof001@odu.edu

Kimberly Goode Kgood035@odu.edu and @KimberlyGoode5

Meredith Privott, jpriv003@odu.edu