A Field and Its Forms

Critical Orientation

At the heart of this project is a series of questions about what it is that we learn by interacting with texts and with other people through texts. And because this part of a literary studies dissertation project, by “texts,” I specifically mean “nineteenth-century literature” and “texts written about nineteenth-century print culture,” although my goal is for this discussion to resonate more broadly as well. Fortunately, these interests place me in good company. Work in nineteenth-century studies is already honing our ability to recognize the shifting influences of institutions—for instance, publishing companies, printers, or universities—on people’s access to the Victorian public sphere. Expanding beyond this, I ask, what can researching the media landscape and of the nineteenth century help us to better understand about the institutions that shape our scholarship and pedagogy today?

More pointedly, what can this period teach us about who we are leaving out of our classrooms and communities of thought?

Like our own historical moment, the nineteenth century was rife with technological and social changes that affected how people composed and interacted with texts. What creative modes of expression and connection have the dominant reading practices of the past and present dismissed? Which of these practices highlight missed opportunities for us to connect with our students and our peers? What might it look like to experiment with new approaches? And, finally, which institutions or practices rise up to complicate these experiments? What does that tell us about the power structures we inhabit?

Each of these questions stems from an approach to teaching and research that scholars of the long 19th century have termed “strategic presentism.” When introducing this framework as a central value in 2015, members of the described presentism as having “an awareness that our interest in the period is motivated by certain features of our own moment” (Manifesto of the V21 Collective). The word “awareness” highlights an ethical dimension inherent in this critical turn as well as in this project. Many strategic presentists believe that the New Critical and historicist methods that have predominated in years past disregard their dependence on Western value systems. This, in turn, limits our ability to critically engage with our field.

We can see this longstanding dependence on Western value systems at play in the ways the New Critics treated texts as objects that could be separated from the conditions under which they were composed, revised, circulated and later subjected to academic scrutiny. Scholars such as Priya Joshi, Rachel Ablow, Kate Flint, and Leah Price counter this attitude by highlighting the ways in which social and cultural contexts shape the way we read texts. Works by scholars of the long nineteenth century have been central to demonstrating that a purely formal analysis simply isn’t possible.

Strategic presentists point out that there is a similar self-contradictory logic at play when people conduct historical research without registering that our archive is a mediated by multiple distorting lenses of privilege, a dynamic that many past historicisms have failed to acknowledge. Our understanding of the reading practices, lived experiences, and material texts that were common in the Victorian period is shaped by multiple gatekeeping structures that have compounded over time. For example, when people make decisions about which texts to preserve in a library’s special collections or which poems to use as a case study in an article, they are inevitably responding to the categories and biases that structure their own present. Current literary criticism may have gained important methods and perspectives from some of the New Critics and historicists who strove for an impossible ‘purism’ in their approaches. (Among these positive legacies is the language we use to describe close reading practices and archival research methods!) However, we should be sensitive to the ideological traces that persist in the field because of its past elisions.

And so, as Tanya Agothocleous urges, we should think of responsible presentist scholarship not just as the use of present concerns as a lens on the past but as a stance that rejects specific visions of the future in favor of illuminating the persistence of the past in the present”—however unpleasant that persistence of the past in the present may be (93). In her response to this conversation, Anna Kornbluh registers the politically-charged conclusions that research into past institutional structures can compel us to express. Strategic presentism, Kornbluh says, “might mean active listening to the presentism of past fiction, its critical mediation of potential worlds, and re-sounding that presentism in our own moment, so that in the future, the past can embolden us to say what must be said, in the present tense, now” (100).

These are compelling visions, and to complement them, other scholars call for a more concentrated statement of intent from the field. These writers argue that if we want to sustain productive discourse, we need more than a commitment to self-scrutiny or sense of the persistence of past forms and institutions. Nathan K. Hensley sums up this dilemma by quoting Spivak. He notes that critics seem quite fond of using the word ‘strategic’ to modify older, and often reductionist, approaches to interpretation, but there is not enough attention to “what is meant by strategy” (Hensley 113). Bringing the question yet closer to home, Andrew Miller questions whether this broad commitment to looking at the past to understand present does anything to explain why the long nineteenth century is particularly worthy of study. He asks, “What, in a course taught by one of us, faculty or graduate student, would lead [an] undergraduate to think ‘Yes, I can effectively address the things that matter most to me, in my historical moment, by reading Victorian Writers?'”

Roughly, then, what goals can our presentist strategies advance? What can studying the long nineteenth century offer us beyond an arbitrary historical distance that facilitates present-day comparison and contrast? 

To respond to these questions requires us to think with other scholars who are invested in how we read, how we interact with media, and how we teach. Let’s spend a moment mapping some important threads in this conversation before moving toward this project’s central claims.

Interdisciplinary Intersections

This project draws upon perspectives at the intersections of Victorian studies and two broad but overlapping branches of scholarship: Critical Information Studies and Open Pedagogy. Each of these branches is driven by a sense of exigency, and I think it would be well to outline each area’s pressing concerns before further unpacking my claim about what sets the Victorian archive apart.[1]

Critical Information Studies

Coined in 2006 by Siva Vaidyanathan, the term “critical information studies” (CIS) fuses an array of ongoing research questions into a transdisciplinary conversation. In Vaidyanathan’s words, this field

interrogates the structures, functions, habits, norms, and practices that guide global flows of information and cultural elements. Instead of being concerned merely with one’s right to speak (or sing or publish), Critical Information Studies asks questions about access, costs, and chilling effects on, within, and among audiences, citizens, emerging cultural creators, Indigenous cultural groups, teachers, and students. Central to these issues is the idea of ‘semiotic democracy’, or the ability of citizens to employ the signs and symbols ubiquitous in their environments in manners that they determine. (303)[2]

Critical Information Studies offers Nineteenth-Century Studies scholars the tools re-examine our own methods. It does so by highlighting the ways in which corporate institutions affect how researchers access and circulate scholarship or primary sources. For instance, of key concern for many CIS scholars are practices or legal interpretations that restrict access to media in the public domain or to forms of creation considered to be fair use. [3]

Open Pedagogy: A Blending of Critical and Constructivist Pedagogies

In later sections, I will refer to open pedagogy as the central educational philosophy that motivates my project. However, in this section, I include the related schools, “critical pedagogy” and “constructivist pedagogy.” My intention is to register that many existing projects in Victorian Studies and critical information studies are motivated by the same philosophies that inform open pedagogy. However, not all of them share open pedagogy’s beliefs about how to enact these philosophies.

Critical pedagogy

One thing that critical pedagogy shares with Critical Information Studies is the belief that knowledge distribution platforms and educational institutions play a major role in promoting or forstalling participation in the public sphere. Rooted in theories of social justice, critical pedagogy focuses on the power structures at play in the classroom and asks how we can increase students’ agency as respected participants in learning communities. Practitioners differ in their opinions of how to confront educational power imbalances—and indeed, most consider this restless meta-reflexiveness to be a strength. However, as Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris distill the concept, a general goal of many critical pedagogues is to see “vertical (or hierarchical) relationships give way to more playful ones in which students and teachers co-author together the parameters for their individual and collective learning” (An Urgency of Teachers). 

This approach views the classroom as a community in which group roles should be openly discussed and desired outcomes should be continually and collaboratively re-determined.

Constructivist pedagogy

Like critical pedagogy, constructivist pedagogy seeks to destabilize dominant assumptions about what constitutes knowledge and to value students’ individual learning processes. Indeed, these two philosophies have evolved in response to one another. The social constructivist branch of constructivist pedagogy approaches learning as a process of collaborative meaning-making that exists within a network of within-group dynamics, broader institutional structures, and other political systems (Kim 55-60, Richardson 1625).

Social constructivists believe that knowledge is culturally negotiated and embrace student contributions to a knowledge community. However, some scholars have expressed concern about how social constructivist theories may still reflect the privileged belief systems within which its foundational theories emerged (Richardson 1635). Put a different way, even though social constructivists embrace the disruption of traditional power structures in the classroom, they may sometimes fail to understand how the modes of collaborative knowledge generation they seek to cultivate as a universal value can still reflect dominant Western ideals (Richardson 1635).  (By now, this critique may sound familiar: social constructivist pedagogy faces many of the same criticisms that the field of Victorian Studies faces.)

Critical Information Literacy and Metaliteracy

We can see some critical and social constructivist values woven together in the interconnected frameworks referred to as “Critical Information Literacy” and “metaliteracy.” These two frameworks prioritize outward-looking context analysis and inward-looking reflection as essential parts of the learning process. As Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins define the concept, critical information literacy “differs from standard definitions of information literacy (ex: the ability to find, use, and analyze information) in that it takes into consideration the social, political, economic, and corporate systems that have power and influence over information production, dissemination, access, and consumption” (Gregory and Higgins 4).

This expanded understanding of 21st-century competencies is reshaping many educators’ goals for their classrooms. For example, Association of College and Research Libraries’ most recent (2016) update to their “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” registers the importance of critical information literacy (although the framework itself doesn’t use this moniker).[4] What the ACRL authors do emphasize is the need for learners to understand “how and why some individuals or groups of individuals may be underrepresented or systematically marginalized within the systems that produce and disseminate information,” to “recognize issues of access or lack of access to information sources,” and to “understand how the commodification of their personal information and online interactions affects  the information they receive and the information they produce or disseminate online” (6).

In addition to highlighting the situatedness of knowledge construction, the ACRL framework celebrates the concept of metaliteracy, noting that the term  “offers a renewed vision of information literacy as an overarching set of abilities in which students are consumers and creators of information who can participate successfully in collaborative spaces. Metaliteracy demands behavioral, affective, cognitive, and metacognitive engagement with the information ecosystem” (2).[5] Emphasizing the importance of critical information literacy for students, instructors, and researchers alike may help us reduce constructivism’s and literary studies’ tendency to prioritize dominant cultural epistemologies.

And Finally, Open Pedagogy: A Synthesis 

In the broadest understanding of the term, open pedagogy explores how we can use, create, adapt, or share freely-accessible teaching objects with our students and peers. Practitioners try to understand how open content might reshape students and instructors’ orientations to their classrooms and communities.

Open pedagogy embraces social constructivism’s belief that learning is a process of social meaning-making while maintaining critical pedagogy’s commitment to interrogating the roles we play in our communities of thought. However, open pedagogy differs from constructivist and critical pedagogies in some of the central ways that it enacts these commitments. As Rajiv Jhangiani defines the concept, open pedagogy is an “access-oriented commitment to learner-driven education” but “it is also the process of designing architectures and using tools for learning that enable students to shape the public knowledge commons of which they are a part” (“Open Educational Practices”). Open pedagogy teaches students that “knowledge consumption and knowledge creation are not separate but parallel processes, as knowledge is co-constructed, contextualized, cumulative, iterative, and recursive,” and it does so by inviting students into the process of knowledge construction and iteration as active and equal participants (DeRosa and Jhangiani). Ideally, an open pedagogy project explicitly welcomes future participation and adaptation (Robbins, “Guidelines”).

What can this look like in practice? It may take the form of inviting students to use the classroom research process to correct gaps in Wikipedia’s representation of Native American authors, an assignment Sioban Senier outlines in “Indigenizing Wikipedia.”[6] It may take the form of inviting students to collaboratively compose their own textbook, as Robin Derosa did with the Open Anthology of Earlier American Literaturea text which Abby Goode’s students and then Timothy Robbins’s students and other volunteers expanded in turn (DeRosa, Sheridan, Robbins). It may take the form of a decentralized discussion group in which people collaboratively annotate texts on the open web, something Remi Kalir facilitates on an ongoing basis through his “Marginal Syllabus” project.

As its name suggests, open pedagogy is committed to an intentional openness, but this is not the same as saying that all information should be open. This distinction is one of the things that critical information studies research offers open pedagogy. Published knowledge can be exploited or misused, and one of the challenges shared by all of the “open” movements is to make careful decisions about the implications of different degrees of publicness. This consideration applies to shared content as well as to learning context. For example, Johanna Funk, Kathy Guthadjaka, and Gary Kong provide one example of this sensitivity in their open pedagogy research. One of their key challenges in creating a platform for sharing traditional Yolŋu knowledge about plant biodiversity in the Northern Territory of Australia was the difficulty of presenting this information in ways that reduce western “compartmentalizations” of that knowledge.[7] Similar reflections about the nature of sharing knowledge or writing occur within a classroom context. Here, we see practitioners’ efforts to resist the kinds of totalizing Western ideologies that prove so limiting in some constructivist approaches to teaching.

Educators who embrace open pedagogy work to provide students with opportunities for authentic engagement with broader communities while at the same time maintaining students’ autonomy and safety. These educators recognize that some students may be enthusiastic about sharing their writing with others in their class but might also have important personal reasons for limiting their online presence. (A student may, for instance, have an internet-savvy stalker. Alternatively, they may simply fear that they would feel less inclined to experiment in productive ways if their work were public.) Thus, this practice holds that all students should have the right to determine whether and how their work might be seen by wider audiences. More than this, practitioners believe that instructors need to be sensitive to the implications of using online platforms in a teaching context, something that requires ongoing effort as platforms and privacy policies change.[8] Open pedagogy practitioners do not urge a single approach or solution to tensions like these, but instead view confronting them on an ongoing basis as a central responsibility for instructors in the twenty-first century.

 

Visualizing Overlaps: Click on each plus-sign icon in the image below for a description of projects at the intersections of multiple areas of study described above

The square button on the top right will take you to a fullscreen view. To see this diagram in a static, text-based format, visit the Critical Orientation Appendix.

Works Cited

Ablow, Rachel, ed. The Feeling of Reading: Affective Experience and Victorian Literature, U of Michigan P, 2010.

Allen, Robert. “Perpetually Beginning until the End of the Fair: The Paratextual Poetics of Serialised Novels.” Neohelicon 37.1 (June 2010): 181–189. doi: 10.1007/s11059-010-0061-x.

Bauder, Julia, and Catherine Rod. “Crossing Thresholds: Critical Information Literacy Pedagogy and the ACRL Framework,” College & Undergraduate Libraries, vol. 23, no. 3, 2016, pp. 252-264, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2015.1025323.

Bennett, Tony. “Texts, Readers, Reading Formations,” Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association. 16:1, Spring 1983. Pg. 3-17.

Bernstein, Susan David, and Catherine DeRose. “Reading Numbers by Numbers: Digital Studies and the Victorian Serial Novel.” Victorian Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2012, pp. 43–68. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23646683.

Bottando, Evelyn. “Hedging the Commons: Google Books, Libraries, and Open Access to Knowledge.” PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2012. http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/3265.

Breadworld. “Treasure Planet: Disney’s Biggest Mistake.” Youtube, 2017, 5:00, https://youtu.be/b9sycdSkngA?t=299.

Cameron, Lauren. “Marginalia and Community in the Age of the Kindle: Popular Highlights in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” Victorian Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, Fall 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23646685, pp. 81-99. Accessed 22 March 2016.

DeRosa, Robin, et al. The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature. https://openamlit.pressbooks.com/.

Felluga, Dino Franco. “BRANCHing Out: Victorian Studies and the Digital Humanities.” Critical Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 1, 2013, pp. 43-56.

Finn, Kavita Mudan and Jessica McCall. “Exit, Pursued By a Fan: Shakespeare, Fandom, and the Lure of the Alternate Universe.” Critical Survey, vol. 28, no. 2, 2016, p. 27-38. doi: 10.3167/cs.2016.280204.

Flint, Kate. “Traveling Readers.” The Feeling of Reading: Affective Experience and Victorian Literature, edited by Rachel Ablow. U of Michigan P, 2010, pp. 11-25.

Fields, Erin, and Adair Harper. “Intersections of Open Pedagogy and Critical Information Literacy – A Case Study.” BCcampus, 27 November 2018, https://bccampus.ca/2018/11/27/intersections-of-open-pedagogy-and-critical-information-literacy-a-case-study/. Accessed 9 Feb. 2019. Permalink: https://perma.cc/U6XW-T53P.

Funk, Johanna, Kathy Guthadjaka, and Gary Kong. “Posting Traditional Ecological Knowledge on Open Access Biodiversity Platforms: Implications for Learning Design.”The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, vol. 44, no. 2, 2015, pp. 150–162., doi:10.1017/jie.2015.25.

Gilliard, Chris, and Hugh Culik. “Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy,” Common Sense Education, 24 May 2016, https://www.commonsense.org/education/privacy/blog/digital-redlining-access-privacy. Permalink: https://perma.cc/P2GG-SLF4.

Goode, Abby, et al. The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project. 13 October 2015. https://openeal.pressbooks.com/

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington. “Why Still Study Fans?” Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, 2nd Ed. New York University Press, 2017. pp. 1-29.

Gregory, Lua, and Shana Higgins. Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis, Library Juice Press, 2013.

Griest, Guinevere L. Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Indiana U P, 1970.

Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2006, pp. 5-7, 19-20, 3-4.

—. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York U P, 2006.

Jhangiani, Rajiv. “Open Educational Practices in Service of the Sustainable Development Goals.” Open Con, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2018. Recording and transcript: http://thatpsychprof.com/open-educational-practices-in-service-of-the-sustainable-development-goals/. Permalink.: https://perma.cc/9ENN-PEQE.

Joshi, Priya. In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel In India. New York, Columbia University Press, 2002.

Kalir, Remi. “About the Marginal Syllabus,” http://marginalsyllab.us/about/. Retrieved 2 February 2018. Permalink: https://perma.cc/F3T9-2H6G.

Ketabgian, Tamara. “Learning Through Victorian Garbage: Disgust and Desire in an Interdisciplinary Capstone Course,” in Teaching Victorian Literature in the Twenty-First Century, edited by J. Cadwallader and L.W. Mazzeno, Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, pp. 19-34, doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-58886-5_2.

Kim, Beaumie. “Social Constructivism” Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching, and Technology, ed. M. Orey, 2001, https://textbookequity.org/Textbooks/Orey_Emergin_Perspectives_Learning.pdf, pp. 55-61.

McGill, Meredith L. “Copyright and Intellectual Property: The State of the Discipline.” Book History, vol. 16, no. 1, 2013, pp. 387–427.

“More Information on Fair Use.” U.S. Copyright Office, updated December 2018, https://www.copyright.gov/fair-use/more-info.html. Accessed 9 Mar. 2019. Permalink: https://perma.cc/TSU5-KQZM.

Muri, Allison. “The Technology and Future of the Book: What a Digital ‘Grub Street’ Can Tell Us About Communications, Commerce, and Creativity.” Producing the Eighteenth-Century Book: Writers and Publishers in England, 1650–1800, edited by Laura Runge and Pat Rogers, U of Delaware P, pp. 235–50.

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–. “Guidelines: Section Introductions.” The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature (Contribution Resources), Rebus Community, 2018. https://projects.rebus.community/project/499S8A8ksbk3tw3s75Yiow/open-anthology-of-earlier-american-literature.

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  1. My overviews of each branch are necessarily general, and some readers may take issue with the way that I have lumped some discussions together under umbrella categories. If you are one of those readers, I'd like to say that I am open to re-examining whether there are any core philosophical oppositions between the separate sub-fields that would affect the way I've characterized their overlaps and thus affect my general argument here. However, I'm less interested in discussing the implications of my categorizations for those fields. My goal here is to provide some functional descriptions rather than enter into debates around disciplinary taxonomies as such.
  2. With this definition in mind, I'd like to situate recent works in participatory culture studies and fan studies within critical information studies. I do so not to redefine the conceptual boundaries others draw for themselves, but to embrace a recent turn in participatory culture studies as being particularly relevant to Victorian studies. A quality that sets the latest participatory culture writing apart from earlier scholarship is the way that researchers approach complex reception networks' situatedness within changing—and often corporatized—media landscapes. As Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington outline in their 2017 work on fandom research, if the first wave of fan studies focused solely on the idea of fans as engaged in anti-hegemonic resistance and the second looked for the ways that unequal power structures play out in fan communities, the third wave "acknowledges that fans’ readings, tastes, and practices are tied to wider social structures, yet extends the conceptual focus beyond questions of hegemony and class to the overarching social, cultural, and economic transformations of our time" (8).
  3. Vaidyanathan's Copyrights and Copywrongs and Jason Mazzone's Copyfraud illuminate the gaps in legal theory and practice that restrict how people approach fair use as well as works in the public domain. Evelyn Bottando's 2012 dissertation, "Hedging The Commons: Google Books, Libraries, and Open Access to Knowledge" and Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) raises concerns that are of particular interest to scholars of the long nineteenth century because such a wide swath of our archive is digitized and hosted by Google.
  4. Julia Bauder and Catherine Rod make this connection more explicit, arguing that the critical analysis of informational power structures at the heart of the new framework is already on the rise in many libraries.
  5. The ACRL Framework authors draw this concept from Thomas P. Mackey and Trudi E. Jacobson.
  6. Wikipedia assignments like this one are well-established, and like Senier's project, they often encourage students to recognize the absence of people from marginalized identity categories within our most popular knowledge aggregators. One decision of note within this particular project: Senier's "Indigenizing Wikipedia" includes a link to an earlier draft of her article with peer review comments included. This is a prime example of an author modeling as well as teaching the process of writing as an iterative and social process.
  7. In a related reflection on how to engage with traditional knowledges in culturally-responsible ways, the open-licensed Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels project provides a classification structure for digitized cultural heritage artifacts.
  8. Some basic questions instructors should ask: How might a specific project make student data available to outside actors such as marketers or become an undesirable facet of students' online identities?

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Undissertating by Naomi Salmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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