Tag Archives: collaboration

The Cycle of Progressive Failure

Annie Halseth | Colorado State University

We’ve long lived with the idea that failure is not an option. But that is far from accurate. As teachers, we fail all the time, or at least more often than we’d like. And, furthermore, we don’t like to talk about our own failures. So, as I approached the opportunity of writing this blog post about failure, I experienced a certain kind of excitement tinged with trepidation. I knew I wanted to talk about the importance of failure as a teacher and what that might look like when we implement new technologies in the composition classroom. However, as a graduate student with a Spring 2022 graduation, I recognize the potential risk of writing about failure and entering the job market with hopes of finding a position teaching composition. I am plagued by the fear that my discussion and candid experience of failing as a teacher might disqualify me from certain positions. I love teaching composition, and I want to keep teaching composition. But I believe that in the process of improving my teaching practice I need to embrace the process of failing as I try new methods of instruction; particularly in regards to new and evolving forms of writing and technology. Yet, as I turn towards this discussion on failure I am faced with the obstacle that failing as a social stigma carries. I realize that as academics who are notoriously high achieving individuals, we often do not want to share our experiences with failure. But, in the field of writing studies and composition, we also know that writing is an evolving technology. As instructors, we want to teach our students how to successfully write and communicate with others. As we navigate this evolving field, we need to adapt our instructional practices. And adaptation will most likely include moments of failure.

This post is meant to start a conversation about our failures so that we can learn from each other and work to destigmatize what it means to fail as instructors. I want to share my own experience of failing in the classroom as an instructor who works to integrate new technologies into the composition classroom. I also want to invite all of us to participate in this conversation about failing and teaching. Hopefully, as composition instructors and scholars in writing studies and composition, we can embrace our own failures in the classroom and learn from each other. 

Failure as narrative and counternarrative
The word “failure” carries a negative connotation. The dominant cultural narrative equates failure with laziness and ineptitude, giving failure a distinct flavor of shame. Modern educational practices are focused on constant evaluation, and with evaluation comes success or failure; and there is rarely room between these two polarized judgments. Consequently, the maxim failure is not an option is ingrained into most classrooms for both students and instructors. Certainly, this is a narrative that is echoed in pop culture as well as education. I am excited by the counternarrative that “failure is fundamental a part of success” which has begun to emerge in societal discourse. Yet, in education, we still tend to treat failure like a permanent outcome instead of as part of the process.

In holding the line for failure for our students, educators become complicit in equating failure with ill-preparedness, inadequacy, and laziness for both our students and ourselves. There is a burgeoning conversation in writing studies to reevaluate failure in the writing classroom for students. For example, Allison Carr is an outspoken advocate for promoting a pedagogy of failure in the writing classroom and Shively et al. describe “failure as essential to the writing process.” Failing as a primarily negative experience needs to be transformed into an opportunity for learning. As composition instructors, we are uniquely situated to do this work since a majority of our college students are required to enroll in at least one composition course. In addition to the ongoing push for writing students to see failure as a key part of the creative process, the emerging use of digital tools for writing can help instructors reflect on the generative role of failure in that process. In answering the call to include new technologies in our classrooms—a process accelerated by the pandemic climate—we need to reconsider our own failures as instructors. 

We need to fail progressively with new writing technologies 
As writing instructors, we shoulder the mantle of preparing our students to write successfully outside of our classroom. Twenty years ago, that goal looked very different than it does today. When we teach our students about the rhetorical situation a la Bitzer (1968) or about the conversation model (Palmquist), we need to account for the increasingly digitized modalities many of our students are familiar with and use on a regular basis. Selber, in his book Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, cogently argues that it is “when teachers ignore technology and its contexts that the real pedagogical and social damage is likely to be done” (13). As technology transforms the way we communicate, educators need to consider how a failure to adjust accordingly can perpetuate social inequalities. Under these circumstances, there is a clear and desperate need for educators to re-envision the writing classroom using multimodal genres and an awareness of how our students navigate and write in the technosphere.

A smart phone screen is one with a group of social media icons open. Pinterest, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Clubhouse, and Facebook icons are all present.

Indeed, there are educators who are integrating new technologies successfully into their classrooms. For example, Lilian Mina published a critical study that examined writing instructors’ pedagogical use of social media platforms in first-year composition courses. Her findings reveal that these innovative methods of instruction resulted in community building, student engagement, and support in understanding rhetorical choices (Mina). These new methods of instruction are incredibly inspiring and their successful implementation is well documented. However, the process of achieving these incredible successes is often excluded from the story. Often, when we first try something new in the classroom we cannot be so confident in its immediate success and there is certainly a tacit understanding that a degree of trial and error is necessary when introducing new instructional methods. The moments of failure are completely omitted from most published success stories. So when we attempt similar methods and experience failure ourselves, it can create self-doubt in our own teaching practices. And, at its most damaging, can dissuade us from embracing the opportunity to explore new forms of writing and writing instruction.

If we accept the need to develop new instructional strategies to evolve with the new ways our students are writing, we need to become comfortable trying new and creative designs for our courses—and that means we might fail. Anne Lamott writes that “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere” (25). I believe the same is true with teaching. Teaching is an art and a science that is developed and refined over time. However, to be bold and creative in the classroom requires a willingness—perhaps even a goal—to fail spectacularly. Allison Carr brilliantly states that “to fail willingly in writing is to be empowered by the possibilities that emerge. It is to trust oneself and one’s ideas” (76). Putting aside for a moment the heavy weight that the term failure carries in our social and institutional context, it is worth considering the potential ramifications that we fear accompany failing in our instructional practice. Personally, I fear failing my students. I don’t want to deprive them of a rigorous course that would provide them with a strong composition foundation. To that end, I think it is reasonable to say that we care deeply about our students’ growth in the classroom and our desire to see them succeed. Consequently, we strive to be efficient and effective instructors and often rely on pedagogical and rhetorical theory to help us achieve those goals. However, as mentioned previously, what is often missing from those research-supported pedagogical strategies is the process of failing that occurs in order for those educators to find the most effective moves. While I was inspired by these innovative researchers, I found when I first attempted to bring blogging into my creative writing course, I was frustrated by my perceived failure and their overwhelming success. 

My experience with failure
When I first attempted to use Blogger, the Google-powered blogging tool, in a creative writing class, I found that some students were blocked by the institutional wireless network for inexplicable reasons in our first class. My hours of preparation did not account for this first obstacle. So, in a quick bid for flexibility, I switched to WIX, a platform that also allowed for more personalization. This unexpected shift provided opportunities for discussions on design and purpose – which felt exciting. The initial failure with Blogger had turned into an opening for a deeper discussion about rhetorical design. Despite my initial flustered frustration with the failed attempt using Blogger, WIX provided new and exciting instructional opportunities. This switch to WIX was initially fast—it happened in the same class period that our initial Blogger failure occurred—but it was the time spent reflecting on the Blogger => WIX transition that allowed me to find excitement and space for these deeper instructional moments. 

Tiles from a board game spell out the words adapt or fail.

The second big failure in this attempt at introducing new technology in this course came very shortly after the WIX switch. I found that so much of my time in class and during office hours was spent troubleshooting errors with students that everyone in the course was frustrated. In a move to salvage the blogging project, I created heterogenous student groupings where students who had found success in navigating WIX could support their struggling peers. After one class period of this new arrangement, I found that everyone in the class had successfully written, designed, and published at least one blog post. The byproduct of this new class design was the collaborative work and intuitive peer review that was organically taking place within these small groups. By no means was this the final failure in this first attempt to introduce WIX to this class, but I do find I often return to the blogs this class created when I am again feeling frustrated and alone in the process of failing. Because as unavoidable as failure is, it can feel really lonely and just bad. However, transforming the idea of failure as a permanent state into a part of the creative process can reveal the generative potential of failing as a composition instructor.

The cyclical process of reflective failure
Since that course, I have continued to work towards integrating different forms of technology and writing into my classes—with varying degrees of failure and success. I suppose there is a driving force behind my determination in continuing to fail and grow as an instructor—and it is that fear of failing my students. It is becoming imperative that writing instruction adapts to incorporate new forms of language and writing as our students are writing and participating in new forms of discourse that have evolved. However, the teaching process—and the failing process—would not be complete without the necessity of intentional reflection. kathleen blake yancey, in her post to the FEN blog writes, “Reflection doesn’t so much provide answers as point to and open other ways of seeing and being.” As instructors who embrace a willingness to fail, we also need to intentionally reflect on our failures to see the opportunities and possibilities they expose. To that end, the failing process—like the writing process—becomes cyclical. 

The diagram below is my attempt to visualize and share my progressive cycle of failure. By no means is this post meant to advocate for last-minute attempts at innovative teaching; but rather to view failure as an integral part of improving our instructional practices. This cycle’s foundation of research and planning incorporates failure as a means of progressing towards new and effective methods of writing instruction. This cycle begins with inspiration. One of the most exciting moments as a teaching scholar is reading about a pedagogical theory or instructional strategy that I want to try. The field of writing studies is full of innovative research and dedicated instructors who publish such inspirational work. As I consider an approach I want to try, it is important to thoroughly read scholars’ accounts of their work as I formulate my own ideas. Of course, context matters. Someone else’s classroom is most likely going to be a different environment than my classroom. I need to consider the needs of my students and my own instructional strengths and weaknesses. This next step of developing and planning may include more research and—my favorite—collaboration with a colleague. Talking through our ideas with our colleagues is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of working as a composition instructor. And the input and perspective of others is always a benefit! Next, I have to put the plan I developed into action. There will most likely be moments of success and failure. However, it is the moment following both success and failure that reflection is necessary. Considering why something worked and why something else did not provides openings for growth and new opportunity. It is with intentional and consistent reflection that I have come to embrace my own failures as a part of my growth as an instructor and a person.

A chart outlining the Progressive Cycle of Failure. Step 1 is Start with inspiration; Step 2 is research; Step 3 is Formulate your own ideas; Step 4 is Develop and plan your practices; Step 5 is Put your plan into action; Step 6 is Failure or, alternatively, Success; and Step 7 is Reflect on your practice, look for new opportunities.

Opening our instructional practices in the composition classroom to allow for new ways of writing—and failing—is certainly not limited to the necessity for multimodal writing and technology instruction. Clearly, the ways we communicate are constantly transforming and evolving. As writing instructors, we must be willing to fail spectacularly as we push the boundaries of traditional composition expectations. Because, at the end of the day, we are writing instructors. We teach writing as a way of knowing and being in this world and, as such, must provide our students with the tools they need so they can interact meaningfully and successfully with the world around them. And this is a constantly evolving world that requires our imagination, creativity, and a willingness to fail, reflect, and talk about our failures so we can best serve our students.

A red background with white text saying keep calm and fail on topped by a crown.

Works Cited
Brooke, Collin, and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62–64. 

Carr, Allison D. “Failure Is Not an Option.” Bad Ideas about Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia University Libraries, 2017, pp. 76–81. 

Carr, Allison. “In Support of Failure.” Composition Forum, 2013, https://compositionforum.com/issue/27/failure.php. 

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, 1997. 

Mina, Lilian W. “Social Media in the FYC Class: The New Digital Divide.” Social Writing/Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies, 2017, pp. 263–282., doi:10.37514/per-b.2017.0063.2.14. 

Palmquist, Mike. Joining the Conversation: Writing in College and Beyond. Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. 

Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 

Shively, Lauren, et al. “Failure as Essential to the Writing Process.” Arkansas English Resource, Department of English at the University of Arkansas, 12 Dec. 2020, http://aer.uark.edu/doku.php?id=failure_as_essential_to_the_writing_process. 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “The Meaning-Making of Reflection.” Composition Studies, 12 July 2021, compstudiesjournal.com/2021/07/12/the-meaning-making-of-reflection/. 

Zanatta, Eduardo. “Failure is a Part of Success.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 30 April 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bujIb_sQZvQ.

Roll Call: Labor Logs as an Additional Method of Accounting for Classroom Attendance

Jake Hennessy | Florida State University

As an instructor, even before COVID-19, I tried to remember my positionality as an undergraduate student from a school with a large commuter population. I wanted to embrace flexibility in my teaching and syllabus policies that extends empathy towards students who have difficulty juggling the many responsibilities they have in their lives. And, as someone who struggles with two different diagnosed forms of depression, I wanted to extend my flexibility beyond the logistical hurdles students face to also include the marginalized students who might have trouble with attendance due to depression or other mental health issues. I found that generally students weren’t unwilling to come to class and engage but rather faced various difficulties that made it hard for them to attend. While some faced hour-long commutes, a lot of students with attendance issues mentioned family tragedies or other mental health related struggles as the main obstacle to their attendance. In response, I created a labor-based attendance form where students filled out the work they did outside of class to remove up to two recorded absences. This way, I can remain empathetic to these issues that cause students to miss class sessions. 

Adding flexibility within attendance policies matters because of  the increased mental health struggles college students endure. In 2014, Doris Iarovici reported on student survey data from 80,121 students at 106 institutions in Mental Health Issues and the University Student. When asked about the top 10 impediments to academic success or performance, students ranked these as the top five in this order (6):

    1. Stress
    2. Sleep Difficulties
    3. Internet use/computer games
    4. Depression/anxiety disorder
    5. Alcohol 

Even more concerning is that nearly half of students felt “so depressed it was difficult to function” and almost 1 in 10 students “seriously contemplated suicide” (Iarovici 6).  Recently, Changwon Son et al. conducted interview surveys with 195 students at a large public university in the United States to explore the effects of the pandemic on their mental health. Out of the 195 students, 71% noted increased stress and anxiety, 89% noted difficulty concentrating, and 82% noted increased concerns about academic performance. Changwon Son et al. concluded that these findings highlighted an urgency to develop interventions and preventative strategies for students’ mental health. 

Findings like these warrant a change in how writing program administrators and composition instructors alike account for and/or think about attendance. Disability studies is a great place to start when thinking about how pedagogical changes could account for student mental health. As Adam Hubrig rightly notes in their post “Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and ‘Accessibility,’” “Composition instructors might be tempted to think of our courses as “accessible” because we’ve put an institutionally mandated Accessibility statement in our syllabus—often waaaaay at the back.” It takes more than just that, and I hope I’m doing my part in increasing access to my composition classrooms with the labor log example you’ll find later down this blog.

I also lean towards Mad at School from Margaret Price as a key conversation starter when talking about mental health issues. Price’s idea of kairotic spaces is helpful to understand the rigid social expectations of a typical classroom discussion. Price stated that these spaces are “the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (60). Examples of these spaces for students include group work and classroom discussion where they may feel uncomfortable participating. For writing program administrators and composition instructors who have power to change or adapt attendance policies, acknowledging these kairotic spaces and bringing them into pedagogical focus by mindfully reconsidering these strategies as “normal” allows for an effective critique of the ableism involved in such practices. As Price noted, “Ableism contributes to the construction of a rigid, elitist, hierarchical, and inhumane academic system” (8). Composition instructors ought to stay reflexive in their syllabus policy statements, as well as collectively engaging in changing potential strict departmental policy. This collective effort is essential to affect policy making decisions for the benefit of those with mental health struggles.

To further explore expanding flexibility for composition classroom policy, I thought about the questions Price asked when she pondered “what does ‘participation’ in a class mean for a student who is undergoing a deep depression and cannot get out of bed? Or a student who experiences such severe anxiety, or obsession, that he can barely leave his dorm room or home?” (5-6). I felt that I had enough agency to adapt my policy to be mindful of this idea of presence that Price attended to through her critique of conflating classroom presence with the act of “experiencing” a class. Price rightfully noted that not all who physically attend class are attentive and experiencing the class in that moment, whether it be due to anxiety or prior sleep problems due to issues with depression (66). The idea of out of classroom productivity is crucial for me to remember; Price noted that instructors should not be so quick to correlate attendance with presence or participation, as it is possible for students to be engaged in the process of the classroom and learning outside the physical classroom (68). We, as instructors, must remember that there are times when students may miss class to spend more time composing their major project and that instance may provide more learning or experience for a socially anxious student than forcing them to endure additional small group work (68). 

My labor log helps students remove two of their absences by telling me what they accomplished outside of class that week for our class. This idea stems from an adaptation of Asao B. Inoue’s idea of a labor-based writing course in First Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Inoue also mentions this flexibility as “compassionate recognition” in his blog on attendance.  

The attendance log includes a prompt for the student's name, date of absence, an explanation of the type of work performed outside of class, reflection on what went well, and reflection on how the student felt while working.
Figure 1. Example of Labor-Based Attendance Form

I believe that my labor-based log challenges students to reflect on their experiences as writers while respecting their process with mental health as well. This form is my attempt to respect the labor of the student, which Inoue defined as being often signaled as “the quantity of time and effort put into a project or an activity” (73). As I moved to teaching on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to somehow account for the tremendous, new mental burden placed upon students. I thought it was fair to reconsider my conceptions of attendance and presence in this new Zoom environment. Most of the content I sought from students filling this sheet out relates to reflective work that accounts for the amount of labor they are putting in for the class. Reflection is a major part of my composition course and this sheet provides an opportunity for students to reflect on their labor practices outside the classroom.With this form, I wanted to be mindful of placing too enormous a burden upon the student to provide proof; this unfortunately would resemble the current university accommodation model of providing documentation. Rather, I attempted to keep the spirit of the labor-based course in mind and asked the student to write about their process and experience related to the work of the project. As Inoue notes about his composition course:

I also wanted to avoid making students provide proof in the form of screenshots of the outside of the classroom labor. A lot of students who struggle with mental health need someone to understand. Sometimes, that understanding comes in the form of not asking for definitive proof of a reasonable, documented excuse for their absence. The last thing I want to do is resemble the same cold and unforgiving legality the university imposes on them when dealing with seeking accommodations. This also served a pedagogical benefit, as these questions are an attempt for the students to exercise a degree of self-reflexivity in their writing process. 

First, students account for the actual labor they performed outside of class. They get to see and confront an estimation of the work they write down, which I think helps put into perspective their relationship with labor and the writing process. Along with writing down their labor, I believe that asking them to reflect on what went well and what they would change challenges them to attend to their writing and research practices outside of the classroom. This helps students figure out if they should change or improve their labor practices. Finally, I wanted to include a question that allowed students to express the emotional dimension of this process if they wanted. I created this labor-log to primarily help students who face mental health issues, and I feel it would be a disservice to them if I did not allow them to express how it felt to perform the labor I ask of them. This question helps create a link between myself and my students, which also goes a long way in building trust and classroom community that I value.  

This labor-based-attendance form is one suggestion in a long conversation of expanding flexibility and accommodation related to classroom policies. This is by no means an attempt to totally replace the attendance model. One benefit I found with this labor log is that students seemed to miss fewer classes once I implemented this policy. I believe that it relates back to building trust by giving my students a fallback mechanism to use if other classes are getting difficult or they experience some issues in their lives during the semester. This labor-log also aids in issues of classism, as mental health issues are not the only reasons students have to miss a few classes. There are issues of taking care of family, and/or having multiple jobs, as well as many other reasons that this sheet hopefully might expand awareness for. 

As far as assessing the success of this sheet, I have received reassuring feedback from students that they appreciated the flexibility offered by me. More importantly, multiple students admitted to the  difficulties that came with being a new college student. They stressed that this accepting class space was a very needed factor as a student, and that I was considerate of the environment we were all in.  I believe that this labor-log was one of many strategies that built trust and community in my classroom. 

As I mentioned above, when I teach, I always try to be mindful of the many different burdens students face in order to attend college. This means that many students work one or even two jobs just for the same affordance to attend college as others, and these burdens add to the stress and mental health issues many students face. Instructors considering the student labor that goes into the course becomes as important as considering attendance itself. Just as a blanket attendance policy cannot accommodate or fit all students, neither can an expectation that students will put similar amounts of labor into each assignment. This disproportionate amount of labor that initially is invisible may influence the also invisible mental health struggles students face. As COVID-19 provided an overt exigence that commanded institutions, writing program administrators, and instructors to re-think policy and practices on the fly, we must recognize and acknowledge that exigences to prompt such reconsideration existed long before the pandemic. At the same time, we should not immediately sweep new practices that emerged from teaching in different synchronous and asynchronous formats under the rug as we eventually reconvene from the pandemic. 

Works Cited
Changwon, Son et al. “Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study.” JMIR Publications, vol. 22, no. 9, 2020, https://www.jmir.org/2020/9/e21279. Accessed 15 July 2021. 

Hubrig, Adam. “Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and “Accessibility.” Composition Studies Journal. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/04/19/access-from-as-the-start-on-writing-studies-and-accessibility/. Accessed 23 November 2021. 

Iarovici, Doris. Mental Health Issues & the University Student. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 

Inoue, Asao B. “Attendance in Labor-Based Grading.” Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words. https://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2020/04/attendance-in-labor-based-grading-part.html. Accessed 23 November 2021. 

—. “A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Parlor Press, 2014. 

— [AsaoBInoue]. “One way to understand this focus on labor and effort is to consider what this course really is about. This is a writing course, not a paper course. Writing is a verb, a practice. It is labor.” Twitter, 15 June 2021, https://twitter.com/AsaoBInoue/status/1404830967815049217?s=20

Price, Margaret. Mad at School. The University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Rows of hundreds of blue and white archive boxes on shelves.

Archive: Developing Critical Collaborations

Walker Smith | University of Louisville

I arrived at my first in-person visit to an institutional archive with a strong foundation in archival research methods—both in teaching and in research. I had taught many composition research assignments with digital archives at Oklahoma State University even using readings from the field at the director’s suggestion (Gaillet). I had read extensively for my graduate seminar papers about how archives are not apolitical repositories of truth but require the user to navigate records critically, attuned to the ethical impacts of the histories that appear there (Cushman; Graban; Kirsch & Rohan; Morris; Ramsey et al.,). However, what my training hadn’t fully prepared me for was the laborers behind an archive’s organization and presentation to the public—archivists—also have their own theories and debates about the power dynamics of records management.

Entering the Edgar Rice Burroughs Archive, the world’s largest collection of “ERB” ephemera, the archivists offered me bits of information and context that I didn’t know I should or even could be asking for—particularly, what is this collection’s provenance

What is its history of ownership? 
Who had custody prior to its acquisition?
How and why was it acquired? 
What principles do the archivists follow in processing its records and making them accessible to others? 
Do they adhere to the original order of its creator or owner, or is its order negotiated among the collection’s various managers, users, and stakeholders?

Such questions of provenance in the Burroughs Archive came with high-stakes ethical concerns. The author of violent colonial fantasy novels like Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs himself espoused white supremacist values and promoted a eugenicist vision for the U.S. As the “Godfather of American Science Fiction,” his works still garner a massive fandom who actively continue to produce fan art and fiction, hold events, and catalog their activities online. As the custodians of a challenging, undoubtedly colonial archive, University of Louisville’s archivists go above and beyond to present Burroughs’ records and artifacts to the public in appropriate historical context and to collaborate with instructors and researchers who treat its contents with a fervent critical stance.

My own time researching in the Burroughs Archive helped me to notice the often untapped potential for critical collaborations with archival staff who do much more than simply provide us with access to archives and information. Below, I outline the commitments of a subfield known as “critical archival studies” (CAS) and offer one example of how I have tried to integrate CAS into writing classes. Certainly, rhetoric and composition scholars in the field have drawn from critical archival theories before (especially from Stoler) and often encouraged collaborations with archival staff (e.g., Rawson), but here I only seek to draw attention to our potential theoretical overlaps.

What is CAS? Or, What are Archivists Saying about Power Today?
Critical archival studies (CAS) is in part a response to critical theory’s uptake of the archival metaphor in the late twentieth century. On the one hand, this body of theory was vital for explaining how multiple historical narratives vie for official commemoration and for how certain publics draw on shared resources for rhetorical invention. On the other hand, many archivists have rightfully criticized that when we invoke “the archive” as a theoretical idea, we often ignore the long tradition of archival practice and scholarship that informs the world’s second oldest profession (Schwartz & Cook).

Critical archivists also bemoan this theoretical trend while pausing to consider what aspects of critical theory may be useful to their field. For example, Caswell et al. outline the commitments of CAS as follows:

(1) explain what is unjust with the current state of archival research and practice, (2) posit practical goals for how such research and practice can and should change, and/or (3) provide the norms for such critique. In this way, critical archival studies, like critical theory, is emancipatory in nature, with the ultimate goal of transforming archival practice and society writ large.

The question posed by Caswell et al. is essentially: What do feminist and queer theories, critical race theory, Native American and Indigenous studies, post/de/anticolonial theories, and other theories of power in society have to offer those who manage archival records? A lot, they argue: “We know that power permeates every aspect of the archival endeavor” (Caswell et al. 3).

Interrogating archival power is a central tenet of CAS. Rather than adhering solely to a collection’s original order, they encourage archivists to embrace the many flourishing orders and “disorders” that appear, meaning that an archive’s organization and accessibility should be determined not only by those who created or acquired it but also by those marginalized stakeholders who are represented in the collection (Schwartz and Cook 18).

We archival researchers in rhetoric and composition have been leading similar conversations about the rhetorical power of archives to reinforce harmful metanarratives, to validate official versions of history, and to bolster violent institutions’ memory-making capacities. But clearly, we also have a lot to learn from archivists about what they see as “unjust” practices in their own field.

What Can First Year Writing Students Do With CAS?
In Spring 2020, I designed my section of second-semester composition to provide students the opportunity to conduct primary research (finding and reading firsthand accounts) in the first half of the semester before we dove into secondary research (finding and reading sources that summarize or analyze the primary sources) in the latter half. Moving from primary to secondary allows students to experience the messiness of gathering and organizing sources and piecing them together into coherent narratives for others to read, and it always highlights the ethical decisions they must make along the way about who comes to be considered a “reliable” source.

While I had taught digital archival research assignments many times before, I wanted to specifically develop in-person critical collaborations with archival staff. I first contacted UofL archivists Delinda Stephens Buie and Rebecca Pattillo and explained to them the goals I had for the first two primary research assignments of the semester. Excited by our conversations, Delinda and Rebecca worked diligently to prepare a presentation that both defined archiving for students and provided them with the history of the Burroughs Archive. Additionally, prior to arriving to the archives, I had spent a week with students defining coloniality, reading about the colonial history of archives, and discussing the impact colonization continues to have on public memory (Powell; Cushman).

With all of the necessary pieces in place, the archivists invited students to explore a personally curated exhibit of Burroughs artifacts that they thought might support the course’s focus, including all sorts of Tarzan-themed books, board games, movie posters, action figures, toys, lunch boxes, children’s shoes, and more. As students experimented with the different oddities that lay before them, Delinda and Rebecca circulated around the room, offering extra information about the history of certain items, answering questions from students, and helping them make connections between artifacts. Throughout the session, students were encouraged to take extensive notes and pictures, so that they could refer back to them over the next few weeks.

For the Unit 1 essay, students were asked to write a rhetorical analysis of one artifact from the Burroughs Archive. But as they quickly learned, this work couldn’t successfully be done alone. We engaged in research together as a class and in group activities, sharing sources and helpful bits of information along the way, and asking questions of our archival guides when necessary. In this way, primary research processes were framed as a negotiation among multiple, often competing audiences and stakeholders. Contrary to dominant understandings of history as a ready-made narrative waiting to be told, students naturally found themselves drawing connections between their artifacts and debating about the credibility of various, contradictory sources.

The contextual information provided by archivists gave students enough material to draft their essays or gave them enough clues that they could find more history in secondary research. For example, some students wrote about the 1930s Tarzan board game made by the Parker Brothers only a few years after they released Monopoly, which they were able to read more about because Delinda had provided some of the history of the artifact’s donation and condition. With this kind of background information, many of the students were able to trace how the violent aspects of Tarzan’s origin story were transformed into an entertaining colonial fantasy digestible for children.

Other students chose the 1966 “Tarzan Rub-ons” in the Picturama Magic Transfers series. Using some of the other sources provided by archivists, students were able to find interviews with Burroughs about how he made the decision to manufacture Tarzan’s image in multiple media.

This image features the "rub-on" images that will fill in the blank page of figure 4. Tarzan's torso, legs, palm trees, patches of grass, and a child holding a chimpanzee can be transferred to the blanks in the other page of the magazine.
Figure 5. The “rub-on” images.

These discussions flowed well into Unit 2 where students were asked to critically evaluate an aspect of the archive. Following class discussions, I articulated the following criteria:

Content layout and toolsOrganization and hierarchy of information, and inherent biases/stances
Originality/uniqueness of artifactsSignificance/relevance of historical events
Updated navigation guides and exhibitions for new usersImpact/learning potential of exhibitions/guides
Usability/legibility/accessibilityAccuracy/credibility/reliability of sources

Ultimately, we were able to collectively compose a list of recommendations to different types of researchers and teachers who might use the archive in the future. By the end of the two units, students were able to clearly articulate the features, functions, and tools they need from in-person archives and digital research databases, which was helpful preparation for the latter half of the course where they would need to become comfortable with navigating the university library’s various online search engines.

While students reported that they found the work of primary research exciting and beneficial, they also reported that the assignments were challenging and that they occasionally faced difficult setbacks. Most of these were successfully addressed in class discussions and responsively designed activities only because the UofL archivists made themselves available to us as secondary sources themselves, offering “the context of record creation, of archival functions, of the formation of archival institutions, of archival outreach and use and advocacy” (Caswell et al. 3). The artifacts on their own can appear somewhat a-contextual, leaving the responsibility to the user to determine what is of value and what artifacts mean, but archivists’ honest, critical histories of the archive’s acquisition and selection decisions made our analytical work easier and more effective.

We could perform rhetorical analyses of what simply lay before us, but we couldn’t answer certain questions on our own like:

    • Who originally called for the archive’s preservation and creation?
    • How have the archivists selected what records will be showcased or shelved?
    • What practices guided their organization?
    • How much of the collection is processed, and how do they decide what to process first?
    • Which stakeholders influenced these decisions?
    • What are the archivists’ goals for the collection?

Encouraging students to dialogue with archivists about their specific artifacts led them into other exciting avenues of inquiry, making it possible for them to develop critical stances and fully evaluate the various aspects of the artifacts they had chosen.

How Do I Support Critical Archivists?
These kinds of collaborations with archivists have multiple benefits for students. Not only do they enrich the researched arguments they write for the course, but they also demonstrate the dialogic and rhetorical nature of research, foregrounding how containers of knowledge like archives are socially constructed and organized according to certain theories of practice and with various groups of users in mind.

My hope is that asking students to interact with archivists supports the goals of CAS by valuing the labor of archival staff, which in turn, may also challenge their preconceived notions of research as an apolitical, fact-finding process. Below is a small snippet of some of the work that critical archivists are doing, provided by Rebecca, and which my students have used in their writing and appreciated:

Additionally, these are some of the open-access, digital archives from which students have reported rich researching experiences, all taken from a longer list written by Lynn Lewis for the Oklahoma State University First Year Composition Program:

Works Cited
Caswell, Michelle, Ricardo Punzalan, and T-Kay Sangwand. “Critical Archival Studies: An Introduction.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, vol.1, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-8.

Cushman, Ellen. “Wampum, Sequoyan, and Story: Decolonizing the Digital Archive.” College English, vol. 76, no. 2, 2013, pp. 115-135.

Gaillet, Lynée Lewis. “(Per)Forming Archival Research Methodologies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 64, no. 1, 2012, pp. 35-58.

Graban, Tarez Samra. “From Location(s) to Locatability: Mapping Feminist Recovery and Archival Activity Through Metadata.” College English, vol. 76, no. 2, 2013, pp. 171-193.

Kirsch, Gesa, and Liz Rohan. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Morris, Charles. “Archival Queer.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 145-151.

Powell, Malea. “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories,” pp. 115-127. In Kirsch, Gesa, and Liz Rohan. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Ramsey, Alexis E., Wendy B. Sharer, & Barbara L’Eplattenier. Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010.

Rawson, K.J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 1-19.

Stoler, Ann. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” Archival Science, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 87-109.

Images Cited
Feature image photo by Nana Smirnova on Unsplash.

Tarzan board game, Parker Brothers, 1939. https://www.erbzine.com/mag6/0662.html.

Tarzan Picturama Rub-on Magic Transfers, Hasbro, 1966. https://www.hakes.com/Auction/ItemDetail/28695/TARZAN-RUB-ONS-TRANSFERS-SET