The American Prison Writing Archive at Hamilton College

Access, collaboration, and prisons – three words one is unlikely to see in the same context. Yet the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) works collaboratively to provide access to the witness borne by people in prison today. Directed by Doran Larson, Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature & Creative Writing at Hamilton College, the APWA is a continually growing online archive of essays written by incarcerated people and prison workers. The APWA provides access to the lived experiences of those inside these closed systems. These essays unveil the prisons we have constructed. We expect them to mete out justice. What we find in each essay is something much less noble.

Reading any single essay is a powerful experience; reading across essays offers the outlines and interiors of a city just smaller than Chicago.

While emerging from the American archipelago of over 6,000 carceral institutions, the cityscape we discover is as cohesive as that of our Chicago, LA, or New York. But this is a city dedicated to the production of pain. (See Larson’s Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, and his MOOC on the history of prison writing in the US.)

PI Larson working with student researchers.
PI D. Larson working with student researchers.

Larson began working with the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) at Hamilton College to develop an online, open access archive of prison essays in 2010. In December 2017, the APWA reached two important milestones: 1) over 1000 essays are now online; and 2) a transcription tool was developed to crowdsource transcription of the primarily handwritten essays. The transcription tool increased the ability of transcribers anywhere to request an account and contribute to transcriptions that allow full text searching of the archive. With over twenty new essay submissions and associated signed permission questionnaires per month, the APWA team has focused on processing submissions, correspondence, digitization, and metadata entry. Volunteer transcribers continue the practice of collaboration that fuels every aspect of the APWA. The NEH grant Larson received this past year contributed to the development of this transcription tool and also supports an administrative assistant working for the archive. Collaboration is woven into all of the work of this archive: from Larson’s work within and across institutions to maintain prison writing programs, to the team ethos of the DHi Collection Development Team in developing and sustaining the growing archive, to the research of undergraduate students, faculty and graduate students who can use the archive from other institutions. (more…)

Read More

Digital Humanities for Undergraduates: Fostering Interdisciplinary Student Scholarship

Banner

In Fall 2016, the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges, comprised of Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona, and Scripps Colleges, launched their first Digital Humanities course, DH 150: Digital Humanities Studio. Under the leadership of Dr. Daniel Michon, the faculty director of the Mellon DH Grant and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College, Eddie Surman, a Master’s student at Claremont Graduate University, and with the support of Dr. Ashley Sanders, Director of the Digital Research Studio, this course provided students an opportunity to collaborate with a professor to design and carry out original digital scholarship projects. One student group chose to recreate a portion of an ancient archeological site in Taxila, Pakistan in 3D and develop a virtual reality application for users to explore the site using the HTC Vive. The other group produced a georeferenced map of the archeological site at Sirkap in Taxila with a searchable and filterable heat map of material objects found at the site.

Interactive map created by students at Claremont Colleges
Interactive map created by students at Claremont Colleges

The second group was comprised of eight students, some coming from computer science, while others were humanities students. Their project, “Digitizing Material Culture: Explorations of Socioeconomic Distribution in Sirkap,” sought to determine if there was a correlation between room or house size and the number and variety of material objects found, and if this correlation could be used to draw conclusions about the socioeconomic status of inhabitants. While they concluded that there is, indeed, a correlation, they have not yet been able to make the link between this correlation and inhabitants’ “level of living.” However, their visualization project revealed several intriguing insights. For instance, they noticed that there were numerous sculptures in the Hellenistic style in the Apsidal temple, but the temple was used by Buddhist monks, and therefore, one would expect Indo-Parthian or Buddhist artifacts instead. They also found a high concentration of objects that were classified as “female” near Stupas and the Apsidal Temple, prompting additional questions for further research. While they were not able to accomplish all of their ambitious goals with this ten-week project, the documentation of their process and their machine-readable dataset are invaluable contributions to academics in many disciplines and to scholars of ancient Pakistan in particular.

(more…)

Read More

Digital Composition, Archives, and Environmental Justice

hyland1
J. Hyland, Photo credit: Rachel Hochberg
Above: John Hyland

Top: Broken Treaties exhibit (Photo credit, Rachel Hochberg)

Students in an environmental studies-based writing seminar at Haverford College recently completed a digital humanities project—Broken Treaties, Forgotten Archives: Philadelphia Quakers, Allegany Senecas, and the Fight for Sacred Grounds—through Haverford’s Special Collections that focuses on the politics of water, environmental justice, and Indigenous rights. In this first-year seminar taught by John Hyland, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Haverford’s Writing Program, “Ecological Imaginaries: Identity, Violence, and the Environment,” students interrogated how imaginings of the environment are inseparable from issues of social justice. They spent significant time studying the Theodore Brinton Hetzel Papers, a Haverford alumnus who, along with other Philadelphia Quakers, served on the Friends Kinzua Dam Project in the 1950s and 1960s, a project that collaborated with the Seneca Nation of Indians in a fight to stop the construction of a 179-foot dam on the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania. The dam, which was completed in 1964, flooded out the sacred grounds of the Seneca Nation, dispossessing them of lands that had been granted to them in 1794 by the U.S. Government.

On designing the assignment, Hyland says,

By preparing little-known historical documents for a broader online audience, students learned how to think critically about questions of literacy in a digital environment for the liberal arts. This project’s shift toward an online audience pushed students to consider how their work would be received beyond classroom, and they quickly felt that much more was at stake in their writing than the completion of a seminar assignment.

With generous support from Haverford’s library staff, including Sarah Horowitz and Michael Zarafonetis, students prepared a selection of materials from the archive for digital platforms and curated a public exhibition in order to tell this story of a fight for Indigenous rights, sacredness, and environmental justice. Through this multimodal project, students composed different genres of writing and learned about the rhetorical contexts for digital platforms. They completed annotations using Neatline, constructed a timeline, and composed labels to accompany and introduce the archival items while also producing prospectuses, annotated bibliographies, and articles. In completing this project, students sought to provide a historical perspective on current events such as the current fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. By the project’s close, students possessed a nuanced appreciation for the ways that archives illuminate contemporary moments.

Broken Treaties, Forgotten Archives timeline
Broken Treaties, Forgotten Archives digital timeline

(more…)

Read More