This past week I had the wonderful privilege of being part of Digital Pedagogy Lab at UMW. It was an amazing experience, and in this post I hope to capture some of what I experienced during my first day at DPL.
I chose Tools & Tool Hacking as my 1-day course to begin DPL, and I went in with hopes of being introduced to new digital tools that could be used for a variety of projects and/or purposes. The course began with a virtual “tool parade,” during which Jesse and Chris threw dozens of tools at us in about 1.5 (or so) hours. To my pleasant surprise, I was familiar with almost all of the tools that Jesse and Chris introduced, with the exception of a couple Mac-only applications. It was a humbling moment, to say the least, and it made me realize how my education at UMW and my current job have allowed me to stay abreast of many different digital tools (though I am by no means an expert at using a majority of them).
The second part of the course was by far the most useful for me, and it’s led me to think much more deeply about the tools that I use and the tools that I endorse for COPLACDigital. During this part of the course, Jesse and Chris grouped us together and gave us tools to compare, along with a list of critical questions to help us evaluate and compare the two tools. The questions that Jesse and Chris gave us prompted me to truly pause and think about each tool—and with that pause and consideration came deep exploration, as well as connections to other areas of my professional life.
These are the questions that Jesse and Chris asked us to think about as we compared tools:
- What assumptions does the tool make about its users? What kind of relationships does it set up between teachers / students? School / the world? Humans / technology?
- What assumptions does the tool make about learning and education? Does the tool attempt to dictate how our learning and teaching happen? How is this reflected in specific design and/or marketing choices?
- What data must we provide in order to use the tool (login, e-mail, birthdate, etc.)? What flexibility do we have to be anonymous? Who owns the data? Will others be able to use/copy/own our work there?
- In an educational context, how could the tool be used in a way that puts the learning into student’s hands? Does the tool leave students agency or choice in how they use it? Does the tool offer a way that “learning can most deeply and intimately begin”?
Out of all of these questions, the first one stuck with me the most: What assumptions does the tool make about its users? Which then led me to wonder: What assumptions does the tool make about the internet? The nature of interaction online? Ownership online, especially of content that we ourselves have created?
The tools that my group addressed were Medium and WordPress, but here I’d like to explore a different tool: Hypothes.is. It’s a tool that allows users to annotate textual content online, and one that I myself love using and love to see “in action.” It’s also one that we frequently recommend to UMW and COPLACDigital faculty—but I’ve always made these recommendations without peeling back layers and asking probing questions. Hypothes.is offers interesting, and at times problematic, answers to the above questions.
What assumptions does the tool make about its users? — First and foremost, Hypothes.is assumes that its users want to annotate content online, in a digital space. It assumes that for the most part, users want to make their annotations public (the default setting), but it does recognize that users may want to annotate semi-privately (in closed groups) or privately (“only me”). The default setting could be problematic, especially for users who don’t fully understand what it means to be making a public annotation or that that’s what Hypothes.is was created for. It can also present barriers to students who don’t feel comfortable or confident in making public annotations, especially if those annotations are meant to be part of a graded assignment.
†What assumptions does the tool make about the internet and the nature of interaction online? — This question stemmed from my first answer: Hypothes.is assumes that its users want to annotate content online, in a digital space—and that this kind of space and interaction was previously missing from the internet. To me, it’s assuming that the internet was lacking a collaborative spirit, lacking a place where users, and in particular the general public, could offer their own comments and feedback on things. It was, instead, a place for the consumption of content, but not for the critical processing of it. It was, in essence, walled off, devoid of meaningful contact, and undemocratic. I’ve been lucky (and no doubt, much of that “luck” is due to my white, heteronormative privilege) in that I’ve rarely experienced a space like that online (with the exception of journal databases). Most places I’ve been, particularly in the past (before Hypothes.is existed) have been full of meaningful interaction, open to thoughts and critique, and welcoming to seemingly everyone.1 It was not, admittedly, as open as Hypothes.is makes things, where you can annotate any text that you want, but it still felt like a place where at least I was always free and welcome to participate.
What assumptions does the tool make about the nature of content and ownership online? — This question draws the most problematic answers out of Hypothes.is because the tool makes, in my opinion, extremely inaccurate assumptions. It assumes that any publicly accessible textual content on the internet is there for anyone to annotate freely, and it assumes that anything published online is there for public, digital deconstruction and annotation. It blows open the ownership and control of content online because suddenly, owners cannot dictate how or who interacts with their content. This situation may not always be problematic or undesirable, but not everyone publishing online is putting their work out in order for it to be publicly and digitally annotated. Hypothes.is assumes consent without ever asking for (or even considering) it.2 While it gives users agency to engage with content in a new, digital, and highly collaborative way (which can be very valuable for students), it detracts from the owners’ agency and can potentially put them at risk. It can add labor for the content owners, and it’s likely that the more underprivileged owners will face more of the added labor. I’ll speak from my position of relative privilege, but as a woman—what if I suddenly discovered sexist, misogynistic, and/or inappropriate annotations on my blog posts? Do I then need to spend time and effort to moderate these comments? Even if I don’t myself have to moderate, I will have to spend the time and energy flagging each of the comments for the moderators. And then, of course, there’s the emotional labor involved with this situation, too.
In this light, Hypothes.is is not the “neutral” tool that I originally thought it was. While I will still use it and suggest it as a tool to use, I hope to use these opportunities as entry points to discussing ownership of content online and permissions to use content. I also see this as a potential opportunity to discuss the risks that we can be opening our students up to by having them work and publish in public spaces online—even more so if we are asking them to do this work without giving them options to protect their identities online, especially for our students of minority populations.
Asking these questions of digital tools also got me thinking about other “tools” in my current and desired career fields, especially those that are commonly assumed to be neutral. In this section of my post, the tool I’ll be considering is general: Archives.
While not something that we might immediately think of as a tool, archives are invaluable tools for research and the preservation of history and memory. But as with digital tools, archives are far from neutral. Most of my students (I say this loosely since I’m not actually a professor) are always very surprised when I tell them that archives aren’t neutral—they think archives are just dusty places where people, organizations, etc. store records and artifacts. To most of my students, archives somehow seem detached from the people and organizations that run (and influence) them, and they seem to exist in a present, anachronistic space that history could not and still cannot penetrate.
Unfortunately, I don’t get to have deeper conversations with students about archives (for several different reasons), but I see the above tool questions as a great entry point into shaping students’ views of archives. Even just the initial question in a shortened version: What assumptions does the archive make?
First and foremost, the particular archive assumes that whatever it is preserving needs to be preserved. What they are holding is not merely ephemeral, but it is important, and it is important enough to save. That someone, someday, for some reason, will want to use the archive.
This simple answer—that something is important enough to be preserved—prompts so many more questions that I think would help students see archives as anything but neutral, and to critically evaluate them.
- Who began the archive (or particular archival collection)? If an organization began it, who within the organization?
- What more do we know about them? Sex? Gender? Orientation? Race? Religion? Political activism and alignment?
- Why did they think that these items, or the subject, event, time period, etc. that these items share, were so important as to save and preserve them?
- Who runs the archive now? How has leadership changed since the archive’s inception?
- How are these people different from (and similar to) the people who created the archive? How have those similarities and differences shaped the archive and its collections?
- What kinds of items does the archive accept?
- What items does it not accept?
- What does this selectivity reveal about the archive?
- What are some of the archive’s newest collections or acquisitions?
- How do these fit with the rest of the archive’s collections?
- Do these new items seem to reflect the sentiments of any current sociopolitical movements or otherwise current attitudes?
- Does the archive have any exhibits?
- If so, what have they selected to exhibit? What does this selection reveal about the archive?
- What historical and contemporary events and movements surround the archive’s existence?
- How could these events and movements have influenced the archive, from inception to current day?
- What is the stated mission of the archive (or the mission of the organization of which the archive is part)?
- Are the archives open to researchers?
- What (or who) is the main funding source for the archive?
- How might this funding source shape the archive and its collections?
I’m sure there are many more questions that could be added to this list; if you have ideas, feel free to drop them in the Comments section.
† Please note that I’m answering this question through my eyes, which are limited by my own experiences, and even more so by my white, heternormative privilege (even though at the time, I wasn’t aware that I had that privilege). By this I mean that until a few years ago, I never felt prohibited from participating in anything online that I wanted to participate in. Doors were always open for me (or they seemed ajar enough), so I entered.
- I say “seemingly” everyone because in the past, I was not nearly as aware of all of the diversity of people and what kind of systemic, encoded barriers to entry they faced, especially online.
- You have my permission to annotate this post using Hypothes.is. However, I do not plan to check the annotations.