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'[Aimlessly] Playing Around': Queer Affordances in Graduate Students' Digital Archives

Published onJan 20, 2023
'[Aimlessly] Playing Around': Queer Affordances in Graduate Students' Digital Archives

A blog posted on the Duke University Libraries’ website introduces graduate students to the Digital Humanities (DH) and, in the same breath, steers them away from undertaking independent DH projects (Shaw). Instead, the post proposes two alternatives for engaging with DH: joining a more established ongoing DH project or “aimlessly playing around” with the DH tools at graduate students’ disposal.

 The statement sparked hours of discussion between us (the authors of this article). Upon first encountering the post, we passed it back and forth, contemplating. Duke, of course, has a well-established DH department, and partnering with an ongoing project—or at least a tenured faculty member able to provide significant guidance—might be a realistic option for graduate students at such institutions. But if the suggestion is intended for a wider audience of readers, including graduate students with less access to institutional resources, how are they to proceed? To us, “aimlessly playing around” seemed like a disappointing consolation. Well aware of the issues surrounding power, authority, and knowledge production within the digital humanities, and academia more broadly—as we address below—we worried that the independent projects that we’d begun might be framed as “aimless” and dismissed accordingly.

And yet, the more that we discussed this wording, analyzing it through the intersections of queer studies, ethnic studies, and intersectional feminist studies that we’d been trained in, we developed a more reparative reading. As much as we resisted framing our own work—or the work of other graduate students in DH, more broadly—as “aimless,” we also concluded that viewing this work in terms of “playing around” fit with our resistance to the more oppressive, colonial, and capitalist legacies that graduate students have grappled with for decades. The digital can be an enjoyable pursuit, and—as we point out—the freedom to play with these methods can be rewarding and useful, as well as critical, political, and disruptive.

Expanding on this reparative approach, we reframe what “playing around” might mean, drawing from María Lugones’s 1987 essay, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception.” By “world-travelling,” Lugones suggests that if we leave the comfort of our own worlds, we might experience the simultaneous lived experiences of those around us in an act that affirms plurality, enacting a “loving playfulness” that opposes a colonial and antagonistic version of play (i.e., play as competition). Redefining play, she writes, “Our activity has no rules, though it is certainly intentional activity and we [...] understand what we are doing. The playfulness that gives meaning to our activity includes uncertainty, but in this case the uncertainty is an openness to surprise” (16). This description foreshadows Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s understanding of reparative reading, and it can similarly recast our entire approach to a subject, allowing us to reimagine the worlds we want to live in now, in the present.

This essay aims to turn the digital humanities toward this reparative approach of playfulness, revisiting and reframing the experimental, critical, and transformative digital work being done by graduate students. Our goal in writing this is to draw attention to the DH research of graduate students and to offer an entry point into a larger conversation. The independent work being done by graduate students in and with the digital should explicitly hold a space within DH scholarship. As an entry point to this claim, we reflect on the ways in which we, personally, have engaged with DH tools and frameworks as doctoral students whose work is heavily marked by interdisciplinarity. Collectively, we draw from cultural studies, queer studies, ethnic studies, literary criticism, intersectional feminism, and the digital humanities, before turning our attention to a selection of graduate student projects that use digital formats and methods to provide creative and critical critiques of conventional structures of power and authority.

Our joint work in this endeavor dates back to the summer of 2018, when we met during our first year at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) while taking a week-long course titled “Queer Digital Humanities.” Both of us were drawn to the offering through unique investments in queer scholarship and work within marginalized communities. At the time of our meeting, Marisa (diasporic settler and cisgender woman of colour) was in the Cultural Studies department at Claremont Graduate University. Jon (queer, white settler, cisgender, and male) was a graduate student in the English department at Stony Brook University. Despite our differences in discipline and geographical location, we found similarities in our graduate experiences and quickly found ways to assist one another in developing new literacies around the field of digital humanities, which we had both just recently begun to explore. Similarly, and running parallel to this learning curve, we found we were at the same stage of our studies. We had both recently finished coursework, and we quickly bonded over (among many other things) our anxieties around our upcoming qualifying exams. Primarily, we worried about how we would keep track of the many materials we had and would read. Our apprehensions culminated in the final project for the DHSI course.

Queering as Digital Humanities Methodology

The final project for “Queering DH” was conceptualized around Twine, an open-source tool for writing interactive, branching narratives that are stored in a single-text file. Students were invited to create an interactive Twine story, game, or essay “featuring imaginings and queerings of systems, tools, processes, and methodologies” (Boyd and Howe 8). For Marisa, the course project was her first introduction into graphical hypertext. With research interests in retooling technology to better serve historically-excluded groups, she decided to follow the instructors’ prompt by “queering” the way Twine itself functioned in order to create a study aid, something that would be able to help graduate students prepare for their qualifying examinations—a task that can stand as a major hurdle for students with marginalized identities. Rather than looking to the (front-) end product created by Twine, she retooled the networked display of the platform’s back-end to not only (re)organize expansive notes from various texts, but to visibly indicate connections among them through colour-coordinated tags. In this way, Twine served as a conceptual map, demonstrating the intricate relations among dozens of authors, theories, and concepts.

Before moving on, it is necessary to define our use of the term “queer.” In the Queer DH course that we participated in, we discussed “queer” as a polyvalent term. As a reclaimed pejorative, “queer” is often used both as an umbrella term for a range of LGBTQIA+ identities as well as for those whose identities fall outside this acronym’s list of terms. Beginning in the early 1980s, “queer” also came to signify a political movement away from the aims of mainstream gay and lesbian rights advocates—often deemed more assimilative in their efforts. And, around this time, “queer” was also emerging as a means of designating the academic discipline of queer studies, which builds upon and blends earlier feminist theory with gay and lesbian studies, shifting the latter area into a more theoretical and post-structuralist framework (Gamson). Lastly, “queering” has come to describe a methodology, a way to challenge heteronormativity or the concept that heterosexuality is the normal and default lens through which we engage the world around us. Expanding on this idea, Judith Butler regards “queering” as a way to refer to the term’s own “deformative and misappropriative power” (21, original emphasis). And within the digital humanities, Bo Ruberg, Jason Boyd, and James Howe refer to a queer methodology as a call to take up this power in order to “play around, to mess up, to break down” (Ruberg et al.). In its direct address of playfulness, it is this last definition that we primarily build upon in our own use of the term.

This approach also connects to James J. Gibson’s conceptualization of “affordance,” in reference to what an environment offers (or affords) an individual. Peter H. Khost has expanded on this concept in Rhetor Response: A Theory and Practice of Literary Affordance, where he traces this idea of what an environment affords onto cultural objects in the humanities classroom. In making an affordance, we build upon the work of earlier developers, programmers, and scholars, taking up a DH hacker ethic tied to an economy of sharing within digital scholarship (Sample; Burdick et al.).

The concept of “affordance” is further reflected in the critical praxis of minimal computing. “Minimal computing,” according to the collaborative GO::DH Minimal Computing Working Group, can be defined as “computing done under some set of significant constraints of hardware, software, education, network capacity, power, or other factors” (Bauer et al.). As a “critical movement,” minimal computing relates to issues of social justice, power, and knowledge production, constituting a computational praxis that aims to use whatever digital tools are available to minimize barriers and maximize access and participation (Bauer et al.).

Alongside the adoption of queer methods in our own work via Twine and Marisa’s later use of minimal computing tools in her memory work with the ImaginX en Movimiento Memory Collective, as discussed below, our fellow graduate students are similarly engaging with the digital humanities and with digital publishing tools in highly innovative ways. Such transformative work, often done with limited resources, moves beyond the classroom in ways that challenge traditional notions of power, authority, and access. For example, doctoral candidates Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana (UC Davis) and Wendy Barrales (CUNY) subvert dominant knowledge production by using proprietary tools such as social media and smartphone apps to engage their communities in multimedia storytelling in the Playas de Tijuana Mural Project and the Women of Color Archive, respectively. While this work has arisen through and across different environments, platforms, and communities, they similarly highlight the queered methodology undertaken by many graduate students conducting their own DH projects, as they “play around” in fruitful and aimful ways.

Another common thread through all of these projects is a loose definition of archival work—at times not only loose but metaphorical or even queered. According to Laura A. Millar, “the archive” can refer to three things simultaneously:

  1. the materials (e.g., documents, photos, videos) being preserved for future usage;

  2. the institution (e.g., library, museum, university) managing these materials; and

  3. the location (e.g., building) where those materials are stored.

Approaching archives less as a material manifestation, social anthropologist and former digital librarian of the Princeton University Library Jarrett Drake alternatively defines archives in his essay “Blood at the Root” as the “processes that concentrate, control, and codify power” (13).

A year ago, Marisa attended a community-based digital archives workshop for activists co-facilitated by Drake and hosted by Documenting the Now, a core program of Shift Collective that develops open source tools and community-centred practices to ethically collect social media content related to significant historical events. During this workshop, Drake warned attendees against “romanticizing archives,” as the term “archive” originates from the Greek word for “ruler” or “to rule”—as in the words oligarch, monarch, and patriarch. What is needed, he explained, is “a deeper and more aspirational view of archives that rejects the current models we learn about. We’re arguing for distribution over concentration, sharing over control, and dynamism over codification” (Documenting the Now).  He called for a focus on archives that, for example, happen in the kitchen and dance hall—in the intimate spaces that everyday people convene in. It is this latter definition of archives—archives as distribution, sharing, and dynamism located in the intimate spaces of the everyday—that best reflects the archival projects discussed in this essay.

The location of the archives we explore below is certainly skewed (as we look primarily to digital platforms), and we have similarly framed our grassroots efforts to create digital archives as DIY (do-it-yourself) databases, drawing upon Lev Manovich’s definition of “database logic,” or the way new media objects allow us to “​​make meaning out of the world” (225). Such logic grants each item in a set the “same significance as any other” (Manovich 218). As we aim to deconstruct the hierarchies that so often present themselves as barriers to graduate work, database logic becomes a useful tool for restructuring the materials stored in our archives as well as for reshaping the forms of knowledge production with which we are familiar.

With reference to the future lives of our archived materials, we also draw upon Chandré Gould and Verne Harris’s “memory work,” framed as a tool for building a liberatory future. The “memory worker,” according to Gould and Harris, includes anyone exploring, engaging, and using memory in endeavors to reckon with past human rights violations, injustices, violent conflicts, or war (2). Memory work acknowledges that archiving has always been done by people and, therefore, is not for archivists alone. For Yusef Omowale, Director of the Southern California Library of Social Studies and Research, professional archivists and hegemonic archival practice have “come to represent the only legitimate way to do this work.” He critiques this tendency, observing that an adoption of professional archiving practices at the expense of alternative forms for gathering knowledge will only further separate and divide our communities.

Lastly, in our shift towards a reparative reading of play, we highlight Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s response to the precarious labour of academia. In The Slow Professor, Berg and Seeber propose that academics need to reject the culture of speed and efficiency that permeates our campuses. By intentionally slowing down and savouring the learning process, we might improve teaching, research, and collegiality. “Playing around” thus also functions as an antidote for universities suffering from the demands of a fast-paced culture. Graduate students, certainly, have felt the weight of this drive to do more, faster, longer, all while being offered less and less—less compensation, less guidance, less job security (Boyles et al.). Giving students the support and resources to slow down and play aimfully with the digital would undoubtedly lead to new and important contributions to the movement to “transform DH” (Bailey; Cong-Huyen; Lothian and Phillips).

Of course, institutional shortcomings ought to be contextualized alongside the broader issues that those working in DH have faced. Concerns around who has access to DH tools and resources affect everyone from undergraduate students to university librarians. While financial accessibility can create constraints around the ways in which tools and data “can be accessed, analyzed, and politicized” (McMillan Cottom), hierarchical and imbalanced power structures continue to impinge on many attempting to navigate the field (Boyles). Barbara Bordalejo, for instance, has drawn attention to the way that ongoing gender disparities among DH faculty undercut “any claims about equality and inclusiveness in the field.” This is also true of racial disparities in the field of digital humanities. But while these imbalances and precarities impact many within the walls of academia, graduate students, especially those of marginalized backgrounds, often feel the effects of this precarity in concentrated force.

In the face of this uncertainty, DH is often held out as a possible solution for graduate students—or at least as a means that will better prepare graduate students “for the labor realities they’ll face” (Howard). “Will expertise in digital humanities get graduate students the academic jobs that so many of them seek?” asked literary scholar Leonard Cassuto in a 2017 Chronicle of Higher Ed article. “At the moment,” he replies, “demonstrated digital expertise certainly helps” (Cassuto B21). In describing the PhD program in Digital Humanities at King’s College London, Willard McCarty similarly highlights the demand for graduate students with critical knowledge of the field in an explanation of the program itself. This rhetoric has certainly affected the writers of this present piece. DH is often held out as the channel through which we will be able to conduct the academic work we were initially interested in—and several years into the field, DH has also shifted to become a central object of our studies.

Twine as Database & Study Aid

Returning to Twine, this popular tool serves as a useful starting place for addressing the ways in which graduate student works can queer the tools at their disposal, as the entire history of the platform can be outlined through a series of affordances. Twine, according to creator Chris Klimas, is based on TiddlyWiki, an earlier tool for creating wikis (Salter and Moulthrop 31). But Twine offers a more user-friendly interface for creating electronic literature. This design has made the creation and distribution of e-lit more democratic, diminishing technological barriers that potential authors have faced in the past. And while the platform has certainly been used in this way, indie game creators have also gravitated towards it, finding that its built-in but modifiable macros are a useful affordance for game design. Akin to our own use of “queering,” media scholar Alison Harvey has observed that this development in Twine queers game design—producing non-traditional routes towards game production while simultaneously attracting a number of queer-identifying game designers, including Porpentine and Anna Anthropy (Harvey 99). Anastasia Salter and Stuart Moulthrop explore Twine’s affordances, noting how the tool has made its way into many undergraduate classrooms: “In a classroom of students from different backgrounds, with varying knowledge of programming, Twine can be an equalizer” (5). The majority of these interventions focus on the front-end product of Twine, but by shifting to the back-end of the platform as well, we continue to expand the affordances of this potentially equalizing work.

As noted above, Marisa initially proposed that Twine might be used as a study aid for graduate students working with numerous (and often new) texts. After demonstrating this idea in a prototype created for the “Queering Digital Humanities” course at DHSI, Jon adopted her use of the platform in his own work, framing the affordance as a study aid database, in which each new node (or passage, to use Twine’s terminology) represented an individual text on his exam lists. He then transferred the materials that he had collected and created up to that point—notes that were scattered across Word and Google documents, two separate notebooks, hastily typed reminders in an app on his phone, emails he had exchanged with his advisors, and comments scrawled into the margins and flyleaves of the books he was working with—into this makeshift database. The Twine story thus became one central and easily accessible location that he could revisit, add to, and use to identify themes and connections in the texts he was working with. Regarding this last aspect, and in contrast with his earlier mess of notes from diverging sources, the hypertext-linked passages of Twine provided an easy way to connect one idea to another, and one reading to another. Figure 1 displays the back-end of this project after all of the readings were completed and connections had been drawn from one text to another. Its organizational benefit is evident as the network of connections can be seen fanning out like a plant’s leaves—or rather, a spider’s web coating a plant’s leaves.

So, while the back-end of Twine allowed Jon to make visible the connections between over 200 individual texts for his qualifying exams, the front-end of the completed project (Figure 2) operated as a new mode of reviewing the copious reading notes that he compiled. Clicking on one text offers details about a text, along with hyperlinked connections to other texts, that—when selected—redirect the user to a series of similar texts, illustrating the larger nesting structure of the exam lists. As a study aid, a user might follow the connection from one text to another, even pausing at a hyperlinked text to quiz oneself on what passage the highlighted term or idea will lead to.

Figure 1. Back-end image of the Twine database for Jon’s study aid. The green squares indicate organizational infrastructure, grouping texts from Jon’s exam lists (the red squares) into three distinct topics and a number of smaller sub-topics. The grey links between these squares mark intertextual connections that Jon made while marking up his readings (Heggestad).

Figure 2. Front-end image of the Twine database for Jon’s study aid. Hyperlinks to other texts are in blue (Heggestad).

 Upon completing his exams, Jon shared Marisa’s idea with others, demonstrating to other PhD students at Stony Brook University how to incorporate Twine into their own note management systems. One member of Jon’s graduate program decided to use Twine in her own preparations for qualifying exams and later shared this idea with MA students in a graduate seminar. The result was that one of these MA students began using Twine to keep track of all her class notes from her coursework. Not only did this help her to more easily recall ideas and concepts through the platform’s search function but it also allowed her to create new connections and links between readings and lectures across all of her classes—a much more effective mode of studying than merely rereading her notes (see Brown et al.). The larger benefit of these affordances can be easily imagined: if students were to take advantage of a platform like Twine from an early stage in their studies, the connections they make throughout their coursework would be slower to fade from memory, since they would be able to revisit these ideas by simply opening up the Twine platform. It ought to be noted as well that this model has been created without a budget and with minimal instruction regarding how Twine was intended to be used.

ImaginX en Movimiento Memory Collective & DIY/T Digital Archiving

These principles carry through in Marisa’s approach to digital archiving in her work as founding-member of the ImaginX en Movimiento (IXeM) Memory Collective. IXeM is an anti-colonial project based in Tongvaar (Los Angeles basin) that seeks to support digital memory projects being imagined and built outside of cultural heritage institutions by Black, Indigenous, women, LGBTQIA+, and diasporic groups of colour through solidarity and coalition-building. IXeM uses minimal computing solutions (e.g., cloud storage, social media, photo scanning applications) to build new digital infrastructure for supporting personal digital archives and to co-develop multimedia public history projects in partnership with grassroots museums, libraries, and cultural organizations by focusing on reciprocity and redistribution of source materials.

While participatory digital methods for conducting archival research and practice have contributed in meaningful ways to discourses on rebalancing power asymmetries in archival partnerships between academics and communities (Punzalan and Caswell; Kelleher; Gubrium and Harper), this work has yet to effectively disrupt the status quo. In Marisa’s experience working with cultural organizations like the Garifuna Museum of Los Angeles (GAMOLA) as a member of IXeM, the discontent and skepticism of “outsiders” was expressed by long-time volunteers of the museum in various examples. Researchers, graduate students, and filmmakers alike would come to the museum, take knowledge, and leave—never to return again. At a moment when we are talking about how the histories of marginalized groups have been systematically erased, marginalized, and misrepresented, IXeM offers minimal tech strategies through a relational paradigm to actualize the rebalancing of power and authority in the archives.

For instance, IXeM’s first partnership was with Cynthia Lewis in June 2021, a volunteer tour guide for GAMOLA. Cynthia is of Garifuna descent. Garifuna (also referred to in the plural form, Garinagu) are an Afro-Indigenous People who are descendants of shipwrecked enslaved West African settlers and the Arawak and Carib Peoples. In the late eighteenth century, they were exiled by the British from their homeland, an island in the Caribbean currently known as St. Vincent, to an island off the coast of Honduras. From there, the Garinagu migrated to the mainland, pursuing work and settling in surrounding areas such as Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua. In “A Love Letter to Indigenous Blackness,” transdisciplinary scholar of Black diasporas Joseph Paul López Oro attributes the first major wave of Garifuna transnational migrations to major US port cities such as New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Miami, and Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century to the decline of the United Fruit Company’s banana plantation economy on the Caribbean coast, in combination with the legacy of centuries of anti-Black racism and land dispossession.

Cynthia invited Marisa to help digitize her 50-album collection of family photos as a way to preserve and share them with her grandchildren online and through other digital technologies. As a small collective on a micro-budget, IXeM primarily uses open-source and free commercial platforms or digital media technologies that are little-to-no-cost or refurbished.1 In doing so, the collective takes into account the social contexts and technological resources used by community partners in their daily lives, such as social media and mobile devices. This enables project partners to build from their own technological knowledge and skills. In other writing, Marisa has referred to this approach as “digital rasquachismo,” a socio-political praxis that retools everyday technologies to provide creative solutions and new pathways to cultural work when few resources are available (Hicks-Alcaraz 2).

In this way, Marisa and Cynthia decided to use their smartphones and the proprietary photo scanning application, Photomyne, as Cynthia was not willing to separate from her photo collection, declaring: “Where my photos go, I go.” Moving her collection back and forth to be digitized at an archival institution was therefore not feasible. Over the span of five Saturdays, Marisa and Cynthia digitized nearly 1,000 photos with a few friends and IXeM members. Figure 3 shows a photo taken by Marisa of Cynthia and her photo album collection on the final day of digitization. On her own, Cynthia has continued to digitize the second half of her collection and to organize the digital files by year without further external intervention.

Figure 3. Cynthia Lewis in her living room with her collection of family photo albums on the final day of digitization. Photograph taken by Marisa Hicks-Alcaraz, 6 September 2021. Courtesy of Cynthia Lewis via Instagram (ImaginX en Movimiento).

 Throughout this process, Marisa, Cynthia, and the group of volunteers engaged in meaningful connection, built confianza (trust), and enacted a relational practice of community through continued dialogue, collaboration, and collective care. By invitation, IXeM has worked with Cynthia’s friends and family on similar projects, as well as with GAMOLA on an initiative to create a catalogue for the museum’s library and artifacts. They continue to text and call each other regularly—sometimes about the museum and digitizing materials and, at other times, just to check in on one another, each grateful to have the other in their lives. Marisa has used these interpersonal experiences to conceptualize relationality as an anti-colonial methodology for archival work.

Relational practices call on us to seek connections rather than division and separation, to see ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem in which we must engage in acts of redistribution and reciprocity rather than in power and authority. This requires that we take risks to disrupt the status quo, build power, and deepen a sense of responsibility to one another. A relational approach to archives means building and nourishing meaningful, non-extractive, and reciprocal partnerships with grassroots cultural organizations led by women and by Black, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and diasporic people through the redistribution of institutional power, wealth, and resources.

IXeM’s relational approach to the digitization of personal archives shares some principles with “post-custodialism,” such as the decentralization of holdings, better use of limited resources toward archival work, and the (re)balancing of power between colonizer/colonized, Global North/Global South, and archive/creator.2 However, this approach differs from post-custodialism in that instead of acquiring digital copies of materials, its primary objective is to “demystify” the archives to support the long-term sustainability of work already being done by communities to preserve their histories through reciprocity and resource redistribution. This approach then challenges assumptions that the public needs to be convinced or trained to care for their personal memories. As Omowale points out, our communities have always documented and preserved our histories with care and intention.

The Society of American Archivists defines post-custodialism as “a practice in which creators maintain control of their archival records while archivists provide management support” (“Postcustodialism”). Its primary method for doing this is by making digital copies of physical records (e.g., documents, photos, videos) which, upon the completion of digitization, are returned to their owners. In “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives in the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation,” Michelle Caswell describes post-custodialism as “borrow[ing] records from individuals, families, organizations, and academic and government repositories, then digitiz[ing] them, archivally describ[ing] them in a culturally appropriate manner, link[ing] them to related materials in the archives, and mak[ing] them freely accessible online to anyone in the world with an internet connection. After digitization, the physical materials remain with the individual, family, organization, or repository from which they originated” (33).

While post-custodialism intervenes in the archival principle of custody, the management or stewardship of community records by archival institutions can reinscribe and even deepen inequity as a rights agreements often grant archives the perpetual rights to the use, exhibition, and distribution of digital copies without ongoing consent, nor the right to withdraw, nor financial compensation to the original creators. The persisting notion that memories are inscribed on physical, not intellectual objects perhaps helps explain the lack of scrutiny of current post-custodial models. Assumptions that continue to see the digital as inferior to physical objects allow inequity to enter through the “backdoor” of archives, leaving the mechanisms of extraction and paternalism hidden from view. We offer this as an example of how existing frameworks guiding academic–community partnerships in digital archives can replicate harmful relations that, contrary to their aims, contribute to the disempowerment and devaluation of communities.

While IXeM does not require that creators donate digital copies to the collective, it provides support to those who wish to share their archives with the public through social media. The Narrating Our Stories Series, a project inspired by the South Side Home Movie Project’s Spinning Home Movies series and the Freewaves Archives, for example, retools or “queers” Vimeo as an archival database to share home videos narrated by their owners (see Figures 4 and 5). Rather than outsourcing digitization, the IXeM uses donated, used, and low-cost equipment to digitize materials through instruction provided by YouTube tutorials and with the aid of a staff member at the Claremont Colleges Library who also learned how to digitize audiovisual materials through DIY methods.

Figure 4. “Happy Birthday,” a born-digital home video recorded on a smartphone narrated by Marcos Pineda, as part of the Narrating Our Stories Series. Recorded by Abigail Amador, 24 April 2021. Edited by Marisa Hicks-Alcaraz, 2021. Courtesy of Marcos Pineda.


Figure 5. “Wili’s Cumpleaños,” a digitized VHS narrated by William Camargo as part of the Narrating Our Stories Series. Recorded by Venancio Cisneros, 1 May 1993. Digitized and edited by Marisa Hicks-Alcaraz, 2020. Courtesy of William Camargo.

IXeM centers DIY and DIT (do-it-together) culture as a key mode of knowledge-making and cultural production, as well as a method for building solidarity among what Angela Davis refers to as “communities of struggle,” a political organizing strategy targeting the collective in creating justice and equity (49). We define DIY culture, in this context, as a creative approach to using digital tools for designing, creating, or modifying something by oneself and without professional experience or training. DIT can be defined as a method that ties collaborative engagement with “tinkering,” predicated on the idea that technology operates within an interconnected network (Jungnickel).

Additionally, as part of IXeM’s objective to demystify archives and create greater access to archiving, the collective seeks to support individuals interested in digitally preserving their own collections through the creation of zines that introduce archival concepts (see Figure 6). Additionally, IXeM is currently working in partnership with the Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities (IDAH) at Indiana University, Bloomington to create a toolkit that builds on the pedagogical resources created by both groups to support fully community-hosted and community-published archiving.

Figure 6. “Intro to Archives.” A screenshot of a mini-zine that provides a short introduction to archiving distributed on IXeM’s Instagram account (@ixem.collective).

We are currently in a moment when we are having ardent conversations about how to do memory work that dismantles the systems that continue to harm subordinated groups (Collier; Drake, “Blood”; Tansey). The rise of white nationalism, white supremacist mass shootings, anti-Asian hate crimes, and the turning away of asylum seekers from places like Central America, Mexico, Haiti, Cameroon, and Afghanistan at US borders makes it increasingly urgent to intervene in traditional abuses of power, authority, and access. Our work, and the work discussed in the following samples of graduate student DH projects, hopes to contribute to these interventions by enacting alternatives to the status quo.

The Women of Color Archive

Wendy Barrales is a multimedia artist, scholar-activist, and former Ethnic Studies high school teacher. She founded the Women of Color Archive (WOCA) while a doctoral student in Urban Education at CUNY Graduate Center. Marisa first learned of Wendy’s work by attending a virtual panel on graduate student DH research projects held by the New Media Lab (NML), which works with CUNY Graduate Center students and faculty to help cultivate multimedia projects. Student and faculty members of NML receive resources such as digital tools training, stipends, and research awards to develop innovative websites and tools in the digital humanities, sciences, and social sciences. In June 2021, Wendy was awarded The Social Justice Award by NWL for her important work preserving and amplifying the often overlooked and erased stories of “matriarchs of color” through WOCA, an intergenerational art-based storytelling project.

Wendy explains on the WOCA website, which also doubles as a blog, that the project began in 2016 when she interviewed her abuelita about her life experiences in rural Veracruz (“WOC Archive”). In a powerful blog entry entitled “Searching for Mami & Abuelita,” Wendy writes that the interview was the first time her family’s history had been documented and that her hope is “that the project resists the erasure of WOC’s experiences and that our stories can be listened to/viewed for decades to come.” She ends her entry with a call to join a collective act of “interview[ing] your mamis abuelitas primas amigas madrinas comadres and any/all other incredible woman in your life,” in a return to Lugones’s suggestion of “‘world’-travelling.”

WOCA has since grown to consist of short videos created by high school–aged artists, including her own students, combining multimedia stop-motion collage and audio from their interviews with notable women of colour in their lives. In the 30-second video entitled “Mi Madrina,” student youth artist Jennifer Florencio juxtaposes an audio clip from her interview with her godmother with beautiful collages that depict her immigration story. Florencio’s godmother stands surrounded by rotating roses and butterflies, as she describes her happy childhood in Mexico, her experience immigrating to the US to help support her family, as well as the prejudice she faced upon arrival for being an “illegal.”

The video was recently part of WOCA’s contribution to the tenth anniversary of Photoville Festival, an annual community festival that provides a public venue for international photographers through virtual and outdoor exhibitions across New York City. The archive’s exhibition titled “dándoles sus flores (giving them their flowers)” was created by youth and adult community members and inspired by the use of altares to honour women of colour (Figure 7). The images were accompanied by a QR code with a link to the short videos, which visitors were invited to reflect upon with guided questions.

Figure 7. “Dándoles sus flores (giving them their flowers).” WOCAarchive exhibition for Photoville 2021. Photo taken by Jennifer Florencio on 4 November 2021. Courtesy of Wendy Barrales.

 As a decolonial project, Wendy’s efforts work to subvert dominant knowledge production paradigms by creating a historical record that documents the agency of women and girls of colour and their artistic responses to cultural and social erasure. In this way, WOCA takes advantage of Manovich’s database logic in order to amplify a greater number of voices. New media objects, as noted above, provide an inherent possibility for this political affordance, but Wendy’s interventions, multimodal and participatory, bring this affordance to fruition. WOCA invites additional contributors to share in the production of the archive. While we found that other graduate students were quick to replicate our queered use of Twine, Wendy has provided a space for new contributors within the archive itself. In this way, WOCA, like IXeM, develops a DIT culture.

Migri Map & Mural Projects

In our final example of graduate work, we look at the research of Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana, a doctoral candidate in Spanish with a focus on Latin American literature and culture with an emphasis on human rights at the University of California, Davis. Marisa met Lizbeth when she was invited to give a workshop to Lizbeth’s research cluster group on DH tools such as Scalar, Omeka, and StoryMaps.

Lizbeth uses a wide range of methods for documenting the stories of migrants facing deportation, as well as her own stories pertaining to her graduate student experience. Such methods include digital storytelling, media arts, public scholarship, testimonios (oral histories), and feminist pedagogy. Lizbeth’s research is highly collaborative, multimodal, and social justice–oriented, resulting in numerous critical DH projects, including Migri Map and the Playas de Tijuana and Leave No One Behind mural projects. Additionally, Lizbeth thoroughly documents and exhibits her research and graduate student process by using various media to publicly disseminate knowledge, including a personal website, YouTube vlog, and social media.

For instance, like many junior and senior academics in the digital humanities, Lizbeth uses her personal website as a platform for disseminating her expansive work. One of the public scholarship projects highlighted on her website is the Playas de Tijuana Mural Project. Playas de Tijuana is an interactive mural 150 feet across and 20 feet high located at the Tijuana–San Diego border fence. It highlights the stories of 15 individuals who were brought by their parents to the US as children (Figure 8). Each portrait is accompanied by a QR code, which links to a website detailing their immigration stories.

Figure 8. “The Playas de Tijuana Mural Project.” A photograph taken of volunteers finalizing the Playas de Tijuana Mural Project located at the Tijuana–San Diego border fence highlighting the stories of individuals who were brought by their parents to the US as children. 2021. Courtesy of Lizbeth De la Cruz Santana.

 As a DIT endeavour, Lizbeth drew each portrait on a large piece of canvas with the help of volunteers, family members, and the subjects themselves. The canvas was placed strip-by-strip on the pillars that make up the stretch of border fence. Lizbeth explains in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in August 2021 that by participating in the painting of the mural, migrants were able to take ownership of their own narrative (Mendoza). Lizbeth goes on to describe the personal significance of this site: it is the beach where her father crossed the border, undocumented, before she was born. Her father later obtained legal status through an amnesty law by former US President Ronald Reagan.

While all four of the project creators addressed in this essay have found alternative pathways to develop our projects, a reorientation toward graduate students in DH would further advance the field in important ways. Jon and Marisa’s use of Twine focuses on the platforms themselves, reimagining what graduate students are able to accomplish with the tools at their disposal and reworking digital methods. The other projects that have been discussed here extend these affordances, resituating not only the materials that can be explored through digital archiving but also who is able to participate in these methods. For instance, WOCA takes advantage of the ability to house a wide range of multimodal materials in digital archives, while Lizbeth’s work expands what digital spaces mean for the location of the archive, operating across a series of networked platforms. In line with the ethos of doing and making together expressed across all of these projects, Marisa’s DIT work further re-examines the role of archivists and academics as digital stewards, regarding them instead as digital “accomplices” who seek ways to leverage resources and material support and/or “betray” their institutions to further liberation struggles (Indigenous Action 5).

Conclusion: Making the Most of the Tools at Hand

Having taken stock of a small sampling of the many graduate student projects that have been produced in recent years, we now offer a few suggestions for fostering and supporting transformative DH research, specifically for universities with small or no DH programs. First, academic institutions might work toward establishing a cultural and social ethos of experimentation, collaboration, imagination, and building, affirming the idea that creativity can be a scholarly act within and outside of the classroom. Creative and experimental skills can be developed through classroom assignments and final projects, as illustrated by our Queer DH final projects. Second, they could create cross-campus collaborations among different departments, libraries, media labs, and makerspaces to support a range of interests. Third, institutions could also engage students in transdisciplinary research, an intentional and interactive process in which researchers and practitioners co-produce knowledge to resolve real-world problems. Making connections across the digital, various disciplines, and the public sphere creates an important opportunity for transformative learning and project development. Finally, they could establish guidelines for constructively evaluating digital projects that create something other than a traditional thesis or monograph, which would include recognizing and crediting the intellectual and technical labour of DH projects.

As we finish our own graduate studies, we are both looking behind us and ahead of us. That many of the graduate student scholars we have examined here have been able to create transformative digital projects by queering the tools and resources available to them speaks to their creativity, problem-solving skills, ingenuity, and determination that, if fostered and supported, has the potential to create new, exciting possibilities and opportunities for the field of digital humanities.

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