The University of Texas student chapter of the Society of American Archivists was fortunate to be joined by Professor Michelle Caswell April 20-22 for a series of events that included dinner with students, a presentation open to the entire campus and a workshop. Dr. Caswell also joined us at the SAA-UT potluck.
Dr. Caswell is an Assistant Professor of Archival Studies in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also an affiliated faculty member with the Department of Asian American Studies and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. She is the co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), an online repository which documents and provides access to the diverse stories of South Asian Americans.
Archives Against Annihilation: Imagining Otherwise
Dr. Caswell’s morning presentation on April 21st was held at the Harry Ransom Center. We counted 80 people in attendance, including faculty and students from all across the University, as well as around a dozen local practicing archivists. 12 people tuned in to our live stream during the presentation, and the video has received hundreds of views since then. If you were unable to attend the presentation, or would like to watch it again, the video will be permanently hosted on SAA-UT’s Facebook page.
The talk focused on the erasure of marginalized communities in mainstream archival collections, and offered models to counter this erasure. Using the South Asian American Digital Archive as an example, Dr. Caswell talked about the ways in which community archives use representational belonging to empower people who have been ignored by mainstream archival institutions.
She encouraged us to think about the power of records, how some records like mugshots represent certain ideas that distort our understanding of a person or moment, while other records work against symbolic annihilation. Records have the power to restore humanity by simply showing the existence of groups that, for whatever reason, have been erased. The records say: “They existed. They mattered.” Dr Caswell stated that archivists have a role to play in ending forms of oppression and a duty to disrupt symbolic annihilation by building archives that make people human again. The work of the archivists can assert humanity in the face of symbolic annihilation.
Dr. Caswell ended her presentation with a challenge to MLIS programs to imagine otherwise and posed some questions to aid the process. What if we transformed MLIS programs so they’re not driven by fear? What if we used archives as tools for human liberation? Dr. Caswell did not leave us with just questions. At her workshop, she set us on the road to developing meaningful solutions to the inequality that MLIS programs should actively work against.
Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in LIS
That afternoon, Dr. Caswell facilitated the workshop at the iSchool. We counted 20 people in attendance including area archivists and iSchool students and faculty.
The first thing we did was read Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Then using the essay as a model, we thought of ways in which whiteness is the default in our graduate programs and in the cultural heritage institutions where we work and frequent. For example, when it came to graduate programs we came up with a list of expectations that white students have about representations that students of color never experience. For the most part, white students can expect that most of their faculty and most of their classmates will look like them. Most of the readings on the syllabi will be written by white scholars, the classes will be taught in English and no one assumes that the race or nationality of white students had anything to do with why they were admitted to graduate school. Our proposed solutions included hiring more faculty of color, recruiting more students of color, diversity training for faculty and more discussions about issues surrounding diversity in core classes.
There was a differing of opinions about the workshop with some people of color in attendance expressing the desire that the workshop would go further into examining how white privilege operates and how to dismantle it. There were also those who were somewhat dismayed that most of the people at the workshop were in libraries and archives as this is a topic that affects all disciplines housed in the School of Information. However, the general consensus of the group was that as useful as the workshop was in opening up a much needed conversation, it would only be truly valuable if it proved to be the first step in a much longer process of reimagining graduate information programs.
Responding to the workshop, attendees said:
“Michelle Caswell’s presentation inspired me to use my position as an archivist to allow all voices to be heard and represented in the collections so all Americans can see their story represented in the historical record. The workshop made me cognizant of my own privilege and gave me active steps to mitigate this to continue my goal of inclusivity for all. As a minority, I do not see myself represented in the archiving or iSchool community and this workshop gave me the opportunity to voice some of my educational and professional concerns.” – Selena Aleman
“I loved the workshop on Friday and think activities like this should be required and foundational across the iSchool. The discussions we had were some that I (perhaps naively) expected from classes like Info in Socio-Cultural Context and Perspectives coming into this program. Going through the process of identifying various levels of privilege and then, so importantly, coming up with possible “solutions” is intense work but it is vital work.” – Nicole Marino
“Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed both the talk and the workshop. What was great about the workshop is that it was grounded in actual literature — Peggy McIntosh’s essay — which set up a concrete way to talk about both racial and economic privilege as they affect our field. I also loved that Dr. Caswell focused on taking action and fostering change, rather than simply pointing out a problem and leaving us disempowered to do anything about it. If anything, the workshop made me realize that I want to see more concrete types of training offered to students. Another workshop addressing how to intervene when you witness microaggressions would be most welcome!” – Emma Whittington
Indeed, the feedback about the workshop echoed the sentiments expressed in the results of the 2017 iSchool Climate Survey carried out by the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in that while most people at the iSchool value diversity, 25% of survey respondents do not feel that the iSchool is inclusive. Earlier in the Spring, Dean Dillon announced an initiative to “to increase our community dialogue about diversity and inclusion so that we might be better prepared individually and as a community to address those problems.” As a student organization, SAA-UT is committed to helping create an environment at the iSchool where every student feels recognized, heard and supported. We will continue to hold events and conversations that foster dialogue challenging the status quo and promoting greater inclusion within the iSchool and beyond.
The SAA-UT chapter would like to thank our partners–The Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI), the iSchool, the Women and Gender Studies Department–and all of our individual donors for their support to SAA-UT and the planning committee. We would also like to thank Dr. Ciaran Trace for generously hosting Dr. Caswell and our student chapter at the annual SAA-UT potluck at her home. And of course, we give a huge thank you to Dr. Caswell for taking the time to come and visit us. We welcome any feedback from our community about this event and ideas for similarly-themed events in the future.
Society of American Archivists – University of Texas Student Chapter (SAA-UT)
SAA-UT is a student organization of the School of Information (iSchool) at the University of Texas at Austin. Throughout the academic year, SAA-UT invites guest speakers, arranges archival education events, and organizes trips to area repositories as a way of expanding UT’s archival-education opportunities.
Our mission, as outlined by the national organization, is to introduce and integrate new archivists into the profession, provide additional focus for students to discuss archival issues, and promote archival interests within the University, academic departments, and the public at large.