I’ve attached the first few sections of my NEH Level I grant proposal for you to read at your leisure. I’m busy at work writing and editing the “Narrative” and “Budget” sections, but will post these as soon as I have decent drafts. Thanks in advance for any feedback! The more and more I work on this grant proposal, the more and more I see the project becoming a reality. Very exciting!
“The Will to Adorn” is both the name of an app and of an ongoing ethnographic study run by the Smithsonian Institution (SI). Though planning began before 2013, the app debuted at the SI annual Folklife Festival in the summer of 2013. This post will provide a summary of the project’s objectives and purpose, highlights of its user-friendly interface, and some connections to this week’s readings on the spatial turn and AR platforms for cultural institutions
About the project
“The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity” is a project that “explores the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress, and adornment.” Aside from background research of various cultural traditions and styles and crafts that pertain to clothing, jewelry, and even tattoo art, much of the information collected are oral testimonies from individuals describing what they are wearing at that time, why they chose to wear it, what certain articles of clothing mean to them, and how it fits in with their communities, immediate or diasporic. The project also seeks to fill significant gaps in the SI collections where stylistic examples, collected from “African American ‘artisans of style,'” should be. The term ‘artisans of style’ refer to shoemakers, hatters, and other craftspeople who make clothing representative of African heritage.
While the project intends to fill gaps in our understanding of how diverse African American communities express identity and a sense of community through dress, it also carries with it deeper meaning. Its namesake is an observation made by Zora Neale Hurston, who was herself an anthropologist. According to the project website, Hurston once observed that ‘the will to adorn’ ranks among the most important manners in which African American communities express identity, ideas, and cultural knowledge. Such information transmitted through dress has been filtered through centuries-worth of experience, influenced in part by the legacy of slavery and of social, political, and cultural movements to claim agency and control in every aspect of daily life. In the spirit of Hurston’s observation, this project’s creators and supporters view every day dress as one such act in claiming identity. The project is therefore more than a tool; it is a platform on which individuals and communities can preserve the profundity that is woven, beaded, sewn, and threaded in one’s choice of dress.
The anthropological lens of “The Will to Adorn” bifurcates people’s dress into a reflection of contemporary culture and a link to the history of crafts and the craft of history, a craft that every person engages with whenever they reach into their wardrobe.
How to use “The Will to Adorn”
While the website contains significant detail about the project and purpose of the app, the app is relatively simple and, for lack of a better phrase, gets the job done. It is also free to download, which makes it accessible to anyone with access to a smartphone.
The welcome page provides two options. The first is to make and upload an up-to three minute recording about what you the user is wearing. Selecting this option will bring you to a set of four required questions: 1) What is your age range?; 2) What gender are you? (The options listed are male, female, trans, and other.); 3) What part of the U.S. are you from?. The fourth question asks you to select a prompt regarding your outfit that you would like to answer. This is a simple yet creative way for the SI staff to organize the data collected for research and user purposes (to be discussed in the section below on the “listen” option). The prompt options are as follows:
What is your inspiration for how you are dressed?
What do you consider to be the most important part of looking good?
Describe what you are wearing today.
What does what you are wearing say about who you are?
What would you never want to wear? Why?
Once finished, the app will provide an opportunity for you to make your recording, to listen to your recording, to re-record yourself speaking if you would like to change your recording, and to upload your recording.
Selecting the “Listen” option brings you to a page on which recordings collected since 2013 begin to play. Pressing “more” brings you to a series of criteria that allow you to limit the types of recordings that you would like to hear. For example, you can listen to recordings by individuals of ages between 20 and 29, by males and trans individuals, individuals from the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, and by individuals who chose to respond to the “What does what you are wearing say about who you are?” prompt. Selecting “apply” will make a playlist of recordings by individuals to whom those criteria apply. Note: no recordings fit all of the above criteria in my example, so if you fit those criteria, make a recording! The SI wants to hear what you have to say about the choices you make about what to wear and why you wear it.
Together, these features make it more likely that users and contributors will return more than once, perhaps even regularly if they are so inclined.
But therein lies a problem. Unless the user is particularly fond of the project or interested in its content, there is little chance that he, she, or they will continue to use the app or add further descriptions of their chosen outfit to those which have been collected since 2013. Nevertheless, the app does the job it was created to do.
“The Will to Adorn” and the Spatial Turn
“The Will to Adorn” sits at an odd but noteworthy intersection of sweeping trends in historical study such as the spatial turn and the digitization of museum collections. The app is unlike others by cultural institutions which are themselves intended to orient the user in spaces in ways they may never would have considered. As John Russick observes, most cultural museums using AR to share collections to wider audiences have relied on overlaying images of objects on maps relevant to those objects. “The Will to Adorn” has no maps. The closest it gets to orienting the user within a set space is by asking where he, she, or they is from, or by allowing listeners to hear recordings provided by contributors from specific regions in the U.S. The app combines the crowdsourcing method of collecting with methods in oral history that allow the user to place themselves within those broad geographies, which are spatial, as well as within space demarcated by a certain diasporic community, which is less concretely spatial yet spatial nonetheless. For researchers, the app’s recording feature may, however, allow for a greater understanding of African American cultural expression, through style, connects to specific localities.
Lastly, some food for thought: Given its simplicity, how might the app and project be further developed to translate people’s responses to prompts provided onto a map or other methods of displaying “space”? Or, is the app as functional as it needs to be?
In his post, Jules makes a compelling argument for why social media posts that are reactions to, reflections on, and memories of moments and periods of activism in modern American history is needed now more than ever. For one, gathering social media posts around activism forces historians, archivists, and activist historians and activist archivists to tackle important questions around privacy. Not to mention the fact that many of those who now create what will become the historical data, the primary sources for the future, are still alive and will be for decades to come. It also gives historians a chance to more thoroughly address questions about the responsible use and interpretation of sources. We need not look any further than the case of the Boston tapes to understand the technically true influence of recorded history on present issues that unravel social cohesion and set back efforts for peace. Will we take the approach of some and prevent much of the massive and presently uncontrollable rate of information from entering the historical record? Will we subscribe to the method defined by the historian Rachel Hope Cleves as “a ravenous appetite for the factual”? Second, social media makes it possible to document the many aspects of activism and protest that would otherwise have gone unnoticed in more formal or official records kept by the state. This is a chance to document as many perspectives as possible.
Schmidt and Ardam see great use in making the whole body of information produced and maintained by a person in tact. In part, they ask, is there such thing as excess in the historical record? Can incorporating born-digital information really make the work of the historian more complicated, but potentially more fruitful. “Opening that life to a potentially broad audience, though, raises more questions than it answers, and complicates rather than simplifies our understanding of her as a thinker.” As Sontag herself posited at the end of “Against Interpretation,” Schmidt and Ardam argue that the preservers of born-digital material, implicitly as that material is produced and maintained by a single historical figure, should see the acquisition of the profoundly impactful and deafeningly mundane in born-digital collections as an opportunity to learn more about outer and digital lives of people rather than to be more selective and feel burdened by their big data.
Finally, Professor Owens’s “Digital Sources & Digital Archives” observes, as did his thesis advisor, that sources do not speak for themselves. He provides concrete ways of thinking about how to define and describe digital sources, the reasons behind digitization or not, the true depth of information as metadata contained in born digital sources, and how to conceptualize digital archives, web archives, and digital collections. In essence, the introduction of born-digital and digitized sources into the historical record forces historians to revisit fundamental questions about the nature of sources and assemblages of them, methods of preserving and making sources available, as well as of interpreting those sources. (The very decisions made about the types of digitization of, for example, physical sources such as early modern versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet make potentially profound differences in terms of formulating and answering research questions.) (Owens, 4). “As information ecologies continually shift it is going to be critical for historians to show their work in making sense of the stratigraphy of digital sources.” Digital sources in all their forms, then, form the second great pillar of professional and public history. And it is dependent on historians to decipher its potential for and influence on the field.
To some, so many questions seem too daunting and even uninteresting or unimportant. But Jules, Schmidt and Ardam, and Owens all take the opposite approach; they see incalculable possibility for the growth and diversification of the humanities.
In a recent Washington Post Opinion piece, Max Boot argues that historians should accept rightful blame for the sorry state of America’s general ignorance of its own history. Historiographic shifts to studying social and cultural history and history through the lens of gender have “[led] to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect… Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals.” Boot’s unoriginal argument took heavy criticism from historians via Twitter. In other words, Boot lobbed a familiar rock at the academy, and historians lobbed a familiar rock back at him.
I argue that Boot and other critics of the academy have mis-identified the root of the problem. Boot posits that historians’ changing interests have rendered students, and therefore the American populace en masse, ignorant of their past and thus incapable of learning from mistakes like electing a demagogue to be president.
Some people simply have a genuine disinterest in reading or watching or hearing interpretations of history, but many more will take an interest in subjects is they are discussed using creative, intellectually, and financial viable formats. Historians must give them a way of doing so. I’m not so dense as to think that universities and private colleges have the resources to reproduce a Hamilton-type cultural wave. But institutional subscriptions to JSTOR or ProQuest simply aren’t enough to make waves in public intellectual culture.
Unlike Boot and some of his critics, my project doesn’t pick fights. Instead, it tackles the immediate problem: an uninspired public and an academy that can inspire others to learn and ask questions.
I propose to develop a model for an open-source audio-visual journal that replicates existing journal articles through visual representation and full-length audio recordings. In an ideal world, my project would consist of dozens of videos and recordings dedicated to distilling single articles down to stimulating yet captivating segments. Seeing as how the semester is limited in time and resources, I propose to produce one such video and audio recording of a single article to demonstrate the utility of this resource.
Existing Project Models
There are a few existing projects that serve as models for my proposed project. The first is the Journal of Visual Experiments (JoVE). JoVE is an online, peer reviewed scientific journal that shares videos of thousands of different scientific experiments with institutional and individual subscribers. The video articles run the gambit of subjects, from Breath Collection from Children for Disease Biomarker Discovery to Assessing the Particulate Matter Removal Abilities of Tree Leaves. The videos follow students, researchers, and top scientists as they conduct the experiments so that they may be reproduced. Yet unlike JoVE, my proposed platform will not exist behind a paywall; it will be open-access.
A second similar project is historian and host Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World podcast. Published weekly for free download, Dr. Covart conducts interviews with leading historians on subjects related to their recent publications. During a recent interview with Professor Ryan Quintana, they discussed what historians refer to as the “state” within the context of colonial South Carolina. A subject as complex as the “state” is not well understood beyond academic and policy circles. An audio-visual journal modeled after Dr. Covart’s hour-long podcast episodes aim would introduce nearly any audience to the complexities of any number of fascinating historical subjects while reproducing the same stimulating yet welcoming atmosphere of Ben Franklin’s World. My proposed audio-visual journal will not address monographs or edited volumes, but rather will focus on journal articles, which receive far less attention from podcasts generally.
Outreach and Benefits
First, students with visual impairments often have to rely on readers or text-reading software to consume text-based readings including articles. My proposed audio-visual journal provides students the option to listen to articles, read by historians and voice-over professionals on their own time as they would an audiobook or podcast. Those with hearing impairments may also find use in videos with subtitles generated not imbedded software but rather by video editors who include accurate transcriptions of what otherwise may be heard.
Second, my proposed audio-visual journal adopts models of video content production to reproduce articles in visual form. For example, an article that relies on and even quotes from archival material may be reproduced visually. The video would proceed through an abridged version of the article with photos of the same primary sources used as evidence in the original text. Editing software will allow the narrator to guide the user to specific lines in text and places in photographs and objects that are noted in the article. Visitors to historic sites and cultural institutions want to see the places and objects and documents that comprise the historical record. Seeing what is otherwise only spoken of demystifies the process of producing history and inspires pride and a commitment to learning and sharing knowledge with others of the public.
As for publicity, I propose to share (with necessary permissions) the videos and audio files with professors and history teachers in high schools who currently use academic articles in their classrooms. Until sufficient resources are acquired for wider distribution, my proposed audio-visual journal will spread through word-of-mouth.
Evaluation and Final Considerations
A successful project will attract a slowly but gradually enlarging base of non-academic users as more articles are distilled as videos and recorded as audio files. That being said, the videos produced using this platform are not intended as permanent substitutes for textual articles. They are meant as teach tools and take on a medium that is often more engaging than readings.
Intervening in the historiography. Its what historians do daily. Historians who study any subject produce scholarship using new approaches with familiar subjects and familiar approaches with new subjects and using any combination of the two. Historians have plenty of commentary on the work of their peers. But what happens when a major media outlet sets out to right wrongs and revise its historical narrative? For my print project, I propose to conduct a comparative analysis of comments left on obituaries written as part of The New York Times‘s ‘Overlooked’ series and conversations on the “Talk” pages of corresponding Wikipedia entries.
The New York Times inaugurated ‘Overlooked’ in March 2018 with the aim of giving obituaries to noteworthy individuals who never received such a distinction when they passed away. It has since written obituaries for the likes of Isabelle Kelly, Gladys Bentley, Major Taylor, Ida B. Wells, and Marsha P. Johnson. Fittingly, the project began on International Women’s Day; what better way to bring attention to mistakes wrought by the NYT in the past than to rectify those errors on a day intended to celebrate women and on which to advocate for women’s rights. As such, the first obituaries written were of women whose accomplishments and contributions to the lives of millions, present and future, were once deemed unworthy of note by the NYT on the event of their passing. Yet ‘Overlooked’ is ongoing and inclusive; there are many people of all walks of life that have yet to receive the recognition that was too long denied to them because of the color of their skin, their gender or gender identity or intersectionality, their career, their activism, their “radicalism,” and their bravery.
About the Project
Rather than reflect on press reaction to and commentary on ‘Overlooked,’ my print project will compare and contrast how one ‘crowd’ engages with ‘Overlooked’ obituaries and how a second ‘crowd’ engages with corresponding Wikipedia pages. This paper will also advance reasons that explain these similarities and differences, taking into account medium, format, and the inferred purpose of that medium, as well as variables such as accessibility (i.e. the NYT paywall), intended audience, and actual audience. The main source of research will consist of comments left by members of the general public on each of the obituary pages and Wikipedia entries as of a particular date. Although ‘Overlooked’ is ongoing, it has been a part of the digital public record for nearly one year. Thus, comments will be plentiful. Wikipedia may provide even more material than the NYT comment section with which to work.
Why is this project worthwhile?
This comparative analysis has several benefits. First, defining both the comments section on biographical obituaries and the “Talk” pages of corresponding Wikipedia pages as spaces intended for the ‘crowd’ to air their thoughts is one way to begin defining commentary in such spaces as itself a genre. Second, comparative analyses add to our understanding of how the several ‘crowds’ come to circumscribe their role as consumers of historical information shared via certain mediums. Third, it provides an opportunity to measure how effective corrections to the historical record can be depending on the medium in which they are made.