Rhetoric, Digital Humanities & the Archive

Pamela VanHaitsma's picture

The role of the digital humanities in the future of the archive is in play across the humanities. Approaching this matter as a rhetorician, my primary interests are in two related questions. How, as rhetorical critics, may we uncover the rhetorical dimensions of the archive and articulate this rhetoricity in conversation with our colleagues across the humanities? And, as critics who also teach rhetoric, how may we involve students in forms of archival participation and production? This post responds by offering what I see as key rhetorical practices for the future of the archive, while also routing readers to other scholarship in rhetoric and the digital humanities that accounts for these practices further.

Considering the Rhetoric of Digital Archives

Implicit in the practices discussed here is an understanding of digital archives as rhetorical formations. Rhetorical critics have advanced this understanding with respect to both brick-and-mortar and digital archives (Biesecker; Finnegan; Haskins; Morris; Stuckey). As Charles Morris explains in introducing the Rhetoric & Public Affairs forum on archives, the archive is “a rhetorical construction” (113); it “significantly influences what we are able to study, to say, and to teach about rhetorical history, and what we do, as rhetors, with its holdings in our scholarship, in our classrooms, and in the streets” (115).

While all archives are rhetorical constructions in these ways, the rhetorical features of digital archives are distinctive. They are marked, as Ekaterina Haskins writes, by a “promise of representational diversity, collective authorship, and interactivity” (405). Digital archives do not always deliver on such promises, of course, and the promises themselves are not without their own problems. Of particular note to teachers of rhetoric, though, are the pedagogical possibilities afforded by the accessibility of digital archives (Purdy; see also Graban, Ramsey-Tobienne, and Myers). Most obviously, students may use digital archives to conduct primary research on diverse forms of rhetoric. But as Jessica Enoch and I argue, it is important that we train students as both researchers and critics, helping them to uncover “the rhetorical properties many sites exhibit: archival selection, exigence, narrative, collaboration, and constitution” (219).

Constructing and Curating Digital Archives as Rhetorical Production

With digital archives understood as rhetorical constructions, it follows that our pedagogies may invite students to participate in the production of archives as a rhetorical practice. This affordance is especially pertinent to digital spaces where, as James P. Purdy explains, “people can become both users and producers of archives” (34). Depending on the pedagogical goals of a course, students of rhetoric may collaborate to create relatively small-scale archives viewable only to members of the class; use platforms such as Omekaand Archive-It to invent more public archives; remix archival materials to compose anew; or contribute to existing archives 2.0 projects that invite crowdsourcing through uploading artifacts, creating metadata, and transcribing materials (Bessette; Enoch and VanHaitsma; Ramsey-Tobienne; Shipka, Hidalgo, Anderson, and Campbell; Theimer; VanHaitsma).

Closely related to the construction of digital archives, another crucial rhetorical practice is the curation of digital archives. As Krista Kennedy writes, curation “is a rhetorical, dynamic skill set”(7) and, particularly in networked spaces, curatorial practices of invention and arrangement rely on “distributed collaboration” (178). In another post with Cassandra Book, Meagan Clark, Christopher Giofreda, Kimberly Goode, and Meredith Privott, I share an example of how such practices may be utilized to curate digital archives in a graduate seminar on women’s and feminist rhetorics. Cory Geraths and Michele Kennerly describe another pedagogical example of digital curation from undergraduate public speaking courses. Whether in undergraduate courses, graduate seminars, or scholarly research, the curation of digital archives is a complex rhetorical process of collecting existing archives while simultaneously composing new ones and blurring the line between archivists and audiences.

Creating Digital Archivists through Rhetorical Education

By way of conclusion, I draw a final practice from Jenny Rice and Jeff Rice’s community-based pedagogical work with pop-up archives, which are temporally oriented less to the “permanence and longevity” of preservation and more to an ephemeral present of user interactions (253). Reading their discussion of how students acted as pop-up archivists, I am reminded that, when considering the rhetoric of digital archives as well as constructing and curating them with students, we are in effect creating digital archivists. “By working in the temporary network spaces that digital media allow for,” Rice and Rice explain, “students are enacting the work of archiving. What is created is not digital archives per se but digital archivists” (251, emphasis in original). In a similar vein, might the role of rhetoricians and digital humanists “in the future of the archive” be less about the future of the archive per se, and more about the creation of future archivists?