Feminist Invitations to Digital Historiography


By Jessica Enoch, Jean Bessette, and Pamela VanHaitsma

As historians of rhetoric and composition, we highlight here three “small but potent gestures” of feminist invitation. In making these gestures, we do not position ourselves as experts who advance a particular approach to digital historiography. Rather, we take a feminist stance that enables us to respond to invitations like Cindy Selfe’s—to “pay attention” to digital technologies (Technology)—and in turn invite others to join us in doing so (Foss and Griffin). We believe this invitational stance is especially important for historians of rhetoric and composition since so many scholars in our subfield believe digital concerns don’t apply to their studies of periods during in which there was no typewriter, let alone the Internet. Furthermore, especially as feminists, we find it significant that our invitational gestures are collaborative, as we work together to explore how digital innovations might inflect and invigorate our digital historiography and pedagogy. Through our three feminist gestures of invitation, then, we have worked together to participate in scholarly conversations regarding digital humanities, and we invite other scholars and students to do the same.

Gesture #1:

In Jean and Jess’s collaboratively authored essay “Meaningful Engagements: Feminist Historiography and the Digital Humanities” (College Composition and Communication, 2013), we invite feminist rhetorical scholars to join conversations about digital technologies and historiography. Our essay takes seriously the feminist principles of critical imagination, social circulation, and strategic contemplation so eloquently articulated by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch in Feminist Rhetorical Practices. We use those principles to consider the “meaningful engagements” feminist scholars might make with digital humanistic research methods and composing.

In hopes of making such conversations more inclusive, we are particularly eager to invite those scholars not socialized in digital technologies through prior training and experience. We endeavor to “account for the hesitations feminist rhetorical historiographers may have regarding digital tools by exploring the very real and relevant reasons why scholars have paused to take up such work” (636). To invite scholars with these hesitations to engage meaningfully with digital tools, we identify specific entry points they might take, such as particular digital archives, examples of multimodal scholarship, and women’s coding workshops.

But, as our essay makes clear, feminist rhetorical scholars have more to contribute to the digital humanities than our consumption and assessment of digital archives and tools. We encourage these scholars to reflect on what they already know, do, and value to work towards the goal of producing digital archives and multimodal projects. This too is an invitation for collaboration as we prompt feminist scholars to consider creating partnerships with software designers across disciplinary lines in order to explore possibilities for digital feminist historiographic production.

Gesture #2:

In a second collaborative essay in process, “Archival Literacy: Reading the Digital Archive in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Pamela and Jess make the gesture of inviting students to participate in conversations about digital historiography. Here, we explore ways for students to read digital archives, with special attention to the rhetoricity of these archives. Already scholars across English studies engage undergraduates in archival research, digital and otherwise, as a way of getting students involved in the real work of “sophisticated historiography” (Norcia 94; see also Diaz; J. Greer (“Undergraduates”; Enoch & Jack; Purdy). But as students draw on digital archives when composing arguments about the past, we consider it crucial they approach these digital archives with a more critical eye.

As teachers, we invite students to join us in asking critical questions while together reading any given digital archive: How does the archive itself make an argument by virtue of what is selected for inclusion and what is excluded? How does the archive’s “About” page figure it in response to specific exigencies? How are the primary artifacts in the archive framed through description, narration, and story? And, finally, how does the archive make still other arguments, tell other stories, through its social circulation via digital networks? In asking these questions with students, we invite them to do even more of the real work—the rhetorical work—of sophisticated digital historiography.

Gesture #3:

A third gesture is Jess’s collaboration with historian of rhetoric David Gold in the special issue of College English, “The Digital Humanities and Historiography in Rhetoric and Composition” (2013). In this editorial collaboration, Jess and David showcase the work of historians in our field who are engaging in exemplary digital scholarship: Ellen Cushman, Jim Ridolfo, Tarez Samra Graban, Shannon Carter and Kelly Dent. As yet another invitational gesture, Jess and David’s goal is to introduce readers of College English to the ways these scholars use digital tools and platforms to explore new possibilities for historiography in the field of rhetoric and composition.

Jess and David found these scholars’ work to be especially compelling because, while they are certainly taking up new digital strategies, they also keep central a key concern for historians in rhetoric and composition: through their projects, they continue to explore and analyze “the rhetorical significance of populations often silenced by dominant historical narratives” (108). More specifically, the five contributors have created digital projects that recuperate the language practices of contemporary Cherokee language learners (Cushman), that archive and deliver the texts of the Samaritan religious group (Ridolfo), that memorialize the literate practices of African American activists living in rural Texas in the 1960s (Carter and Dent), and that trace the writings of women compositionists in the Midwest (Graban). Just like the “small gestures” above, then, this special issue offers historians reading the issue a “way in” to conversations about digital historiography, a way to learn what digital historiographies look like and how such projects are accomplished.

In reflecting on our three small gestures, we hope we have emphasized the power of both collaboration and invitation. To accomplish our work, we obviously collaborate to author essays that invite historians of rhetoric and composition to “pay attention” to digital historiography. But we also want to underscore how collaboration has enabled us to take up these projects. The three of us do not consider ourselves to be expert digital scholars fully versed in this emerging historiographic enterprise. However, by working together through our collaborations we have gained new knowledge about digital historiography and have been able to enter into this conversation thoughtfully and productively. Thus, we hope our work signals to others who might not have digital expertise that collaboration is a viable and rewarding avenue through which to enter this conversation, and we hope our work engenders more collaborations that explore new possibilities in digital historiography.

Jessica Enoch is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, where she directs the first-year writing program and teaches courses in rhetorical history, feminist rhetoric, and composition pedagogy. She published Refiguring Rhetorical Education: Women Teaching African American, Native American, and Chicano/a Students in 2008 and Burke in the Archives: Using the Past to Transform the Present of Burkean Studies (co-edited with Dana Anderson) in 2013.

Jean Bessette is an assistant professor at the University of Vermont, where she teaches writing and feminist, queer, and digital rhetorics.  Her work has appeared in Rhetoric Society Quarterly and College Composition and Communication.

Pamela VanHaitsma is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Pittsburgh, where she has incorporated work with digital archives in undergraduate writing and gender studies courses. This fall she will begin as Assistant Professor in Rhetorical Studies at Old Dominion University. Her scholarship has appeared in Rhetoric Society Quarterly and Journal of Basic Writing.



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