From the Streets to the Archives, Part 3

Editor’s note: This is the third part of a three-part post featuring the fourth interview in a multi-part series with participants in the Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities Conference. The series features public intellectuals discussing digital literacy issues.

Jessica Marie Johnson is one of the country’s leading scholars on black code literacy. I’ve had the privilege of teaching with her at the Digital Humanities Summer Research Institute. At the conference my campus organized, she recently gave this thought-provoking and inspiring keynote address. (See Part 1 and Part 2 of DML Central’s introduction to Professor Johnson.)

Computing on mobile devices is central to Johnson’s vision of digital literacy. “K-12 students live in a world where their primary engagement with news, social issues, even books and TV, is on devices. And they are entering college classrooms with TVs so they aren’t watching network news in the towns and cities they live. So between kindergarten and senior year of high school, a good chunk of their work and play happens on mobile devices, social media, and digesting content (articles, comments, conversation threads, “likes”), and using search tools like Google that educators are still learning how to understand, much less teach.”

Although spotlighting innovative digital practices in the Black community is important, Johnson worried that digital innovation by people of color was often undercompensated and even uncompensated. According to Johnson, Black digital labor was also likely to be appropriated and exploited by non-Black audiences. “From vines popularized by Black youth to dance videos to GIFS that feature scenes from Black movies or reality shows, users of all races are trading in uncompensated cultural labor created out of everyday Black experiences. This has strong implications for how Black people are viewed in the world. Few people in the academy, technology industry, or in media want to confront the ways mainstream media and the entertainment industry make significant amounts of money from the free labor of Black youth engaged in their own culture of play and joy.”

In response to concerns from educators and parents about digital distraction in the classroom, Johnson recommended more critical thought. “Black Code Studies doesn’t argue for removing devices from young people or from anyone. Social media is also where some of the most robust and radical social movements of the 21st century have emerged. From #NoDAPL to #BlackLivesMatter to #SayHerName, social media has created a counterpublic.”

Johnson recommended reading reports like #BeyondtheHashtags and materials from projects like Documenting the Now to see how Black scholars like Meredith Evans, Deen Freelon, and Charlton D. McIlwain are challenging “mainstream narratives about Black people as criminals, Black children as dangerous. According to Johnson, these researchers also highlight “the violence done to so many communities like the numbers of Black women (trans and cis) killed every day.”

In addition to work being done by scholars in higher education, Johnson sees a lot of creative and committed pedagogy happening now in secondary education. “For many K-12 teachers, thinking about how social media can be a tool for engagement isn’t necessarily new, and many are already doing work with students that doesn’t construct a wall between how students engage in politics and social life of the classroom and how they engage in the same things online. If they aren’t, Black Code Studies is a way to start thinking about these things.”

Johnson also acknowledged that bringing digital literacy into the traditional classroom could be challenging on two fronts.

“First, K-12 classrooms are dynamic spaces and also can be hard spaces. It is a huge responsibility, these days, preparing young people for the world. And the world is a scary place, especially for underrepresented youth. But, if the work isn’t fun, no one is going to do it — not the teacher, not the student, not the parents at home. Making play a part of the pedagogy is necessary.”

“Second, even with digital literacy, there has to be some flesh and blood element to the work. Otherwise it may be hard to make it stick. If students need to create a twitter bot, for instance, as an assignment, then think about ways that bot can force them to come together in groups or outside of the classroom. If there is a museum that publishes its data, can the students figure out how to make a bot that is also a scavenger hunt in a museum? Things like that require time, sometimes funding, but often at the least some level of collaboration.”

As a member of the Digital Alchemists group with the Center for Solutions to Online Violence, Johnson also urged educators to explore resources to “Do Better” by directly addressing online racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia and understanding how power and privilege might mean that the same student (and teacher) who is a victim of online violence can also be a perpetrator. Based on her work with the CSOV, Johnson insisted that administrators have to be willing to make honest assessments about their own complicity in perpetuating online violence as well.

“K-12 administrators have the power to make online violence and harassment required topics of discussion in their schools. They should and they should share the Power and Control Wheel and the Respect Wheel with the teachers and with their students. They should also reach out to the Digital Alchemists (I believe we are all on the website) and hire us to advise, create curriculum and drill scenarios around what kind of harm is possible online and what kind of harm can be done. This is SO important right now. And, the reality is those Wheels are adapted from intimate violence organizers who have long seen that harm comes in many forms and respect is much harder than it seems. Having discussions about online violence is also about having discussions about racial hate, homophobia, intimate and domestic violence and it is past time for these to be standard in our classrooms, and past time for all of us to be educated about what to do when we encounter it.”

As a scholar of slavery, Johnson observed that digital archives could also be a great way to promote digital literacy in the K-12 environment. “I think runaway slave ads are a great way to think critically about the period of slavery and good for all levels. Freedom on the Move is an excellent project at Cornell University that is working on collecting tens of thousands of runaway ads and compiling them into a database for public use.”

“There’s also DocsTeach.org, which is hosted by the National Archives and is an online community of teachers who build lessons and curriculum around a range of topics. There are ready-made lessons available there that have been crowd-sourced by educators for how well they work. Teachers can also join and submit their own lessons, interact with each other, etc. It’s a social network.” Johnson recommended the example lesson on “Twelve Years a Slave” to get started.

“Teachers should also be encouraged to engage questions of intimate violence through novels, short stories, poetry. Obvious ones are ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler, ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison, but there is also a ‘Kindred’ graphic novel adaptation illustrated by John Jennings. Diverse readings for diverse and not-so diverse classrooms are key. If teachers don’t have Black authors on their reading list as a whole, but they pull them out for the slavery segment, what is this showing their students?”

Banner image credit: University of Maryland