Topography, Topology, Typography: The Library as Place, Text and Tool in Caribbean Digital Research Classrooms

Below is the text of a talk I delivered at the ACURIL Conference in June, 2017. Although I was not able to attend the event in Puerto Rico, I was able to create a screencast and participate live. I’ve included the here as well. 

When I left the United States and an Assistant Professor position to move to Dominica and re-start my life as an independent scholar, I couldn’t yet imagine what form my scholarly work would take but I knew from the summer research experience the year before that the library and archive space would be central to whatever projects or employment opportunities that I would pursue. My research interests focused on reading practices, reception, and the communities created by and through various forms of literary encounters in the Caribbean. I sought out the archives in Dominica as a way to explore how literary and debating societies played a critical role in middle-class social development and their upward mobility. It was through that experience that I began to understand the benefits and the needs of the libraries in the smaller islands of the Eastern Caribbean. I had spent all of my adult life up to that point within college campus environments and always had access to academic libraries. I didn’t understand the idea of access until such time as I completely moved out of the United States and permanently out of a position of “affiliation.”

I have spoken elsewhere, including on dLOC’s webinar series “Caribbean Scholarship in the Digital Age,” about the pleasures and pressures of my journey to founding Create Caribbean Research Institute as an active place of digital humanities work with a focus on preservation of heritage. Central to that journey was the sense that I had the opportunity and right timing to create my own affiliation. Create Caribbean was established on the Dominica State College campus to elevate the place of research in the college’s agenda, to engage students in service learning and innovative experiences with technology, and to pave the way for different research possibilities at the institution.

At Dominica State College, primarily a two-year college with a growing number of four-year programs, disciplinary research methods are treated as advanced skills meant to supplement students’ introduction to research skills acquired in basic composition courses. Such research courses are not offered for all majors but do exist for most humanities and social science programs. As a result, terms like digital humanities would not make their way to academic or popular discourse in Dominica at all. In that context, designing and delivering a digital humanities course (the first course of its kind to be offered in the Eastern Caribbean) revealed a complex web of challenges that I had to navigate to successfully have students re-think their relationship to Dominican and Caribbean history.

The context of the college within the national education context is also significant. Beyond the Associate degree, most students choose to migrate to complete higher education at the Bachelors level and for advanced and professional degrees. This is a practice carried over from the colonial era when even high school education was competitive and extremely selective. As a result, the country has faced significant brain drain over the past forty years and experts suggest that there are Dominicans living in the wider diaspora – especially North America and Europe – of more than twice the current population of the island.

Dominica State College has itself transformed from the colonial and postcolonial models and is now 14 years old in its current structure modeled on North American colleges. Before the community college offered the University of Cambridge Advanced Level examinations, another incredibly selective enterprise. It is against this backdrop and with knowledge of its challenges that I established Create Caribbean Research Institute. Originally the intent was for me have a center where I could create relationships between libraries and archives, local communities and cultural and literary archivists. But with a clearer understanding of the needs of the nation in regard to cultural development and the potential of DSC to play an active role in that development, the College then felt like the right place to engage an accessible audience and to create longevity for the work of Caribbean studies in Dominica.

But the success of Create Caribbean and its partnership with Dominica State College relied on one important task: demystifying the concept of digital humanities. Trying to convince policy makers, educators and artists that digital humanities was indeed a significant field of study that could shape the direction of Caribbean education and cultural practice was difficult because the term itself was too academic and the methodologies were not yet part of academic or popular discourse. I found myself selling the technology and research elements of the work separately, as if their connections were somehow too esoteric for my audience. Well, the use of technology for education gained traction with policy makers interested in improving student engagement with information and communications technologies and the research element won me points with the College and government agencies looking for a think tank. These were motivations for me to continue the groundwork but certainly were distractions from the mission of Create Caribbean, which was to focus on culture, history and heritage. I would eventually have to accommodate a healthy combination of all these elements to move the institute forward and engagement with libraries and librarians certainly made that possible.

I ask my students to think critically about why and how they use or have used any library in the past few years of their academic lives. Although the average age of freshman students is a year or two younger in Dominica than in North American colleges, the students have some academic experience prior to entering college with reports and research papers of some kind. Their use of the library, however, is hardly any less sophisticated than their American counterparts. They know where the library is and that they can use that space to study.

But their interactions with librarians, or with circulation material is almost negligible outside of textbook checkout for specific course work. Even when assignments are tailored within a very limited scope of Dominican or Caribbean topics, the ultimate relationship to research for most students remains the Google web interface. Therefore, it was important to me to design a course that placed history and heritage at the center of their learning while creating connections with the national libraries and archives.

The history of libraries in the Caribbean is important context to understand the unique relationship of the Dominican public to their libraries, and what sets the Dominican students apart from their North American counterparts. Many of the region’s libraries were gifts of the colonial era. For instance, Andrew Carnegie donated the library to Dominica in 1907. The building has changed very little from its original construction as in the picture you just saw. Even Jamaica Kincaid describes the artifact and artifice that characterize libraries of the region, as they engender nostalgia and reverence for the material objects of knowledge rather than the production and dissemination of knowledge itself. Further, the scarcity of academic libraries in the region and the inadequacy of research resources in college libraries in the contemporary Caribbean reveal the relegation of knowledge production (as opposed to acquisition) in nation building of small island states.

With this history in mind, I proposed and designed the Digital humanities course for the college general education curriculum after working for about a year with a small student research team at Create Caribbean on digital research projects that would make visible for the college and wider community the expected outcomes of such a course.

With a small group of student interns at Create Caribbean, I initiated a number of digital research projects that would be made public and would put the research institute on the national map. We did encounter some challenges including the bureaucracy of the library and information service, especially at the time of a change in management and the resistance among Archive and Special Collections staff to have students interact with archival material.

I worked hard to build relationships with the library staff and management and with the projects we designed squarely focused on Dominica, we were able to capitalize on primary source material at the National Archives. The result was a number of successful projects including a partnership with the Division of Culture for a Dominica History Web Resource series for the country’s annual History Week taking place during Independence.

I capitalized on that success and designed and proposed the digital humanities course for the College’s General Education curriculum. It was the first of its kind to be offered in the English-speaking Caribbean and although, we met with some resistance it has been largely successful. This past semester was my 5th time teaching the course, which I began in September 2014. The capstone digital research project has taken many forms including individual projects, small group projects and a single collaborative project for the entire group. This last model worked well with the first full cohort of Create Caribbean interns to take the course as a requirement for the Institute internship program.

So what happens in the digital humanities classroom in Dominica that brings together the formal conventions of academic research, the use of libraries and the formation of knowledge about the region by late adolescents? It begins really with the personal engagement with place. One of the methods that has been really effective in teaching the course is the reminder to students that they indeed are Dominican and that local knowledge about their homeland is vital to their academic and professional success.

It also begins with an acknowledgement as a classroom of learners that it is indeed easier, if not just less laborious, to find information about foreign lands than it is to find about their home. Much of this realization in grounded in conversations in the first unit of the course when we discuss the advancements made in technology and the digital age, while acknowledging the ways in which parts of the world are excluded or disproportionately impacted by these technological advances. For instance, they must face the reality that there is still a significant digital divide in the country with about 40% of the population remaining without internet broadband access, even when mobile penetration surpasses 100%. Moreover, the students take special issue with the difficulty they face in accessing academic material – in print, at low cost and with little restrictions. The debate over the nobility of piracy, including what they view as “Robin Hood” access to information becomes critical to the theoretical discussions about open source and open access that form the earlier units of the digital humanities course.

In this digital humanities course and in other practice-based research exercises with Dominica State College students, positioning libraries, archives and special collections as a symbiotic triad of place, resource and primary text presents an opportunity to remind students of their Dominican-ness and their Caribbean-ness amidst technological persuasions that make them feel more connected to neoliberal capitalist material of popular culture via social media. Creating an analogy between the geography of Dominica and the experience of navigating archival research allowed students to physically and psychically occupy physical and historical spaces from which they had felt disconnected.

The students’ explorations of libraries, in person and online, or their visits to archives, museums and special collections bring to life the intersection of academic and archival research, Caribbean social and cultural practices and the influence of slavery and colonialism on literacy, teaching and learning, and knowledge production in the Caribbean. Even when their encounter with their local knowledges happen through digital platforms like DLOC, they are uniquely aware of the significance of that historical preservation, and even more importantly, the significance of the visibility of Dominica and Dominicans in the vast Internet space. Through Create Caribbean’s collaboration with other literary and cultural units of national importance, there is a growing relationship between the Research Institute and the Library Service.

Students then share their experiences with navigating the archives and building relationships with the historical record within and outside of that space through their weekly blog entries. For this exercise, we use the Tumblr platform, whose revolving door format allows the students to comment and share in a way that extends the reach of their writing beyond the classroom group and creates additional visibility for Dominica and its rich history and heritage.

The work of building a digital research project in this course indeed mirrors the concepts and terminologies of the library system and further works to connect the students to the process of making history, not just encountering historical artifacts. Their own attempts to curate, digitize and create exhibits of their primary sources on the Omeka software platform requires the discipline, care and attention to audience they see in the work ethic of the librarians they encounter as they conduct their research. Students have to be metacognitive about organizational choices, audience and possible setbacks in the process of preserving their nation’s history.

Through the analysis of pedagogy applied in the Dominica State College Digital Humanities Research course and the project management practices of Create Caribbean Research Institute, I have offered in this presentation a model and methodology for the use of digital spaces and tools to perform critical inquiries of Caribbean history and society. The outcomes of this model include the increased value of local and indigenous knowledge to scholars and students in the region, an increase among students in civic engagement of local and regional politics and policies, and the intellectual and sociological transformation of the Caribbean humanities classroom. Moreover, I hope that my experiences in building a platform for the digital humanities will resonate with other scholar-teachers and result in both popularity and diversity of digital humanities pedagogy and praxis in the region, with the focus in building up rather than setting aside the fortresses of knowledge that are the region’s libraries and archives.

Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s The Orchid House: returning home to a new generation

I was asked by Polly Pattullo of Papillote Press to contribute the introduction to Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s 1953 novel The Orchid House. For me, this was a special request because it came from someone who I admired personally and professionally, and who had also done so much work in recovering the image of Allfrey here in Dominica. I discovered Allfrey’s writing during my college and graduate school work, although her name had been mentioned while I was growing up. Including The Orchid House in my doctoral dissertation on reading practices introduced me to new ways of reading Caribbean literature and, more importantly, new lens through which I could view the complex history of my island home.

Phyllis-Shand-Allfrey
Phyllis Shand Allfrey

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was a Dominican-born white West Indian literary writer, journalist and politician. Despite living for most of her life in Dominica, writing poetry and fiction featuring the island and its people, and actively transforming the political environment on the island, Allfrey had been made invisible in the creative community of the West Indian literary boom, primarily because of her race rather than her writing. This was largely a result of the time in which she is writing, when Afro-caribbean aesthetics, black nationalism and decolonization movements are beginning to take shape in the region. However, returning to her work with a broader and more contemporary world view is critical. Papillote Press, through its publication of this new edition of her only published novel, has given us this opportunity and I am thrilled to have such a special role in making that happen. I wrote a few words on that experience for a Dominican audience, which was published in The Chronicle (April 22) that I share below…

Most people of my generation must have come to know the name Phyllis Shand Allfrey when, during our school years, we were fascinated by the buzz of film crews and British accents during the shooting of The Orchid House mini-series for BBC television in 1990. The name Phyllis Shand Allfrey was not a popular name during my time in school, despite the contributions of this politician, journalist and literary writer to Dominica’s advancement in both politics and the arts.

Despite her integral role in forming the Dominica Labour Party and the West Indies Federation and her prolific bibliography, Mrs. Allfrey remained a mere speck of dust in our history lessons. As much as the sparkle of the film gave a glimpse into her life and showcased our beautiful scenery, the story of The Orchid House and the work of Mrs. Allfrey did not make an impact in Dominica.

However, in the last several years, a committed few have reintroduced Allfrey to Dominica. In 2012, for example, the Nature Island Literary Festival (NILF) screened a couple of the episodes during its annual weekend activities and the audience was indeed excited by the recognition of scenes, extras and featured actors from right here in Dominica. One of the actors was Dr. Lennox Honychurch, Allfrey’s friend and the curator of her political and literary works, who was also a member of a discussion panel on her work during that year’s festival’s proceeding.

Another member of the panel was Polly Pattullo, publisher of Papillote Press, who had worked to package Allfrey’s writing for a local and international audience – the collection of short stories, It Falls into Place and the collection of poetry Love for an Island. The work of Papillote Press and Ms. Pattullo in increasing Allfrey’s visibility is immeasurable and the impact has been invaluable. Allfrey’s biographer Lisa Paravisini-Gebert worked closely with both Honychurch and Pattullo and wrote the introduction to an American edition of the novel as well (printed 20 years ago).

allfrey panel
Photo Credit: Gwen Whitford

My first reading of The Orchid House was that American edition, which would eventually led me to be one of the panelists on Allfrey at that 2012 NILF. It was only during my doctoral study, several years after leaving Dominica that I got to explore this classic novel and get to know this woman who had so much influence on my country in ways no one had ever taught me.

The novel, The Orchid House, is an autobiographical account of Allfrey’s experience of growing up, leaving and returning to Dominica. The novel captures the lives of a family with three sisters, and much of the actions of the novel are presumed to take place between the two “great wars.”

First published in 1953, the work is a real portrait of a shrinking class of white and wealthy Dominicans who faced the changing social conditions of the Caribbean post-slavery with both anxiety and excitement. And yet, in 1953, Allfrey would not yet have had the kind of career that would leave its mark on Dominican politics for decades to come, but charted out her trajectory in politics and journalism in the almost prophetic plot of the sisters’ adult lives in Dominica.

The nuances of those experiences at such an important period of social and political change for Dominica cannot be captured in textbooks or Powerpoint slides. Strong storytelling, like in this novel, give depth to the thoughts and feelings of those experiencing these changes. With this novel, Allfrey captures life for whites, creoles and black people as their worlds collide and they must change their thinking from being separate classes to being one nation.

The timing couldn’t be better to bring this novel to a local audience, especially a school-age readership. With so much technology at our fingertips, the world closer seems to us and it is easy to forget to keep our own histories and perspectives as alive as the foreign stories that the Internet offers.toh cover

Moreover, it is important for our students to understand the complexity of Dominican life – the various personalities and backgrounds of our people – in order to cultivate their tolerance and humanity. It is important for them to see the impact of our struggles for independence and modernization through narratives rather than just memorized dates, so that they can value the freedoms we now enjoy. It is important for them to learn Allfrey’s name and appreciate the paths she paved for women, for workers and for writers to exercise freedom of expression.

I’m elated to be part of this new edition and hope that parents, teachers and students will join in revisiting our rich history through this wonderful adventure story set right here in our homeland.