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Case Study: e-Black Studies

AFRST 304. Professor Angel Nieves, Hamilton College

Please provide the course description as it appears in the catalog and the typical enrollment for the course.

This course seeks to introduce students to the theoretical and applied aspects of an emerging sub-discipline, "e-Black Studies," in the field of Black/Africana Studies. The term "e-Black Studies" describes the ongoing application of current digital information technology towards the production, dissemination, and collection of historical knowledge critical to the discipline of Black Studies and to the overall black experience. We will chart the future of scholarship, teaching, and community work through the use of eBlack Studies. We will explore digital culture as it critically interrogates, interprets, defines, and documents the experiences of people of African descent. Applications like Google, Facebook, MySpace, and Second Life will be examined. Students will be asked to build an e-product - either a blog, wiki, web page, or digital archive as part of the applied aspects of the course.

This seminar course explores cyberspace, the most powerful and frequently inhabited site within contemporary culture. Students will explore specific themes such as, identity, community, bodies, virtuality, and sexuality through the lens of critical race theory (CRT) and intersectional analysis.

What are the learning goals of the media assignment(s) in the course. If your course assignments contain both analysis and creative production components, describe the learning goals of each.

The overall learning goal of this course is to give students the critical and analytical tools with which to examine, discuss, and understand the ways in which the internet both informs and reflects culture.

  1. Understand and articulate the current and potential future implications of cyberspace on culture, as well as the way in which culture also impacts the advancement of internet technology.
  2. Use theories to analyze, describe, and further develop interpretive and evaluative arguments about the culture of cyberspace.
  3. Understand the many digital representations of racial difference
  4. Understand and critically evaluate many of the current scholarly topics and debates that occur within Cyberculture studies.
  5. Understand the role of the internet and the web in building and maintaining marginalized communities.
  6. Understand the challenges of providing greater access to digital media for disadvantaged groups.

What are the relationships of the media assignment(s) to the other aspects of the course?

Media assignments were a critical part of the course, as students were expected to begin developing a working definition of "e-Black Studies" for their own use. The ability to contribute new forms of knowledge through the use of digital tools was critical to their conceptualization of categories of difference.

Describe your assignment design/structure.

The various assignments were structured around the eventual creation of an archive of "difference." Specifically, the archive was for holdings related to marginalized groups in the US and how "difference" could be experienced through the use of videos, photographs, documents, etc. (artifacts) found on the internet. The artifacts were chosen by the students and asked to reflect on their use. Students were encouraged to look beyond race and consider the breadth of identity categories including class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. At the onset of the course, we expected students might only be able to develop the structure of the actual archive and a plan for archiving available materials on the internet. We did not expect the students to actually build an archive given the various technologies they were expected to learn and apply.

To what extent does your assignment design address issues of visual/aural literacy?

Critical to any understanding of "difference" on the internet requires students to have a very basic skill set in visual literacy. A member of ITS, trained in graphic design, came to our class and discussed the many varying ways in which we might "read" images. Examples from everyday found objects to print media were shown and analyzed for their overt (and even covert) messages/meaning.

To what extent does your assignment design address issues of information literacy?

Information literacy was also significant to this course, particularly as students attempted to understand the way in which information is standardized through categorization by libraries and archival institutions. The "Dublin Core Method" was introduced to students as one way of understanding information - as a tool for knowledge construction and, as used by some, to control the production of new knowledge by certain parts of our society. The "Dublin Core Method" provides a simple and standardized set of conventions for describing objects online in ways that make them easier to find, sort, and collect. We similarly looked at the Library of Congress cataloging system - through its use of "subject headings" for organizing items while providing uniform access and retrieval.

To what extent does your assignment design address issues of technology skills?

The assignment design depended heavily on the development of technical skills, or at the very least, a base-level understanding of what the outcomes might be to any one piece of software or tool. I was also aware that any technical skills needed would only be mastered over time - through the sequence of tools and digital resources being presented throughout the course of the semester.

What are the resources necessary for your assignment (content/materials, institutional support, equipment)?

Students in my course began by using the Learning Objects wiki in Blackboard to generate the text content, Wimba audio boards to create the audio content and Dreamweaver to create the website. Students also included content from activities using Second Life, Blog CFC, YouTube, Google Earth, Refworks, Chinswing (now called Voxopop), and Photoshop. Seven (7) desktop Macs and a scanner were also used throughout the course of the semester.

Describe how you evaluated the project outcomes? Did you evaluate process? Outcomes? Both?

Project outcomes were evaluated largely on the basis of the overall process. I was much more interested in the kind of learning process students experienced, as they gained technical skills necessary for the course in combination with the weekly theoretical readings and class discussion. I was reluctant to grade each student individually because the students - devoid of any real technical skills at the outset - experienced much the same learning process throughout the semester. Indeed, the learning process is unique in this kind of a course because so many of the skills students initially deploy do not necessarily produce the kind of outcomes one might expe. At the start of the course I anticipated that we might never actually build a site, but would instead develop the overall plan and design for a website that might be realized only after the course's second iteration.

Estimate the time invested in the project by you, your students, and academic support staff.

This is difficult to determine, given the ways in which the course was already structured with lab sessions as part of every class meeting. We had roughly sixty (60) hours of actual class time per student devoted to the project or 300 hours. The five (5) students spent about three (3) hours a week outside of class time on assignments, for roughly fifteen (15) hours a week for roughly fourteen (14) weeks (equaling roughly 210 hours). Staff spent roughly four (4) hours a week for fourteen (14) weeks, between class time, meeting with professor, and working on structuring assignments (equaling roughly 56 hours). In the last two weeks of the course, staff spent an additional twelve (12) hours working with the students. The professor spent sixty (60) hours of class time and an additional twenty (20) hours for additional meetings with staff support, etc. Finally, in the last two weeks of the course, the professor spent an additional sixteen (16) hours, and Library and IT staff expended roughly ten (10) additional hours.

300 hrs - student hours in class
270 hrs. - student hours outside class
78 hrs. - staff
96 hrs. - professor
Total: 744 hrs. The final numbers suggest a great level of efficiency given the amount of work devoted to produce an actual website.

How many times have you taught this course/assignment? What would you do differently next time?

This course was taught for the first time this past spring semester. What I might do differently in a second iteration of the course is to allow for the students to have more time to discuss the implications of the assignments and their relative connections back to the field of Black/Africana Studies. The students were actively engaged in analyzing their experiences of difference, while also attempting to figure out how these might best be represented given the kinds of tools we were exposing them to over the course of the semester.

What is your level of expertise with respect to media technologies and scholarship?

Over the past four years I have been working on a series of digital projects related to my work in southern Africa. I have been building a multi-media archive of the holdings of a small museum in the Black township of Soweto. My experience has been piece-meal, learning much of the technology as I attempt to make sense of the kind of ethnographic work that might best reflect the needs of the community. I have some basic understanding of the tools being used, but am much more familiar with the theoretical application of multi-media projects on the internet.

The website developed by the students in this course can be found here.