Making Projects Accessible

By Stephanie Rosen, Ph.D.

Early in the process of seeking support for a collaborative project in the humanities — or any field — researchers must demonstrate the expected impact of that project’s deliverables. This early stage is also the right time to start thinking about accessibility, one important facet of impact. Here, accessibility refers to legal and technical definitions of “readily accessible to people with disabilities” — elaborated in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines — as well as a more general sense of equitable access. As such, accessibility aligns with our commitments as a public research institution and with the individual researcher’s goal to maximize the reach of their work. The University offers resources to support accessible scholarship, and we encourage researchers to seek it out early and often.  

Humanities Collaboratory scholars may already be aware of accessibility by way of federal funding requirements, the open access movement, or philosophies of universal design. In 2013, the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a memorandum on “Increasing Public Access,” requiring that articles and data resulting from federally funded research be made freely available to the public and hosted on accessible platforms. This is an explicit attempt to ensure that publicly funded scholarship benefits the public. A similar rationale drives the open access movement, which argues that research underwritten by colleges and universities should not be published under a profit model that prevents some colleges and universities from accessing the same research. Both movements, open access and accessibility, are related to universal design, a design philosophy the centers the needs of users with disabilities to the benefit of all users (see George Williams’ 2012 article, Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities). Fundamental to all these discourses is the idea that public research ought to be equitably accessible to all members of the public.

When it comes to collaborative research projects in the humanities, accessibility expertise can help teams design digital deliverables that will be usable for a broad range of audiences using a range of technologies, including assistive technologies. This is best achieved by consulting accessibility resources at every stage of the project: issues are difficult to address at the end, but fairly easy to incorporate into the process. Beyond the digital, accessibility expertise may help teams incorporate best practices into event planning and public presentations. As Library Accessibility Specialist, I am available to consult on any of these concerns, and direct researchers to further resources, such as Ten Tips for Inclusive Meetings, recently created by a U-M team, and accessibility guidelines for public presentations, now offered by many scholarly societies.

I look forward to learning more about collaborative projects in the humanities and working together to increase their impact by making deliverables accessible. Please contact me at ssrosen@umich.edu.

Precarious Networks

Precarity Image

We have little control over what Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms do with our data; software that worked perfectly well yesterday locks us out of our archived experiences today.  Meanwhile, apps like Uber and Waze promise us the ability to transcend sovereign boundaries.  Access across borders, access to devices and platforms, are based on criteria that change by the minute, fueled by processes that are obscure and powerful.  Our group decided to come together and give ourselves the name Precarity Lab because we are all working on the various forms of insecurity, vulnerability, and social and cultural exclusion arising from digital platforms.

Precarity Lab aspires to bring together a network of scholars, activists, and public intellectuals who want to interrogate the digital’s claims to openness. Precarity Lab’s founders include:

  • Irina Aristarkhova, Associate Professor of Stamps School of Art and Design, has written extensively on new media theory, online communities, cyberfeminism and contemporary art, and new communication and biomedical technologies within international contexts;
  • Iván Chaar-López is a Ph.D. candidate in American Culture traces how contemporary use of drones to track and target immigrant bodies in the U.S.-Mexico border are built on the trajectories of cybernetics and Vietnam-era intrusion detection systems;
  • Anna Watkins Fisher is Assistant Professor of American Culture and the Residential College and writes on art, politics, and network culture;
  • Tung-Hui Hu is a poet and Assistant Professor in English and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, whose work examines the materiality of technology and its cultural rhetoric;
  • Meryem Kamil is a Ph.D. candidate in American Culture, whose research examines the possibilities and limitations of online activism around Palestinian sovereignty;
  • Silvia Lindtner is Assistant Professor in the School of Information, whose work examines histories and cultures of “making” and “hacking” in urban China;
  • Lisa Nakamura is Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor of American Culture and Digital Studies and writes on race, gender, and digital inequality.

Our Lab is inspired by collectives such as Deep Lab, Matsutake Worlds, The Petrocultures Research Cluster, and Disruption Network Lab, which model ways for humanities research to be less isolated and isolating, as well as by platforms such as Mukurtu, built to support indigenous communities’ cultural heritage, which push back against the idea that information should be open and accessible all the time.  

We are invested in finding ways for critical scholars to create works of lasting value together and also believe that the academic monograph needs to become more collaborative, more fun, and more free.  We have been intrigued by the Book Sprint as a tool for book writing that is social, collective, and above all fast.  At the same time, we are committed to slow scholarship pushing back against the notion that the digital will make the humanities more “productive.”  We value the conviviality and intellectual stimulation that comes from working side by side and are very grateful for the Humanities Collaboratory’s support.

Audio Visual Africa

Sometimes academic collaboration is serendipitous. In our new Humanities Collaboratory project, “Audio-Visual Africa,” four faculty from widely different intellectual traditions discovered, by accident of casual conversation, a shared passion for audiovisual media production as well as the past, present, and future of the archive in Africa.

Kwasi Ampene, ethnomusicologist, works on the audio and visual holdings of Manhyia Palace, seat of the Ashanti king in Ghana. Frieda Ekotto, philosophy and comparative literature, is archiving African photographic and cinematic creativity and cultural heritage, especially as produced by female artists in Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana. Kelly Askew, anthropologist, and Paul Conway, archival scientist, have worked for years to acquire, organize, and digitize portions of the extensive Leo Sarkisian African Music Collection, which encompasses decades of radio broadcasts and live audio field recordings from ~40 African countries.

Why Africa? Because Africa, the source of all humanity—and, by extension, the humanities—is a continent always defined by change and innovation. Moreover, by the year 2100, Africans will constitute 40% of the world’s population. This makes it absolutely critical to reverse the relegation of African perspectives to the margins and resituate them as central to the humanities enterprise.

Why audio-visual materials? Because while Africa produced great libraries like those of Alexandria and Timbuktu, visual and audio media are equally privileged in Africa for translating experience, contesting inequity, and seeking inspiration. That said, African audio-visual collections are rare, are lacking in material resources and technological support, and have attracted little academic research.

We envision interrogating the ways in which communities have and continue to express and document their heritage and identities through the vast array of tangible and intangible forms and formats that make up the archive. Our project will challenge text-centric and Eurocentric biases in the humanities by exploring the scholarly potential latent in a local-community based orientation toward African audio-visual archives.

Working with student research partners

Most humanities researchers don’t partner with graduate students on research, but faculty in some humanities disciplines–archaeology, museum studies, and linguistics among them–do commonly involve graduate students in collaborative research projects, and some U-M humanities faculty have a great deal of experience collaborating with students to read ancient texts, produce archives, co-author essays, and create exhibits. We invited some of these colleagues to talk with us about working with graduate student research partners in workshops on December 3 and 7, and we compiled a digest of their advice here. Our colleagues also had valuable suggestions for working with undergraduates that we’ve compiled here.

Collaboration 101

Why collaborate? How do you identify partners? What makes a collaborative project successful? What are potential roadblocks to success? We asked colleagues to answer these questions at two workshops in November. Faculty experienced in various kinds of collaborations offered models for success and identified challenges to consider in putting together a collaboration. We’ve distilled their insights and advice here.

So why collaborate? Collaboration is energizing, our colleagues told us, it allows for risk-taking, and by bringing together multiple and diverse perspectives, it promises richer questions and more complex results.

Collaboration can also be hard. Research teams should have clearly articulated goals and measures of success, we learned. Authorship for research results should be agreed on in advance; roles and responsibilities should be specified for each team member. Some teams may wish to formalize these expectations in an MOU. A sample agreement for core members of the team is here and for junior members or temporary personnel, here.

Stay tuned for advice on working with graduate students as research partners.

Introducing the Collaboratory Blog

Welcome to the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory. This moderated blog will be used to report examples of successful collaborative research models at U-M and elsewhere, to describe tools humanities research teams have found useful, and to feature some of the work done by the teams themselves. We’ll also report lessons and insights from the workshops we’ll be organizing over the course of the year. Check back regularly!