Teaching with the Japan Disaster Archive — A Report in Medias Res

This fall I’ve joined Professors Andrew Gordon (History) and Theodore Bestor (Anthropology) in teaching a course on the disasters in Japan in March 2011 — it has proven very suggestive for approaches to a new “humanities studio” model, and here I’d like to sketch some of the things I see raised so far.

At the course’s core is the Japan Disaster Archive, a digital archive developed at Harvard over the last two and a half years by the Reischauer Institute in collaboration with metaLAB, Zeega, and the Center for Geographic Analysis. Within hours of the 9.0 earthquake a number of organizations inside and outside Japan began an unprecedented effort to gather and make accessible the billowing mass of digital records connected to these events. The basis of the JDA’s contribution is its aggregation of an increasingly large measure of these organizations’ material into a single place, primarily through APIs — photos from Yahoo! Japan and Tohoku University, tweets from Hypercities, documentaries from Sendai Mediatheque, etc. The archive platform provides the means for users to explore this aggregate by keyword or by time and place, making it possible, for instance, to see in bird’s-eye view the tweets during the anti-nuclear protests in April 2011 in Tokyo. The archive — and the term is unusual, especially given how little the JDA stores — also invites a range of participatory responses, allowing users to annotate and expand the evolving index of records, and, most suggestively, to use those records as the basis for community storytelling. Users can add tags and translate; they can submit new content found on the web with the JDA bookmarklet; and they can pull items together into shareable collections. Collections can stand on their own or feed into multimedia nonlinear presentations, authored with an editor built for the archive by metaLAB creative technologist Jessica Yurkofsky.

Before turning to the course it’s worth recasting the foregoing narrative in terms other than the vocabulary of software development, which seems to me to risk eliding the singularity of the actual lived project. Here we have an emergent community — professors, post-docs, librarians, administrators, graduate students, undergraduates, volunteers — forging untested social formations within the University and across the world for the sake of cross-national digital memory construction; here we have millions of records whose single through-line is extraordinary upheaval — the tragedy born of this upheaval but also the subsequent resilience, unknowing, recovery, contradiction, reconstruction; here we have shared confidence that even at this scale and complexity archives must join other media in serving as active sites of discourse and production; and here we have a tool that is also a propositional machine — pressing us to think stakes, potentials and contradictions in this project and others like and unlike it. A conference at Harvard in January followed out some of the most challenging lines of inquiry in the practice of “participatory archiving”; I tried to capture and build upon them in a subsequent “field report” for Contents Magazine.

So the course sits amid these energies and uncertainties. We have a lively group of thirteen undergraduate and graduates from across the humanities, sciences and social sciences. They’ve opted to take on the considerable challenge of thinking critically and compassionately about these disasters — in many cases, like me, doing so without speaking Japanese — while producing multimedia presentations on topics they select. The basic logic of the editor consists in building individual frames using one’s bank of media — collected from within or outside the JDA, or authored oneself — and forging pathways between them by hyperlinking objects, e.g., each of three images of government officials on a single frame links to another frame showing an example of the the official attempting to calm the public down in a press conference. What grows out of this relatively simple logic is wide open for expressive and rhetorical innovation, and raises hard questions around the implications of expanding or limiting viewers’ options for navigation.

In planning the course we joined an increasing number of faculty investigating a new concept of the humanities studio. The first weeks of exploring the disasters and its historical precedents coincided with critiquing examples of multimedia scholarship, and, most importantly, immediate attention to not only thinking about possible projects but starting to make them. Students began by generating JDA collections and introducing provisional topics to fellow students by way of records of interest projected on the screen; they then went back into the shop to forge their individual proposals. When planning how students would share progress on their projects throughout the rest of the course, we considered a more traditional humanities model in which students narrate their ideas with slideshows and receive feedback focused on refining those ideas — a well-tested method for a course with a written essay as the final project. But we recognized that courses with audiovisual capstones require considerable parallel conversation about methods of presentation as well as prototyping. Too often these conversations do not happen in courses with the best intentions of having students produce non-written work. For us inquiries into audiovisual and networked rhetorics seem especially important, and ends in themselves, because such rhetorics play essential roles in how large-scale crises unfold and become represented, and because the web needs better formal language for networked and non-linear argumentation. We opted therefore for an approach melding the design and humanities classrooms: having students not only describe their work in “status reports” but build and exhibit their current frames and navigation structures — to demonstrate as much as narrate their projects. The resulting conversations have been distinctly multidimensional and collaborative, with the class and teaching team moving fluidly between discussing concepts and imagining means of conveying them.

An insight one ponders in a humanities classroom — that the medium is or at the least heavily constrains the message — has become tangible as, for instance, a student generating separate sequences on positive and negative views of social media during disaster was pushed to both question the sustainability of that conceptual binary, and to think how a presentation structure could reflect more complex relationships like intersections, overlaps and contradictions. A la Wittgenstein, we see the limits of our language are the limits of our world — researching things to think is researching means to make others think.

By way of conclusion a final observation on our humanities studio model: Our Oct. 23rd class focused on disasters and media. Over the summer we had selected a few representative examples from American and Japanese media to complement our readings. However having witnessed students’ adeptness at gathering materials from the web into collections, we realized a practice more attuned to the spirit and affordances of the JDA’s participatory archive model would have students find and share examples on their own. By the time our class rolled around our collaboratively authored collection had 54 items pulled from dozens of places across the web, none of those items until then a part of the archive. Students broke into small teams to compare what they had collected and came back to report their findings to the class. During our discussion it felt like a kind of organic criticality emerged — we broached many of the same questions academic articles would but found ourselves immersed in the forest of signs we simultaneously analyzed and remixed from above. Now that collection, once made public, can serve as a resource or an inspiration for any researcher down the road.

Much to look forward to, much still to explore.