Disrupting Hierarchies of Knowledge: Student Writing in the Digital Transgender Archive

Mariel Aleman, Alice Galvinhill, Keith Plummer, & K.J. Rawson

Introduction // K.J. Rawson

From the very first semester that I began creating the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA), I initiated collaborations with undergraduate students that invited deep and meaningful student participation in the project. While any large-scale digital humanities project can provide extensive opportunities for student involvement, this was particularly true at the liberal arts college where I founded the project, the College of the Holy Cross, because there are ample resources available for independent work with students. Since 2014, more than 60 students have contributed in paid, unpaid, or academic credit roles, including as volunteers, team leaders, research assistants, independent researchers, and interns. In these capacities, students have left their mark on every aspect of the project and the importance of their work cannot be overstated.

The DTA, available at digitaltransgenderarchive.net, is a publicly available online database of primary source transgender historical materials contributed by archives from around the world. In addition to digitized materials, the site includes resources such as learning guides, search terms and tips, glossaries, and information on non-digitized archival holdings. The DTA also hosts a related project, the Homosaurus: An International LGBTQ Linked Data Vocabulary (homosaurus.org), which is a queer-specific subject term vocabulary (similar to the Library of Congress Subject Headings, but queer). At Holy Cross, the DTA had a lab space where there were three computer stations, scanning equipment, and an abundance of queer-themed decor. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, I closed the lab at Holy Cross and shifted the work of the project to be fully remote. In the fall of 2020, the DTA moved with me when I accepted a new position at Northeastern University, where I have since started to rebuild a community of students who are passionate about working on the project.

In this essay, three students who worked with the DTA at Holy Cross offer reflections on their experiences “composing” in the context of a large-scale digital humanities project. Keith Plummer (they/them/theirs)––a class of 2017 Sociology and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies double major––worked with the DTA for one year conducting summer research, attending an international conference in London, leading a team of volunteers, and serving as an Outreach Coordinator to find new collaborators for the project. Alice Galvinhill (she/her/hers)––a class of 2020 Sociology major with a Physics minor and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies concentration––began volunteering in the DTA in her first semester and she continued on to become a paid summer intern and team leader. Mariel Aleman (she/her/hers)––a class of 2018 Sociology major who concentrated in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies––spent three and a half years contributing to the DTA, initially as a volunteer, then as a team leader, and finally as a researcher who created the “Race and Ethnicity Research Guide” as her senior capstone project. 

When I first approached these students about collaborating on this chapter, all three were not quite sure what they would have to say about “composing” in relation to their efforts on the project. They all agreed that the primary work they conducted––creating metadata––involved composing, of a sort, but it was not “writing” as they had come to understand it from their classes. In the context of the DTA, metadata, or data about data, are information that we attach to historical objects––such as creator, date, subject terms, etc.––to make those objects discoverable in the database. Students always work in pairs, often within a larger group that is also working on the same collection, to create metadata for every item that is added to the DTA. After their work is reviewed by team leaders and me, those items are immediately made available to the public and the metadata the students have provided are used by researchers to find items in the collection.

Unlike most writing that students do in college, this type of collaborative, technical writing requires moderately high stakes precision and objectivity (or perhaps more accurately, critically-reflexive subjectivity) with the pressure of a waiting public audience who immediately encounters and relies upon the information students supply. Students are well aware that writing errors that may be minor in other contexts––such as spelling mistakes, accidental pluralizations, or getting a date wrong, for example––can result in effectively hiding the item they are processing. 

As a form of what Krista Kennedy refers to as “textual curation,” metadata creation “encourages students to think actively and rhetorically about the influence that multiple aspects of their writing may have on an audience, including not just their primary texts but the paths to, through, and between those texts” (186). Composing metadata is thus an audience-centered, collaborative writing practice that functions to make connections across time and space. Throughout this composition process, students develop a “metacritical awareness,” to use Jodie Nicotra’s phrase, as they “learn to perceive themselves as active participants in the building of a network” (W274). As a result, within the DTA the process of creating metadata is perhaps more important than the materials the students make discoverable because they have used writing as a mechanism through which to both expand and join the DTA network. 

While all students are involved in creating metadata for materials in the collection, some go beyond that and write extensively in many other areas of the project: for social media, for static pages on the site, in session reports and reflections on their experience, in conference presentations and poster sessions, on the whiteboard walls in the lab, and in notes for other groups. All three students who have co-authored this article have worked on different aspects of the project, requiring differing composing practices. Yet every bit of writing for the DTA is done collaboratively and revision is both commonplace and rigorous. We are always aware that our work is interdependent, and we rely on one another to lend expertise, input, and attention to detail. Taken together, the narratives that the students offer below demonstrate that there are profound “pedagogical affordances” for student work in digital archives, many of which helpfully extend our discussions of composing in an academic environment (Rivard 530; see also VanHaitsma, and Enoch and VanHaitsma). 


Activism in the Archive: Expanding the Narrative // Keith Plummer

The DTA's lab had been home in many different ways over the course of my time working there. As a summer researcher, I sought out international collaborations with archives that would diversify the DTA’s holdings along the intersections of region, race, and a variety of trans experiences. Later, as an Outreach Coordinator during my senior year, I helped develop new partnerships for the DTA and hosted a weekly lab session to process materials. All these endeavors were not only ungraded, but completely unlike the written work I tended to do in the classroom. My scholarly efforts on behalf of the DTA ultimately led me to investigate different assumptions I had made as a student and the motivational scheme of the typical school environment.

When I attended an LGBTQ+ archives conference in London, I had the privilege of meeting many different archivists who each had their own niche initiatives to expand the archival world to be more inclusive of sexual and gender diversity. Coming back to the United States, I struggled to cement these international connections to host select materials on the DTA, and consequently became aware of the disjointed accessibility of archival information. In the absence of digitization and web-hosting, a researcher would likely need to travel the world over to thoroughly examine a topic, especially to blend insights from under-represented communities like the ones I was working to make more visible in the archive.

Leaning deeper into my project and getting into processing and uploading materials, I observed again that there were further archival politics to unpack. As I created the metadata for the materials I processed, I realized how many judgement calls I was making and the myriad ways I could potentially misrepresent what I was uploading: typos, a missing yet incredibly apt search term, or a search term that was not accurate to the material or was overreaching, to name a few. Alice explores the tensions and archival promise of search term selection more below. If I was struggling to attach the correct metadata to materials relating to a community I was a part of, I worried how other archivists less informed on queer and gender issues dealt with trans-related information, and more broadly, specialized terminology local to other marginalized communities.

Along this vein, part of my research involved expanding the DTA’s Global Terms page (available at digitaltransgenderarchive.net/learn/terms), which describes non-Western conceptions of gender throughout time, history, and place. How often are cultural experiences foreign to one’s social location obscured simply due to one’s embedded-ness in Western ideology and the utilization of standardized metadata systems developed in the Western world? Questions like these multiplied in my mind and implored me to consider that knowledge was not quite as objective as it appears. 

I was compelled to examine the production of knowledge, and in turn, discover how it is skewed by privilege, accessibility, and human error. Preserving records, whatever form that may take, and getting those materials in the hands of an archivist, not only takes time and energy that many who are focused on survival cannot afford, but also a specialized understanding of archival networks and procedures to get those records in the right hands. These sorts of barriers are very salient in the trans community; as a result, the DTA over-represents the experience of white, male, heterosexual-identified crossdressers because their social location afforded more resources than a trans woman of color, for example. The concerning result is that the histories of some of our most marginalized communities are much harder to uncover. Mariel speaks more to this below in her own research project to increase visibility of racial and ethnic diversity on the DTA. 

These intersecting processes all happen before a researcher even stumbles upon the primary sources and extracts their own interpretations from them. My research project showed me that archival information is not only profoundly incomplete, but also a product of power dynamics rooted in privilege and cultural normativity. From this discovery, I have honed a more critical lens to the knowledge that I am presented with in other realms, and look more earnestly into what narratives are missing. This also gave me a greater appreciation for the DTA as a project that is disrupting hierarchies of knowledge like these by making trans materials widely accessible for anyone with an internet connection, giving my work a purpose long after my time there. 

While exploring these grander ideas surrounding knowledge, I also started to look into how my projects at the DTA differed from a regular classroom setting. My work with the Digital Transgender Archive was ungraded, which, as a thoroughly conditioned academic over-achiever, forced me to question my motivations around what I was doing. Not striving for an A and constantly trying to meet my instructor’s specific criteria for that mark prompted me to engage more deeply in the actual meaning of my scholarship. If not for my GPA, then what personal commitments drove my efforts? As a genderqueer person who never really saw positive trans narratives growing up, much less trans narratives written by and for trans people, I quickly realized the significance of the DTA. The DTA is a hub of trans history where I believe many trans and non-binary people like me are able to see their community’s history for the first time. The DTA is a paradigm shift in academia, allowing for mass accessibility to trans perspectives and thus, their integration into current scholarship. I also saw the DTA as a local bastion of inclusivity for LGBTQ+ and ally students at my college—a welcome break from the oftentimes queer-ambivalent Catholicism and heteronormativity present on campus.

Beyond my work for the DTA, I found myself frequently drawn to the lab for individual writing projects for my other classes as well. Unencumbered by the pervasive anxiety I had in the outside world from being constantly mis-gendered by my peers, the DTA opened my creative process and allowed me to more precisely and freely delve into my writing. The lab prioritized a sort of inclusivity and academic autonomy hard to find elsewhere on campus. This organic association between the trans-inclusivity of the scholarly enterprise that is the DTA and the space the DTA physically occupied, gifted me with a shelter on campus where my identity naturally blended into the cultural fabric and thus, did not act as a stumbling block to creating compositions.

In short, working for the DTA showed me the importance of scholarly activism to unearth stories made invisible by our culture, how a mission is a much more meaningful motivator than a grade, and how a scholarly intervention can become an empowering space that’s impact reaches far beyond the confines of a lab.


Growing in a Lab // Alice Galvinhill

As a volunteer in the DTA lab my first year of college, I was taught the basics of archival processing and later, as a team leader, I taught those same skills to others. This work was a form of writing with which I was unfamiliar. I understood the basic function of a tag, or subject term, on an archive, but not the in-depth process of selecting a tag. Since the DTA deals in the preservation of a marginalized community’s heritage and history, tags become highly important and fraught with the complexity of honoring an identity while providing effective search terms. With every word chosen to tag an item came an internal and often external and collaborative debate as to the word’s accuracy, effectiveness, and value. Never before had I been so deeply immersed in these kinds of debates. The products of our arguments would directly impact the historical accuracy and the long-term findability of a resource with the risk of processed items perpetuating harmful stereotypes or being lost to the expanse of items in the archive.

My work in the discernment of identity-based language came to a head in my writing for the Homosaurus. As Professor Rawson explains in the introduction, the Homosaurus is a queer-specific archival lexicon used by archives around the world to more fully describe LGBTQ+ resources. I was tasked with drafting and integrating the section of this thesaurus that dealt with all things relevant to gender and transgender identity. With the reassurance that this document would one day be rewritten and updated again, I began in earnest to create what would become a 20-page document containing over 350 distinct yet interconnected terms. This was a task which took me an entire summer and many exhilarating and frustrating debates over terminology. The final wording was the product of countless hours parsing out accuracy and respect of a community’s chosen labels and the effectiveness and searchability of those terms in an archival vocabulary. The intellectual process of this project and the opportunity to contribute my knowledge to a rapidly growing vocabulary was truly intoxicating. To have been trusted with the responsibility of the trans community being represented in the most accurate and effective way possible is something of immense value to me.

In truth, all the writing I’ve done with and for the lab has been an eye-opening experience for me. I have been well-versed in academic writing for a long time. I am familiar with tailoring an argument to my audience in the hopes of a favorable grade or an award. Once the particular writing assignment was completed, I moved on. While my academic career has rested on these grades, they are relatively low stakes more broadly, making up only a single grade. After I completed my work and received an assessment, it became largely inconsequential. The DTA lab is different. The processing of documents I have done for the lab possesses a wholly different set of stakes. My previous writing has only truly affected my life. Writing in the lab has targeted a much larger audience than any for which I have written before. I am not only taking on the role of an educator in teaching those who are interested in learning from our materials, but also speaking on behalf of a marginalized community. In spite of thorough review processes as a team, I have felt the pressure and importance of this writing more and more each year. 

My writing for the lab has also taken on a particularly important role for me personally as a transgender woman. Through this writing, I continue to learn the history of my community. Through this writing, I am helping others, like me, to learn the history of our community. In a time when society widely supports the narrative of transgender people as disordered, the history I have learned about those members of my community who came before me has been an invaluable source of inspiration and strength in my life these past few years.


Highlighting Racial Diversity in the DTA// Mariel Aleman

During my three and a half years as a volunteer and research assistant, I primarily worked on creating metadata for the multitude of objects I processed. This allowed me to enhance my understanding of the rich history that is highlighted in the DTA. However, after processing items related to race and ethnicity, I realized that when we went back on the front end, those items seemed to be getting lost because we have so many more objects representing white people. Moreover, because the DTA has a policy of not imposing identities onto people or language onto objects when there’s no definite information available, these items seemed twice as hard to find as other materials on the site. In an effort to begin the process of including more racial and ethnic diversity within the DTA, I had the opportunity to create a resource, the Race & Ethnicity Research Guide (available at digitaltransgenderarchive.net/learn/raceandethnicity), as part of my Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies capstone project. The guide acknowledges the interconnectivity of the trans experience along with race and ethnicity and it encourages visitors to explore the multifaceted and complex experiences that people in the trans community face.

Even though I had processed a fair number of items related to non-white people, I never anticipated that the DTA had more than a small number of items. When I first proposed the project to Professor Rawson to expand holdings in this area, I planned to include more objects that highlighted the experiences of non-white trans people. Yet, when I started to do research within the DTA to see what materials we already had, I was surprised to discover that we had many more materials than I knew. Oftentimes, objects including non-white trans people were hidden because racial and ethnic identities were not part of the metadata. I recognized that the greater need was to make the current objects more visible, not simply add more items to the site. 

As a result, the focus for the research guide I developed was accessibility. When writing this guide, I did not feel like I had to prove to Professor Rawson my understanding of metadata, or gender and race theories. But rather, how do we share our knowledge and resources in the simplest form so it is comprehensible to someone as young as a teenager? At first, it appeared that accessibility was achieved as I identified key search terms and phrases or collections that especially focused on non-white trans people. But the more time that I spent on researching, reflecting on the metadata process, and writing the context of the page, I recognized that we needed to find a new way of making objects portraying race and ethnicity more visible. We had to provide researchers with the tools to find these objects. 

As I wrote, I started to realize that the language of the website copy was a key component to making these materials more accessible to all DTA visitors. This then allowed for the tone in the writing to shift from an academic style (i.e., trying to incorporate scholarship and academic jargon), to a more relaxed tone using everyday vocabulary. I wanted the research guide to read as if I was in a conversation with a friend or family member. In all of my previous academic writing, my audience was my professor, which gave my essay and project an academia tone. Yet this is the style that feels unnatural and foreign to me. 

Accessibility was achieved, in part, thanks to my college roommates, friends and family, who took the time to read and provide feedback on what they believed need to be reworded and why. During those times, they became my test audience. This process allowed me to see if the research guide would be understood by different groups of people. Then, I was able to make alterations to the parts they didn’t understand before the page went public. This was possible because Professor Rawson never resisted me on who was allowed to provide feedback and how I incorporated it. Although he, Nicole Tantum (the DTA’s Project Coordinator at the time)and I met frequently to check in on my process and feedback, I had the final say on the end project. This actually added to much of my frustration with the writing process because I felt this self-imposed pressure of needing everything to be correct. Yet, I recognize that as a cisgender person of color, there's a privilege for me to be talking about the trans experience, and I didn't want to take up too much space. I had to find the balance between adding to the space in which it will benefit others while also recognizing that I did not feel as if it was my place to speak on behalf of members of the trans community. Moreover, I had to use this space as a means of uplifting the voices within the trans community without coming across as a savior or as a spokesperson for all trans people of color.

My capstone project could have been yearlong project rather than a semester-long one. However, the continuing audience, future writers, and expected language change gives life to the page as its updated by current volunteers and research assistants to meet the evolving needs of the DTA regarding race and ethnicity. For me, this project was more than just writing for a final grade. My DTA writing allowed me to find solutions to a problem I had identified. It became a place where my academic interests and activist passion met to cultivate a space that demonstrates the importance of embrace all intersecting identities within the trans community, where these identities are empowered and celebrated.


Conclusion // K.J. Rawson

In his landmark essay “Inventing the University,” published in 1986, David Bartholomae expresses concern for the “codes” that students must adopt to participate in academic contexts as they are forced “to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse” (9). More than thirty years later, most student writing in the academy still requires students to “speak our language;” that is, they must compose in academic discourse, within a discipline, for an audience of experts, where they will be graded (5). Of the many benefits of participating in a large-scale digital humanities project like the DTA, perhaps the most transformative benefit for students is the opportunity to contribute to the knowledge-making aims of the academy in a radically different way. In the DTA, students are genuine collaborators who contribute their voices and expertise to every dimension of the project. 

For the three students above, writing this essay has extended the types of composing that they have done in the context of the DTA and I hope the resulting essay further reinforces the benefits of centralizing student voices in a thoroughly collaborative project. Such extensive and impactful student participation is a key to the DTA’s success in “disrupting hierarchies of knowledge,” to borrow Keith’s phrase, both through the process of our collaboration and in the results of our efforts.

Just as their contributions are pivotal for the project, students’ own writing has been centralized in this essay to model the benefits of student-centered work in Composition Studies. The writing that students do in the lab would not be considered by most to be “academic writing,” and it would not be eligible for undergraduate publications or awards. Yet as their reflections clearly highlight, the experience of writing for the project was transformative for these three students: it crystalized their values, helped them learn how to create successful collaborations, provided an opportunity to make an impact with their writing, attuned them to the importance of precision and accuracy, taught them to develop an audience-centered style, and encouraged their development as individuals and as engaged citizens. What this chapter offers for Composition Studies, then, is encouragement to continue pushing the boundaries of the writing classroom and to see digital humanities projects and labs as opportune spaces for student writers to develop their writing and find their voice.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 5, no. 1, spring 1986, pp. 4-23.

Enoch, Jessica and Pamela VanHaitsma. “Archival Literacy: Reading the Rhetoric of Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 2, Dec. 2015, pp. 216–242.

Kennedy, Krista. “Textual Curation.” Computers and Composition, vol. 40, June 2016, pp. 175–189.

Nicotra, Jodie. “‘Folksonomy’ and the Restructuring of Writing Space.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 1, Sept. 2009, pp. W259–W276.

Rivard, Courtney. “Turning Archives into Data: Archival Rhetorics and Digital Literacy in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 70, no. 4, June 2019, pp. 527–559.

VanHaitsma, Pamela. “New Pedagogical Engagements with Archives: Student Inquiry and Composing in Digital Spaces.” College English, vol. 78, no. 1, Sept. 2015, pp. 34–55.