Teaching to Transgress with Primary Sources

A Comparative Analysis of Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks and Teaching with Primary Sources edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Archival instruction, at its core, is a radical pursuit. When students interact with primary sources, it creates a unique opportunity for engagement. Assumptions are challenged. Perspectives are questioned. Archives inform the study of history and even a document can transform our understanding of a person or event.

It is this relationship between archives and history that I find most provocative. I spend a great deal of time thinking about archival outreach and engagement. Recently, a colleague recommended I read Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks as it relates to understanding the broader pedagogy at play in archival instruction and engagement. At the same time, the Society of American Archivists started to promote its One Book, One Profession series which spotlighted Teaching with Primary Sources edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe.

I found the books complemented each other. hooks explored the educator and student dynamic and sought to turn the traditional pedagogy on its head. In the age of multiculturalism, inclusivity, and diversity, the educator is not always the expert on a given topic. Focused primarily on college students, hooks noted that students enter the classroom expecting to absorb information from the educator rather than engage with the information, critique it, question it. It is up to the educator to take a more engaged pedagogical approach to foster discussion and analysis thereby enriching the educational experience.

Conversely, TPS presented three modules that provided historical context, a guide for information professionals about teaching with primary sources, and case studies of connecting students to primary sources. TPS erred on the side of applicability. For me, as an archivist-turned-outreach professional, this was a helpful how-to guide on getting started. This information would be beneficial to professionals seeking to embark on archival instruction or, perhaps, gain ideas about how to improve their current offerings. Throughout the reading, I could not help but be cognizant of hooks’ book. The archivist is, after all, stepping into a new role.  For better or worse, the archivist is becoming the instructor. 

Archivists Be Aware (or Beware)

Archival instruction calls for mindfulness on the part of the archivist and the selection of documents and photographs to present to a class. Expanding on hooks’ multiculturalism, society is increasingly setting its gaze on social justice issues. This is asking all of us, not just archivists, to examine and be cognizant of our internal biases and prejudices we bring to any given situation. As instructors, archivists bring these into the classroom much like students bring their experiences.  In stepping into the role of instructor, the archivists must be mindful that these biases can come into conflict. hooks described her personal frustration as well as the frustration of her students when they reached an impasse. She did not provide answers as to how to solve this but to bring an awareness that this could happen. Rather than let it dissuade instructors, she encouraged them to continue to engage and know when to listen especially when topics lie outside of an archivist’s experience.

Selection and much of archiving is not a passive endeavor. In TPS, Module 9 provides an example of an archivist who chose multiple documents to explore stereotypes of enslaved African Americans in the mid-19th century. The problem was that she chose too many documents and the students were overwhelmed. The takeaway in the example was to reduce the number of documents. Again, calling to mind hooks I thought more deeply. What was the reasoning behind choosing one document over the other? There is the shock and awe aspect of selection. Are the items that are selected contain more overt expressions of racism? What about subtler forms?  Archivists, if possible, should include a discussion that the examples provided are but one point of view and that opinions on the matter range from the outrageous to the passive (think: microagression-level). Often, students are not learning the shades of grey present in historical issues.

Areas of Further Study

  • TPS predominately focused its attention on academic faculty and students. This speaks to the overwhelming number of academic archives and libraries within SAA. The next area for further examination should be on K-12 educators and students.  There are significant challenges to overcome such as highly structured time, focused content, and communication lags. Unlike academic audiences, K-12 archival instruction is geared toward the educator instead of the student. Why is this? There are a myriad of answers to this question. Let’s explore it. Let’s find out what has been successful and what has failed.
  • What role can the Society of American Archivists play? One suggestion is the development of professional development opportunities for archivists to acquire instruction skills. Much of the professional development currently available is geared toward the technical, practical skills of archiving and description. There is room to grow reference, outreach, and instructional skills. SAA could seek out a partnership with the American Library Association. Our librarian colleagues are light-years ahead of equipping emerging librarians with skills that archivists are (still) lacking. The days of the archivist spending 100% of their time processing and describing collections are quickly shrinking. Archivists are expected by users not only to know more but do more. The next frontier lies in reference, outreach, advocacy, and instruction. SAA can and should position itself to feel the gap.


Recent experiences have either taught me the following or been reinforced. I will explain more in an upcoming post.

Love yourself more than the toxic relationships you end up in.

Do not do the work of others.

Speak up more.

Never forget the ones who hold you down, in good times and in bad times.

Do not back down.

Your feelings mislead you but God will set you right.

Do not let others accept praise for your work. (Screw looking petty af)

Failure can be the driving force of change. Embrace it.

Seriously, if people’s actions don’t line up with their words, do not trust them.

You are worthy.

The birth of #getmylife

Gaining a new perspective is all about distance. You need to get distance from the problem in order to understand it. To see it for what it is.

It took me 1,673 miles.

On a whim, I decided to vacation in Montréal, Quebec. The decision based on where I could find the cheapest place to stay: New Orleans or Montréal. Montréal won by a mile. Barely fazed me that I was planning said trip for mid-December when temperatures would be in the single digits. I still have my winter stuff from Philly. I would need to buy some good snow boots, I thought.

I like to be reasonably prepared for most trips I take. Montréal was a different story all together. Work became my life (as it always is) and I found myself still scrambling up to the day I would leave for my trip. Since graduate school, my life has been an endless series of trips. Packing. Dashing through airports. Sleeping uncomfortably on planes. Staring at the clouds whizzing by. Going on yet another trip barely registered.

It didn’t fully hit me what I had done until I found myself navigating the Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, seeing signs in French and English, and only 2G service on my phone.

Suffice to say, the panic set in. What had I done?

My written directions (thank God for those) were of little comfort as I wandered around in downtown Montréal trying to figure out how to get to my AirBnb. I circled the block. Reading street signs. The cold seeping through my double layer of gloves. When my hands get cold, it becomes hard to concentrate. I eventually asked for directions and, 15 minutes later, I was warm in a studio apartment talking with the owner of said apartment.

Again, upon reflection, it occurred to me how crazy it was to appear at the home of a man I did not know in a, technically, foreign country. He turned out to be a nice guy and we chatted for the better part of an hour before he said au revoir and left.

I did what any American would do. I bought food and doubled up on the wine. After all, I was going to need it.

I spent the next few days roaming the city. From taking a bumbling hike to the top of Mont Royal to venturing to the heart of downtown to meet a friend of a friend over dim sum.

View from Mont Royal. Nothing like a hike up a small mountain in 0 degree weather.

View from Mont Royal. Nothing like a hike up a small mountain in 0 degree weather.

But each evening, I sat, wine in hand, alone in an apartment with my thoughts. The same thoughts that circled around in my head for two years. The thoughts that I didn’t want to think. Let alone feel.



I had taken another career leap only to find what I leapt toward was not, in fact, what I thought or hoped it would be. It was something entirely different. And, try as I might to overcome it, make the situation bearable, do my best, I was being emotionally, physically, and spiritually crushed under the disappointment. I quickly learned that my voice didn't matter. I stopped thriving. 

Disappointment eventually breeds frustration.

Loneliness because, despite my best efforts, I felt spiritually alone. That God had literally peace’d out and I was now alone. Alone to drown in this sea of disappointment. I tried to surround myself with other spiritual people but I couldn’t connect. How could I articulate to them what I couldn’t fully articulate to myself? So doing what any self-reliant person does I pushed them away.

Loneliness became hurt. Hurt turned to anger.

I joked on my IG about the presence of a certain Kardashian book at my AirBnb. But, out of boredom, I skimmed it. It resonated with me because it made me realize how I had developed unhealthy habits to cope with my disappointment and loneliness. The things I loved to do I stopped doing. Right then, I put the book down and drafted a list. A manageable list of goals.

I felt a little better. Like some piece of myself came back from the ether. I slept deeply that night.

Every time I left the apartment, I had to venture down this steep, snow covered hill to catch the bus. When I did that, I passed by this church. Every. Single. Time. I looked at the announcement board and saw they had service at 11 am on Sunday. Despite the fact I hadn’t set foot in a church in several months, I decided to go.

Cut to Sunday, my last full day in Montréal, I sat a couple of pews from the front. There was a lot of ritual and ceremony (first time at an Episcopal church). The priest got up to speak. I wish I could say that I remembered everything he said. I really don’t. But I do remember how it made me feel.

Something deep inside of me cracked open. A feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time washed over me. I sobbed. Long after the service was over I sobbed.

The general gist is this: God, through this priest, let me know he NEVER left me. He heard every prayer from the “going through the motions” prayer to the “I’m mad at you so go fuck off” prayer. Not only that, He made it quite clear that this season. This phase of life isn’t the end of my story. It wasn’t the end of His plan for me. That there is so much more coming. Just hold on.

I got back to the apartment. Laid in the fetal position on the bed and cried.

I left Montréal a much different person then I arrived. My struggles are still the same. My problems didn’t magically go away. Rather, my thought processes toward them changed. I had to be willing to be transformed. I had to be willing to let go of the anger.

Is the anger, hurt, disappointment gone? Hell no. But the sting isn’t quite there because I realize that while I may feel lonely, I am never alone.

That is how #getmylife came to be. I’m refocusing my energy on reclaiming my life. The bits of myself that I gave away to toxic people and situations. It’s me reminding myself to love myself again.








The N-Word and White Complicity

 Me: What Are you doing later?

Him: Grabbing drinks with friends.

Me: Who?

(He rattles off some names and all I hear are guys’ names.)

Me: That sounds like a guy’s night.

Him: Yeah,…you probably shouldn’t come anyway.

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I hear the slight hesitation and what he says has me curious. I prod as I normally would. My friend, 20-something year old white male, tells me that I would not be comfortable around one of the guys. To that I reply, why? He confesses that said friend, after a few drinks, drops the n-word. A lot.

I’m shocked but not for the reason he thinks. My first exposure to the word “nigger” came when I was 8-10 years old. An elderly white man referred to my older sister and I as niggers when this white teenage boy tripped in McDonalds. Despite the fact we were nowhere near him, that man pointed his arthritic finger at us and said “it was those niggers over there.” No one said anything to us. Everyone cast embarrassed glances at us. The manager tried to quiet the old man down. My sister and I wrapped up our half-eaten food and left. We told our parents. My mom shook with anger.

To say that the n-word upsets me is an overstatement. I have been on the receiving end of it on multiple occasions. Friends have endured humiliation from racists. As a person of color, it’s like you grow a thick callous to it. A shield of protection. Admittedly, if I’m caught at the wrong moment, when the shield is down, it hurts. It hurts like hell.

What do you do? I asked my friend. He explained that he tries to calm his friend down and tell him to be quiet.

But you don’t use it as an opportunity to tell him why it’s wrong to use that language, I said.

He acted as if my words were an insult. A wound that I had inflicted on him. He feigned a response and prattled on about how he doesn’t like to get political. I didn’t say anything. I listened but my silence made him uneasy. That, dear readers, is why I was shocked. I naively thought that my friend, a seemingly “with it” kind of guy would be the first to strike down that behavior not passively accept it.

It reminded me of that McDonalds experience. Not the old man but the reaction of those present. None of them stepped up to defend two little black girls from the offensive speak of a significantly older white man. Rather, they looked away or, in the case of the manager, tried to calm him down. Where was the outrage? The sympathy. The consoling of two little girls.

But that’s the thing about being black. We don’t get to be kids. We don’t get to be protected from the horrors of the world. Rather we are thrust right into it before we’re ready and, in some cases like mine, without our parents to walk beside us in it.

Him: I feel like you’re judging me.

Me: Oh, I am. I’m not going to lie I’m judging you right now.

I explained to him that attitudes like that will never change unless they are exposed and challenged. More importantly, it takes more people (read: white people) to call out friends, family, and others who refer to any group in a derogatory, racist way.

White silence is white complicity in racism.

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