Crowdsourcing Knowledge: Cowriting, Coteaching, and Colearning

This essay by Ana María León inaugurates Art Journal Open‘s new “Pedagogies” category of writing. The Pedagogies series invites a range of critical perspectives on teaching and learning. Educators may share personal strategies, historians may consider histories of art education, and artists may produce pedagogically inspired artworks. Upcoming Pedagogies projects coming soon to Art Journal Open include web-based studio-teaching exercises and a reflection on the role of gender queerness in collective learning. For details on contributing to this ongoing series, see our general submissions guidelines.

—Rebecca K. Uchill, Art Journal Open Editor-in-Chief


 

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Del Pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al Pueblo (From the People to the University, the University to the People), 1952, mural at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Photograph by Ana María León.

A new academic year involves new and revised syllabi, and leading up to the fall semester, many scholars post on social media asking for reading assignment recommendations. In my network, and likely yours as well, these posts tend to gather incredibly interesting threads, particularly as course topics and themes are interpreted in different ways by respondents with different disciplinary backgrounds. In the past few years, some of these conversations—typically limited to social media exchanges between friends—have become more public. As a reaction to systemic racism and other forms of discrimination and exclusion in the United States, and the violence they have incited, communities of humanities scholars have been producing crowdsourced, collectively built syllabi and reading lists.1 These documents use knowledge as a form of action by producing collective scholarship on the histories and contemporary nuances that contextualize current and recent events (such as those in Ferguson, North Dakota, Orlando, and Charleston, among others).2 Importantly, these documents can be both written and read by broader publics, unsettling traditional teacher-student hierarchies. While museums and academic institutions have made efforts to address these conflicts in more public-facing forums such as politically engaged exhibitions and lecture series, teaching efforts in response to current politics may remain within the more private sphere of the classroom.3 Digitally created and disseminated syllabi and reading groups have become important responses to the violence waged against vulnerable populations because of their race, class, or gender, but also to the privatization of knowledge sharing.

I started thinking about crowdsourced knowledge, its politics, and the different publics it gathers a few years back while experimenting with social media platforms and collective input for a series of projects.4 As part of the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (FAAC), I was involved with cowriting, and later coteaching, an intersectional feminist revision of the art and architecture history survey. This project highlighted the advantages of collaboration in pedagogical projects, from cross-disciplinary exchanges to an understanding of collective authorship, both in the content we teach and the ways in which we develop our teaching—we discuss this experience in our cowritten piece, “Counterplanning from the Classroom.”5 As I worked on these projects, I became intrigued by the immediacy and specificity of the crowdsourced syllabus response, and engaged with this format in two separate instances. In August 2017, I initiated the Space/Race reading list, a crowdsourced project in reaction to the Unite the Right rally and subsequent protests in Charlottesville that month.6 The list assembles a series of readings on how race and racism are constructed by spatial means, and how in turn space can be shaped by racism. It is meant primarily as a teaching resource. In the winter of 2018, I co-organized a reading group for the Standing Rock Syllabus.7 The project addressed the uneven assimilation of decolonization concepts and methodologies in the humanities, and responded by assembling a community of faculty and lecturers around the project of including histories of colonization and decolonization in our teaching and in our departmental curriculums.8 I would like to put these two projects forward as exercises in cowriting, coreading, and ultimately colearning.9

What do I mean by cowriting? The Space/Race reading list was inspired by a couple of social media posts from colleagues who shared readings they found insightful after the Charlottesville protests. Rather than have these texts remain isolated on private social media accounts, I thought, why not create a depository of relevant texts on the relationship between race and the shaping of space? I created an online document and gave editing access to colleagues interested in contributing. Soon a small group of architecture historians, along with art historians, architects, and urbanists, were posting references, organizing and shifting the texts, and reaching out to colleagues to help fill gaps in our collective knowledge. The reading list grew organically, with a core group of very engaged scholars and a bigger circle of folks checking in occasionally and adding a few references.10 Scholars specializing in different time periods and regions negotiated chronology and geography, an exercise that highlighted the constraints and assumptions of geographically specific periodization (in particular dominant, Western-centric paradigms) and the different ways in which race has been mobilized worldwide.11 Many of our conversations focused on how to organize the list, particularly as most of the working group was based in the United States—thus, although it included participants and content from different parts of the world, the list only includes material in English and has greater focus in this country.12

As we worked, a few references would suddenly expand and require a separate break-out area for further elaboration. As we organized texts on empire by continent, contradictions appeared because empires split regions differently. Scholars of Africa argued that a separate section was needed for northern Africa due to its distinct historical processes. Another constituency in the group pondered whether readings on US Chinatowns should be included in the section on segregation or the one on incarceration; we decided to change the larger section title to “Segregation by Policy, Economic, and Social Practice.” Similarly, we discussed where to include spaces of immigration and detention, ultimately placing these under “Spaces of Incarceration”—though the immigration policies of the current US regime have already rendered this section outdated. The document was a quickly morphing and changing record of a set of conversations, which, for the most involved members of the group, was an intense intellectual exercise that was sustained for about a month. On September 3, 2017, the core working group reached a consensus and hit pause on further development of the document.13 Since then, the list has remained open for viewing for academics, scholars, and anybody interested in learning and teaching about the relationship between race and the built environment. Although it is not comprehensive, the Space/Race reading list is meant as a starting point for academics who teach histories of architecture, cities, and the built environment and who might not have dealt with race in their teaching or scholarship before, or wish to expand their teaching on these issues to other regions of the world.

An additional section of the reading list included a series of links to similar crowdsourced syllabi or reading lists on related topics, including slavery, capital, empire, and decolonization. Among these, the Standing Rock Syllabus provided the key resource for a new project: a reading group around issues of decolonization theory and the history of settler colonialism co-organized with my colleague Andrew Herscher. Backed by a faculty grant at the University of Michigan, we assembled a group of faculty members from different disciplines within the humanities to read the Standing Rock Syllabus.14 The Decolonizing Pedagogies reading group included anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and an educational policy specialist, as well as architecture historians and practitioners. Throughout winter 2018 we met in our homes over dinner every two to three weeks to discuss a section of the Standing Rock Syllabus. The thought behind meeting outside academic spaces and sharing meals was to build a community—the grant funded our dinners, which were the only expense. The group decided to split each session’s readings so that each text would be presented by one or two participants. We also decided to take turns taking notes in a shared document, open to the whole group, to avoid tasking one member with a form of labor that often silences the voice of the person that performs it (we had two volunteers per session so that they could also participate). The result was a dedicated, collaborative note-taking document written and shared in real time by alternating participants during each meeting, and available to all participants. This methodology allowed us to keep track of both individual and collective insights developed in conversation, to include multiple voices in record-keeping, and to share and record our own knowledge production in an exercise of collaborative reading and learning.15 There were, effectively, two simultaneous spaces in the group, the physical space of conversation and the virtual space of record-keeping, and while one reflected the other, the collective note-taking added a layer of shared labor to the colearning process.

The different levels of privacy and publicity of these projects have been an important part of their success. The collaborative Space/Race reading list was assembled in the semi-public space of an online platform shared amongst acquaintances (most of whom were physically distant from each other) with the intention of sharing our intellectual labor with a broader audience. It has since been disseminated—anyone with the link can view it. In the Decolonizing Pedagogies reading group conversations, coreading, for us, meant producing physical and digital spaces shared within the group, that is, communal spaces that allowed us the freedom to develop our thoughts as we collectively learned and taught the material with the ultimate purpose of integrating it into our teaching. The records we took of our conversations are available to the members of the group for personal reference, but not to the general public.16 In both instances, these projects created communities—small groups of scholars eager to collaborate around a topic—with different levels of public outreach.

Coteaching and colearning communities take us beyond the individual focus of traditional academic achievement. They facilitate the inclusion of more voices and push past our isolated disciplinary and regional silos, providing much-needed venues for the circulation of ideas beyond the requirements of academia. But collaboration is messy and difficult: more voices do not guarantee equal representation. We might not be able to achieve the ideal group composition, but we must be aware of possible obstacles to inclusive participation. The voices that are most needed are often the least able to set aside time for this type of work, resulting in an appearance of inclusivity that masks homogeneity and privilege. Patterns of race and gender inequality can be replicated in the most progressive of groups: some voices might dominate over others, workloads can be shared unevenly. Inclusion may devolve in tokenism or representation without participation. Marginalized voices should not only be included, they should be listened to and prioritized. Open and direct communication, clear guidelines agreed upon collectively, and general attention to marginalized voices to avoid replicating traditional patterns of exclusion are important considerations as we embark on these projects—they also make us better teachers.

Exercises in collaboration have the advantage of compiling different areas of expertise for a more thorough understanding of any given topic. But beyond this advantage, there is a politics to these spaces of knowledge exchange. My colleague Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi has recently written about this type of collaboration as a practice of “writing with,” or “togethering,” which she describes as a feminist practice predicated on allowing forms of difference.17 There is a politics intrinsic to the inclusion and appreciation of difference, and a different politics implicit in its erasure. Hannah Arendt delves into these politics in a discussion on the properties of action, in which she distinguishes sovereignty from freedom. Arendt warns that attempts to overcome plurality lead to either the arbitrary domination of all others, or an imaginary world where “the other” does not exist.18 It is precisely this erasure of difference that projects like the ones I have described here aim to resist. The alignment between the form of participation and inclusiveness and the content of the material that is being produced is a key component of these projects, and of a more inclusive approach to the production of knowledge at large. This alignment reminds us that teaching and scholarship, rather than stuck within an isolated academic bubble, are political acts of key importance in today’s polarized campus environments, and might provide additional space for direct engagement between academics and broader publics.

As conversations continue about diminishing institutional support for the humanities, detractors have justified defunding efforts by arguing that the field is detached from student needs and contemporary job market pressures. In this context, projects invested in inclusion through cowriting, colearning, and coteaching offer opportunities to challenge and contest assumptions on the humanities’ supposed irrelevance or detachment. We have witnessed how contemporary politics have turned academic campuses into sites of struggle, with widespread poster campaigns denigrating people of color and persistent attempts to lecture in academic contexts by outside groups espousing pseudoscientific theories attempting to institutionalize racism. Perpetrators of sexual harassment and predatory behavior are finally starting to be held accountable. Whether we want it or not, politics are present in our classrooms, and yet the disciplines of art and architecture history are still struggling with how to reconcile these pressures with the gender bias and racism embedded in our canons. Ultimately, if we understand our disciplines as histories of how we represent ourselves and shape our built environment, we understand them as far from elitist or isolated from our contemporary moment. No matter what our geographic or temporal specialty, the history of art and architecture is linked to the history of power and capital, and, as such, offers ways in which our students and broader publics can engage in much-needed conversation on the shape of our society. As teachers, we can choose to participate in these conversations or ignore them at our peril. If we are committed to a path of action that leads to our collective liberation, we need to understand teaching as an active site of political struggle.


Ana María León is an architect and a historian of objects, buildings, and landscapes. Her research and teaching examines the modernity of the Americas and its transcontinental flows, with particular focus on spatial practices and discourses of power and resistance. She is Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan and an active member of several collaborations laboring to broaden the reach of architectural history including the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (FAAC), the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative (GAHTC), Detroit Resists, the Decolonizing Pedagogies Workshop, and Nuestro Norte es el Sur.

  1.  See Tyler Trykowski, “How Google Docs Became a Key Tool for Social Justice,” Vice, January 27, 2017, at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/9adywz/how-google-docs-became-a-key-tool-for-social-justice, and my note below on the use of Google Docs. Different instances of open access, knowledge-sharing platforms are an important precedent to this effort and in many cases have provided some structural support; I refer in particular to the work of The Public School and the custodians. See http://custodians.online.
  2.  For example, #StandingRockSyllabus, #PulseOrlandoSyllabus, and #CharlestonSyllabus. A brief history of the #FergusonSyllabus can be found in this interview with its creator, Marcia Chatelain at https://college.georgetown.edu/collegenews/the-ferguson-syllabus.html. The #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus is the work of Frank Leon Roberts; see Roberts, Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest (syllabus). New York, NY: Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University. www.blacklivesmattersyllabus.com.
  3. A response from art history academics took shape through #CrisisPedagogy, syllabus sharing event occurred during the 2017 CAA Annual Conference at e-flux, an offsite location. The event was a collaborative project of many groups, including Society of Contemporary Art Historians, Sense of Emergency, Art History That, Association for Latin American Art, Association of Historians of American Art, the European Postwar and Contemporary Art Forum, Material Collective, New Media Caucus, Queer Caucus for Art, US Latinx Art Forum, Visual Culture Caucus, Women’s Caucus for Art, The Research and Academic Program of the Clark Art Institute, and CAA. Rather than respond to a specific event, the convening took advantage of the conference to assemble syllabi on a variety of different topical matters.
  4.  In 2013, I worked with Quilian Riano in #FolkMoMA, a protest against the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum that operated by requesting and crowdsourcing images of alternative ways in which the building might be saved; see http://folkmoma.tumblr.com. I also reworked these ideas with #CartaNebot, a letter to the mayor of Guayaquil crowdsourced through a Twitter hashtag in response to Storefront for Art and Architecture’s invitation to participate in their “Letters to the Mayor” project.
  5.  FAAC was cofounded by Martina Tanga, Olga Touloumi, Tessa Paneth-Pollak, and me. For more on our cowriting and coteaching, see FAAC, “Counterplanning from the Classroom,” Field Note, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 76, No. 3 (September 2017): 277–280. We recently expanded the group and had a workshop in which we cowrote a manifesto. For more on FAAC, see https://faacweb.wordpress.com.
  6.  The Space/Race Reading List, August–September 2017, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1p2GvScemyghCaQVkA3fDTsjqtprk7CPOryZv5-YUTkk/edit?usp=sharing.
  7. NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective, “#StandingRockSyllabus,” 2016, at https://nycstandswithstandingrock.wordpress.com/standingrocksyllabus/.
  8.  Our first lesson was that decolonizing is not a metaphor, an important caveat to include when using this word as it becomes more common in academic discourse. See Eve (Aleut) Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, No. 1 (2012), 1–40.
  9. Many of these projects have been facilitated by platforms like Google Docs, where shared editing capabilities allow multiple authors to coproduce a text simultaneously. It may sound counterintuitive to have these exercises in open collaboration based on a private platform, but until a widely available open source software can allow similar capabilities, Google has been a useful tool in these collaborative processes. My own involvement with this platform is greatly facilitated by my institution, the University of Michigan, which has an ongoing collaboration with Google that allows me ease of access and additional storage capabilities. See http://its.umich.edu/communication/collaboration/google.
  10. There were different levels of involvement dependent on scholars’ availability and expertise on the topic. Some folks just emailed me a couple of references; others generously shared their specialized syllabi so we could add texts to the list.
  11. I use the term “mobilized” to allude to the conflation of racism and the role of enforced or underpaid labor in capitalism, per the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Cedric Robinson.
  12.  I started the group while I was in Ecuador, but I refer here to the patterns and schedules of academic institutions in the United States, because that is where I am employed. My location when making the list made me very aware of how the list’s content and sources were influenced by a limited, Western-centric, privileged worldview that I strive to challenge from within. At the same time, the wealth of US institutions facilitates these experiments, while folks laboring outside or in the periphery of institutional support face additional difficulties.
  13.  At that point fewer changes were coming in, and the academic year was about to start.
  14. We were funded by a Faculty Communities for Inclusive Teaching Initiative at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan, and convened the group through a call addressed to teaching faculty at UM because of institutional funding (including tenured, tenure-track, lecturers, adjuncts, and postdoctoral fellows). The grant funded a series of dinners in which we assembled ourselves as a community to discuss the readings. I want to thank Andrew Herscher for his invitation to collaborate, as well as group members Hakem Al-Rustom, Joe Gone, Stephanie Hicks, Elizabeth Keslacy, Ana Sabau, Amy Schulz, Manuel Shvartzberg, David Temin, Arland Thornton, and Kathy Velikov.
  15.  We also used a master document to sign up for readings and post the next meeting location, and online forms to vote on which sections to read and keep track of allergies and attendance. While these are logistical matters, I mention them because online platforms helped in reducing the burden of organization while keeping track of all voices.
  16.  The Decolonizing Pedagogies reading group continues this year as a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop, also funded by the University of Michigan and co-organized by Andrew Herscher and Stephanie Hicks, with Ludmila Ferrari as graduate student coordinator. The note-taking system continues and allows me to keep up with the group’s conversations from Ecuador.
  17. Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, “Writing With: Togethering, Difference, and Feminist Architectural Histories of Migration,” e-flux Architecture, at https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/structural-instability/208707/writing-with/. I want to thank Sophie Hochhäusl and Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi for the conversations we had at the Radcliffe Institute and at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University in spring 2018.
  18.  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 234.