Basic information

Instructor: Melanie Feinberg
Class location: UTA 1.210A
Date and time: Thursdays, 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Instructor information

Office: UTA 5.446
Office phone: 512-471-8487
Office hours: Tuesdays 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. or by appointment

Course description

Conceptually, this iteration of 385U is an inquiry into the unknown. Together, as a community of scholar-designers, we will investigate how the notion of residuality, or the experience of being insufficiently described via a classification system, can be actively enacted as part of an information collection's descriptive infrastructure (metadata). Our exploration focuses on three questions:

  • How can a digital collection foreground the experience of the residual?
  • What constitutes the authoring experience of such a digital collection?
  • What constitutes the reading experience of such a digital collection?

Structurally, this course combines seminar-style, focused discussions of readings with project-based elements of a design studio. We will use activities of critically interrogating experimental designs, making our own designs, and reflecting back on our process and product to generate insight into our foundational questions. Our design practice will be grounded in the idea that a collection is both a form of expression and a form of experience, shaped by the designer, or author, but brought into being by user (or audience, or reader) interactions with the collection's resources.

Practically, the ideas we engage and the skills we will learn should be applicable to any sort of collection. However, our design environment for this course will focus on digital media collections (specifically videos) made available online as a type of digital library.

Our exploratory focus: Residuality, ambiguity, and mestiza consciousness

To enable more efficient searching, sorting, and synthesis of information, many of our choices for describing things—documents, data, ourselves—are mediated by controlled vocabularies, or classification schemes. On standardized forms, for example, we declare our marital status by selecting either Married or Single, and we specify our gender by selecting Male or Female. While using a formalized system of categories has many advantages for aggregating and analyzing information, it also has a flattening effect on the interpretation of the object being described. Our reasons for selecting Single may be very different, for example: that category can encompass the divorced, the widowed, the gay couple who cannot marry in their locality, those who object to marriage for political reasons, and so on. However, that diversity is not carried through in the category system, where only Single and Married exist as descriptive terms. In other situations, an object might not fit any defined category, as when a movie incorporates elements of a mystery, a romance, a political thriller, and a tragedy, all at once.

The sociologists Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker describe the state of not quite fitting into a classification scheme as being "residual," and they comment upon the effects of this exclusion: from feelings of invisibility and pain to feelings of pride and empowerment. The state of residuality has connections to the feminist writer Gloria Anzaldua's idea of mestiza consciousness, or of a life experience that continually crosses and recrosses borders and boundaries.

Mestiza consciousness conceptualizes the residual as a continuously dynamic process of transformation. The Coatlicue state of transition described by Anzaldua is neither the acceptance nor rejection of an opposition but something beyond it. As Anzaldua describes in Borderlands, the new mestiza who lives the Coatlicue state "operates in a pluralistic mode…not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else" (p.101). The new mestiza shows within herself a path between oppositions, a path that has a specific history of travel inscribed within it but has no endpoint. From the perspective of classification schemes, we can think of this as a continual process of understanding what a category like "Single" means: what it means to be that, to not be that, to be that or not be that as a specific, ephemeral experience.

Mestiza consciousness can also be seen as a form of rhetorical strategy. In Borderlands, Anzaldua shatters document forms in a way that makes the reader's path echo the mestiza's path. The reader must work through material that is, frankly, irritating in its density and apparent lack of coherence as indicated by existing genre conventions. It is only through accepting a level of unknowing that the reader can progress in understanding. An attempt to enact mestiza consciousness/residuality in an information collection will also need to alter its forms, potentially in a disquieting or initially annoying way, as traditional goals, such as efficient information retrieval, are subverted through the alteration of features that typically support those goals. For example, in a traditional well-constructed controlled vocabulary, the relationships between a broader category and its narrower terms should be apparent, consistent, and coherent. In a vocabulary motivated by mestiza consciousness this might not be the case (or might not always be the case).

In this course, we will read and write "transformations" of traditional information collections that attempt to exploit the gaps and borders between categories, instead of hiding them. Most scholars of classification assume the phenomenon of residuality to be inevitable. A classification's power to make sense of data results from its ability to consistently discriminate between exemplars, and encouraging ambiguity would seem to work against those ends. Indeed, it seems necessary that any project of classification, in its double action of both sharpening some edges and blurring others, will distort the items it orders, sometimes slightly and sometimes significantly. Instead, we want to see what happens when we exploit this phenomenon as a designed feature, instead of trying to eliminate it like a software bug. What happens when we emphasize contradictions instead of trying to erase them?

Students with disabilities

Students with disabilities may request appropriate academic accommodations from the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, Services for Students with Disabilities, 512-471-6259.