Saturday, July 2, 2016

Diversifying the Curriculum: Public Domain Library of African Folktales

After the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant-on-the-bus (yes, it's a Wikipedia article now), there have been some important changes at the University of Oklahoma; you can read about those changes in articles like this one at the Tulsa World newspaper: OU to require diversity class for all incoming freshmen. And to see how much work there is still to do, just read the comments (shudder).

Yet during this time of change, faculty have not received any mass email about changing the curriculum of our classes in order to bring more diversity into every class (and if it's not in an email at my school, it doesn't really exist...). Yes, our Center for Teaching Excellence has offered diversity programs, but no email message has gone out to ALL faculty explaining that, no matter what you teach, diversity and inclusion are important topics to work on.

So, in an attempt to get some conversation going, I decided to write up a blog post about a project to expand the curriculum of my Myth-Folklore class. I'll describe that project here, and maybe others will chime in about their curriculum adventures this summer. It would be great to see some kind of conversation about curriculum diversity taking shape; it's a conversation that every single instructor could contribute to.

Public Domain UnTextbook. Ever since I started teaching the Myth-Folklore class, I've used free public domain texts online for the readings. The "UnTextbook" has a module dedicated to African and African-American readings, and students choose from 8 different topics; you can see how that works here: African and African-American Reading Options. It's good insofar as it goes... but I know it does not go far enough.

Freebookapalooza. In addition to the books that I use in the UnTextbook, I also maintain a library of free online books that students can use for extra reading in the class and/or to do research for their class projects. This summer, I have been transferring the old version of that library (which was just a huge list of links sorted by category) to a new blog-based version where I am including the table of contents for each book. That greatly facilitates searching for specific contents, and it also makes it more fun to browse the library! You can see that blog here: Freebookapalooza.

African Books. And here's my diversity challenge: as a project this summer, I wanted to greatly increase the number of African books in the online library. By doing so, I hope to encourage students to do more reading and class projects based on African and African-American materials. So, I spent several days this past week doing a systematic search of the Hathi Trust online book collection, and I came up with over 40 books that I can use! You can browse those books here: Region - Africa. You can also browse by more specific regions: West - South - East - Central. (On the lack of North African materials, see the discussion below of colonial legacies; the 19th-century books with stories from North Africa are in French or in German, not in English, so all I have is a few stories here and there: North Africa.)

Curation. Although I have not provided detailed notes on the books, I have tried to provide a good starting blurb that can help students put the book in a cultural context (geographical, historical, etc.) with links to Wikipedia articles. I have also checked to see the different sources where the book is available online so that students can find free audiobooks at LibriVox, free ebook options at Amazon and Project Gutenberg, etc. based on their personal needs and preferences. In terms of reuse, the sites that provide digital text, like Sacred Texts, Gutenberg, and Project Baldwin, are more useful than those with just page images, like Internet Archive and Hathi Trust. By keeping track of the availability of the books at different online sources, I can increase the usefulness of the collection overall.

Searching. In addition to the book posts at the Freebookapalooza blog, I also built a public Google spreadsheet that anyone can use to sort and filter the story titles for each book. There are 1300 stories across those 40+ books, which is pretty amazing. Here is the spreadsheet — African Stories — and any user can create a temporary filter view for searching and sorting. Next to each title is a link that leads to the blog post which provides information about the source book and available online editions. It just took about an hour to build this spreadsheet, and it is going to be so useful in future years, both for me and for the students too. Now that I see how useful this is and how easy it is to do, I will build spreadsheets like this for all the book regions.

So, for example, if you are looking for stories about ostriches, here are story titles that mention the ostrich... or any other kind of filter you want to create. Just click on the spreadsheet and see what you can find: public spreadsheet. Admittedly, story titles are not always the best keywords, but it's a good starting point, and every search needs a good starting point. :-)

Next Steps. Any project like this is always evolving, and here are the next steps I want to complete:
1. Create a Diigo Library as well for better tagging and searching. Right now I have a Diigo Library for the UnTextbook, but not for the Freebookapalooza blog... yet.
2. Write up a tech tip to make sure students know how to create filter views at a public Google spreadsheet.
3. Do a similar book harvest for African-American books (I've got 11 books now, and I've already found 15 more to add).
4. Create some additional reading units for the UnTextbook from the best of the new books that I've found.
5. Keep expanding the Freebookapalooza for areas where I am most eager to expand my students' reading horizons: Native American storytelling traditions, Middle Eastern and Indian, along with Asian and Pacific sources. (The Classical, Biblical, British, and European areas are well represented already, so a lower priority for development right now.)

Canvas and Content. As we are in the midst of a transition to the Canvas LMS right now, I wanted to remark on the fact that I have not done this content inside Canvas. Why? Because the Canvas wiki is just not ready for this kind of content development. With Blogger, I am able to create a project at any scale (the UnTextbook is a blog with over 2500 post pages... just try that in an LMS — eeeek!), and if Blogger goes away, I'll move the content to another blogging platform (easy export). So, I hope that people who are looking at moving their classes to Canvas this summer will take a minute to think about the best ways to publish their class content online and share with others. Now that we have OUCreate, there are all kinds of blogging and wiki options available:

Colonialism and Racism. The public domain books about Africa come from before 1923, which means they are very much the products of colonialism, reflecting and perpetuating the racist attitudes of their time. I know there are some people who would reject the use of the books for that reason, but here are my reasons for working with public domain books:
1. Public domain books are freely and instantly available. That is important if I want students to choose the books they want to read and to explore them without any limitations. Sure, I could find some really nice modern anthology of African folktales to order as a class textbook, but I far prefer this approach where I can present students with an abundance of books to choose from at no cost — besides the cost of time it takes to actually read the books of course, and asking the students for their time, if not their money, is already a lot to ask!
2. Digital books are searchable. By working with digital books — and, best of all, books with real digital text — I am able to build better search tools and help my students conduct effective research (see the spreadsheet above for just one example of digital literacy). I definitely want my students to learn how to work with digital texts as part of their learning experience in a fully online course.
3. We need to know the past. By working with period documents like this, we can learn about the past as it was. My students might be shocked to see book titles like Animal Fables from the Dark Continent or Black Tales for White Children, but they need to know that this was "normal" for the year 1914 when this particular book was published. It's not that we are post-racist; instead, racism is different now that it was, and looking at colonial documents can be a good way to start that process of reflection. Time for some critical thinking:

That's the book's title page, and here's a link to my post for the book; I did not choose that cover image as the art for the post, as you can see. Instead, I chose an image that immediately conjures up thoughts of Brer Rabbit... which is yet another way (an important and powerful way) to think about the colonial legacy and what these African stories mean:

Expertise and Ignorance. Should I even be doing this if I am not an expert in African folklore? It's certainly easier to work on content in which you can be confident in your expertise, and that is not the case for me here. In fact, a big incentive for me in creating this collection was so that I can read and learn more. At the same time, I am building on some expertise that I do have, like knowing where to find public domain books online and also knowing how to curate and manage online content; I've also got a basic background in folklore and cultural anthropology. But here's the thing: expertise itself is part of a self-perpetuating problem; both my expertise and my ignorance are the products of racist schooling. It's no accident that I'm largely ignorant of African cultures, and it's a general problem we have not solved yet: when I ask my students how much they have studied Africa in school, they freely acknowledge that they have not learned much about Africa at all. So, if I were to focus only on my own expertise and leave Africa out of the curriculum of my class, I would risk reproducing the same racism that limited the curriculum of my own schooling, and my students' schooling too. So, in order to address diversity gaps in my class, I am going to have to confront my own ignorance and do something about it. My students and I both have a lot to learn, and I think we will all learn more if we are working on that together.

Continuous Tinkering. The way I develop my classes is by continuous tinkering, kind of like the way there is always a paint crew working on repainting the Golden Gate Bridge; when they get to one end of the bridge, they go back and start painting again from the other side. It's never finished... and the most important thing to do is just keep on going. The appx. 30 hours I spent on this project was so much fun, and I am very curious to see what effects this will have on the class next year: for example, will more students choose to include stories from Africa in their class projects...? I think it would be great if that happened. There's a kind of default horizon of "Disney fairy tales" when students start the class, and if I can help people move beyond that default mode of what they know already, that is a big success. Plus, I include a free book recommendation in the class announcements every day, and next year I will have many more Africa books to include in those announcements.

So, in conclusion:

Every class is different, and only you know what would be the best ways to ramp up the diversity dimension of your class, including underrepresented topics to expand the learning horizon. I think that is a great question for every teacher to ponder, especially during the days of summer when we actually have the time to stop and think! Are you reworking your class as part of the Canvas transition? If so, share your thoughts about curriculum develop with the #OU2Canvas Twitter hashtag. Or the hashtag #BeforeYouLMS, since it could be that there are other tools, in addition to Canvas, that will help you broaden the horizons of your class.

And now, speaking of other tools, I think it's time to start building a Diigo Library for these books. That's a fun task I can do while sipping some iced tea in the out-of-doors. Happy Summer, everybody!

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