On Seeing and Writing Together: An introduction to a multimedia, collaborative writing project

by Dominique Zino
CUNY Graduate Center
Published April 18, 2013

“Mirroring Motherhood,” the essay that follows this introduction, represents the culmination of what began as a six-week effort in a small college English seminar that ran in the fall of 2011 at Queens College (City University of New York). At the time, I was in my sixth year of a doctoral program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Assigned an upper-level course that was designated only as “Selected Topics in Literature” (ENGL 395W), I was free to devise a syllabus that introduced undergraduates to my own budding area of expertise: nineteenth-century visual culture. The one requirement, beyond modeling a well-structured, topic-based inquiry, was that the course be “writing intensive.”(1) I thought a lot about the variety of ways I could satisfy that requirement and decided that this would be a course in which images and text were both stressed—a term I intended to be heard through multiple registers. On one level, images and texts would be emphasized equally and in conversation with each other; on another level, considering them in tandem would put typical boundaries between pictorial and textual modes of representation under stress.(2) I called the course “Picturing the Invisible.”

A few months before the class began, when it was still a sketchy mass of possible readings and assignments, I participated in a weeklong summer seminar for college instructors, “Picturing Reform: How Images Transformed America, 1830–1880,” hosted by the American Antiquarian Society’s Center for Historic American Visual Culture. Our treatment of images of class conflict, women’s reform, and abolitionist and anti-abolitionist movements was twofold. We observed various daguerreotypes, photographs, etchings, and lithographs as material artifacts (which were often pulled from the AAS collections so we could view them firsthand); we also discussed the social and political contexts for each image, informed by background readings we had completed beforehand, in order to construct a layered sense of its rhetorical power. The seminar revealed the extent to which images can be treated as “texts” that can be mined for analysis—a premise that, in hindsight, clearly shaped my pedagogical approach that fall. When one of the seminar leaders mentioned the Mirror of Race project as an easily accessible source of nineteenth-century photographs, I visited the site and immediately saw the possibilities its sometimes ambiguous images would afford students who were being introduced to the foundations of visual cultural analysis.

When I returned to Queens College that fall, my students wasted no time calling me out on my methodology: This doesn’t seem like an “English” class, they said. In a sense, they were right. Among the earliest readings for the course was William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844), the first book to be illustrated with photographs. Presenting the students with Talbot’s book in the first two weeks allowed me to reinforce our approach to the course material. We would not be reading only “literary” texts. Moreover, we would not be treating photographs as objects that are secondary to (or, in other words, merely illustrative of) textual passages. We read The Pencil of Nature both to pinpoint Talbot’s rhetorical argument about photography’s infallibility and to study the book as a designed object that intentionally conversed with the photos adorning its pages. Encouraging the students to see photographic images as objects that had the potential to defamiliarize or disorient us from a particular reality—even as they sought to confirm it—I isolated three thematic realms of investigation that would carry us through the next few months: “Spirit/Belief,” “Time: History and Motion,” and, finally, “Race.” (Each of these themes represented a four-to-five-week unit on the syllabus, though, of course, each warranted an entire seminar in its own right.)

Knowing that the course was moving toward an exploration of the images in the Mirror of Race exhibition helped me to concretize these themes for the students. Once we had grounded our discussion in a few literary texts and a theoretical trajectory (guided largely by readings in The Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture Reader (3), students were able to test their ability to contextualize and interpret the material in the exhibition. Through the ways the Mirror of Race daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and cartes-de-visite highlight the insufficiency and ambiguity of photographic accounts of racial difference (as well as photographic accounts of class, gender, and disability), these archival materials prompted us to notice gaps across expectation and representation and to pay attention to how we attempted to fill them in. The images forced us to pay attention to our own efforts to, as the course title offered, “picture the invisible.”

In the final six weeks of the seminar, my primary goal was to get the class members to develop a collaborative written narrative about some subset of the images on the Mirror of Race website.(4) Moreover, I hoped to help them understand that strong writing requires constant reflection on a process, a process that can be aided and refined by developing habits of visual observation. To help reinforce this parallel and use it to scaffold the writing of the collaborative essay, I passed out copies of John Bean’s description of “The Composing Processes of Expert Academic Writers.”(5) Bean proposes that becoming an “expert” academic writer—a goal that held as much importance for me as the desire to help the class become familiar with the themes of the course—involves the following phases: the perception of a problem, exploration, incubation, writing the first draft, reformulation or revision, and editing. Surely this isn’t the only way to categorize this process, but it lent us a structure that helped us to identify the tasks and challenges we might confront as the project unfolded.

The class members began the collaborative essay process by responding to three images that interested each of them individually.

41-72-10/53023D T1906

Image 1: Maker unknown, subject unknown (Native American man armed with rifle), ninth plate daguerreotype (circa 1845), collection of the Harvard Peabody Museum.

A student who chose Image 1 noted, “The way he is wearing the clothes is an odd mixture of European and Native American fashion. I do not recall ever seeing a man dressed like this in another photo.”

fig043liberty for essay

Image 2: Maker unknown, subjects unknown, tintype (circa 1886), collection of Greg French.

Another student, who was drawn to a portrait of two African American women elegantly dressed and posing in front of a scene of New York (Image 2), wrote, “I’m wondering whether this photo indicates the desire of freedom for African Americans, or portrays that these privileges are only shown in the ‘background’ (hence unattainable) for their living circumstances.”

Image 4 (see below) attracted the most attention. One student wrote, “I thought it was strange real hair was used to frame the photo, and am curious to possibly find out whose hair it could have been.” In a writing exercise that I called, referring to Bean’s stages, “Our Perception of the Problem,” I prompted each student to devise questions based on commonalities they saw across multiple photos. Two early questions we arrived at were “What were children’s views on race? Did they sense racial disparity in the same ways as adults?” and “How do each of the images communicate something about the notion of ‘possession’?”

In the exploration phase, the writers looked at the images that drew their attention and tried to group them according to themes, sitters, and any historical context they could gather. The main challenge of this phase was turning a thematic inquiry into one that is actually researchable. The discussion of depictions of caretaking in the essay that follows was one way that the students were able to formulate a more concrete, researchable approach to the broad questions we devised early on. While exploration requires writers to focus on the “problem,” in an incubation phase, which I imagined as unfolding outside our weekly class meetings, the writers turn their focus away from the specific research question at hand to explore other images in the archive, read sample essays on the Mirror of Race site, think more about what attracted them to certain images, and return to course texts from earlier in the semester. Over the course of the first three weeks of the project, we moved back and forth between exploring possible ways of answering our “problem” questions and then stepped away (“incubated”) to see if any new avenues for exploration arose. In Appendices A and B, I provide a formal project schedule as well as a guide that I gave to the students to remind them of the way the project schedule was unfolding in tandem with our writing process.

The attention to composing processes that this assignment demanded was supported by our use of a wiki. The class wiki, which I created for free at www.wikispaces.com, was a collaborative website that allowed all registered users (myself and the members of the class) to create and edit its content simultaneously, keeping a record of each user’s activity. Whether students were together in the computer lab, at home, or on their laptops or phones on their way to school or work, they could add to and revise our document from anywhere that had an Internet connection. We began using the wiki regularly when we reached the first draft phase. From what I could tell, this had three main effects on the students’ writing. First, given that each student was required to contribute to the wiki (and that everyone, including me, could see their contributions), that meant they had to start drafting early.(6) Secondly, using the wiki forced us to create subheadings to differentiate material in the unstructured space on the screen, mark individual contributions, and notice how some parts of the draft were built around quotes from outside sources, while others evolved through writers’ reflections on the images. From masses of text, the students began to isolate thematic sections and create a working outline (a good way to dispel the myth held by many novice writers that outlines and theses are fully formed before a writer begins drafting!). One of the writers, Zuaera, reflected that the process of using the wiki allowed her “to explore a unique form of researching, organizing, and constructing an essay. It was encouraging,” she wrote in an end-of-semester reflection, “to know that someone alongside me [was] also participating [at] the same pace [that I was].” Another writer, Kristie, admitted that when writing on her own she sometimes forgot the original question she had set out to answer. “With the wiki it is impossible to get off topic with other people’s work forcing you to stay on topic. In the end everyone’s work has to combine seamlessly with your own work, so it is always obvious when you are moving away from the point the essay is trying to make.” The third effect of composing on the wiki, then, was that it shed light on the often veiled phases of the writing process. As the students added material to the wiki, I would model the type of feedback I hoped they would give to each other. I inserted questions next to sections of text, and often asked specific students to draw connections across sections of the document that other students had created. This reinforced a collaborative process of trial and error, one that underscored that the students themselves were controlling the form and content of the writing rather than answering a pre-designed prompt. To view a screenshot of our wiki, see Appendix C.

Once we shaped a narrative that could accommodate various segments of the draft, the collaborative space of the wiki made it easier to synthesize multiple writers’ voices. This extended the stage of reformulation or revision—something that less experienced writers sometimes devote little time to when composing on their own. Even if a writer perceived that her individual section was “complete,” she still had the task of integrating it into what others had written, which usually led to deconstructing and rearranging material she thought would stand on its own. Many drafts later, polishing the essay was part of an editing phase that reached beyond the boundaries of the fall semester.  Returning to this essay has reminded me of the recursive nature of the composing process; while I limited my edits to issues of grammatical structure and tone, revisiting individual sentences led me to consider ways we might have recast the essay as a whole.

As I write this introduction, now more than a year after the course has ended, the essay’s three authors, Zuaera, Kristie, and Shira, have graduated from Queens College or are approaching graduation. The piece that follows reflects their work as of January 2012, when we first submitted the essay to the Mirror of Race project. As I received rounds of edits from reviewers in the months that followed, I shared them with the writers. Though I could not in good faith ask them to commit to extensive revisions of the essay after the course ended, given their other responsibilities, they expressed excitement about the possibility that their ideas would be shared with a public audience. I would like to thank Gregory Fried and the multiple anonymous reviewers of this piece for their useful feedback and for providing my students with more than one audience for their work.

Recently, I returned to a prompt I assigned at the end of the first week of “Picturing the Invisible.” I asked the class members to choose one of the units on the syllabus schedule and to describe how they imagined we would talk about “visual evidence” in that unit. Shira, who anticipated the unit about race, said she believed photographic portraits complicate our attempts to learn more about other people. On the one hand, “the person with whom we are interacting, or whom we form ideas about, gets cut off from the possibility of being someone more than we picture them to be.” And yet, she added, “Having a picture or photograph of someone . . . gives us time and the chance to make an effort at truly observing the person, and finding out who they are.” Ultimately, our sustained relationship with specific photos in the Mirror of Race exhibition gave me and my students the opportunity to reflect on the ways we were positioned as viewers. We became conscious that we might be easily misled by a backdrop, a costume choice, or a tonal value. Ultimately, we came to see the photos in the exhibition less as mirrors of some “real thing” and more as palimpsests, in which an ongoing, layered project of self-making is frozen in a set of surface features.

Mirroring Motherhood

By Zuaera Bushra, Kristie Esposito, and Shira Frager,

with Dominique Zino


Way down yonder
Down in the meadow
There’s a poor little lambie,

The bees and the butterflies
Pecking out its eyes
The poor little thing called Mammy.

(From a nineteenth-century lullaby)

A woman’s role in the nineteenth century was largely defined by being a good wife and mother, mainly acting as a moral guardian of the children who needed to be cherished and nurtured.(7) ‍‍‍‍Recognizing that the concept of motherhood was one that was thought to unify women, abolitionists capitalized on this potential for unity when they created The Liberty Bell in 1839, a gift book and propaganda piece that supported the antislavery movement. The writers took the notion of “true motherhood” that had traditionally limited a woman’s role as a public activist and used it to give mothers a rationale for putting an end to slavery.(8) As the meaning of “true motherhood” was to love all children as if they were one’s own, a “true mother” would never allow a child to suffer as slave children did. Thus, The Liberty Bell “called for white women to act from the persona of mother and implicitly worked to undermine slavery by framing motherhood in terms of a love for all children, including slaves.”(9)

This definition of “true motherhood” worked well for white women, but black mothers lived radically different lives than many white mothers of the nineteenth century. As scholar Leslie Harris notes, while white and black women shared a “sameness of identity” as mothers, the difference in their socioeconomic conditions made their positions difficult to reconcile. Slave families normally did not stay together long, if at all, which led black mothers to develop different ideas of what being a “true mother” meant.  ‍‍A slave who was a mother was not necessarily expected to be physically present for her own children. She was either required to work the fields or take care of the white master’s children while her own were cared for by the wife of her master, by older slave children, or by elderly slaves incapable of working the fields. Black women who took care of white children other than their own were given the name “mammies.” In return, these mammies were responsible for upholding high standards of the white family as well responsible for enforcing the family’s moral values and beliefs within the home.(10)

For the creators of The Liberty Bell, “true motherhood” became a compelling concept to create a connection between black and white mothers and to ultimately convince white women of the need to end slavery. However, the effectiveness of the concept of “true motherhood” as a unifying force is complicated (and limited) by the fact that it overlooks the ambiguous, maternal position of the “mammy.” Our analysis of motherhood in the nineteenth century focuses on the identity of the female caretaker as it is represented in a series of four images from the Mirror of Race exhibition.   Each photo we have selected suggests various interpretations of what the role of the caretaker might have been within the family she served.  As the “mammy” figure becomes further realized through the images, the definition of “true motherhood” becomes more obscure because of the complicated relationship the mammy would have had with the white children she was forced to care for as if they were her own. ‍‍‍‍ This woman’s unique position as caretaker might have reinforced the biological mother’s role, creating lasting bonds between black and white mothers or between black caretakers and their white charges, though it might also have provided a black woman with an opportunity for subversion or a chance to test out a new and more authoritarian identity.

“Mammies” often had children themselves, or in some cases were children longing to be back with their own mothers. The epigraph to this essay is from a lullaby that mammies used to soothe their white charges to sleep while simultaneously mourning their separation from their own children. “Hushabye, don’t you cry / Go to sleep, little baby,” the song begins, as the verses gradually conflate the mammy’s role as caretaker of another woman’s children with her longing for her own children. Through the lullabye, the mammy empathizes with her natural children’s sense of being deserted by their mother.(11)

Black mammies were often stereotyped as “figure[s] who customarily st[oo]d for conciliatory behavior and hegemonic loyalty.”(12)  They commonly received more respect and lived more luxuriously than other servants or slaves, occupying a more secure position within the family structure. Historian Lynn Hudson’s recent study, The Making of Mammy Pleasant (2003), for example, features a black woman and budding entrepreneur, Mary Ellen Pleasant, who maintained her domestic role even as she became a businesswoman. “Pleasant’s wealth challenged both racial and gender stereotypes and made her a highly visible and vulnerable member of San Francisco’s black community; by deliberately promoting herself as a mammy, Pleasant sought to conceal her success from the white community and shield herself from white supremacists’ attacks.”(13) The image of a mammy as a passive, nonthreatening nurturer seemed irreconcilable with the possibility that she might challenge the socioeconomic position of a wealthy white family.  Yet the images we have chosen suggest varying positions of power and inferiority in relationships between mammies and their white charges. In each picture the caretaker is holding the baby as if she was placing the white child on display—at times with distinct pride, even possessiveness.

 fig006embrace for essay
Image 3: Maker unknown, Julian C. Gilkesan and subject unknown, sixth-plate ambrotype (circa 1861–65), collection of Greg French; back inscribed “Julian C. Gilkesan as infant, Mooresville, W.V” and likely taken at the family’s home.

In the ambrotype of Julian C. Gilkesan as infant (Image 3), it seems Julian has been placed in the care of a black child. The black child probably belongs to a slave or a black servant working for Julian’s family.  According to scholar Geraldine Youcha, these children who watched their masters’ children usually missed out on their own childhoods.(14) Youcha recounts the story of one woman from Alabama, Cheney Cross, who was a child nanny for her master’s children: “I was brung up right in da house wid my white folks,” Cross said. “I slept on a little trundler bed what pushed up under de big bed, during the day.  I watched over dem chillen day and night. I washed ’em and fed ’em and played wid ’em . . .” Even minor neglect of duty toward the white child was often punished by the standard reproach—whipping. In Image 6 the black child looks the part of the dutiful servant.  Her face does not display any happiness or fondness she might feel toward the child.  One possible reading of the photo is that she does enjoy raising her master’s child as her own sibling, but it more likely she is doing her job by preparing to become a mammy in the future.  There is nothing to indicate the two children are enjoying each other’s company. Instead, the photo indicates how young a black girl might have been when expected to adopt a maternal role.  This early start to the relationship might be the cause for the established bond we can see between older black caretakers and children in the other images we have selected.

Hair for essay
Image 4: Maker unknown, subjects unknown, quarter-plate ambrotype (circa 1860), collection of Greg French.

Image 4, the ambrotype with the child, mammy, and the locks of hair, becomes more mysterious the more deeply it is examined. While the white child is in the center of the frame, it is the nanny who meets our gaze while the child is limp and lifeless. Here, the mammy displays more of a motherly comfort with the child than what we see in the previous image—a caretaker become mother.  If we read through this (literal and contextual) frame, what do we make of the hair plastered between the photograph and the case, arranged as some kind of halo above the two figures?  Perhaps it belongs to the child, though the texture of the hair looks too coarse to be that of a child.  If the hair belongs to the mammy, then this indicates the important place she held in the family, even as a black woman.  The blue color of the baby’s clothing draws our attention to the child, further suggesting the intent to highlight the baby, and yet the mammy’s show of affection, her crossed hands wrapped around the child, and her direct gaze are the most engaging aspects of the image. Though everything about this image is unknown, down to the anonymous photographer, the photo does display a sense of “motherhood.” Unlike Image 3, in which the baby is sternly and uncomfortably looking into the camera, here the sense of control (between caretaker and child and between viewer and sitter), seems to turn on the mammy. The baby trusts the mammy enough to fall asleep in her arms, as if she has done it many times before. Lining the frame with human hair further personifies and invites us to share in that trust.

fig051woman&child for essay

Image 5: S. Masury, subjects unknown, carte-de-visite albumen print, c. 1858–1867. Back Inscribed “S. Masury, Photographer, 289 Washington St., Boston”; collection of Greg French.

In the carte-de-visite of the white infant and her black nanny (Image 5), a viewer might see pride in the mammy’s posture.  Alternatively, might she be exhibiting the compliant composure of one who is doing what she’s been told?  As caretaker and infant meet the camera with their gazes, our own eyes are led diagonally across the image between the expression on the infant’s face and the unsmiling face of the older woman. Her dark dress and skin provide a dark backdrop for the baby’s white garb and porcelain fingers; her upright posture makes her a pillar of solidarity and poise, restraint and, perhaps, self-censoring, as much as the baby’s expression embodies an air of new life and youthful squirminess.

A photographer, according to scholar Geoffrey Batchen, not only has to photograph, but “biographe” his or her subject assuming a certain status and lifestyle in order to create more successfully the picture of the person. In the second half of the nineteenth century in particular, customers often chose specific backdrops, costumes, and props for their poses. Although these images were probably paid for by the families, mammies may have been given options for posing with the children for whom they cared while in the studio.(15) However, of the images discussed so far, only Image 3 provides some hint—the ornate cast-iron bench, the columns in the background, perhaps a porch outside the patron’s home—of the family life to which the sitters belonged. Each of the others is left distinctly nondescript, ensuring the biographical details about the black mammy do not interfere with the central focus on the child. Batchen notes that the blandness of cartes-de-visite in particular was often thought to be limiting to viewers, leaving little to no room for imagining the lives of the sitters. While the consistent lack of originality in cartes-de-visite has led photographic historians such as Beaumont Newhall and Mary Warner Marien to conclude that the photos provide no purpose and no personal appeal for viewers, Batchen notes that the carte-de-visite was also considered a commodity, and CDV portraits were widely exchanged among those customers for whom they once did actually matter. Subjects adopted a certain pose, learning how to look “like themselves,” resulting in the representation of class as a mode of performance as opposed to inheritance; as Batchen says, sitters “adopt a look that is familiar to them,” as part of a social role they want to embody. (16)  Cartes-de-visite were also meant to be touched as well as seen.  It is likely that photographer, patron, and sitters were all aware that such cartes-de-visite would be reproduced and circulated, unlike the private exchange that might have occurred around the hair-framed ambrotype. The representation of a particular class structure and way of life bestows cartes-de-visite with an air of performance. In Image 4, various sources—including biological mothers and other caretakers—may have contributed to the learned performance of the “mammy.”

fig087neworleans for essay

Image 6: S. Anderson, subjects unknown, carte-de-visite albumen print, circa 1858–1867. Back inscribed “S. Anderson, Photographer, No. 61 Camp St., New Orleans”; collection of Greg French.

Our assumption that each picture was taken for a specific purpose is crucial to constructing meaning around these photos. “Images of children, child rearing, and motherhood do not spring from nature, nor are they random,” Leslie Harris notes.(17)  Of all the black women in the images, none are pictured with their own children.  They are depicted not as mother figures but as servants to mothers.  In Image 6, we see what appears to be a white mother of three, embracing two children who are (somewhat rigidly) leaning against her.  It was taken between 1858 and 1867 in Samuel Anderson’s studio in New Orleans, and one likely scenario is that the black woman in the back right of the photo is a slave to the white family.  She is distinctly depicted as subordinate to the white woman, and the white children as well.  As in the other images, it appears her purpose is not to be a part of the photo, but to make sure the youngest child remains on the high chair where she has been propped.  Blocked by the baby she is holding, she is represented as having even less agency than the infant.(18)  Unlike the white woman who is being cuddled by her children, the black woman is being ignored by everyone in the photo and is shown no affection.  Though she is staring doggedly at us, no one is looking at her. Unlike the other images of the children and mammy figures, there is nothing to suggest that the slave woman is also a mother.  No bond is shown between the mammy and the children. Instead she has been literally and figuratively displaced by the bond that is being advertised between the “true” mother and her children.

Scholar Dorothy Roberts points out that the image of black motherhood is a complicated one in American culture. “American culture reveres no Black Madonna,” Roberts argues. “It upholds no popular image of a black mother tenderly nurturing her child.”(19) This photo does not provide evidence of Harris’s concept of black and white mothers sharing a “sameness of identity.” Instead, Image 6 depicts the opposite: the white woman is the gentle and nurturing mother, and the black woman is the submissive slave. Motherhood for black women was “connected and rooted in a social system of bondage,” sociologist Marci Littlefield notes. “[B]lack women [gave] birth to property and white women produc[ed] heirs and leaders.”(20)  Moreover, art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw has identified the extent to which African Americans’ presence in American photographs reinforced rather than exposed and discounted certain stereotypes. Shaw explains that the main function of the appearance of African American sitters in the same photographs with their owners or masters during the nineteenth century was to exploit the idea of racism and whites’ superiority over blacks. “[D]ark, servile, and often physically exaggerated counterparts served solely to accentuate the beauty or power of the colonizing master or mistress,” Shaw observes.(21) In other words, the presence of black mammies in photographs did not necessarily make them more visible but, on the contrary, authorized a master as the owner of both the body and the image of his or her slaves.

The nineteenth-century mother was judged by the appearance of her family, especially her children. Since motherhood for a white woman was viewed as her “privilege and social status,” her wealth and standing are presented through her children and her black nanny. In Image 6 the child could have been left in a high chair next to its mother but we might read the caretaker’s presence as an indicator of the family’s status. In a carte-de-visite made to be circulated rather than privately cherished, the expression of the white mother suggests an effort to display her property: a budding family, well-groomed children, and a hired (or enslaved) “mammy.”

As a group, these portraits suggest the ways black mothers were restricted in their ability to gain a sense of authority and identity through their position as caretakers.  The last of our four images might serve as a reminder that, to the public eye, “mammies” remained maternal stand-ins. They were present when needed but otherwise taken for granted as just another mechanism within the working family unit rather than an influence on the development of the children. (Even The Liberty Bell, which fought to end slavery by capitalizing on the unifying concept of “true motherhood, perpetuated a view of the slave mother as a perpetual victim who had little agency while she waited to be saved.”(22)  However, the other three images also remind us that the tight bonds between caretakers and a family’s most prized possession—its children—might serve as the key to those caretakers’ enhanced authority and agency, to their intimate and potentially subversive position within the white family structure.

If we turn back to the face of the “mammy” from Image 4, we might see an echo of the expression of the woman we presume to be the biological mother in Image 6. Whether both women might be intentionally mimicking poses of “true” motherhood or asserting their respective authority as independent protectors and caretakers, we cannot know—visually and historically, the two are inextricably bound. At the very least, however, viewing these images together offers a chance to reconstruct a richer narrative around them than can be gained by looking at any one alone. Collectively, they suggest the ways photography participated in a performance of “mirroring motherhood” in the second half of the nineteenth century.


APPENDIX A: Composing a Collaborative Essay: Our Mirror of Race Assignment Sequence

Thursday, November 3rd: Brainstorming workshop
Selection of images and discussion of what attracted us to them.

Monday, November 7th: Lecture by Greg Fried, the creator of Mirror of Race
12:15–1:30 pm, Rosenthal Library, President’s Conference Room 2 (5th floor).

Tuesday, November 8th: Meet in computer lab (room TBA) for research session
This research session will be devoted to collecting information about the origin, genre, and subject matter of the images we’ve selected (or ones that are similar). Each of you will leave with a list of texts that you will acquire, read, and annotate over the next week.

Tuesday, November 15th: Annotated bibliography due
You will be responsible for recording full bibliographic entries for each of your texts (in MLA format) and including a one-paragraph annotation that summarizes how each furthered your analysis of the images as a group. Each of you will present your annotated bibliography in class on the 15th. Based on this collective literature review, we will begin to determine a focus and structure for our essay.

Wednesday, November 16th–Thursday, December 1st: Composing
Each student will be expected to work individually on his or her 4–5 page portion of the essay, updating the wiki on our course blog at least two or three times over the course of these two weeks.

Thursday, December 1st: Revision Workshop
The goal of this session will be to cut down our text to Mirror of Race’s suggested 15-page limit.  We will work together to edit our sections of the text in collaboration in order to extract main ideas, clarify and compress our interpretations, minimize repetition, craft transitions, and summarize our argument.

Tuesday, December 6th: Collaborative essay due before the start of class today; process reflection
After turning in the essay, you will answer a series of questions about your composing process and share your responses. (I may summarize these responses as an addendum to our essay.)

Thursday, December 8th: From paper to abstract
In class we’ll work toward summarizing our essay in a 300-word abstract that we can send to the Mirror of Race project so that we can introduce Dr. Fried and other future readers to our argument in the essay.

APPENDIX B: Identifying and Understanding our Composing Processes

Stage 1: Our perception of the “problem” (Nov. 3rd–Nov. 15th)
Over the last few weeks, we’ve continued to return to the images in the Mirror of Race exhibition to identify photographs that attract our attention. Here are two thematic questions we’ve arrived at that we might apply to the images we have found interesting and provocative:
·    What were children’s views on race? Did they sense racial disparity in the same ways as adults?
·    How does each of the images express something about the notion of “possession”?

Stages 2, 3, and 4: Exploration, Incubation**, and Writing the First Draft (Nov 17th–Nov. 29th)
Overview: To begin composing our draft, each of you will select and respond to a question set that allows you to explore one image in depth, posting your responses (of at least 600 words) on the wiki by this Tuesday, Nov. 22nd.

Sample exploratory prompt for Image 3
Image content: We have a name for the child in the picture. What can you find out about him? During what years did he live? Did he leave behind any letters, diaries, journals that can be found in print?

Themes and theoretical concepts: The genre of the baby portrait in the nineteenth century is one you’ll want to read more about.  Return to the Shawn Michelle Smith article in our reader, “Baby’s Picture Is Always Treasured,” to look for relevant theoretical connections to Smith’s argument about photography and eugenics.

Connections: After responding to the first two questions, what connections do you see between this one and others in our group? Others in the exhibition? Are there any particularly compelling connections you see with an image that has not made our “final cut”?

**On “Incubation” and the writing process
After responding to the prompts for your image, read others’ responses. Then step back from the photos. Consider our selection process: are there still alterations or adjustments to our grouping we want to make before moving forward? As you move between the “exploration” and “incubation” stages and the writing of the draft, try to be as specific as possible as you respond to individual images and to the group. Also, once you’ve gotten 600+ words down in writing, consider how your segment is going to fit into your classmates’ writing. How might we begin to organize our collective draft? What pieces might we need to move around, rewrite, scratch, or extend?

APPENDIX C: A screenshot of the Wiki

Appendix MoR


(1) According to the Queens College Academic Senate, a “W” course must meet the following criteria: “1) 10–15 pages of evaluated writing in three or more assignments. 2) Some attention to writing in class, in one or more of the following possible ways: discussing papers before they are written and after they are returned; reading successful papers aloud; discussing the rhetorical strategies or writerly qualities of course readings; using informal, ungraded writing; offering opportunities for students to give each other feedback on their work; discussing goals for student writing and evaluation criteria. 3) Exams that include essay questions. 4) Maximum class size of 30 students.”

My section of ENGL 395W was unusual with respect to class size. Only eight students enrolled, and six remained in the course after the third week. In fact, the collaborative format for the fourth essay that was the basis of this piece was part of my attempt to keep the most reliable participants engaged with the material and committed to each other and to me, given that our class did not have the same atmosphere as a more traditional 30-student course. To deal with this unique, sometimes frustrating, situation, I treated the first few months of the course as a more conventional seminar, and the last six weeks as something closer to an independent study. The class members whose attendance was less steady were assigned final projects to complete in November while the others composed this essay.

(2) I owe this use of the term to Mary Ann Caws’s The Art of Interference: Stressed Readings in Visual and Verbal Texts (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989), 3–9). Stressed image/text relationships have been explored by W. J. T. Mitchell: “The word/image relation is not a master method for dissolving . . . borders [between word and image] or for maintaining them as eternally fixed boundaries,” Mitchell writes, “it is the name of a problem and a problematic—a description of the irregular, heterogeneous, and often improvised boundaries between ‘institutions of the visible’ (visual arts, visual media, practices of display and spectation) and ‘institutions of the verbal’ (literature, language, discourse, practices of speech and writing, audition and reading)” (“Word and Image” in Critical Terms for Art History, eds. Robert Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)).

(3) Eds. Vanessa R. Schwartz and Jeannene M. Przyblyski (New York: Routledge, 2004).

(4) By this point in the semester, each student had already written three formal assignments based on prompts I assigned. The collaborative assignment was the first essay where we were generating both the prompt and the writing together. While the students were exploring the archive, they were also reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)—a novel that went beyond the chronological reach of the other course readings but that illustrated the themes of visibility, invisibility, and the act of looking (at others and ourselves) quite well.

(5) Excerpted from Engaging Ideas, first edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 30–31.

(6) Bean emphasizes that this is the moment when expert writers “lower expectations. They do not try to make first drafts perfect as they go.” I tried to remind the class members of this regularly.

(7) Hartman, Dorothy W., “Women’s Roles in the Late 19th Century,” in Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, Web, November 20, 2011.

(8) Harris, Leslie J., “Motherhood, Race, and Gender: The Rhetoric of Women’s Antislavery Activism in The Liberty Bell Giftbooks” in Women’s Studies in Communication 32.3 (2009), 293–319. Academic Search Complete. Web. November 6,  2011.

(9) Harris, 303.

(10) Harris-Solomon, Amy, “In-home Child Care” in Child-Care, 2008. Web. November 20, 2011.

(11) Youcha, Geraldine, Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial times to the Present (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo, 2005), 56. Print.

(12) Hale, Anthony, “Nanny/Mammy: Comparing Lady Gregory and Jessie Fauset” in Cultural Studies 15.1 (2001), 161–172. Academic Search Complete. Web. November 27, 2011.

(13) Colley, Zoe A. “From Mammy to Schoolmarm: Challenging Images of Women as Civil Rights Activists in Nineteenth-Century America” in Gender & History 18.2 (2006), 417–420. Academic Search Complete. Web. November 27, 2011.

(14) Youcha, 54.

(15) Batchen, Geoffrey, “Dreams of Ordinary Life: Cartes-de-visite and the bourgeois imagination” in Photography: Theoretical snapshots, eds. J. J. Long, Andrea Noble, and Edward Welch (New York: Routledge, 2009), 80–97.

(16) Batchen, 92.

(17) Harris, 300.

(18) An alternative reading might be that this image is part of the New Orleans abolitionist campaign of images of “white slaves,” wherein the black girl is purposefully and dramatically hidden behind the “white” children (the siblings who can pass).

(19) Qtd. in Harris, 302.

(20) Littlefield, Marci Bounds, “Black Women, Mothering, and Protest in 19th Century American Society” in Journal of Pan African Studies. 2.1 (November 15, 2007), 53.

(21) Cited in Susanna W. Gold’s “Recovering Identity: Nineteenth-Century African American Portraiture,” American Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 4, December 2006, 1167–189.

(22) Harris, 303.