Archival Pedagogies

Kailah Carden, M.A.'16, ethnographically explores the role of archives in radical lesbian thought

By Ariana Hajmiragha

Tufts Graduate Student Kailah CardenOn October 16, 2015, graduate students from Tufts and across the nation came together for the 5th Annual Tufts Graduate Humanities Conference, “Radical Kinship.” Among those presenting was Kailah Carden, a master’s student in the Educational Studies program in the Department of Education. At the conference she shared the research from her master’s thesis, “Queer Times in the Lesbian Archive,” based on fieldwork conducted across six lesbian, queer, and women’s archives in the U.S. in the summer of 2015, and funded through the Graduate Student Research Competition.

“This all started when I helped Professor Sabina Vaught develop and then act as a teaching assistant for a class called ‘Radical Lesbian Thought’ in spring 2015,” Kailah explains. “Professor Vaught had the idea for the radical lesbian thought class to go to the Lesbian Herstory Archives with the class… We used critical archival research skills as one of the frameworks of the class, so that really introduced me to my main methodology: Stoler’s archival methodology of ethnography of the archive-as-subject.”

 The course “Radical Lesbian Thought” sparked her interest in the archive itself as a site of learning and teaching, as well as a site of community. As her focus was on the archive itself as an ethnographic subject, her field notes encompassed everything from finding the archives, gaining access, the history of each archive, and the way they collect and share artifacts and information. She defines the lesbian archive “as a community space in which knowledge is co-produced by this counterpublic that’s social, political, and intellectual, and lesbian, broadly, and also how those archival pedagogies of teaching and learning play out in a classroom in which the content is radical lesbian thought.”

Building upon her ethnographic work, Kailah will examine how the production and exchange of knowledge within an archive is related to lesbian pedagogies.  As she explains, “I am interested in using my ethnographic methods to identify a pedagogy of the archive, bridging archival pedagogies while thinking about pedagogies with archives, how those can exist in a space that’s not an archive, and seeing the similarities between the two.”  

Students at the Radical Kinship Conference.She was particularly interested in sharing her research at the “Radical Kinship” Graduate Humanities Conference at Tufts because the theme resonated with her research, namely kinship in relation to knowledge production in the lesbian archive. An archive as a whole has no single author; it is built upon intergenerational and relationally produced knowledge. “For example,” says Kailah, “the Lesbian Archives accept anything, so even the definition of lesbian is constantly being co-created by everyone who is donating an artifact, who maybe never met each other or aren’t invested in this project, but by becoming part of it they help define it.”

Kailah points out, even the space matters, contrasting the two lesbian archives she visited in Brooklyn and Los Angeles: “The Lesbian Herstory Archives, in Brooklyn, is in a brownstone, so it’s in a house and it feels like a house, and that’s very intentional. You can touch everything, it’s all volunteer run, it doesn’t look like an institutional space.” In contrast, the June Mazer Lesbian Archive is “a more institutional building that was gifted to them by the city of West Hollywood. It’s on the second floor of office space, it’s also all volunteer run but it’s a little more what you might imagine an archive might look like.”

A sense of the immediacy and subjectivity of the past comes through while listening to her presentation at the “Radical Kinship” Conference. Just as the artifacts within an archive bring the past into the present for the viewer, so too does the viewer’s understandings of the present inform their understandings of each artifact, thus co-creating knowledge that may be different than the original intent. Kailah also shared her research in November at the Curriculum and Pedagogy Conference in Ohio, and will continue her ethnographic research of pedagogy in and with lesbian archives.