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Energizing Communication Studies Students to Locate Legacies of Slavery at Furman University

By Nashieli Marcano, PhD, Archivist of Digital Collections, Furman University

Over the past few years, Furman has joined the national conversation around the subject of legacies of slavery at our campus institutions. Through the commission of the Task Force on Slavery and Justice in 2018, Furman was able to take steps to explore, examine, reflect, and repair our institutional past connections to slavery. Joining the Locating Slavery’s Database Project as a pilot partner was our chance to be part of a more comprehensive and shared narrative of the legacy of racist ideologies embodied and sustained by the institution of slavery, the Lost Cause mythology, the Jim Crow segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and by current complex movements and processes that are still impacting our campus communities today. 

Nashieli Marcano, PhD, Archivist of Digital Collections, Furman University

Being part of the LSLdb Project as a pilot partner provided me with a path to enhance my work as Archivist for Digital Collections and to support students in their scholarly and advocacy endeavors. And given my established relationship with the Communications Studies program, with an active community of students engaged in advocacy and social justice efforts, I knew I could begin my LSLdb journey with them. 


Back in the Fall of 2022, I reached out to a professor of Communication Studies to invite her and her COM 351—Advocacy class to contribute with items for the LSLdb Project. The instructor found this proposition very appealing and suitable for the course. Having a common understanding of advocacy as a method to support a shared cause, to create awareness, and to call the public to action, it made it easier for both of us to align the goals of the course with those of the LSLdb Project. Through this course, students equip themselves with rhetorical strategies to speak on behalf of communities and to identify ways to drive social change. The LSLdb Project was a space for them to further understand the centrality of rhetoric to community-based processes, to question Lost Cause values that are still being communicated through the physical campus, and to engage in advocacy work that would make our campus a more welcoming place for everyone. 

As part of COM 351, students are expected to make use of rhetorical tools to critically analyze the complex dynamics of people and policies within social movements, and to produce powerful advocacy-based material through various projects. The LSLdb assignment was seamlessly integrated as one of these projects.

Initial Conversations with Instructor

Reaching out in the Fall semester worked out really well, as it gave the instructor ample time to finalize her syllabus for the Spring course and embed the LSLdb project to the course schedule.  I got really excited when the instructor shared her final version of the syllabus, which included the database project, an activity that weighted 5% of the course grade. Here’s a description of the activity, as written by the instructor: 

“Locating Slavery’s Legacy Database Project (5%) – Our class will do some hands-on advocacy work related to historical recovery by participating in the Locating Slavery’s Legacies Database (LSLdb), an inter-institutional collaboration that aims at collecting information about monuments and memorials related to the unfortunate legacy of slavery on college campuses. In pairs, students will research and contribute to the database, with the help of our university archivists.”—COM 351: Advocacy course syllabus

During our first meeting, we drafted a lesson plan that would introduce this project to a class of 15 students. I presented the overall aim and objectives of the LSLdb initiative, why Furman is joining as a pilot partner, and the opportunities it can provide to students involved. This was followed by an overview of the LSLdb materials (e.g., templates, controlled vocabularies, practice items, etc.), which were already created by the LSLdb team.  

The LSLdb Project was a space for [students] to further understand the centrality of rhetoric to community-based processes, to question Lost Cause values that are still being communicated through the physical campus, and to engage in advocacy work that would make our campus a more welcoming place for everyone. 

Fine-Tuning the Scope of the Project

Initially, the instructor wanted her students to work in pairs to produce an inventory item, for a total of nine entries. She anticipated each entry would absorb a long period of time to curate individually, but I was able to eliminate that concern by suggesting students to work in pairs and to concentrate on one shared subject that could yield two or more inventory items. Say, for instance, the Clark Murphy Housing Complex, a building that was recently renamed after a former enslaved person who worked for one of our founders, James C. Furman.  The renaming of the building, the new plaque created, plus the person of Clark Murphy could easily generate at least three inventory items. Two students could still work together during the research phase of their activity, then author these items individually. 

The instructor also requested to give the students an inventory of item options to choose from related to Furman’s campus to ease the process. Since the efforts of the Seeking Abraham project produced a comprehensive spreadsheet of places, objects, people, and events to memorialize, gaining access to this spreadsheet further simplified the process, allowing more time for the research and curation activities.

In terms of presenting our lesson, we decided that our best approach was to co-lead two sessions (75 minutes each) to help the students get started with their research and produce their inventory item. To further connect the project to the course objectives, students were assigned to read the introductory chapter of the book Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials, entitled “Rhetoric/Memory/Place” (Blair, Dickinson, and Ott, 2010). After our initial meeting, the instructor provided me with the information needed to assign Omeka account “author” designations to students for them to generate data for the LSLdb. This step was very easy to perform, as the LSLdb team offered great training on how to do so.

Session I: Introducing the Locating Slavery’s Legacies Database Project to Students

Given the rich rhetoric nature of this course, students were being trained to create an open and structured communication space to discuss painful topics related to social identities, white supremacy, democracy, whiteness, and systemic power structures. By the time I did my first visit, I could tell students were already applying dialogic tools that facilitated meaningful conversations. They were ready and eager to select monuments, plaques, spaces, people, and events; conduct research on their selected items; and author items using the Omeka S platform.

During this first session, I introduced the participants to the database project, and conveyed how their contributions would enrich the database and give meaning to their advocacy work. After the introduction, the instructor formed a class discussion for students to establish some correspondences between the concepts of rhetoric, memory, and place from the assigned reading, and the database exercise. This was followed by a preview of the Omeka platform (the front the public sees, and back end where contributors create items), an overview of the Box folder I have created for them, containing all the resources needed (e.g., templates, taxonomies, spreadsheets), and a copy of the item inventory from which they would choose their items, as well as a sign-up sheet. I must say, this session reached a climatic point when the sign-up sheet with the inventory items was released to students, who were eager to grab the ones they had their eyes on. 

The last part of the session was devoted to presenting good starting points within our Digital Collections Center website for conducting their initial archival research, which included student newspapers, yearbooks, and historical images. It was also a moment for me to have conversations with students who did not get their first choice of item/subject selection and to get them excited about learning more from that item/subject. 

Session 2: Training Students on the Use of Omeka S  

Students were given two weeks to conduct their research on their selected items and write up their entries. During our second session, I trained them on how to populate the item fields in the Omeka S platform. Thankfully, the LSLdb team had already built the database infrastructure, so I didn’t have to worry about that piece. Also, the Omeka S training and constant support I received from October Kamara and from the monthly watercooler sessions just made it much easier for me to transfer that knowledge to the instructor and her students. It was impressive to see how, by the time I finished the Omeka demo, some students were already navigating the platform and entering their items without issues. 

Post-Session Assessment

After students submitted their final version of their database entries, the instructor and I convened a meeting to do a general review of the entries. The goal at this phase was to figure out how to grade them and determine what constitutes an “A” level entry versus a “C” level entry, for instance. I created a draft rubric to evaluate contributions and shared it with the instructor for input. It was awesome to hear the instructor comment on how she and her students were very pleased with this activity, indicating that they found it to be a “purposeful and meaningful way of engaging in advocacy and public memory work.”  She even expressed interest in repeating this activity for her COM 201—Rhetoric & Strategy course this coming Fall. I was thrilled to hear this!

Overall, through my pilot partnership with the LSLdb Project, I was able to do outreach, to promote our archival collections, to establish relationships with other campus partners, but more importantly, to engage Furman students in work that they felt it was important. I look forward to continuing this collaboration. 

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