A critical archival pedagogy: the Lesbian Herstory Archives and a course in radical lesbian thought.

Author:Carden, Kailah R.


"[T]he archive" has a capital "A," is figurative, and leads elsewhere. It may represent neither material site nor a set of documents. Rather, it may serve as a strong metaphor for any corpus of selective forgettings and collections...

--Ann Laura Stoler

I have learned that the goals of an archivist and of a storyteller are not so different. We keep stories alive, we create stories, and (most of all) we create potential.

--Arturo Munoz


Archives are variously understood as institutions, repositories, concepts, and even subjects. Here, we describe how we have taken up Lesbian archives as both radical sites of knowledge production and exchange, and as pedagogical subjects. In the spring of 2015, we piloted an undergraduate seminar entitled, "Radical Lesbian Thought," nicknamed "RadLez" by the students. For their final project, the six students in this course developed their own archives in relation to their learning through and at the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). Additionally, Arturo, Cecilia, Maya, and Pinto, or The Rad Lez Kidz as they named themselves, expanded their archival inquiry as a self-directed independent study the following academic year, forging cross-institutional, intergenerational collaborations and shifting the location of pedagogical power.

Through the course, we radically co-produced inquiry and knowledge. Specifically, we undertook dialogic praxes of critical pedagogy to both study thought and to build thought. In other words, the subject matter was also the practice of learning. As Cecilia wrote at the end of the semester,

I have learned an immense amount not just about the histories of Radical Lesbian thought but also of a practice of thinking and knowledge production that we have both studied and endeavored in.... As we're studying the production of Radical Lesbian thought, we are also producing Radical Lesbian thought.... The course has mirrored a Radical Lesbian thought method of knowledge production.

We learned Radical Lesbian Thought through the doing of Radical Lesbian Thought. The dialogic interplay between content and praxis was ongoing so that the subject matter dynamically changed through our practice of it.

This paper is the story of how we collectively forged a critical, Lesbian archival pedagogy through dialogic praxes. In section one we explore three theoretical framings of archives (Gopinath, 2010; Halberstam, 2005; Stoler, 2002) paired with three features of our radical Lesbian pedagogical praxes: dialogue and difference; collaborative knowledge production; and archival methodology. In section two, we illustrate these critical archival praxes through three course activities: writing and reading archival letters; conducting research at the LHA; and creating final archives.


Radical Lesbian Thought: Centering the Archives

The syllabus for the course Radical Lesbian Thought emerged through dialogue between Kailah, a graduate student and TA in Educational Studies, and Sabina, an advisor and professor in Educational Studies. This dialogue was a practice of intergenerational Lesbian knowledge exchange that would be repeated throughout the course development, implementation, and the ensuing intellectual communities and projects. Significantly, the Department of Education at Tufts University supported this course idea through a course development grant awarded to Kailah. The program in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Tufts co-listed the course.

Our initial course description, on the front page of the syllabus, communicated the parameters of our exploration of radical Lesbian thought and situated it as archivally contextualized:

Course Description: This course will consider radical Lesbian knowledge production during the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. Radical Lesbian thought encompasses dynamic, complex, and at times contradictory bodies of knowledge. Specifically, we will pay attention to the emergence of educational and activist knowledge movements by tracing early epistolary and news-making endeavors as they gave way to the formation of collective knowledge production across literary, historical, and other disciplinary areas. This course will contextualize the history of radical Lesbian thought both inside the academy--as connected to and in conflict with feminist theory and queer theory--and outside the academy in relation to feminist and queer knowledge movements. Course readings, assignments, and seminar discussions will provide an in-depth focus on critical questions of power in relation to choice, essentialism, and shifting spheres of knowledge and education along tense lines of race, class, and gender. The course will be organized as an archival research process, drawing on archival materials, and including research at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, other Lesbian archives, and the student production of archives. This guiding course description reflected our course-development dialogue and was the starting point for the process of collaboration that unfolded throughout the course. It introduced critical lines of inquiry as they are situated historically, intellectually, and politically, and introduced the LHA and archival methodology.

Disciplinary Context: Knowledge Production and Power

Questions of power are central to the critical theoretical traditions of Educational Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) within which we developed this course. However, even within those traditions, we found Lesbian thought and knowledge production to be relegated to de-contextualized historical considerations or simply absent from scholarly discussions. Students brought this same perspective through their own academic experiences. Pinto reflected,

Lesbian history and existence have been erased in many courses I have previously taken regarding gender and sexuality, often in the name of queer theory and moving beyond the concept of fixed or labeled identities.


Maya echoed Pinto, writing "I realized that I didn't really have a true understanding of any sort of 'Lesbian history.' Who would be included in such a history, anyway?" In a course where Lesbian herstory, culture, politics and thought were not only explicitly centered, but made up the entire content, different questions of power arose. Instead of using Lesbians and Lesbian thought rhetorically as an exception, a monolithic entity, or an entirely ignored category, in this course we attended to power contestations within and between Lesbian communities and movements. Students explored historical and contemporary Lesbian debates over separatism, race, porn, S/M, and trans issues, among others.

Our entrance into intellectual traditions was facilitated by our negotiation of identities as always intersectional, always in relation to knowledge, and always institutionally co-constructed (Collins, 1999; Crenshaw, 1991). We committed to substantive intellectual, structural intersectionality that produced rich discussion, connection, tension, dissent, and knowledge. Rather than rely on or require categorical declarations of self, we engaged identity in the classroom as it emerged constantly in relation to powered contexts of ideas, debates, structures, and communities. We as teachers interacted with materials as Lesbian scholars, conveying to students not "I am a Lesbian," but rather, for instance, "I have these conflicting intellectual ideas about separatist traditions." The class was culturally and epistemically non-White, though a couple participants identified individually as White in relation to ideas or readings. Class dispositions, language, and other situated identities emerged throughout. Arturo described this intellectual process as affording "each of us our respective Radical Lesbian consciousnesses." The process was further facilitated by extending our class beyond the university and engaging dialogically with the LHA, both before and after our visit.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives

We understand the LHA as an archive organized around Lesbians as a political, intellectual, and cultural category. Our centering of radical Lesbian thought and practice matched the foundational claims of the LHA. Founded in the 1970s by New York City Lesbians, the LHA is a volunteer-run, community-based archive, housed in a Brownstone in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Its early Statement of Purpose, as conveyed in an LHA newsletter, read as follows:

The Lesbian Herstory Archives exists to gather and preserve records of Lesbian lives and activities so that future generations of Lesbians will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives. The process of gathering this material will also serve to uncover and collect our herstory denied to us previously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which they serve. The existence of these Archives will enable us to analyze and reevaluate the...

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