social justice, teaching, annotation

Right to Learn (R2L)

I am an Associate Professor in the School of Education and Human Development and Director of the Right to Learn Undergraduate Research Collective (R2L). Keeping in mind the “lead activities” of the university—to foster independent thought, to midwife creativity, to humanize—and the way these undertakings are currently imperiled or marginalized (every generation faces this issue), I feel compelled to say a few things about the kind of research R2L is doing and its connection to the ThinqStudio. Let me to provide a bit of history.
Now in its twelfth year of existence—we did not even know we existed the first year; we did not have a name for the first four years—R2L is fashioning an argument for education as a fundamental right of personhood based on the principles of dignity. We are in the midst of producing two “dignity artifacts.” One, a handbook of the content and criteria of dignity in two landmark cases (Tennessee v. Lane, 2004 & Lobato v. Colorado, 2013). Two, a transcript of approximately 18 hours of audio recordings of a 1962 voter registration workshop sponsored by the Highlander Folk School. Together, these creative products demonstrate how we treat the manifestation of dignity as a social interactional fact, an observable and researchable phenomenon with roots in social life.
We are thriving as a research group, but this was not always so. As recently as 2017, R2L was slowly passing away. The confluence of a number of factors (ThinqStudio among them) help tell the story of how R2L, comprised of four generations of undergraduates, moved from surviving to flourishing. (Before going further, here are the members of R2L in order of seniority: Tania Soto-Valenzuela, Mandy Wong, Tamara Lhungay, Maria Velasco, Valencia Seidl, Arliss Howard, Frida Silva, Diego Ulibarrí, and Raquel Isaac). I had to clear my plate and re-dedicate myself (for, like, the thirtieth time) to R2L. What did this mean? Securing time and funding. Without funding, a research project will learn to live on the margins. Without time, a project will exist as if on an intravenous feed. I put together three grant proposals over the course of a few months. (From 2007 to 2017, R2L had existed on approximately $250 a year. Enough for a single group lunch and a few books.) If the fortunes of R2L were to change, funding would have to be coaxed from the parched ground.
The first pitch to a foundation in downtown Denver ultimately resulted in no funding, but served to build solidarity among the group. Why? We made the pitch together; we shared the disappointment. The enduring memory: the R2L group in a fancy elevator, silent as the door closed, and then letting loose a collective scream in celebration of our efforts.
The second proposal to one of the most prestigious foundations in our country was initially rejected. In a strange, but fortuitous string of events, the proposal was eventually funded after finding a number of advocates. (As any scholar can attest, this is an extremely rare occurrence.) The third proposal was funded by CU Denver’s Office of Research Services, headed by Associate Vice Chancellor Bob Damrauer. In the span of a month, we went from nothing to close to $90,000 in funding. Any Principal Investigator of a humanities and social science project knows that this is like hitting the sweepstakes. For the first time in R2L’s history, we were flush.
In March of 2018, we presented our work on the content and criteria of dignity at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities in the grand halls of the Georgetown Law School. The all-too-simple explanation would be that the funding was directly responsible for our success. Any experienced scholar knows that funding purchases the “labor potential” of a research team. However, the work must still be carried out smartly, creatively, and efficiently. Funding is opportunity, but it does not tell us how ideas can become a viable and potent research agenda, the fruits of which can touch reality.
Without the existence of ThinqStudio—i.e., the network of creative scholars who constitute the group, the space it holds for innovative thinking around digital tools and socially engaged work—the R2L group may never have learned to flourish. Credit for contact between the two groups can be traced to Dr. Remi Kalir, a ThinqStudio affiliate, and a conversation we had about the utility of Hypothesis, an online annotation application, to R2L’s work. Before Dr. Kalir, we were slowly organizing our work around close reads of the extensive court record in Tennessee v. Lane and Lobato v. Colorado. (Again, our theory was that to fashion a novel and effective argument regarding education as a fundamental right of personhood, we had to become experts in the way that the concept of dignity was used in high-stakes, landmark cases.) More specifically, we were collectively reading “difficult primary texts,” but our “interface” was happening on 5 x 7 notecards. Our thinking was rich and robust, but our mode of communication was antiquated and inefficient. Hypothesis, allowed us to read, annotate, and curate documents online. An annotation made by an R2L research associate at 2am could be followed up with ease 7 minutes or 7 days later by another member. Questions and explanations, hunches and assertions, all found continued life online. Our process was made visible and retrievable. Moment-to-moment exchanges could now benefit our future thinking with greater clarity and efficiency. Through systematic “bidding”—a “homemade” process through which claims regarding the content and criteria of dignity in the primary documents were subjected to scrutiny through discussion—we were becoming of one mind that did not require absolute agreement across the board.
I was given the honor of being a ThinqFellow in 2018. The experience of thinking about digital technologies and their value to the educational process has been invaluable. Last week, I gave a “mini-keynote” at the Online Learning Consortium Innovate Conference in Denver. I spoke words that would not have been possible without the ThinqStudio “catalyst” in my experience as a scholar and person. I described the work of R2L as “human rights work…the slow, intergenerational work of contributing to the creation of human rights norms in society.” The words surprised me. Never before had I described our work in that way. If the normative planetary fact of dignity makes our work intelligible (grammatical and syntactical conventions alone cannot make something comprehensible), and the human mind makes a dignity argument for education as a fundamental right possible, then things like ThinqStudio (i.e., a network of intelligent moral agents with tool-oriented expertise) make this kind of argument realizable.

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