Interview with Dr. Collie Fulford

Image courtesy of Humanities Futures, an initiative of Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute

Dr. Collie Fulford is an Associate Professor and Director of First-Year Writing in North Carolina Central University’s Department of Language and Literature, and recently served as President of Carolinas Writing Program Administrators. As a 2017-18 NCCU Digital Humanities Fellow with the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University, Dr. Fulford focused on the integration of digital elements in technical and professional writing courses; you can read her blog posts about her fellowship work here. Additionally, Dr. Fulford serves as a Mellon Humanities Unbounded Visiting Faculty Fellow at Duke for the 2019-20 school year, where her current research focuses on the lived experiences of adult HBCU students who are engaged in academic, workplace, community, family, and self-sponsored literacies. DHC-NC intern Brandon Hedgebeth conducted this interview with Dr. Fulford, his former professor at NCCU.

What is your experience with digital humanities? Where did it all begin?

It was actually a student who introduced me to the term probably my first year at NCCU, maybe in 2009 or 2010. Tressie McMillan Cottom (now an acclaimed sociologist) was in my Writing for Digital Media class and she was coming across the term “digital humanities” in her own research. She asked me did I consider myself a part of that. I didn’t identify with DH at the time. I didn’t really identify with it or even understand it even though, as Tressie pointed out, I seemed to be doing related work from 2009 or so on.  It wasn’t until after a colleague, Matt Cook, persuaded me to apply for a DH fellowship in 2017, that I started thinking of myself as belonging to any kind of DH community or movement.  

During that academic year 2017-2018 I was in a cohort of NCCU DH fellows in collaboration with staff at Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute. I started feeling a sense of belonging to this term and to this community of cross-disciplinary practitioners.

What drew your interest in this field at NCCU specifically?

When I first was hired at NCCU in 2009, the chair gave me my teaching assignments and these included things I had never taught before: Writing for Digital Media, Intro to Technical Writing. I was so intimidated!  I had to learn fast so I could sound like I knew what I was talking about with my students. Come to find out that much of what I was teaching myself about how to teach those courses in 2009-2010 is very relevant to DH. But I didn’t get that there was already in existence a community for this. Hearing students use the term and being around other faculty at NCCU who had had formal DH experiences influenced me to look into DH further. My colleagues Matt Cook, Josh Nadel, Lisa Carl, Kathryn Wymer, and Jarvis Hargrove were in DH cohorts before me in the NCCU-Duke FHI DH fellowship, and the ways they talked about their experiences sounded exciting. In spring 2017, I attended a symposium where some of my friends were presenting. I wanted that kind of renewed teaching depth to rub off on me! It was what the cool kids were doing, right? So I applied.

How would you characterize your role within the digital humanities community?

It’s hard to pin this down for me right now. Thinker. Learner. Colleague. Teacher. Researcher.  All of that, but the through-line is that I’m always learning more. I never really feel like an expert at this.

I think a lot about the relationship between what I teach and what I research and how I might be able to put digital writing practices, research practices, and teaching practices into good use for myself and with others. My friend Brett Chambers (also in the same 2017-18 cohort of DH fellows) reminds us that the humanities aspect of digital humanities is the most important point. I was struggling with that when I presented at the end of my DH fellowship. I was trying to figure out how the humanities figure into the relationship between technical writing and digital pedagogies. The digital is obvious, but I had to think really hard about how I could explain to myself and others why technical writing is not just a set of procedures and tools, but also, from a humanities perspective, a field that has civic and personal value. Ethical technical writing is what I have in mind, now, as the fusion point of these areas.

I’m also a DH colleague. DH is about community. My cohort of the Duke-NCCU FHI DH fellows became pretty close during our year meeting together regularly and talking about DH, teaching, and research. We have been involved in more collaborations since then, and that’s exciting.

Even though I feel like a relatively new member of the DH community, I have been given opportunities to teach others about DH approaches. The most amazing thing was when Matt Cook (Anthropology & History) invited Russell Robinson (Mass Comm) and me to join him in Pakistan in May 2019 to lead workshops on DH for faculty from many different fields and universities. That was so cool; I’m still vibrating like a puppy from that experience.  When five Pakistani scholars came to the Triangle for follow up work over the summer, we were joined by Michele Ware (English), Brett Chambers, and Bruce DePyssler (both Mass Comm) as hosts for our new friends. Although we all attended DH-relevant formal events together, and we provided mentoring for the Pakistani fellows around DH practices, the most intense parts of the experience were humanistic — toward building deep human relationships across our different perspectives and identities.

A bunch of us DH fellows also jointly planned a regional DH conference last fall here at NCCU on the theme of #RepresentationMatters [the last Triangle Digital Humanities Institute before we changed our name to the Digital Humanities Collaborative of North Carolina! -Ed.], which was really affirming and satisfying.  We work well together, and we enjoy each other. I still feel like a pretty basic practitioner of DH teaching and research. I’m in awe of what my friends here do with DH. Lenora Helm Hammonds in music, for instance, has such vision for her arts curriculum projects. She knocks my socks off. And my friends in Mass Comm are all over this stuff. The fusion of racial justice with digital humanities is an excellent feature of our microcommunity of DH practitioners here at NCCU.

As for teaching, you were in my tech writing class the year after I was in the DH fellowship, so you got to experience me refining some some DH methods I had tried the prior year.  You might remember the event planning unit where students created digital surveys, designed promotional materials, and wrote up reports. I designed that with a deliberate attention to what digital tools could help writers create meaningful events that served their communities on their own terms. I have been trying all kinds of DH approaches across my classes, using everything from note-taking technologies to collaborative writing tools to graphic design apps.

How has your research impacted the community of NCCU?

Since 2017, I’ve been focusing my research on the adult student population at NCCU.  (Although this work isn’t explicitly a DH project, being in DH community has influence the ways that I think about conducting the research and communicating the findings.) This year I’m on research leave as a visiting professor at Duke. I’m able to dive deep into a new study researching the writing practices of adult students at NCCU. 

Since I began the original 2017 project in collaboration with Stefanie Frigo and a team of adult undergraduates, I think the impact on NCCU has been quiet, but important. Early on, the team determined that adult students crave a sense of community. The process of doing research together, whether as a researcher or as a participant in focus groups or interviews, has become part of creating community together. I’m thrilled that NCCU adult students started their own student organization this year and I think that the project played a small role in identifying students’ desire for this. Steff Frigo and I are cooking up more ways for undergraduates to join with us on conducting meaningful research on student life.  My research has become not just about, but also for and with students. I include a handout about the research projects that my team shared with the office of transfer services last fall.

What is in store for your digital humanities future?

The handbook for NCCU’s adult students is a collaborative DH project headed by my research intern, Thomas Kelly. He’s doing a great job of writing up advice and becoming the project editor. He’s currently gathering insights from various campus people to add to the handbook, which we anticipate publishing online.

The NCCU DH mentors are still in communication with our colleague-friends in Pakistan through WhatsApp and other digital modalities. We are currently offering support for their transition to more digital teaching since we are all in the same boat across the globe in needing to find accessible ways to teach during the Covid-19 outbreak.  Longer term, our group serve as DH consultants for research and teaching ideas. The knowledge flows in more than one direction between our two countries. I want to continue building relationships with scholars across the globe to learn more about their lives, their teaching, and their research.

I anticipate continuing to learn, always, and experiencing the DH community as it evolves.

If you could change one thing about the scope of digital humanities, what would it be? And, why?

There has been some really productive discussion related to our conference theme of #RepresentationMatters. DH has been criticized from within that it’s too white, like much about our society. That’s a striking limitation to an otherwise cross-pollinating, interdisciplinary field.  My colleagues and I want to circulate ways to do culturally inclusive DH work, to point out places where the DH community is and is not doing that yet, or maybe not well enough. Among my DH peers, the projects that excite me the most are ones that address racial equity directly. It was so important for an HBCU to host the regional DH conference because the racial diversity was much more prominent than at any other DH event I’ve attended. We who teach and study at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions need to keep taking up the roles of hosts, leaders, and planners – for DH and all other educational movements – to help them be representative of the real world, to be informed by multiple realities. I think it goes beyond representation, though. Bringing African American and Pakistani thought, for instance, to the heart of a global educational movement means taking seriously the potential for our differences to generate new knowledge.  

Thank you to Dr. Fulford for taking the time to respond to these interview questions.

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