Hailed as the state’s oldest institution of higher education and the only university established at one of California’s 21 colonial-era missions, Santa Clara University (SCU) celebrates its history as central to its identity. Images of Mission Santa Clara are featured on the school’s official logo and the reconstructed mission church serves as the visual centerpoint of the institution’s built environment. The palm-lined entrance to campus and the ubiquity of mission revival architecture serves to extend the central imagery of the mission seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhoods. The effect is a beautiful and unified campus space, suggesting a unitary and uncomplicated sense of history. That is, the structures of “authorized heritage discourse” (Smith 2006) or “official memory” (Bodnar 1993) are firmly, if not exclusively, dedicated to celebrating the Mission, and the Western perspectives and values it represents.
The historicity of the contemporary campus, however, masks a more complicated colonial history (Trouillot 1995). Particularly absent is any meaningful public acknowledgment of the thousands of Native Americans who lived at Mission Santa Clara during the colonial period (ca. 1777–1840s) or the Indigenous groups, today known collectively as the Ohlone, who lived in the region for millennia prior to the arrival of Europeans. Indeed, this Native history has been erased by the construction of the SCU campus, and what Native recognition exists is confined to the margins: modest plaques at the edges of campus and small exhibits tucked away into basements. In these ways, Native experiences and histories are contained, rhetorically and materially isolated from the broader history and living memory at SCU. The unified aesthetic of the campus memoryscape is accomplished at the expense of both historical and ethical opportunities for learning and reflection among students, faculty, staff, and visitors alike.
Our recent team-taught course, Virtual Santa Clara, sought to use immersive technologies to address this omission of Native history and memory at SCU. Applying rhetorical and anthropological research methods and digital technologies, we sought ways of using undergraduate coursework to contribute to the work of reframing campus as a polysemous site of Indigenous history and culture. In this article, we describe our course design and implementation process to these ends, exploring the affordances and limitations of using immersive technologies in a public history course such as our own. Specifically, we recognize the ways the small-scale immersive projects we implemented complement and contribute to larger-scale XR digital projects founded on community collaboration.
We use terms like immersive projects or XR projects to designate those projects that utilize VR or AR functionality (like 3D imaging and manipulability), while not being fully fleshed out VR or AR experiences. In a landscape where exciting technological work so often tends to entail thoroughly developed, large-scale projects, we argue for the value of more modest contributions, both as scaffolded pathways into technology work for teachers and students and as a means of slowing down the process of technology adoption in order to better respond to ethical, humanistic, and decolonial considerations. Our own incremental process enabled us to proceed with more care, more caution, and, ultimately, a more collaborative framework going forward.
We begin by theorizing digital and immersive technologies as a means of engaging Native history and public memory in our course. We then discuss the three major projects students produced to experiment with this work: 360° immersive tours analyzing the campus as commemorative space, annotated 3D models of Ohlone artifacts, and proposals for large-scale projects using immersive technologies to represent Native history and culture on our campus. We close by sharing our reflections on how to use digital technologies to engage campus public memory work collaboratively and responsibly. While arguing for the affordances of immersive technologies for supplementing and speaking back to more formal, top-down commemorative features of the campus space as a “place of public memory” (Blair, Dickinson, and Ott 2010, 2), we explore the challenges of implementing technology projects in courses and share our initial insights and strategies for others interested in engaging this kind of work.
Course Background and the Role of Immersive Technologies
Virtual Santa Clara was collaboratively designed and taught by faculty in English and Anthropology in Spring 2019. The faculty members came together to teach this course after each having taught similar courses in their own departments. Amy had taught archival research and writing courses exploring the gendered and racialized histories of Santa Clara University, but was increasingly dissatisfied by the limited conception of campus stakeholders and histories communicated by that course design, and vexed by her inability to effectively account for Native histories and experiences in teaching it. Meanwhile, Lee had taught a course called Virtual Santa Clara from solely within Anthropology, but was interested in putting rhetorical perspectives and a more explicit attention to student writing development in service of historical content knowledge. Drawing on work by public memory scholars in both writing studies and heritage studies, the instructors hoped this new course would push students to consider the ways their own writing could contribute to the public memory work of the campus and enhance recognition of Native history and culture of that space.
As described in the syllabus, this new course explored what we called the “difficult history” of Mission Santa Clara, with a particular emphasis on archival and archaeological materials associated with the Indigenous people, particularly the Ohlone, whose lands and livelihoods were upended by Euro-American colonialism. Despite an ongoing lack of federal tribal recognition, the Ohlone trace their connection to this land, which they call Thamien, across millennia. During the colonial period, Franciscan missionaries working for the Spanish Crown sought to convert local Ohlone people not just to Catholicism but also to European lifeways. Labor was a cornerstone of the missionary project, and it was Ohlone people who built the original structures that comprised Mission Santa Clara on what is today our campus. The mission’s baptismal records hold the names of more than 11,000 individuals, the vast majority of whom were from Ohlone communities or other neighboring tribes. Despite the severe constraints of colonialism, these people outlasted the mission system and today comprise several interrelated tribal communities in the San Francisco Bay area (Leventhal et al. 1994; Panich 2020).
Students learned about this history through consideration of the primary documentary and archaeological record, its associated secondary literature, and through conversations with Andrew Galvan, a representative of one Ohlone group that traces its ancestry through Mission Santa Clara (and a person with decades of professional experience in the public interpretation of the California Missions [Galvan and Medina 2018]). By researching existing histories and representations of our university, students critically reflected on how we tell “our history”—who is included or excluded? What kinds of evidence is marshaled (or disregarded), and what social and material forces are accounted for in the production and preservation of that evidence? What social/political/material conditions in the present shape our conceptions of our past? As a result of these considerations, the question that this course ultimately raised was, what technologies and genres are available to us for re-writing these histories toward more just and equitable ends? Our assumption here was that, with the increased potential for access and circulation of student-authored work afforded by the internet and mobile technologies, we could leverage the labor and resources of the classroom to contribute to public education, helping to reshape the landscape of public commemoration (and thus public memory) on our campus. Aligned with similar efforts like the Georgetown Memory Project, we see this course as examining and redressing silences and violence in our historical narratives through engaged student research and writing.
The new version of the Virtual Santa Clara course was designed specifically with the “virtual” possibilities of public memory and historical representation at its core. While the class had always involved online composing for the public (specifically, the composition of websites), the new course emphasized specific rhetorical considerations of writing in online spaces and for public audiences (including considerations of style and arrangement), and sought to expand the effectiveness and interactive potential of student projects and, hence, their potential to shape public knowledge through immersive experiences.
Recognizing the inflexible and conservative nature of the campus built environment, we also chose to use immersive digital technologies for this course as a direct challenge to the limits of official, material installations, extending the “commemorative landscape” of the campus (Aden 2018) and empowering students to compose public remembrance, to “author the built environment” (Tinnell 2017, xii). As John Tinnell observes, “The discourse conventions that have regulated print texts and sculptural interventions in public space…hold little sway in contemporary digital cultures” (xviii).
Originally, this plan entailed the creation of a full AR walking tour using a platform such as BlippAR or LayAR. We were interested in AR technology in particular because, as Jacob Greene and Madison Jones argue, “By integrating digital counter-discourses within spaces where information is often tightly controlled and highly regulated (such [as] iconic city streets or busy urban intersections), location-based AR projects work to re-articulate dominant narratives about a given space” (Greene and Jones 2019, np). Working in collaboration with Andrew Galvan to guide our interpretations, we sought to enlist students in the production of such counter-discourses that would disrupt the unified Eurocentric memoryscape of our campus. However, we faced two limitations in this assignment design.
The primary limitation was simply time. Confined to a ten-week academic term, we were unable to design a course outline that did justice to both our historical and rhetorical learning outcomes in addition to the technical skills for creation and curation of digital assets for such a project (cf. Allred 2017). The second concern we had was what technologists refer to as extensibility, or what public memory scholars might call durability (Blair 1999). Having taught courses in the past in which students produced digital projects that were either technologically unsupported over time or simply languished in isolation on the web, we were committed to creating projects that would have both real audiences and a future. We understood that existing proprietary platforms available for AR did not yet have a very long shelf life (see, for example, Greene and Jones’s use of Aurasma, which was purchased by HP, rebranded as HP Reveal, and then discontinued—an incident that they argue is “emblematic of the ongoing corporatization of augmented space” [np]). This is significant because, as Blair rightly observes, the durability and longevity of commemorative installations contributes to an audience’s sense of its importance (1999, 37)—a point that Hess expands to include digital commemorations as well (2007, 821). Unable to identify a reliable open-source platform for our AR project creation at the time, we altered the assignment scope to engage students in smaller-scale digital projects that would both function independently and also constitute a body of digital assets on which we could draw for large-scale immersive projects in the future. As we will argue, this incremental process served a valuable role in enabling a less colonizing approach to the production of digital public memory work in our class.
Further, the assignments that students ultimately produced represented valuable Extended Reality (XR) projects in their own right, as they allowed students to immerse themselves and their users in digital locations and interact with digital objects as a means of engaging Native history. The three separate but interrelated immersive projects we developed—360° video tours analyzing the campus as commemorative space, annotated 3D models of Native artifacts from Mission Santa Clara, and large-scale project proposals for using immersive technologies to represent Native history and culture at SCU—allowed us to experiment with and analyze the potential of immersive technology for Native public memory work, engaging students in critical/analytical, productive, and imaginative postures, respectively, all while building a repository of digital assets to be leveraged in a more ambitious and comprehensive Ohlone-designed digital project in the future (to be discussed in more detail below). Of course, these projects were not without their own limitations as well. In what follows, we discuss these three projects and share samples of the resulting student work in order to consider the affordances and limitations of these nascent XR assignments for digital public memory work. By outlining these assignments, we hope to provide insights into the potentials of more modest XR projects for those in the early stages of adopting these technologies in the classroom.
The first major project students undertook were 360° tours. Based on their knowledge of Native history and archaeology at SCU, students selected a site (that was either publicly marked or not), captured 360° images of it, and conducted a critical analysis of the history it represented, including attention to spatial arrangement and what evidence, figures, and experiences were emphasized and which were excluded. The learning outcomes of this assignment included evaluating the rhetorical effect of specific features of a commemorative site, applying course terms and concepts to the analysis of a local site of public memory, and using 360° technology to thoughtfully represent a physical site. Students were also tasked with composing with a consideration of the audience and the student’s own role in contributing to public memory (see Figure 1).
To do so, students first captured images of their selected site using Insta360 cameras. These cameras captured 360° images that are then viewable in Google Cardboard viewers or head mounted displays (HMDs), as well as interactively viewable on a PC or mobile device. Students uploaded the image files to Google Tour Creator, where they annotated them to point out specific features of the site they were analyzing that contributed to or complicated their interpretation of the site. Using these digital annotations, students composed an evidence-based argument interpreting the location as a site of public memory. Some guiding questions they considered in their analyses included:
- What is the explicit and implicit argument this site makes, and what specific features lend themselves to (or complicate) that argument?
- Who is the audience or “public” imagined by the site?
- How does this site represent or engage a sense of history, the present, and/or the future?
- What are the roles of the body, movement, and space in the experience of this site?
While students were tasked with presenting their critical interpretations for a public reader, the main thrust of this assignment was critical/analytical—focused on understanding the rhetorical work of the campus rather than producing their own historical representations. Conversations with Andrew Galvan, the Ohlone representative, pushed the students to consider the relevance of historical monuments (or their absence) to descendant communities, for whom the colonial period remains vital to their ongoing struggle for autonomy and recognition.
Usually, this kind of spatial analysis assignment would entail students producing an extended description of the place to preface the analysis, translating material and spatial features of the environment into academic prose. While this process of translation has other features and benefits, one effect of it is that the rhetorical-spatial features and their functions are dislodged from their physical and material context. In this process, an immediacy and relevance is often lost, as the resulting academic arguments are similarly dislodged and dissociated from the real and semiotically abundant physical site itself. But using immersive technology allowed students to digitally mark-up their physical surroundings in (what they experienced as) a more immediate way. While still working with a representation, the ability to comment directly on features of their environment via digital annotation provided students (and their readers) with a less mediated experience of the environment than an alphabetic representation allowed. The texts they produced sought to capture the feeling of “being through there” (Dickinson and Aiello 2016) that they experienced, and encouraged them to attend to the rhetorical effect of embodied presence at the site. At the same time, the ability to consider the campus space while not present enabled a particular kind of critical-analytical work by defamiliarizing the place and, thus, generating critical distance and space for reflection among students.
Further, the technology provided an additional representational layer allowing students not only to analyze what is present in the commemorative landscape but also to reveal the histories that have been effectively erased from our campus, such as unmarked mission cemeteries. While this analysis and historical augmentation could be accomplished discursively, students and their readers benefited from the ability to map other commemorative possibilities directly onto the existing physical landscape. Just as mobile technologies allow users to access the “embodied knowledge of [a] city” by extending the affordances of digital mapping software into physical spaces of the everyday, so can immersive representations capture the physical spaces of daily life and subject them to the critical gaze of digital markup and manipulation (Kalin and Frith 2016). While it is true, as Jason Kalin and Jordan Frith argue, that these platforms privilege “engagement with a spatial representation over engagement with physical space,” losing out on the “optical knowledge” gathered from traversing a real, material environment (224), we also argue that capturing that unfolding experience of being in place and freezing it in time is a powerful tool for deepening students’ analysis as well as sharing their findings with those not present on site.
Annotated 3D models
Moving from a more analytical posture to a productive one, the next major assignment was the creation of interactive 3D models. For this assignment, students used a mid-tier 3D scanner (HP Pro S3) to produce 3D models of archaeological artifacts and annotate them with interpretive information for a public audience. The annotations described and contextualized the artifact, and provided an interpretive frame for what they thought the audience should notice or understand about the meaning of this object. Thus, students were asked to consider not only what the “factual history” of the object is, but also what narratives the object helps contribute to the public memory of our campus. Here, too, students were asked to compose with a consideration of audience and the student’s own role in contributing to public memory. A critical difference between this project and the 360° scans was the shift from a focus on SCU’s physical environs to the more intimate domain of objects that were made and/or used by Native people who lived at Mission Santa Clara, a difference that brings to the fore a host of practical and ethical concerns (e.g., Csoba DeHass and Taiit 2018; Haukaas and Hodgetts 2016), many of which we discussed with Andrew Galvan in a class visit prior to the beginning of the assignment (see Figure 2).
This assignment began with an exercise on writing descriptions that attend to the rhetorical work of detail selection and emphasis, helping students to disrupt the assumption of an objective scientific stance and recognize the rhetorical nature of all writing. Students then explored their ideas of the significance of the artifact, tracing their attributions of significance to their own personal experiences and biases, or what Burke calls their “terministic screens” (1966, 44). By comparing their descriptions to others and examining the effects of those decisions, students came to understand even this “simple” act of composing as highly rhetorical memory work. This issue was further illustrated by their conversations with Andrew Galvan, who pushed them to consider still other ideas about the significance of the objects they had chosen.
With this in mind, students selected features of their artifacts to highlight through digital annotation and composed a brief interpretive description of their chosen artifact. This task required the students to grapple with the materiality of the objects they had chosen, building competency in the visual analysis of objects (Macaulay-Lewis 2015). This was manifested both in terms of the technology (the software we used had trouble creating models of flat objects such as buttons or coins) and in questions about which of the object’s attributes would benefit from textual annotations. The annotated models were uploaded to the campus’s public-facing account on Sketchfab, a popular site for sharing 3D objects and models. Here, too, the students made rhetorical choices about how the objects are displayed, including lighting and initial orientation. By using Sketchfab, as opposed to non-public storage solutions, the 3D models contribute to a growing repository of digital assets that can be accessed by researchers and public users today, and also be leveraged for future digital projects, once a critical mass of cultural materials has been successfully created—a goal of our ongoing work with the Ohlone community.
Following these two initial assignments, students pushed the question of public memory by further researching and revising their 360° and/or 3D projects into digital exhibits. Using one of the previously used platforms or Google Sites to incorporate archival, historical, critical/theoretical, and/or archaeological research materials, they produced thoroughly researched and polished compositions that were to be suitable for a public audience (either on a traditional web browser or mobile VR).
However, recognizing the limits of the academic term, we wanted an opportunity to harness some of the students’ creative insights and technological ideas to inform future project possibilities as well. So, for their final assignment, students created project proposals (addressed either to the university or an outside granting agency) that would extend the work and thinking we had done in class beyond what we were able to accomplish in ten weeks. The resultant document proposed to change the way Native history is presented on campus through changes to the physical landscape and/or through virtual representations in order to demonstrate students’ overall understanding of Ohlone history and historical representation on our campus, articulate the significance of this kind of memory work, and apply our thinking about historical memory production beyond the limited projects and technologies with which we were able to work during the quarter.
To prepare for this project, students analyzed sample digital projects from other campuses and visited the Imaginarium VR lab on our campus to experiment with immersive games and experiences related to public history and Native culture, including Boulevard, Native American App, and Ward & Cartouches. These experiences were meant to inspire them to consider ways technology could be further utilized to engage commemorative work. We imagined that we could thus sidestep the challenges posed by technological expertise and harness the creative energies of students to seed future digital memory projects. In these projects, students showcased a wide range of creative approaches that far exceeded those we had imagined ourselves, from relatively modest suggestions relating to relocating existing statuary to ambitious interdisciplinary projects utilizing VR headsets. In all cases, the traces of previous analytical and compositional experiences were evident in these proposals, which almost uniformly attended to the significance of spatial rhetorics, presence, and interaction in thinking about the ways the public interacts with the history and memory of a place. We believe it was through both their own presence on campus and their use of immersive technologies to analyze the experience of presence as such that led to the most exciting insights in those projects, as students drew on their own deep knowledge of the campus space to inform their plans for digitally altering it (see Figure 3).
To take just one example, student Raymond Hartjen proposed an Augmented Reality tour, which he called the Augmented Native Santa Clara Experience (ANSCE). He explains the proposal:
Using AI/GPS tracking, AR digital reconstructions, and historical annotations, visitors will be able to experience aspects of the Native American past that are not easily accessible or understood today. Digital representations of historic Native settlements or Mission-era structures of Native occupation will be layered over the existing campus structures through smartphone camera functionalities, therefore immersing visitors in a world that has influenced as well as been impacted by the corresponding modern space. Ultimately, this will benefit both local and distant communities alike by creating a more inclusive representation of the Mission past that will be crucial in constructing future notions of public memory (Hartjen 2).
Hartjen’s discussion throughout the proposal merged his own deep knowledge of the campus space, his growing knowledge of Native histories and experiences, and his understanding of public commemoration as an unfolding and ever-shifting process. And, perhaps most importantly, Harjten and other students explicitly acknowledged the importance of ongoing Ohlone consultation in any project development efforts. In these ways, students developed critical technological literacies alongside attention to ongoing colonial violence and the need for decolonial methodologies in approaching this work
Cautions and Future Directions
“[B]y what measures shall we gauge the value or harm of various digital initiatives to author the built environment?” (Tinnell 2017, xviii)
The projects students produced and imagined in Virtual Santa Clara have begun to fill a gap in public commemoration on our campus, building a repository of immersive and interactive digital assets that will be drawn on in future courses and public memory efforts, as well as a pool of ideas to inspire our Native and non-Native collaborators in their designs. Students engaged XR critically, attentive to the political work they were engaging in representing stories that were not their own and the affordances and limitations of the technologies they used to do so.
Particularly given the legacy of colonialism that shaped both the history of the SCU campus and our own positions as teachers, students, and researchers, we were mindful to cultivate a “critical digital literacy”—one that went beyond the goal of inclusion to attend to colonizing, essentializing, fetishizing, or otherwise limiting potentials of the digital work we analyzed and produced. Immersive technology contributes to the development of such critical literacies because it “encourages citizens to see their everyday environment as a networked phenomenon emerging from a series of rhetorically contingent relationships between material and immaterial (and human and non-human) entities” (Greene and Jones). That is, XR positions students as analysts as well as creators of commemorative landscapes, alert to the relations of power and influence that shape these constructions, both virtual and physical.
At the same time, engaging these digital projects has its own risks as well. As Tinnell cautions, “We are racing to adopt new information spaces, new archives, without giving much thought to the (unique) forms of expression they might enable and constrain. The lauded technical feats of digital-physical convergence do not come preinstalled with literary, artistic, or rhetorical innovations” (2017, 11). The risk of this headlong rush may be particularly pronounced in relation to cultural heritage projects such as ours, with the potential to re-colonize Native stories and experiences. A challenge in this regard has been facilitating student research and writing that could support what Angela Haas (building on the work of Scott Lyons) has termed “digital rhetorical sovereignty, where American Indians can share their own stories in their own words” (Haas 2005, np). We are still seeking more ethical and effective ways to work on digital public memory pedagogies that are guided by Native stakeholders and their priorities.
Using this course as a first step towards a more decolonial approach, we have continued to build relationships with Ohlone stakeholders in order to engage (and also study) this commemorative process. Based on the success of this initial effort, we have secured new grants to continue this conversation, including one grant to work with Ohlone tribal members to develop college-level curricular materials that are directly shaped by Ohlone priorities, values, and perspectives. Another grant will allow us to work in deep consultation with Ohlone members to design a large-scale digital public memory project that uses VR or AR technologies to engage the public with Ohlone history and culture related to this landbase.
A key part of this process is slowing down and making the challenges and opportunities of digital rhetorical sovereignty part of the process. As Jacob Greene and Madison Jones caution, “It is important that scholars of computers and writing continue to interrogate the rhetorical potential of this emerging computing paradigm by detailing the design choices made throughout the creation of a mobile media project” (Greene and Jones 2019, np). Our project serves as a reminder that, because a significant aspect of the design process in Native public memory projects must be consultation with the affected tribe(s), the pedagogical plans must allow sufficiently for that consultation in an iterative process of design and feedback—which may make larger and more formalized projects more challenging within the confines of an academic quarter or semester. Because navigating new technologies is a significant task, on top of the necessary work of building relationships with Native stakeholders, our experience underscores the risk of what Katrine Barber calls “soft technologies of violence,” such as the creation of deadlines that don’t permit sufficient reflection or thorough consultation within tribes (2013, 31). Thus, we argue that small-scale immersive projects can move the needle on more inclusive historical representation of our campuses while allowing the time for broader consultation and collaboration that is necessary for more fully decolonial practice. Sharing our process is our attempt to support such public memory work within XR and other digital media projects and pedagogies in the future.
As our work takes place on the campus of Santa Clara University, students are an integral component of the public memory projects we create. At the practical level, we hope to provide ethical, collaborative frameworks to our students, who may become part of the next generation of digital heritage practitioners. This means paying careful attention to community concerns and also, as we learned ourselves, choosing projects that are both scalable and, perhaps more importantly, achievable within the constraints of a particular academic term. But we also see students’ digital composition, in collaboration with local communities, as a way to realize the promise suggested by Malpas (2008) to use new media as a way to instill a deeper sense of place, and to actively use their rhetorical skills to shape public memory in response. Though left out of the official memoryscape dominated by physical monuments and markers, students at SCU are deeply concerned about the (lack of) representation of Native history related to Mission Santa Clara and the deeper Indigenous heritage of our campus. By offering digital projects that engage those histories, we hope to include our students in bringing about the changes that they and the local Native community collectively wish to see.