Lessons from Caseiyneën Saën: Creativity, resilience, and collaborative scholarship

April 2, 2021

May Helena Plumb

This is the twelfth in a series of blog posts by participants in the 2019 ACLS Digital Extension Grant project “Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship” (PI Lillehaugen) published on GlobalSL / Community-based Global Learning Collaborative and Ticha. Previous blog posts are available here: (1) Lillehaugen/January 2020; (2) Flores-Marical/February 2020; (3) Kawan-Hemler/March 2020; (4) Lopez/July 2020; (5) Kadlecek/1 August 2020; (6) García Guzmán/15 August 2020; (7) Park/September 2020; (8) Zarafonetis/October 2020, (9) J. Lopez/Nov 2020, (10) Velasco Vasquez/February 2021, (11) Lillehaugen/March 2021.

The Ticha team started 2020 with a few goals: expand the resources available on the Ticha website, write a set of pedagogical materials, and workshop those pedagogical materials with Zapotec community members. Knowing little of what was to come, we started making big plans.

In a meeting last December, the team took some time to reflect on what we had actually accomplished in 2020. Many of our original plans did not work out in the way we had envisioned! But after lots of brainstorming and hard work, we had indeed met our goals. Everyone expressed a lot of gratitude towards the group, and something that stood out to me was how the deeply collaborative nature of the project had contributed to our successes throughout the year. As Xóchitl Flores-Marcial pointed out, “academia is generally pretty individualistic, it’s also very solitary, and this group demonstrates that we can definitely do things differently!”

It’s true — Ticha is anything but solitary and individualistic. The core team includes both Zapotec and non-Native scholars, linguists, historians, and librarians, educators and students. The goals of the project are centered on accessibility and growing knowledge, and that requires collaboration. The team meets every week. One task in these meetings is to read each chapter of Caseidyneën Saën as a group; we discuss everything from content to organization to word choice. This process is time-consuming, and sometimes we disagree! But by combining perspectives from such a large team — bridging multiple disciplines and diverse experiences — each chapter becomes richer and more accessible.

Because our team comes from many places, we were already meeting online in January 2020. But we had originally planned for in-person team meetings and community workshops in Los Angeles and Oaxaca. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, another benefit of our collaborative model came to light. We were able to give each other hope. As individuals, our creativity and motivation felt stifled by the trauma of the pandemic. We were tired. But we talked it out, we came to some new ideas, we rested, we talked it out some more. And slowly, drawing on each other’s energy, we moved forward, and built the Conversatorio program: a series of online workshops led by and for Zapotec people to discuss and learn from colonial Zapotec documents (see García Guzmán/15 August 2020, Lopez/November 2020). While we had originally hoped to meet in person, the online nature of the Conversatorios had some benefits! Zapotec people from different communities were able to gather, resulting in a more diverse set of experiences. The workshops were spread over many weeks, which allowed for more work behind-the-scenes to prepare and revise materials. And most importantly, these meetings fostered a new community of Zapotec activists, who can work together in the future.

In our December 2020 meeting, Brook Lillehaugen commented on the success of the Conversatorio program, saying “to have that kind of creativity and resilience gives me a lot of hope for whatever’s next.” And I have to agree. Our meetings — these rare opportunities to gather, learn, and create as a community — continue to bring me hope, and keep me going through the hurdles of 2021.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the Ticha team since 2013. I started as a bright-eyed undergraduate research assistant — that first summer, I helped transcribe Cordova’s Arte en lengua zapoteca — and I’ve been involved in the project in various ways ever since. Now, as a fourth-year PhD student, I can’t imagine my life without Ticha.

As a graduate student, you’re often pushed to be solitary and individualistic. The “goal” of graduate school is to write a dissertation, and a dissertation is a solo-authored work. Interdisciplinary collaboration and community-engaged research require time to build relationships, and graduate students face a ticking clock before their funding runs out. Public-facing scholarship, in particular digital scholarship, requires skills not commonly taught in doctoral programs. 

My dissertation is on the semantics of Tlacochahuaya Zapotec — my work with Ticha is a “side project”. But really, graduate school is not about writing a dissertation, it’s about learning how to be a scholar. And while working on Caseidyneën Saën did not directly contribute to my dissertation, Ticha’s philosophy of resilience and creativity through collaboration definitely taught me more about being a good scholar.

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