HIST 300-007: Archives + Algorithms


  • Remote Arranged (fully online, no scheduled meetings)
  • 3 Credit Hours
  • Prof. Fred Gibbs (fwgibbs@unm.edu)
  • No set student hours, but always happy to Zoom chat

Course Description

Archives determine the histories that get written. While the idea of an archive typically refers to collections (in one form or another) of historic documents, we can now think of all corporate and consumer data (smartphone use, search history, surveillance footage, fitbit stats, financial and medical records) as an impossibly detailed archive of human activity. Yet this raises important questions: Who controls different facets of this archive? Who can access it? How is this data archive increasingly managed and understood by algorithms? How does systemic racism and bias creep into supposedly objective retrieval functions? But these are not wholly new, and this course explores how can the long history of the archive, and its many problems with selection bias, preservation, and access, can help us understand the future of data and its (mis)uses.

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Recognize significant cultural and ideological shifts in the history of the archive
  • Examine the impact of the digitization of cultural heritage and how emerging digital archives are reshaping the past and present
  • Think critically about how hidden algorithms shape our access to and interpretations of information
  • Identify cultural and socioeconomic biases baked into modern data
  • Understand the future of data in society from the history of the archive

Imagination over regurgitation

This course eschews the typical course narrative in favor of a more exploratory adventure. Therefore, it is perhaps not ideal for anyone looking for a standard linear, information-delivery-centric kind of course. There’s nothing wrong with those; this just isn’t one of them. Diversity is good.

As you can see from the schedule page, we spend roughly the first half of the course investigating the history of the archive, its national and imperialist legacy, and how the idea of an archive has been rapidly transformed in the last 30 years. Then, we spend roughly the second half of the course reading about the invisible algorithms and automated decision making at work in modern society and theorizing about how the history of the archives might give us some insight into the future of a data- and algorithm-driven world.

Assignments will tend to be speculative and creative exercises that allow you to APPLY the readings to a particular problem or question rather than just summarize or restate information.

You are welcome here

This course is probably very unlike most history/humanities courses you’ve taken. But I want to be VERY CLEAR: Even if you have never thought about archives or algorithms (much less how they are related), or have never taken a history or humanities course, YOU ARE WELCOME HERE! This course assumes you know NOTHING about either archives or algorithms (or even what they are, which is actually a trickier question than you might think), and introduces and explores each of them as a metaphor for interacting with knowledge infrastructures all around us.

I will do everything I can do help you learn as much as you’re motivated to learn, and to help you get whatever grade you’re aiming for. I’ve tried to make the course about everyone thinking and learning together rather than just you memorizing something I say or you read so that you can regurgitate it later; I’ve tried to make assignments less anxiety-producing by facilitating (hopefully) you holding yourself accountable rather than me assigning arbitrary point values to everything (though there is some of that out of necessity).

If you feel the course structure or assignments aren’t facilitating your success or reflecting your effort, let’s talk! (virtually, of course)

General Workload

Most of the work is this: You will read usually two to three articles or book chapters per week (averaging about 40 pages total). You’ll occasionally post a reading reflection (~250 words) on a single reading and usually one slightly longer weekly reflection (~700 words) that will tie together the readings for the week.

For both kinds of reflections, I sometimes provide a few guiding questions, but these entries are pretty freeform. The only requirement is that you show your familiarity with the readings and your reaction to them—whatever it is. Just read carefully enough that you have some kind of reaction. Sometimes you’ll focus on the articles separately; other times you’ll be asked to synthesize them and talk about them as a group. The questions will be abstract and hypothetical and invite you to draw your own conclusions from the readings.

There are a few other “special” assignments (also ~700 words)—in lieu of the weekly reflections—that ask you to apply the readings for that week to a particular exercise. Each of them have special instruction pages (linked below).

The last two weeks of the course we don’t read anything new, so you’ll have the time to write a few reflection essays that tie course themes together. One of these counts as your final, and is due the end of finals week.

Your Digital Archive

Instead of posting everything on UNM Learn—which we all see too much of these days—it will be far more interesting and useful for us to create individual digital archives of our work for the class. For one, we get to have an ongoing conversation about CREATING AN ARCHIVE (albeit a limited one) and the decisions that go into that. Also, building our own digital archives also affords us more freedom in how we can use images and be creative in our assignments (meaning they are more fun to do) than is possible with Learn (for instance you’ll be curating an small image archive that another student will analyze and create a narrative around). You’ll basically create a very simple blog website that you’ll use as a digital archive, which we will interrogate and reflect on as part of the course. NO TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE OR EXPERIENCE REQUIRED! Everything is explained and the web platform is free and designed for completely non-technical people.

I will be making an archive along with you, customizing my website, doing the same assignments, and so on—though I’ll always post them AFTER you do. So you’ll get to see what I think (if you care), and it also provides a centralized place for me to engage with what you’re thinking and writing about rather than emailing you all the time or recording crappy videos for you to sit through (there will be some anyway).

There’s not much else to do the first week than to get everything set up, so you’ll have plenty of time to get familiar with our digital tools. Using outside digital platforms is in itself an important component of the course, since we are fundamentally concerned with knowledge infrastructures, whether physical or digital archives, and algorithms and automated decision making.


This course has an atypical grading procedure, so please be sure you understand how everything works to avoid surprises later on. My goal is do things that at are at least kinda fun AND help us learn without a dark, mysterious shadow of an anxiety-inducing grade looming over everything. I’m not sure this is totally possible, but I want to find out. Explanations of how work is evaluated (or not) is explained on each assignment instruction page (links directly below).

Ultimately, all reading responses and journal entries are all graded (in Learn, so you can always see how you’re doing in the course) as rough/ok/great (worth 1/3, 2/3 and full points). Mostly the responses are a chance for me to respond to your own ideas and add to the course rather than for me to assign and justify a seemingly arbitrary point value on how “good” you did—which derives too much from your educational background prior to this course.

If I don’t see your engagement with the readings, I will ask you to elaborate on some points you brought up or on a reading that you didn’t mention much or at all so that you can get full points for the assignment. If you ignore my nudges to elaborate on your responses, you’ll get partial credit.

The six special assignments (including the final) ARE graded in terms of points because it’s useful to have a little pressure and more specific score once in a while.

Bottom line:

  • If you’re legitimately reading the assignments, crafting thoughtful responses, and keeping up with the work, you’ll get an A or A-.
  • If you do all the work but more than a few responses have little connection to the readings, you’ll get closer to a B or B-.
  • If you do all the work but most responses have little connection to the readings, you’ll get closer to a C or C-.
  • If your work is constantly superficial and you miss a bunch of assignments, that’s bad news.

Extra work = extra credit

If you feel like writing a bit more for an assignment you can get a few points of extra credit. Some topics and readings will be more interesting to you than others, so if you have more to say, you should get credit for it. This is true for ALL ASSIGNMENTS. This should make it easy for you to get whatever grade you want in the course.


All the links here take you to assignment guides that provide more specific assignment instructions. Assignments without links will have them shortly once the guidelines are complete.

Grade Distribution

Percent Grade
94+ A
90-93 A-
87-89 B+
83-86 B
80-82 B-
77-79 C+
73-76 C
70-72 C-
67-69 D+
60-66 D
59- F

Please Ask for Help

I heartily encouraged you to speak with me at any time about how I think you’re doing in the class and how you can improve your performance (if at all). If life gets overwhelming during the course (as it easily can these days), it can be tempting to drift away from an elective course like this. Rather than disappear, let’s work something out to accommodate your circumstances and thus avoid digging a huge hole from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape.


There are NO REQUIRED BOOKS for this course. But you will need to subscribe to the course Zotero library to access assigned articles. This will be discussed in class, but for reference, please see the instructions for connecting.

Our Zotero Group homepage is https://www.zotero.org/groups/2667261/archives-algorithms. This link is best for JOINING the course Zotero Group.

Our Zotero Library page is https://www.zotero.org/groups/2667261/archives-algorithms/library. This link is best for ACCESSING our Zotero Library once you’re already a member of our group.

Writing Help

CAPS Tutoring Services is a free-of-charge educational assistance program available to UNM students enrolled in classes. Online services include the Online Writing Lab, Chatting with or asking a question of a Tutor.

Students with Disabilities

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodations of their disabilities. If you have a disability requiring accommodation, please contact me immediately to make arrangements as well as Accessibility Services Office in 2021 Mesa Vista Hall at 277-3506 or http://as2.unm.edu/index.html. Information about your disability is confidential.

Academic Misconduct

You should be familiar with UNM’s Policy on Academic Dishonesty and the Student Code of Conduct which outline academic misconduct defined as plagiarism, cheating, fabrication, or facilitating any such act.

Citizenship and/or Immigration Status

All students are welcome in this class regardless of citizenship, residency, or immigration status. I will respect your privacy if you choose to disclose your status. UNM as an institution has made a core commitment to the success of all our students, including members of our undocumented community. The Administration’s welcome is found on our website: http://undocumented.unm.edu/.