Tag Archives: american studies

American Studies Senior Project Exhibit

This is the second in a series of three posts on the digital exhibitions I worked on this spring. If you need to, you can jump back to part one. Part three is up, too.

In April, I gave an update on our Academic Commons in which I referred coyly to a senior project on which I was a technical consultant, and now that it’s up and live, I can talk about it a bit less obliquely. (Yale tends to interpret FERPA fairly conservatively, and until it was clear that the student, Charlotte Parker, was going to finish the project and make it publicly visible, I wanted to maintain her anonymity.)

Humanities students don’t tend to execute digital projects at Yale, especially not for their senior projects. Certainly, they engage in digital scholarship in a consuming sense by reading primary or secondary sources in technology-mediated ways, engaging in online research, or taking in digital media. In some ways, they are producers as well, but generally only in that baseline way we take for granted, that is by typing their essay on a computer. They may even submit their essays for assessment electronically, but my suspicion is that most will (by requirement or choice) at least backstop that submission with a paper copy.

So it was with real excitement that we accepted a request to work with Charlotte Parker ’13 on her senior project for the American Studies major. Charlotte was strongly influenced in her life by family friends who had connections to the Spanish Civil War and to America writers involved in it, and had been working at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for some time. These factors joined together in an idea for an online exhibit of Beinecke material related to American writers’ search for a way to write the truth(s) that they saw on the ground in Spain as well as related to writing truth in general. As such, Charlotte would have to engage in curation and analysis of a collection of materials and to engage with technological opportunities and restrictions for making her work publicly available.

Our first encounter with Charlotte came as a request for an Academic Commons site and I saw no reason to recapitulate her process of selecting a project environment, so WordPress was our site of investigation. Part of the reason for selecting our Academic Commons as the exhibit tool was that the Beinecke would like to see more student exhibits using their collections (as would many of us), and the existing infrastructure was the easiest slope. As it worked out, it was also a thoroughly appropriate tool, since Charlotte’s focus in her project was going to be less on establishing a metadata-rich repository than on presenting critical writing alongside selected objects. (In the third of this series I’ll relate an investigation into an alternate tool representing the metadata-rich branch of possibility.)

In a couple project meetings, Charlotte and I decided that she would play in an Academic Commons site with the knowledge that I could undo anything she needed undone and that she would do some legwork to figure out how she wanted to theme her site. Fortunately, she was participating in a HackYale course on website UX and bootstrapped her research and learning there. As with Academic Commons for the software, there was an intellectual infrastructure present and growing that meant we could focus in the project work on the questions of scholarship and technological implementation. Naturally, this meant also that we didn’t take the opportunity to walk through a critical examination of the technology qua technology and discuss how the choices being made affected the argument. For this reason alone, the next time we consult on an independent student project I will do my best to have at least one meeting of everyone significantly involved. No Yale student should graduate without critically examining technology at some point.

An interesting aspect of the project was my indirect partnership with Nancy Kuhl (about whom more in a subsequent post) at the Beinecke, who was Charlotte’s work supervisor as well as a mentor for the Beinecke-based research. We never had a team meeting for the project, something that might have been beneficial to Charlotte and something I will agitate for the next time we work similarly with a senior project. At least at some level, I think it would also have benefitted her advisor, me, and Nancy to sit however briefly around a table and have Charlotte walk through the project timeline with us. She was very well organized, as far as I could tell, but even so there was some of the usual flurry of activity hard upon the project submission deadline that would be nice to avoid. (Then again, I tell all students I encounter that a dirty little secret of the work world is that projects are not planned and executed substantially better than college-level projects.)

Springtime Is for Exhibits

This is the first in a series of three posts on the digital exhibitions I worked on this spring. You can jump ahead to part two. Part three is up, too.

Or at least that’s the way it felt for me this spring. For one reason or another, my large projects this term ended up being three different forms of gallery and library exhibits, each filled with undergraduate scholarship. I’ll discuss each in turn, just because they were each interesting enough that they deserve proper space for consideration.

One that I knew coming into the term I would have was the second instance of something I first worked on in the spring of 2012. Professor Laura Wexler (American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) is deeply interested in photography and its role in our lives. In particular, she has run since 1999 the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale and offers a seminar titled “Photography and Memory”. You can read my writeup of last year’s project, but one thing that I neglected to note then was just how excited we were about this: To our knowledge this way of getting student scholarship into the YUAG was entirely novel and this level of public exposure of undergraduate research is rare. Not all the students last year were undergraduates, and possibly even most were not, but even for graduate students at Yale, short-form scholarship for a general audience is uncommon.

Somewhat predictably, this year’s edition was easier in many ways, but because I knew that was likely, I decided to bring things up a bit where I could. Where I noted in last year’s writeup that “This kiosk came together in a flurry of effort and coordination,” I conveniently omitted that the recordings were done very much in a duct-tape-and-gum manner. The recordings were done in a spare room in our offices, in our conference room, and in a spare office at Photo + Design. In each case, I used Audacity, a half-decent microphone we have, and was the sole engineer and producer. There’s a fog of perfection at Yale that makes doing things this way feel illicit, which is of course one of the attractions. But I also didn’t want to bias gallery visitors against the installation just because it wasn’t professionally recorded. Consequently, I skipped all mention of that.

This year, the recording process was also how I wanted to focus on ratcheting up the assignment from our perspective. Surely, Yale of all places has a push-button high-quality recording studio for student work? Alas, no. Some of the residential colleges have studios, and good ones, but they are limited to students in those colleges. Doubtlessly, we could have gotten around that requirement, but I’ve been there and would not have wanted a fellow student using up my college’s resources on the down low. Naturally, the School of Music and the Music Department have their own studios, but there again, they are reserved for students in those units. Enter the Yale Broadcast & Media Center studios. All signs pointed to them as the best place to get this done. The one catch, which wasn’t one, was that the work we were doing there needed to be disseminated in some way, and since we were doing audio work, we needed to make a podcast out of it. I can’t call that a catch, because being pushed to make our work more public is a Good Thing.

This brings me to the major difference from the course side this year, which was that the assignment was baked into the syllabus. Last spring, the assignment was added after the start of the course, and possibly even after registration, which very much threw the students. We can look on the students’ reaction more or less charitably, but possibly the most nearly neutral way to see it is that Yale students are very busy, and bristle when they encounter academic surprises. I mention this change at this point in my recap because I believe it is half of why the recording sessions went so smoothly this year. The other half is that we had a proper studio and a proper engineer in Phil Kearney from Broadcast & Media, and the students knew they needed to perform. (It didn’t hurt that more than one student had some experience with Yale’s student radio outfit, but most did not.) Consequently, most students got their reading done — and done well — in one take. The downside of that was that we spent far too much of the 30-minute slots I had allotted (based on last year’s efforts) with time on our hands. I couldn’t have asked for a better engineer, though, than Phil, as it wasn’t until we had gotten most of the way through the student sessions, with only one reschedule, that he said, “You know, we could just schedule them 5 or 6 at a time and just have the next one go when the previous one is finished.”

So I thank Phil for his skill and his patience, Professor Wexler for doing this assignment again, Davids Odo and Whaples from the YUAG for their work on the image and coordination side, and Thomas Raich of YUAG for going above and beyond in getting this kiosk up and running when driver and OS issues exploded 10 minutes before I was due on a train to Washington, D.C. I look forward to next year and how we can continue to integrate student digital scholarship with cultural institutions on campus.


The exhibit is still up in the (gorgeously new) Study Gallery at the YUAG, so if you can, do head over and see it. Neither YUAG IT nor I (nor Professor Wexler) are thrilled with some sloppiness of the touchscreen we needed to use this year, last year’s being already allocated for other needs. But if you do go and find the cursor unresponsive, just touch far away from your target and then try again. We’ve found that tends to be better than repeatedly trying to move the cursor by small increments.

Student Work Kiosk at the Art Gallery

Recently the Yale University Art Gallery installed a touch-screen kiosk populated with work from Professor Laura Wexler’s seminar titled “Photography and Memory”. For the kiosk, we recorded students reading a short paper (or an excerpt of the same) written in response to one of the photographs displayed in the YUAG’s study gallery space as part of this course. Thanks to the YUAG’s touchscreen, visitors can browse the kiosk by person or by work to hear the students’ scholarship from the seminar. Along with short and full audio files from the student readings, the kiosk presents pictures of the students and the works discussed, as well as transcripts of the readings. This kiosk came together in a flurry of effort and coordination among Professor Wexler, the YUAG, ITG, and the Photo + Design group of ITS. The kiosk will only be up for another couple of weeks, so go take a look today!

students and instructor around the kiosk