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.)