A Collection of Thoughts

Creating Online Exhibits with Omeka

Two months ago I began a 4-week online course (of the same title as this post) as part of my professional development (PD) plan. One of my main PD goals is to build upon my knowledge of and experience with digital humanities (DH) tools, and I specifically identified Omeka as one DH tool and open-source, archival CMS that I wanted to gain experience working with. I have fairly extensive experience working with WordPress but not much experience with other standalone platforms.

I could have just learned how to use Omeka on my own, but I always prefer to learn new tools by “doing,” and by doing so in a structured environment that has been created with that tool in mind. I had no idea where I’d even want to begin on my own with Omeka, so the online course was a perfect opportunity for me to learn the basics of Omeka while having professional guidance but also the freedom to choose my focus and pace. I’ll begin my review with perceived strengths and weaknesses of Omeka, followed by overall comments and final thoughts.

A few final notes before my thoughts:

  1. I worked in a hosted Omeka Classic installation (version 2.6.1), using the Exhibit Builder plugin.
  2. My exhibit focused on postcard production in the United States from 1920 to 1950. View my exhibit here:
  3. Since the course focused only on creating exhibits in Omeka, that’s where I am coming from with my comments. I still have “blind spots” when it comes to using Omeka as something other than an exhibit-building platform (though I conceptually understand how its other features can work together).


Omeka’s greatest strength, to me, is that it allows items to drive the platform and content. Items are the backbone of Omeka, making it an ideal space for creating object-heavy exhibits while also maintaining and linking to full item records, related resources, and collections. (WordPress, on the other hand, definitely lacks this ability to give detailed media information.) This feature can really help avoid the pitfalls that I regularly see students and faculty encounter as they add media and items to digital history projects in WordPress—oftentimes, there isn’t much meaningful information about the item or image other than its name. No creator, no date, and no citation or credit to the owner or source. This criticism is not of my faculty or students—rather, it’s a criticism of WordPress, which, after all, wasn’t originally meant to be an exhibit-building platform. It was meant for blogging, so it has no out-of-the-box focus on item information and metadata the way that Omeka does.

For small historical societies, museums, and other cultural institutions, Omeka’s information and item architecture is even more beneficial—users viewing an exhibit can look at the record for a particular item, then discover related resources or the larger collection that the item is a part of, and then explore items within those resources. This interconnectedness of item and collection networks in Omeka gives much greater visibility to items and collections that might otherwise remain “hidden” if they weren’t published in Omeka. With greater visibility and accessibility comes a greater potential of garnering interest, researchers, and support, all of which small cultural institutions depend heavily upon for their continued existence.


The greatest weakness of Omeka, to me, is the lack of a good preview, or even a general idea, of how the different content blocks in an exhibit page would look when they were published. The content blocks were individually self-explanatory, but how they actually appeared on the published exhibit page—particualrly how each block fit in with the next—was a frustrating mystery. I’m very particular when it comes to appearance and aesthetics, so I found myself making incessant changes to exhibit pages (upwards of 75 revisions for some pages) to get them to look as I had envisioned. (I even crashed my server one night with all of the changes I made—oops.) While it may seem silly to focus on an aspect of an exhibit as “superficial” as aesthetics, I firmly believe that aesthetics play a large role in determining how well an exhibit (or any other piece of visual information) can communicate its message. Choppy, abrupt, and otherwise unappealing aesthetics can disrupt the flow of information and thus, the flow of an exhibit, so not knowing how published content in Omeka would appear was a big barrier for me.

Another weakness, and one ironically related to Omeka’s greatest strength, is the inability to bring in outside images to supplement an exhibit.1 I worked around this issue by adding the images as “Items” to my installation and clearly communicating that the images/items were not owned by me, and I also included copyright information and limitations. I still felt a bit leery adding images to my site that I didn’t own because Omeka seems to operate under the general assumption that you own whatever items you add to your site. From a collections management perspective, this assumption makes perfect sense. For exhibit-building, a process during which it is very typical to bring in objects from other institutions, it is not ideal.


Overall, I found Omeka to be not quite as intuitive, flexible, or customizable as WordPress. However, it was certainly more intuitive than working with a traditional, closed CMS, and it provided the native publishing option and visibility that traditional CMSes do not. Its dual functionality (CMS and publisher) makes Omeka ideal for small historical societies, museums, archives, etc. looking to make their collections visible without having a huge expense.

For a standalone project relying heavily on items, which is what I’ve used Omeka for, it is still a great option, though I do struggle with my site feeling “empty” because it’s built around a single exhibit rather than a broader collection of items. (The home page of my Omeka installation is the best example of this emptiness: a short introductory paragraph to the site, a few items, and one featured exhibit.) The focus of Omeka being on one exhibit leaves the rest of a site feeling very incomplete, and I would love to see an option in the future to use the core functionalities of Omeka for a singular exhibit without all of the surrounding framework that won’t necessarily be filled out.

I went through all of the frustrations and all of the joys associated with learning a new digital tool: I told my boss that I “officially hated” Omeka as I struggled with the aesthetics of my exhibit, but I loved building my exhibit and seeing how it turned out. As I felt more confident working in Omeka, I added some simple custom CSS to “fix” a few things that I didn’t like. By the end of the process, I felt confident that I understood the strengths and weaknesses of Omeka as a publishing tool and could advise someone else who might be muddling through building an exhibit in Omeka on their own, too.


  1. I should note that I did not have my Omeka installation set to allow <img> tags through HTML filtering, so that is an option I’ll have to experiment with later. However, allowing <img> tags makes the process of bringing in outside images only slightly easier—it would still require (as I understand it) adding the images in through pure HTML.

World Mental Health Day 2018

I have Major Depressive Disorder (clinical depression), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. I have also been previously diagnosed with an unspecified “mood disorder”—most likely a symptom of my other three disorders.

Today is World Mental Health Day, and I’m writing because even though transparency and mental health have come a long way during my lifetime, it’s important to constantly remain open and supportive about mental health problems.

It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to seek help. You are not weak. You are enough.

My mental health journey finally began in January 2013, the spring semester of my junior year in college. It should have started several years before, when I was in high school, but my disorders remained latent enough that I could essentially ignore them or let them “resolve” on their own. To this day, I still don’t know exactly what triggered the coalescence of my disorders, but as the spring semester of my junior year at Mary Washington began, everything fell apart. I fell into a horrible, deep, hopeless depression, and it was accompanied by an utterly crippling anxiety. I couldn’t eat more than half of a snack bar or sandwich because of the knots in my stomach and tightness in my chest, and that half-bar or half-sandwich was what sustained me throughout an entire day. There were several days where if I ate more, I vomited because there was simply “too much” for my anxiety-riddled intestines to handle. I had horrible insomnia—so much so that I slept only about 20 minutes each night for at least a month. With endless depression and crippling anxiety, sleeping was all I really wanted to do, but even sleep was no longer a respite for me. Sleep, my “safe place,” became an object of severe anxiety for me.

A deep, helpless depression, crippling anxiety, and unending insomnia turned me into a completely different person. I wanted to drop out of Mary Washington. I couldn’t function at a basic day-to-day level, so I couldn’t even see how I would make it through a week or month, let alone a semester, and a semester filled with challenging, upper-level coursework. If I wasn’t going through the day as a zombie, I was constantly sobbing and wishing that my condition would end. I remember walking downtown several times to meet friends for coffee, and I remember thinking how easy it would be to just step off the sidewalk into the path of an oncoming car. I remember looking at my bottle of ibuprofen, after days and days of no sleep, and wondering how many pills I would need to take before I would die. I remember burning myself on the stove in our kitchen and burning myself on a curling iron because I wanted to feel something—anything—other than despair and hopelessness. I knew that these actions of self-harm and suicidal ideation weren’t healthy, but they also seemed like the only way out for me. I truly felt that my anxiety and depression were so crippling, so unmanageable and so incurable, that suicide was the only way to truly end how I was feeling and bring me peace.

I remember my parents coming to pick me up two weeks after the semester started—a dark, cold, Friday evening in early January—because I couldn’t function. I remember my mom feeding me at home, lifting forks full of food to my mouth as I sat listless at our kitchen table. I remember her giving me baths at home because I was incapable of doing so myself. I remember feeling so ashamed about all of this, but also feeling utterly powerless and incapable of changing it. I remember sobbing on the phone to several of my close friends, calling them every two hours every day as my brain failed to escape its depressive and anxious cycles. I said the same things over and over again to them because my brain couldn’t process the solutions that we’d talked about two hours before. I remember Taylor, my roommate, getting in the tiny twin bed with me on multiple nights, coaching me in deep breathing and snuggling me as I struggled to fight anxiety and insomnia to get just a couple hours of sleep. I remember her stroking my back as I sobbed each night because I was so exhausted but still couldn’t sleep.

I remember my dear friend Jenny telling me, as I finally revealed my suicidal ideations to her, that “Suicide doesn’t really end your pain. It just gives your pain to somebody else.” And I remember the profound effect her statement had upon me. As much as I was struggling, and as much as I felt that suicide was the only way to solve my problem, I couldn’t imagine all of the pain and suffering from my mental health disorders being put upon someone else because of something that I had done. If I couldn’t handle what was being thrown at me by life and mental health, how on earth could I force that upon someone else? Or upon multiple people?

So I kept going. It was never enthusiastic, but it was the next best option for me, and it was the option that would spare all of my loved ones from suffering. My mom took me to the doctor, and the doctor prescribed me an anti-depressant (a generic of Zoloft). I started going to the counseling center at Mary Washington, and I requested a graduate student because that was the only way I could see someone as frequently (every 2 weeks) as I needed to. I talked with all of my professors about how much I was struggling, and most (if not all) of them seemed shocked to find out that their friendly, bright, capable student was struggling to just live.

Finally going on medication and going to regular therapy changed my life. Sertraline, the generic for Zoloft, is an effective anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication. It’s a class of medication known as an SSRI, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. Essentially, it helps your brain take in more serotonin (the “happy” chemical), so it can help correct the chemical imbalance in your brain that is believed to cause depression. When serotonin breaks down, it becomes melatonin, which is a natural part of the sleep cycle, so the medication helped tremendously with my insomnia as well. The transition to being medicated was extremely difficult for me for a couple reasons. First, the side effects were difficult. I had horrible dry-mouth, but even worse, I had the “worsening depression or suicidal thoughts” that every anti-depressant commercial warns about. The 3 days of first taking medication, and then the first 3 days of upping my dosage, were even worse than my “normal” days. But after those 3 days passed, it was like coming out of a thick, dark, hopeless haze and entering into a bright, new future. It wasn’t necessarily going to be easy, but I felt “even,” and I felt like I could finally begin to manage my mental health problems.

The second issue that made medication difficult for me was that I felt like being medicated meant there was something wrong with me—people might think of me differently if they knew. They might judge me. They might not like me. And I might become even more isolated and alone because no one would like me. My therapist at UMW help me overcome these worries and to think of my anti-depressant as more of a vitamin than anything else. To this day, that is still how I think of my anti-depressant, which I still take every day. I stay on a low therapeutic dose of sertraline (50 mg) to keep me at a level where I feel “even” and can then handle the rest of my mental health issues on my own. I’m no longer ashamed of taking an anti-depressant, and I hope that other people seeking treatment can also come to this realization. There is nothing wrong with taking medication that helps treat a disease or disorder that you have.

Along with medication, therapy has been a key component of my treatment and recovery. My therapist at Mary Washington did wonders for me, and I believe therapy is a crucial part of treatment for depression and other mental health disorders. While medication can address the chemical imbalance that causes depression, it can’t effectively address what is causing that chemical imbalance—and, more often than not, it’s our patterns of thinking and other mental activities that cause the imbalance. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is what all of my therapists have engaged in with me, and it’s a method that of therapy that can help re-track your brain, leading to better mental awareness and healthier patterns of thought, and thus help correct chemical imbalances over time. Since my therapist at UMW, I’ve seen several others. I don’t regularly do therapy because I find that I do well enough on my own, but when something triggers my mental health disorders, I seek out a therapist and go for several months to work through my issues. (This decision is largely a monetary one for me, but I also always get to a point in therapy where it feels like the sessions are no longer productive because we’ve resolved what I wanted to resolve. The unproductive sessions are my sign that it is okay to end a round of therapy.) Though I don’t go to therapy regularly, I cannot stress enough how much of a difference it has made for me over the years. Having someone who is trained to help you recognize your thought patterns and help you correct the unhealthy patterns is beyond helpful. If you are thinking about therapy, go. It can be a huge mental burden at first to find a therapist whose style fits well with your needs, but it is worth the time and effort. Going in with an open mind, in my opinion, is the best way to go. If you think that therapy won’t help you or that therapists are just “shrinks,” you won’t get much out of therapy.

The days of the onset of my depression and anxiety were easily the darkest days of my life. But in that time, with great effort and mountains of help, I was able to find hope. I found wonderful friends, old and new, who answered the phone no matter what time I called, who got in a tiny college bed with me and soothed me to sleep, and who commandeered classrooms with me to watch Battlestar Galactica and distract my brain for a few hours. I found a family who would come and take care of me, even though I was an adult, and do whatever they could to support me. I found professors who truly cared about my well-being and who wanted to be there for me and help me. Most importantly, I found an ability within myself to overcome the toughest of mental hurdles.

I also found many other people suffering from mental health disorders like my own, who I otherwise never would have thought had mental health problems. It may very well be that the people who smile at you most, who are the kindest to you, who give the most, who work the hardest, who seem to be thriving, are the people who are struggling the most. It may also very well be that the people who seem to not work at all or who are not particularly friendly are the people who are struggling the most. Mental health disorders and their symptoms affect people and manifest themselves in different ways in each of us.

What you are feeling and experiencing is valid. It is okay not to be okay. It is okay to seek help. Please seek help—do not be ashamed. There is nothing weak about seeking help to better yourself. Do not feel ashamed for taking medication or going to therapy. These are treatments for a medical problem, and there is nothing wrong with treating your problems and bettering yourself. You are enough, and your deserve to be better.

End the stigma.

Questions for Listening

You won’t learn nearly as much talking as you do listening.
Pay more attention this week. What questions can you ask so that you learn something new every day?

—Ink+Volt 2018 Planner

This was the weekly prompt from my Ink+Volt planner for September 10 to 16, and I wanted to record my responses here for several reasons. Firstly, I find that the initial statement is overwhelmingly true for me—I love sitting in on discussions and just listening to well-informed people talk. While I definitely feel impulses to join in on conversations, if I can rein myself in, I learn so much about the subject (and about other people) if I just listen. That being said, I know that I don’t listen enough. I jump in with my own thoughts, or I’m too frustrated by what I’m hearing to continue trying to listen, or I’m listening to the surface statements but forgetting to listen more deeply. Hopefully my answers to the prompt will help me become a better listener and enrich my understandings of other people.

What questions can you ask so that you learn something new every day?

  • Why do I feel this way?
    • What external circumstances are influencing my reaction to this? Internal circumstances?
  • Why do other people feel this way?
    • What external circumstances are influencing their reaction to this? Internal circumstances?
  • What is the other person trying to accomplish? — This question is one that I particularly want and need to keep asking, especially in my digital work with faculty and students. I find that many of my frustrations come from not asking this question, and thus not fully understanding why someone wants to do something a particular way.
  • What don’t I know about this? What information am I missing? — As with the previous question, this is one that I need to keep asking.  I often assume that what I know is what I know, and for whatever reason, there isn’t a need to push beyond that—to think that perhaps there is more to a situation than what I already know. I am so comfortably situated in my own environment that it’s sometimes difficult for me to see that someone else’s environment may be completely different—or it may be the same as my own, but it brings someone else a very different and distinct set of challenges.
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • How does my privilege affect this situation? How does it affect my point of view? What blind spots does it bring?
  • Does this help me? Does it help others?
    • How can I productively focus my energy? — One of the most difficult things for me to do is to focus any negative or unpleasant energy on a productive task. I’ve nested this question under “Does this help me/others?” because I find that not focusing my energy (or focusing it on something unproductive) doesn’t help me or anyone else.
  • What invisible labor is being done here? By whom? — As a staff member at a public, state institution of higher education, the issue of invisible labor is, for better or for worse, an integral part of my job. In my experience, most faculty and administrators are blind to the invisible labor that comprises the daily jobs of staff members, so it’s very important to me to recognize the invisible labor that people are doing. More broadly, as a citizen of the United States, it is paramount to recognize that our nation has almost entirely been built by invisible labor, by the tasks that we and our forefathers and our foremothers put upon the backs of other, marginalized groups of people.
  • Am I showing/practicing empathy in this situation? If not, how can I better practice empathy?
  • How can I best address a situation that I view as problematic while still respecting the viewpoint and/or identity of someone else?
  • Why does that work the way it works? — This question is less serious than the rest, but it’s still very important. It’s a question that I often ask when I’m working with digital tools, whether they be WordPress or something from Knightlab. I want to understand the way a tool works, but I also want to understand why a tool works a certain way. Understanding the “why” helps me better understand the tool, as well as more general principles of digital spaces.

Of course, asking myself these questions each day (or just a couple of these questions) isn’t even half the battle. The largest battle for me is being mindful and self-aware enough to give myself a space in which I can begin asking and thinking about these questions. So often I press myself to keep moving forward that I don’t leave much space for deep listening or introspection.

What questions do you ask yourself each day?

Principles of Design

One of the things Amy asked us to think about during our Design for Change track at Digital Pedagogy Lab was what our design principles might be. We didn’t need to have an answer, but she wanted us to start thinking about it, especially since we had begun to build our toolkit and to discuss broader questions surrounding design. Before sending us off to contemplate our personal design principles, Amy shared hers with us:

  1. Indispensability
  2. Togetherness
  3. Embodiment
  4. Wonder & Delight
  5. Emergence
  6. Palimpsest
  7. Agency

I had no idea what my design principles might be—I wasn’t even really sure that I was a “designer.” How could I have principles for something that I didn’t think I engaged in? Or, at the very least, that I wasn’t sure I engaged in?

By the end of the week, I saw myself in a different light. I am a designer, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. A turning point for me was when I realized that my own definition of design was rather short-sighted—I didn’t consider myself a designer because I work with programs that have a pre-determined course structure, and I don’t consult with faculty as they’re creating assignments, class activities, and the like. For me, design was exclusively related to course content and after had a concrete product that you could point to, such as a syllabus or an assignment.

But during our discussion of design principles and questions, Amy told us that design doesn’t ultimately come down to creating a product—it comes down to creating an interaction. Design is crafting an interaction between students and faculty, between students and an assignment, between students and course materials, between people and ideas, and between people and technology. Design itself is an interaction, a coming together of people to create even more interaction. With this new understanding of design, I could absolutely call myself a designer.

The vast majority of my job, then, particularly with COPLACDigital, is designing interaction and helping faculty and students design their own interactions. I consult with our faculty and students to determine which digital tool(s) would be best for the research they’re trying to showcase. I help them learn how to use these tools. I help them navigate issues of web design and how they can showcase their research in a visually compelling but academic way. Thinking about each of these acts as an interaction, or a series of interactions, I’m constantly designing: designing how students communicate research and information, how students interact with and think about digital tools, how students interact with and interpret archival materials and local history. I’m designing how faculty work with each other and translate their interests into a digital space, how they learn to work with digital tools, how they help students work through research and digital issues, how they can give their students agency in learning and designing.

Now recognizing myself, as a designer, I can certainly say that I have design principles. Some of these principles are new to me, gained from Design for Change, while others are principles that have always guided my design—my interactions. My design principles are:

  1. Indispensability
  2. Value
  3. Wonder & Delight
  4. Excitement
  5. Safety
  6. Perpetual Beta
  7. Flexibility

I’ll briefly explain each of these principles, what they mean to me, and how they guide (or will begin to guide) my work.

  1. Indispensability — The idea that everyone in a learning space is indispensable. Every single person matters, and if one person is removed from the equation, it drastically changes learning. (I wrote about this idea more extensively in my last post.) I believe that seeing each person as indispensable is critical, but practically, I’m not certain as to how I can consistently implement this principle. Perhaps my following design principles will get me there.
  2. Value — I think value is inherent in the idea of indispensability, but it bears repeating on its own terms. Each person and their contributions are valuable. Without them, we would lose value.
  3. Wonder & Delight — These principles are self-explanatory, I think, and they are feelings that we should feel as we are designing, as well as feelings that our designs should elicit from others (not in an extracting manner, but in a realizing manner) as they experience our designs.
  4. Excitement — This principle is also self-explanatory, but I want to explain why I included it as a principle separate from Wonder & Delight. Excitement is something that I have experienced for years as I’ve interacted with digital tools, with research and archival materials, and with anything that I’ve created, and it is what keeps me coming back to the things that I do, whether those things are creating websites with WordPress or with knitting baby blankets. Excitement is an essential part of the design process, and it leads me to want to share my designs and experiences with others—with the hope that they, too, might experience excitement.
  5. Safety — Safety means different things for me, and each of those meanings is encompassed in this principle.
    • Safety means a space where students and faculty have control over their digital identities and their data. They should be able to critically question each tool they use, and they should be able to take measures to protect themselves (using a pseudonym, etc.).
    • Safety means a space where students and faculty feel comfortable with experimenting, and most importantly, with failing. So often, I have students and faculty with high levels of technological apprehension who are afraid to do almost anything in digital spaces without having a set of very detailed instructions. They are afraid to try something for fear of “messing up” or failing, or they are afraid to publish any work because it’s still a work-in-progress. I want my students and faculty to feel that the spaces we ask them to work in are “safe” spaces, where they can experiment and fail. And when they do fail, they know that it is okay—that failing is part of the learning and the design process.
  6. Perpetual Beta — This principle is related to my second definition of safety, and is one that my good friend and colleague Jerry talks about. It’s akin to Amy’s principle of palimpsest: that something can be altered or used for a different purpose, but traces of the original work remain. The idea of a “perpetual beta” is similar: our work, our designs, are never in their final form. They are always in progress, in a state of perpetual beta, because our world (and technology) is constantly changing, and so too, must our designs. Who we design for is constantly evolving, so our designs must do the same.
  7. Flexibility — Flexibility is what I was looking for when I came to DPL and began Design for Change, so it’s something that I hope I can carry into my future designs and can help others design. Like indispensability, I think the rest of my design principles will help myself and others design with flexibility in mind.

Designing Value & Space

The 4-day course that I participated in at Digital Pedagogy Lab was Amy Collier’s Design for Change course, and I chose it with the hope that it would help me find flexibility in the fairly strict course structures that I work with (and, in doing so, help me help others find that same flexibility). Amy’s course seemed like the perfect melding of my interests, work, and what I hoped to gain:

Participants in this course will explore and experiment with ways to bring positive change to educational institutions and to our world by engaging critically with digital tools, spaces, and practices.

We would also come out of the course with a toolkit to help us makes these positive changes, and I particularly liked the idea of having a toolkit as a concrete takeaway from the week. What I gained from the course, however, ended up being so much more than flexibility and a toolkit.

First I want to backtrack, though, and give a brief overview of the course structures in which my faculty and I operate. Part of my job involves working as the administrative assistant for UMW’s FSEM (first-year seminar) program. Our FSEM is tied to our Quality Enhancement Plan (a plan that we have to have and execute in order to be reaccredited), so with that comes all of the requirements of the QEP: learning outcomes, learning modules in Canvas, and the sacrifice of content to make room for skills development. The FSEM has a fairly limiting structure, especially for faculty who see the FSEM more as an opportunity to teach interesting content to students (which, at its inception back in the mid-2000s, was actually what the FSEM was for). Due to the demands of the QEP, many of our FSEM faculty now feel severely limited in what they can teach, and they suffer from FSEM burnout.

The other curricular program that I’m involved in is COPLACDigital. In many ways, it is much freer than the FSEM—it isn’t confined to our LMS, there aren’t modules that students have to complete, and we provide a fairly open space (WordPress multisite) for students and faculty to work in. However, COPLACDigital is grant-funded with very specific parameters, which means there are certain components that every single course must cover—meaning our COPLACDigital faculty also have to make some content sacrifices. Morever, as open as WordPress is (especially compared to an LMS), it still has its limitations. Some of those limitations are inherent, but many of them are ones that we (COPLACDigital) have placed upon it, whether practical, for security, or due to past precedent. So, while our COPLACDigital courses are much less restrictive than UMW’s FSEMs, they still come with limitations that can be difficult for our faculty and students to navigate.

In addition to FSEMs and COPLACDigital courses being restrictive to faculty and students, I myself feel limited by these structures, especially when someone comes to me with an idea that doesn’t fit with the predetermined format. For all of these reasons, I hoped that Amy’s course would help me, my faculty, and our students find freedom and flexibility in what we do.

Looking back, I can definitively say that I found the flexibility I was looking for. More than anything, Amy gave us all space. Space in which to think, to critically reflect, to appreciate (ourselves, our faculty, our students, and each other), to learn, and to develop. We all finally had time—four whole days—to think about how we approach design, and I think this time allowed us to free ourselves from the thought channels that we typically travel. And with that time and reflective space Amy gave us, we found our own space—and for me, with that space came flexibility and freedom.

In these new channels, we found questions and values to guide our design. The ones that resonated with me the most are:

  1. Design as if everyone is indispensable.

This notion of indispensability really struck me in a way that I can’t adequately put words to. In a small group with Lindsay and Cathie, we discussed the notion of indispensability and how it can help break the mold that our institutions and courses are stuck in. It injects an intimate, human element into our curriculum that so often seems missing, and it does away with the monotone buzzwords that we all hear: “student-centered,” “accessible,” etc. In forcing us to see all our of students as indispensable, this notions asks a central question:

2. For whom are we designing?

This question is ongoing, and thus must be constantly addressed. And the answer is always evolving—it is not simply, “our students.” The answer is really a set of more specific questions: Who are our students—who are they really? Are they working moms? First-generation college students? Veterans? Full-time students? What is their race? Religion? Ethnicity? Gender? Sexual orientation? What challenges does each of them face, day in and day out? What makes them who they are? What do they need?

Thinking about the indispensability of whomever we are designing for, whatever they need, seemed to grant everyone (designer, faculty member, student) agency—if we think about what each individual person needs as we design, we can give them so many more opportunities than if we just designed for a generic person or group. And with this recognition of indispensability and the granting of agency, we suddenly empower ourselves and our faculty members and our students. We’re suddenly designing and working in spaces where everyone matters and everyone is valued. Where if one person is taken out of the equation, no matter who that person is, then our space and learning experience is drastically altered.

At the end of Amy’s course, I felt connected to and valued by everyone else in my track—but more importantly, I felt value in myself. Seeing everyone else as indispensable meant that I could see myself that way as well—an invaluable part of the design process, and someone with the power and ability to help faculty and students find their own agency. Looking back, I think Amy wonderfully modeled what she was hoping we could all do after DPL. She was our leader, and she asked difficult questions of us. She gave us general guidelines, a flexible structure within which to work, and here and there she shared her own operating principles with us. But overall, she let us guide the track and determine what would be most useful for us. She treated each of us as if we were indispensable, and in so doing, she gave us the ability to see ourselves, our faculty, and our students that way as well.

Tools & Critical Examination

This past week I had the wonderful privilege of being part of Digital Pedagogy Lab at UMW. It was an amazing experience, and in this post I hope to capture some of what I experienced during my first day at DPL.

I chose Tools & Tool Hacking as my 1-day course to begin DPL, and I went in with hopes of being introduced to new digital tools that could be used for a variety of projects and/or purposes. The course began with a virtual “tool parade,” during which Jesse and Chris threw dozens of tools at us in about 1.5 (or so) hours. To my pleasant surprise, I was familiar with almost all of the tools that Jesse and Chris introduced, with the exception of a couple Mac-only applications. It was a humbling moment, to say the least, and it made me realize how my education at UMW and my current job have allowed me to stay abreast of many different digital tools (though I am by no means an expert at using a majority of them).

The second part of the course was by far the most useful for me, and it’s led me to think much more deeply about the tools that I use and the tools that I endorse for COPLACDigital. During this part of the course, Jesse and Chris grouped us together and gave us tools to compare, along with a list of critical questions to help us evaluate and compare the two tools. The questions that Jesse and Chris gave us prompted me to truly pause and think about each tool—and with that pause and consideration came deep exploration, as well as connections to other areas of my professional life.

These are the questions that Jesse and Chris asked us to think about as we compared tools:

  1. What assumptions does the tool make about its users? What kind of relationships does it set up between teachers / students? School / the world? Humans / technology?
  2. What assumptions does the tool make about learning and education? Does the tool attempt to dictate how our learning and teaching happen? How is this reflected in specific design and/or marketing choices?
  3. What data must we provide in order to use the tool (login, e-mail, birthdate, etc.)? What flexibility do we have to be anonymous? Who owns the data? Will others be able to use/copy/own our work there?
  4. In an educational context, how could the tool be used in a way that puts the learning into student’s hands? Does the tool leave students agency or choice in how they use it? Does the tool offer a way that “learning can most deeply and intimately begin”?

Out of all of these questions, the first one stuck with me the most: What assumptions does the tool make about its users? Which then led me to wonder: What assumptions does the tool make about the internet? The nature of interaction online? Ownership online, especially of content that we ourselves have created?

The tools that my group addressed were Medium and WordPress, but here I’d like to explore a different tool: It’s a tool that allows users to annotate textual content online, and one that I myself love using and love to see “in action.” It’s also one that we frequently recommend to UMW and COPLACDigital faculty—but I’ve always made these recommendations without peeling back layers and asking probing questions. offers interesting, and at times problematic, answers to the above questions.

What assumptions does the tool make about its users? — First and foremost, assumes that its users want to annotate content online, in a digital space. It assumes that for the most part, users want to make their annotations public (the default setting), but it does recognize that users may want to annotate semi-privately (in closed groups) or privately (“only me”). The default setting could be problematic, especially for users who don’t fully understand what it means to be making a public annotation or that that’s what was created for. It can also present barriers to students who don’t feel comfortable or confident in making public annotations, especially if those annotations are meant to be part of a graded assignment.

What assumptions does the tool make about the internet and the nature of interaction online? — This question stemmed from my first answer: assumes that its users want to annotate content online, in a digital space—and that this kind of space and interaction was previously missing from the internet. To me, it’s assuming that the internet was lacking a collaborative spirit, lacking a place where users, and in particular the general public, could offer their own comments and feedback on things. It was, instead, a place for the consumption of content, but not for the critical processing of it. It was, in essence, walled off, devoid of meaningful contact, and undemocratic. I’ve been lucky (and no doubt, much of that “luck” is due to my white, heteronormative privilege) in that I’ve rarely experienced a space like that online (with the exception of journal databases). Most places I’ve been, particularly in the past (before existed) have been full of meaningful interaction, open to thoughts and critique, and welcoming to seemingly everyone.1 It was not, admittedly, as open as makes things, where you can annotate any text that you want, but it still felt like a place where at least I was always free and welcome to participate.

What assumptions does the tool make about the nature of content and ownership online? — This question draws the most problematic answers out of because the tool makes, in my opinion, extremely inaccurate assumptions. It assumes that any publicly accessible textual content on the internet is there for anyone to annotate freely, and it assumes that anything published online is there for public, digital deconstruction and annotation. It blows open the ownership and control of content online because suddenly, owners cannot dictate how or who interacts with their content. This situation may not always be problematic or undesirable, but not everyone publishing online is putting their work out in order for it to be publicly and digitally annotated. assumes consent without ever asking for (or even considering) it.2 While it gives users agency to engage with content in a new, digital, and highly collaborative way (which can be very valuable for students), it detracts from the owners’ agency and can potentially put them at risk. It can add labor for the content owners, and it’s likely that the more underprivileged owners will face more of the added labor. I’ll speak from my position of relative privilege, but as a woman—what if I suddenly discovered sexist, misogynistic, and/or inappropriate annotations on my blog posts? Do I then need to spend time and effort to moderate these comments? Even if I don’t myself have to moderate, I will have to spend the time and energy flagging each of the comments for the moderators. And then, of course, there’s the emotional labor involved with this situation, too.

In this light, is not the “neutral” tool that I originally thought it was. While I will still use it and suggest it as a tool to use, I hope to use these opportunities as entry points to discussing ownership of content online and permissions to use content. I also see this as a potential opportunity to discuss the risks that we can be opening our students up to by having them work and publish in public spaces online—even more so if we are asking them to do this work without giving them options to protect their identities online, especially for our students of minority populations.

Asking these questions of digital tools also got me thinking about other “tools” in my current and desired career fields, especially those that are commonly assumed to be neutral. In this section of my post, the tool I’ll be considering is general: Archives.

While not something that we might immediately think of as a tool, archives are invaluable tools for research and the preservation of history and memory. But as with digital tools, archives are far from neutral. Most of my students (I say this loosely since I’m not actually a professor) are always very surprised when I tell them that archives aren’t neutral—they think archives are just dusty places where people, organizations, etc. store records and artifacts. To most of my students, archives somehow seem detached from the people and organizations that run (and influence) them, and they seem to exist in a present, anachronistic space that history could not and still cannot penetrate.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to have deeper conversations with students about archives (for several different reasons), but I see the above tool questions as a great entry point into shaping students’ views of archives. Even just the initial question in a shortened version: What assumptions does the archive make?

First and foremost, the particular archive assumes that whatever it is preserving needs to be preserved. What they are holding is not merely ephemeral, but it is important, and it is important enough to save. That someone, someday, for some reason, will want to use the archive.

This simple answer—that something is important enough to be preserved—prompts so many more questions that I think would help students see archives as anything but neutral, and to critically evaluate them.

  • Who began the archive (or particular archival collection)? If an organization began it, who within the organization?
    • What more do we know about them? Sex? Gender? Orientation? Race? Religion? Political activism and alignment?
    • Why did they think that  these items, or the subject, event, time period, etc. that these items share, were so important as to save and preserve them?
  • Who runs the archive now? How has leadership changed since the archive’s inception?
    • How are these people different from (and similar to) the people who created the archive? How have those similarities and differences shaped the archive and its collections?
  • What kinds of items does the archive accept?
    • What items does it not accept?
    • What does this selectivity reveal about the archive?
  • What are some of the archive’s newest collections or acquisitions?
    • How do these fit with the rest of the archive’s collections?
    • Do these new items seem to reflect the sentiments of any current sociopolitical movements or otherwise current attitudes?
  • Does the archive have any exhibits?
    • If so, what have they selected to exhibit? What does this selection reveal about the archive?
  • What historical and contemporary events and movements surround the archive’s existence?
    • How could these events and movements have influenced the archive, from inception to current day?
  • What is the stated mission of the archive (or the mission of the organization of which the archive is part)?
  • Are the archives open to researchers?
  • What (or who) is the main funding source for the archive?
    • How might this funding source shape the archive and its collections?

I’m sure there are many more questions that could be added to this list; if you have ideas, feel free to drop them in the Comments section.


† Please note that I’m answering this question through my eyes, which are limited by my own experiences, and even more so by my white, heternormative privilege (even though at the time, I wasn’t aware that I had that privilege). By this I mean that until a few years ago, I never felt prohibited from participating in anything online that I wanted to participate in. Doors were always open for me (or they seemed ajar enough), so I entered.

  1. I say “seemingly” everyone because in the past, I was not nearly as aware of all of the diversity of people and what kind of systemic, encoded barriers to entry they faced, especially online.
  2. You have my permission to annotate this post using However, I do not plan to check the annotations.
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