Footnotes

A Collection of Thoughts

Category: Professional (page 1 of 3)

Writing a Balancing Act

I’ve been bitten by the writing bug tonight—perhaps because I haven’t written in a while, perhaps because I’m reading so often now, or perhaps just because.

I’m now in week 6 of my graduate program in library and information science at UNC Chapel Hill, and it’s been a wild ride thus far. The first few weeks of my being here were characterized by severe anxiety and imposter syndrome, and more than anything, I wanted to go home to Fredericksburg. However, I took it one day (sometimes even one hour, one minute) at a time, and I’m feeling better about my program now. I’m still frustrated by aspects of it, and I absolutely still think that the larger system of graduate school is ultimately broken—but, I am feeling better.

The most difficult parts for me have been getting a good handle on what the workload is like and then figuring out how to balance that with the rest of my life—how could I possibly take breaks when I had SO much reading to do? It’s been a bit like drinking from a firehose, and I’ve had to adjust my normal tactics of working. I used to read books, articles, etc. the entire way through because I felt that if I didn’t, I would miss some crucial piece of information or argument. However, with a full graduate courseload and work, I don’t have the luxury of time on my side. I’m (slowly) learning how to speed-read and skim (I think of them as different things), and those “skills” have helped make my workload feel more manageable. I’ve also discovered that, even when I do feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading/work that I have to do, it’s often far more beneficial for me to take a break and step away from work for a little while. Sometimes that break means taking the entire evening off and having a glass of wine while watching a favorite TV show, and other times it means walking outside for a few minutes.

Much of my coursework this semester is theory-heavy and abstract, which has been its share of frustrating, especially for a hands-on field like archives. So, work at Duke is my respite, my saving grace. It is the one place where I feel like, without a shadow of a doubt, I know exactly what I am doing. I love what I am doing, and I love the people I work with. I recently crossed over the 1,000-record threshold for creating item-level metadata, which I celebrated with a few of my coworkers, and I can’t wait to celebrate future milestones with them. I’m incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work at Duke and keep myself grounded as I work my way through graduate school.

The Mistaken Imposter

I moved to Carrboro, North Carolina, last weekend (August 3rd), and it was easily the most difficult move of my life. For the past 9—almost 10—years, I’d settled myself in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and built a life for myself there. Part of those 9 years was my 4-year undergraduate career, but I stayed in Fredericksburg afterwards, working at UMW (my alma mater) and various units at the Smithsonian in DC. I never, ever, imagined myself leaving Fredericksburg, let alone Virginia.

However, the time came for me to take a big step: my full-time job at UMW was ending, and I really needed an MLS degree to secure the kind of full-time, salaried, long-term career that I truly wanted. (I long to work in archives and special collections in a museum, archive, or other cultural heritage institution, and to do that, I need a graduate degree.) Deciding to leave Fredericksburg was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I spent many days this spring sobbing at the thought of leaving the immensely supportive personal and professional network I had built, and I couldn’t imagine moving to another state without my network of friends and family.

Despite everything holding me back, UNC’s MSLS program really spoke to me, so I took a leap of faith and committed. My UNC classes start in one week, and my internship in Duke University Libraries’ archives and special collections begins tomorrow. I’m immensely grateful for these new opportunities to grow and develop professionally, but as I alluded to earlier, it hasn’t been easy. I spent the first few days here harboring the horrific feeling that I’d made a terrible mistake—that I shouldn’t have come to North Carolina, I shouldn’t ever have left Fredericksburg (let alone Virginia), and I certainly shouldn’t have left UMW or my friends and family. I spent hours on the phone sobbing to my friends as I replayed these fears over and over again, but I found no relief. In addition to “normal” anxiety, I became crippled by my imposter syndrome/inferiority complex: How on earth did I get into this MSLS program? How was I going to succeed in graduate school after being out of a classroom for so long? How on earth was I qualified for my internship with Duke University Libraries? How long would I last at Duke and in my program before everyone realized that I didn’t truly belong?

As more days have passed by, my anxiety and utter paralysis have slowly begun to subside. I’ve eaten 3 square meals for two days in a row now (trust me, this is a huge feat). I begin my internship at Duke tomorrow, and I’m becoming excited about it again. (I was excited when I first applied for, interviewed for, and accepted the position, but since then my anxiety has convinced me that I am not qualified for it.) I’m looking forward to meeting with my supervisors and starting to work on the project, especially because I know diving in head-first will help assuage my fears and re-establish my confidence. And I’m hoping that this confidence will carry forward into my first week of classes at UNC (and continue on from there).

Despite being utterly terrified of where I am in life right now, I am also incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to make it through the past week and out to the other side. I’m slowly getting used to Carrboro/Chapel Hill and my new living situation. As I become more confident in my physical location, I find that my mental location is improving as well—and for that, I am truly proud of myself. I’m so proud that as I go into my first day at Duke tomorrow, I don’t truly believe I’m an imposter anymore. Yes, I still have doubts here and there, but I also know that I have a wealth of experience and gave a knock-out interview. I must belong somewhere, right? And it might as well be between my classes at UNC and my internship at Duke. Either way, I’m extraordinarily proud of myself for coming this far and for overcoming so many fears and mental paralyses.

The Next Big Adventure

About five years ago I wrote a post detailing why I wasn’t going to graduate school—now, as it turns out, I am going to graduate school. For a long time, I hadn’t been thrilled with the idea. Why would I go to school to learn something I already knew how to do and knew that I was capable of doing? Recently, however, I found myself at a career and life crossroads where suddenly, graduate school was an exciting and appealing option.

I spent my winter applying to graduate programs in library science that had specializations in archives, special collections, and digital libraries/curation. After working several different post-undergraduate jobs in archives and museum collections, I realized that, despite my extensive experience, I was still lacking education and experience in some fundamental areas. I was honest in my applications about the gaps in my knowledge and how I wanted the program(s) to round out my knowledge and experience, truly setting me on a solid career path.

After much deliberation between several excellent MLIS/MSLS programs, I decided to accept my offer of admission at UNC Chapel Hill. They are ranked #1 internationally for library and information science, #1 for digital librarianship, and #3 for archives and preservation, so I’m entering an amazing program that will prepare me beyond measure for my future career. In addition to having great academic strength, UNC SILS has wonderful connections with local, regional, and national library and information science employers, so I will have a wealth of opportunities during and after my graduate education, right at my fingertips. I’m already taking advantage of SILS’ wonderful connections and hope to begin working in a local or regional archive during my first year in the MSLS program.

While making such a big move—I’ve never lived outside of Virginia—is a bit daunting, I’m mostly feeling incredibly excited. For a very, very long time I was reluctant (begrudgingly so) and scared to pursure this path, but now I cannot wait for all of the amazing opportunties to which graduate school will open the doors: meeting new people, new professors, new archivists, new friends, new jobs, and new places. I’m ready to crack open the books (and my laptop) and become a student again—and honestly, it feels amazing.

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: http://leahtams.org/omeka/exhibits/show/postcard-production/introduction.
  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).

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

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.

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.

« Older posts

© 2019 Footnotes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑