Nuts and Bolts

This is a page for those who are interested in (1) how I built this site, and (2) how this kind of project could be used for classroom teaching. This is not exhaustive by all means, and I may add to this as I learn more. You can contact me or leave a comment if you have further feedback or questions.

(1) Building a website on the cheap with simple tools *

First things first: I am NOT a web developer, but I am an interested layperson with an interest in digital humanities and the kind of basic computer skills it takes to understand the work in that field. This led me to taking some basic courses in web development and programming, but only a 100-level course in “how to make a website” applies directly to this project.

This website is partly a way to test how democratic the internet can be about giving an ordinary, non-techie, not “corporate” person a way to create and control their own website. The goal was to build a site that would not cost much, with tools that are easy to use and free as well as open-source and open-access. This makes it possible to change things in the set-up and design without into proprietary software issue or hidden costs. It also means that the site is independent from any institutional setting (such as a university) so that my work is portable and not understood as representing the ideas of some institution or another.

The main (and unavoidable) cost for launching a website of your own is getting a domain name and a web host. I picked a name via GoDaddy and purchased it (I think it was about $100 for five years); I am self-hosting, but that is unusual and a little more complex. The cost for costing actually depends on traffic to your site. GoDaddy offers this service, but that’s $6/month, so in the past, I have used Reclaim Hosting for the same purpose, for about $30 a year. It sounds a little complicated, but I was able to pick up what I needed to know with their tutorials.

I ultimately only built only the home page for this site from scratch, with very simple tools (HTML and CSS–there’s a bit more detail below if you are interested). But because I realized I needed to focus on content and not the nit-picky design details, I ended up using the free version of WordPress for many of the blog pages rather than designing my own. This made things easier, but does mean less control over the design. That said, WordPress and other free tools to make a website typically have a number of design choices and still allow you to customize quite a bit. I have not used it here, but especially for anyone who wants to create a site that follows stringent academic metadata standards (the famous “Dublin Core”), I would recommend Omeka Classic, which is free, open-access and open-source, and has many excellent resources.

Using HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) will sound completely trivial to people with programming experience, but also completely intimidating to those who have never looked under the hood of a website. I am somewhere in the middle: I picked up the basics in a 100-level Web Development class and I now know enough to make a basic website. But any programmer will tell you that HTML and CSS are not programming, and I am here to say they are not so hard to pick up. I also found out I could have learned most of these skills on line, with the tutorials at W3schools.com or the beginner level tutorials at the developer pages of Mozilla (the people who made the web browser Firefox). And with just a little bit of extra time, you can learn how to tap into many reusable designs and page-building tools other people have already built, at “libraries” like Bootstrap. I have not explored those yet, but don’t let anyone tell you that building a website is rocket science and needs to cost big bucks.

Lastly, if you are a scholar, a teacher, or a student who wants to create web content about a writer, an artist, a historical event, etc., but you do not want it to be QUITE so independent, there is the COVE Collective. Their tools are extremely easy to use, and everything is open access. There is a modest cost for using the tools, and actually publishing the work involves peer review, but it is a much more connected way of putting your research out there, and its goal is that very democratic access to information and sharing the information that you have for others via the web.

* I have not linked to external sites because a simple Google search will get you to to the mentioned companies and resources, and I am not intending to “sponsor” anyone. If you have trouble finding these, 0r want more tech tips, comment below. I can put links in the comments.

(2) Thoughts on using this site for teaching and for studying

I am currently not teaching. But I have many years of college teaching experience, both in traditional classroom environments and in hybrid teaching environments. I have also recently returned to being a student, and taking college courses again has made me think harder than ever about which pedagogical strategies work and don’t work, and what I want good teaching (specifically, including remote teaching and specifically pro-justice, antiracist pedagogy) to look like.*

Based on that dual experience, I decided to stay away from making this page too “educational,” with assignments or a suggested curriculum or a sequence of tasks to accomplish. I have come to believe that we (and by that, I mean me-as-instructor) often squelch many students’ genuine desire to learn by too much structure and too many guided tasks, and that letting people explore a subject–in this case, Edmonia Lewis and her work–in a more freewheeling way works better.

So I would just suggest a ramble through the website for things that catch your eye–whether you are a student yourself or an instructor in search of material for students. But once a teacher, always a teacher, so here are some of the ways I might put this page to use in a classroom:

  • More websites on Black, Indigenous, and Women artists are always still needed, and if they come in diverse formats, with varying degrees of “curation” and professional or institutional input, that is good. This site is an example of one kind of approach (see above what some the goals were), and thinking about how it is different from others might be useful for students and instructors: Is this an effective way of presenting information visually or in terms of information flow? What audience is it supposed to attract? Is this a responsible way of handling sources? What is it not trying to be (for example, *not* a substitute for peer-reviewed scholarship)?
  • The entire project can serve as an example / template for how to build a website as a class project or individual semester assignment, and as a way of asking yourself as an instructor or your students what components are necessary to explore that particular figure (or era, work, text, etc.). Such a site could then be built by individual students or by a group or a whole class, who could contribute individual segments or blogs. Those are of course spins on fairly standard assignments, but because they do not necessarily need in-person instruction, they can work well for remote and hybrid classes.
  • The open questions for my readers at the end of each blog, typically based on the ones that I have asked myself, can work as open-ended journal prompts or short self-reflection essays, and they could always be turned “inside out”: how could an instructor or a student ask these same questions about other material; how could they be adapted to fit; why are the even important? (And, if you want to go there: how can they be linked to teaching goals, objectives or rubrics?)
  • Visual materials have been integrated in a variety of ways, and these could perhaps be examples of how to introduce an artist’s work–but also food for thought about what works and what doesn’t. It’s always useful to get anyone learning about visual culture or art history to think about whether a video “lecture” is more effective than a written blog post, or when images with simple captions are enough, or when a detailed analysis of an image is needed to make clear what is interesting about it.
  • The resources page can serve as a model for a kind of annotated bibliography, as long as anyone who uses it keeps the caveats in mind that I place at the beginning of the page. Some of the comments are more subjective and informal than would be expected, and the organization by topic rather than in alphabetical form is obviously also unconventional. But even having students rearrange this material for practice, or having them think of what a footnoted version of, say, the biography page could look like, might be a useful exercise in thinking through different rules about how to cite and quote material.
  • Interactivity / engagement with users is work in progress for this site. It is crucial is to explore material “interactively” and collaboratively, including being able to give feedback, but the options for this without a classroom site like Canvas are very limited. The site is set up so users can e-mail me personally or comment in WordPress (which requires logging in and a permission simply to prevent spam and bot activity.) But I am the first to admit that as far as “interactivity” goes, this website is lame. It is surprisingly tricky to set up a secure website that allows for the kind of discussion that you can have on a regular facebook post or on classroom discussion sites like Canvas Discussions or YellowDig. But this is because I do not want to jeopardize my user’s privacy, and I want to keep the use of licensed, proprietary software to a minimum.

* Disclaimers: While I have also taught and taken fully on-line classes, I am frankly not satisfied with those classes and don’t feel qualified to weigh in on how to teach well in 100% on-line courses. And I am woefully behind on antiracist pedagogy, and want to do better and learn more. I would love to hear your ideas on both counts!

Any suggestions or ideas for me? Comment below (if you’ve created a log in) or contact me.

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