Written by: Aránzazu (Arancha) Borrachero and Brianna (Bri) Caszatt
Arancha’s Reflections on the Project
When I began to plan Digital Memories: Theory and Practice, I wished for my students to analyze the subject of memory studies from the convergent angles already present in the course title: the theoretical reflection and the practical examination of current digital memory projects.
To this effect, I compiled a list of digital projects that would elicit students’ thinking around the four main questions I posed in the course description:
- What is the potential of digital memory and storytelling projects to change or break power structures?
- Has digital technology opened spaces for contesting traditional narratives of the past?
- Is civic action shaped by digital memory initiatives?
- Are digital memory initiatives shaped by civic action?
Inspired by pedagogical principles that emphasize the importance of real audiences for students’ work at any level, I planned for the digital publication of my students’ reviews. Beyond the pedagogical usefulness of the initiative, I believed that the publication would be helpful to anyone interested in the burgeoning field of digital memory studies.
Born within a participatory educational environment, and aiming to reach a larger community, Manifold seemed a fitting publication venue. My initial meeting with Robin Miller, Open Educational Technologist at the Graduate Center, confirmed this.
My next step was to match memory projects and readings by topic. This proved easy for some subjects and impossible for others, which is why my original syllabus contained, in the end, a mix of well-aligned and not-so-well-aligned topics and projects.
In addition to, or in place of, the projects I had selected, I gave students the option to review other digital initiatives that they knew or came to know during the semester—memory projects that they found of particular interest.
All the projects were to be analyzed in small groups outside our synchronous Zoom meetings (this review project began and ended during the COVID-19 pandemic). The groups assembled spontaneously around some of the projects on my list. If a student was the only one to sign up for a given project, they had the option to review it individually.
In my original syllabus, students were to review one project per week for nine weeks. They signed up to review a total of 46 projects, some individually and most of them in small groups of 2, 3, or 4 members. Groups changed members each week depending on the projects each person was interested in reviewing.
Students worked in a shared Google Doc, which gave them the opportunity to read and comment on their peers’ reviews.
For guidance, I provided them with an instructions document, which included a very didactic video recorded by Miriam Posner (“How Did They Make That?”), in which she shows how to “deconstruct” a digital project. I also provided a series of “Creative and Critical Precepts for Digital Humanities Projects” developed by Roopika Risam, micha cárdenas, and other participants in the De/Post/Colonial Digital Humanities course that they taught together in 2015 at the Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching conference. Additionally, I referenced two digital platforms centered around the collection and annotation of digital projects: Around DH in 80 Days and the Vectors journal.
When it came to in-class dynamics, I had envisioned and planned for classes in which students would present and discuss the projects they had examined for that week side by side with the theoretical readings.
On the first day of classes, I put forth the possibility that one or two students would take on the editorial and publishing role, and I provided a general task description. The publication would fulfill the course project requirement for the student or students that would take it on.
Brianna Caszatt (Bri) accepted the challenge around the third week of the semester and developed a very detailed and well-thought-out proposal, followed, later on, by a clear style guide for her peers and a comprehensive thesaurus. She attended a Manifold seminar, met with Robin Miller, and communicated regularly with Robin and myself. She also read through much of the Manifold documentation. Once she began working on the review project, my role was that of consultant, review reader, and sender of friendly reminders to other reviewers.
Watching Bri’s discipline, organizational skills, curiosity, and creativity, I quickly felt very confident that she would produce an outstanding publication, as indeed she did.
What Happened to My Plans
Once Bri had a task list and a calendar, she and I realized that I had to make some syllabus adjustments in terms of number of reviews and dates. My unrealistic expectations had to be kept at bay! We went from the initial 46 reviews to 28, and from expecting students to review projects until May 5 to halting the writing of new reviews at the end of March (see revised list of projects for review and modified syllabus). Bri and I wanted the reviewers to have enough time to format and edit their work.
I also realized that reading discussions, guest lectures, workshops, and other activities I had planned were taking up all available class time (2 hours a week), and that there was no room to discuss the projects the students were reviewing. Since students were supposed to read and annotate each other’s reviews in the shared Google Doc, I thought this feedback would compensate for the missing class discussion.
Positive Outcomes and Room for Improvement
In spite of all the adjustments I had to make to my initial plans, I was not disappointed: the class worked hard on the reviews, producing in-depth critical analyses and learning a good deal about digital memory projects.
Students completed a midterm self-evaluation that included a question about the project reviews: “How do you feel about your work in the project review groups?”
From their feedback, I learned that this analytical task was very helpful for most students:
I’ve enjoyed doing project reviews. It has really helped me understand the types of things that need to be considered when embarking on a digital project, and it has been interesting and helpful to see completed work.… It has been really useful to learn how to look at these projects with a critical eye.
The project reviews have been—surprisingly—my favorite part of the course. I feel like a professional in the field of DH when I’m asked to give my opinion on a digital memory project, and I enjoy learning from my classmates and their unique experiences and points of view.
I also gathered that the frequent change in group members was felt to be both beneficial (learning from different peers) and difficult (having to adapt to different approaches too often):
I learned so much from the people I’ve been working with, especially because every week I got to talk to different people and see things from their perspective.
I want to either run the group, write the review, or not have to worry about the administration of the group meeting at all. I wish that we either had one group or were allowed to write alone; it was very tricky to attempt to write with another person or several, agree on a methodology for review, and then see that methodology get critically annotated.
There were comments about the need for more clear guidance from me:
…the reviews and other in-class assignments were not clearly explained.
And comments about creating more room for project discussion:
Not enough time given to memory projects and receiving feedback from professor and peers.
[The reviews] could have been discussed more in class not only because the projects were interesting, but the tools used could have also been explored and used on our own project.
Students also felt that the review requirement burdened their already heavy class load.
Overall, putting aside individual preferences, I gained some very valuable insights from the students’ feedback:
- It’s a good idea to discuss group dynamics with the class—fixed groups? variable groups?—and arrive at a consensus before beginning the review process.
- To avoid some frustration with the recurring editing process, providing a template from the start might prove useful. Templates can always change as needed, but the ensuing editing work would not be so arduous for the publisher (Bri, in this case) and the reviewers.
- Integrating this part of the students’ work into the class discussion is important. As students noted, it is inherently connected with other aspects of the course and would surely illuminate them (course project, theoretical readings, etc.).
Finally, I cannot close this introduction without addressing the two most important factors contributing to what I believe is a very relevant, high-quality collective publication:
- The exhaustivity, depth, elegance, and sharpness of my students’ reviews. They teach me something new every time I read them.
- The editor’s brainpower, curiosity, diligence, and creativity. In all my ingenuity, I had planned to take on the task of publishing the class reviews in Manifold if none of the students were interested in making this their course project. Now I am certain that I would have never been able to match Bri’s excellence.
Bri’s Reflections on the Project
Deciding to Lead the Project
I was very much interested in taking on the role of project manager/editor for the class Manifold publication from the moment Dr. Borrachero suggested it as an option. I have a background in publishing, and I thought I had a fairly clear idea of how much work would be involved in the editorial process. And having interacted with some other publications in Manifold in other classes (such as articles from the Debates in the Digital Humanities series), I knew it was a tool I wanted to learn more about.
I hesitated to confirm my commitment to this project for a few reasons. First, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be challenging myself enough by picking a project related to publishing given my professional background. Early on in the review process, I was also feeling very timid and unsure of myself as a writer of reviews, which made me question my ability to be in charge of reviewing, editing, and assembling everyone else’s reviews.
NYCDH Week took place early in the semester, and I attended an Introduction to Manifold seminar led by Robin Miller and Wendy Barrales, a Manifold graduate fellow at the Graduate Center. Their enthusiasm for Manifold ultimately convinced me this was the project I should take on for the course. When I was ready to create the project, Wendy gave me admin privileges, and Robin met with me to discuss strategy and was available to answer all of my questions as I was building it.
I learned a lot from my group during the writing of the first batch of reviews (see New York City Trans Oral History Project review), first and foremost of which was the idea to follow Miriam Posner’s “How Did They Make That?” video in the formatting. We walked through the sources, processes, and presentation of the project, and we found so much value in that process in collectively writing our review, we decided to keep it in our rough draft.
After reading through the first two rounds of reviews in our class Google Doc, I found so many aspects of the reviews that were great. My second review was of a project created in multiple languages, which gave me the idea to have us all include what languages a project was available in. Another group’s review included a list of digital tools used to build the project, which I also thought would be very useful to include in all of our reviews. I took the initiative to create a mini style guide, listing all of the aspects people had included in their reviews that I thought would serve our audiences (such as listing the data, processes, presentation, digital tools used to build it, and languages as bullet points at the top of each review), and addressing a few points that were coming up in the reviews without a consistent style (such as how to handle abbreviations). I presented my style guide in class, making additions and edits to it based on class feedback.
After agreeing on the main style points, I asked my classmates to take a week to make edits to the first couple batches of reviews to conform to the style guide. And I asked that all future batches of reviews followed the guide. I asked the groups to tag me in the Google Doc when their reviews were ready for me to edit and finalize them. I’m more familiar with editing in Word, and with everyone working within the shared Google Doc for multiple batches of reviews, and lots of comments, I thought transferring each individual review to Word would be a good next step. With tracked changes turned on, I edited each review. To help with the list of digital tools, someone in class suggested using Wappalyzer, where you can input a URL and receive a report listing any tools it can identify. I created an account and ran all of our project URLs through Wappalyzer and listed all of the information it returned (with the exception of analytics and social media). After I finished my edits, I sent the file back to the individual or group who wrote it. Juggling so many files became a challenge, and version control was also a challenge as further edits were sometimes made within the Google Doc. But overall everyone was receptive and open to my edits, and it was rewarding for me to be able to learn about every project we reviewed. After everyone in the group approved, I sent the review to Dr. Borrachero so she could see how the project was progressing and catch any mistakes.
Once a review was approved by the group and Dr. Borrachero, I transferred it into Markdown. Even though I could have ingested the Word files or Google files directly, I chose to transfer our reviews to Markdown because Manifold understands Markdown better than the other proprietary formats, and therefore I would maintain better control over the final formatting. I found and downloaded the open-source MacDown editor for this project. With multiple batches going through the workflow at different rates, I noticed a few inconsistencies. So I created a Markdown template to make it easier to spot any inconsistency within the Word files when I copied the text over.
To ingest in Manifold, I had two options: combine all of the reviews into one file or ingest each of them separately. I discussed both of these options with Robin, and I opted to ingest each review individually. This allowed me to start ingesting and experimenting within Manifold before all of the reviews were written and finalized, and it created a unique URL for each review, making it easier for everyone in class to include their reviews in their portfolios. The biggest drawback is that I couldn’t use Manifold’s built-in table of contents function. As part of a class exercise, I had started working on a thesaurus for all of the reviews. Robin had shown me that I could include a customized Markdown field on the project’s homepage. Having taught myself Markdown for the reviews, and having a unique URL for each review, I opted to finish the thesaurus I started in class and use it as an alternative table of contents. Every review is categorized into three main subjects: history, identities, and video games—the first two of which are further subcategorized. Every review is also listed at least once, and most are listed within the thesaurus at least twice. This presents our audience with multiple ways to access each of our reviews.
I also captured screenshots of the homepage for each project we reviewed, which I uploaded as resources and inserted into each respective review. The screenshot also serves as the cover image for each review. And I combined all of the screenshots into a “quilt,” which I have used as the cover image for the project overall.
Dr. Borrachero encouraged me to present this project at the Graduate Center Digital Showcase on May 13, 2021. This pushed my final timeline up a bit sooner as I wanted to have all of the reviews published and live before the presentation. It was a really great experience, and I’ve uploaded a version of my presentation as a resource for the project.
I learned a great deal leading this project, and I have some advice for any future students wanting to create a similar project:
- Our class Google Docs got very unwieldy, and it was confusing at times moving between one Google Doc for scheduling and picking our reviews and another Google Doc for instructions and posting our reviews.
- To solve this, and to try and maintain the raw version of the reviews, I copied text into Word documents and sent tracked changes back to the groups of reviewers, which introduced some version control issues and made it so that I had even more files to juggle.
- I find myself in a real chicken-or-egg dilemma in terms of the style guide I created for the project.
- I wish it could have been ready sooner to save time in the editing process and so that everyone agreed on formatting and expectations sooner.
- I can only speak for myself here, but I definitely needed a couple of reviews under my belt and more class readings before I felt confident enough to write them.
- We had a few weeks early in the semester in which we did not write reviews, so perhaps if we had stacked the review writing in the first half of the semester, we could have agreed on a style and expectations sooner and made the subsequent editing process smoother.
- Get more than one student interested in taking on this project, or else check your expectations sooner rather than later. This project was a lot more work than I initially anticipated.
Overall, though, this has been such a worthwhile project and experience. I feel so much more confident in assessing the work of others in the field (curbing “imposter syndrome”) and in knowing what steps to take to create my own digital projects. I would highly recommend future classes review digital projects and/or create a publication in Manifold.