For me, grad school, and especially the process of dissertating, has involved not knowing what I’m doing a lot of the time. I don’t think that experience is atypical, but this fellowship semester has been a period when I felt like I knew what I was doing—I was making a website about a Boston periodical called the Commonwealth because one didn’t exist already and I thought it should. There were other questions, such as who’s interested in this material other than me and what they’d find useful in my website, but my answer to the most common small-talk question about what I was up to was simpler, both explainable and understandable, this summer than it’s been since I started grad school.
Despite this certainty about my task, I became less sure about what to call the project, especially after it changed from being about the content of the Commonwealth to being about the people who ran it and contributed to it. I decided to call the project a “digital exhibition” early on, but that phrase always served as a placeholder for a better term that I thought I would come up with or discover at some point. The word “exhibition” just doesn’t seem to describe what I’ve done, perhaps because what I’ve created only has physical form on a screen. Even adding the descriptor “digital” doesn’t seem to solve that problem for me. This is a fairly esoteric issue, and I suspect I’m the only one worried about it. Nevertheless, this problem of terminology does remind me of conversations we’ve had in class meetings about “digital scholarship”—what it means, how to apply it, and whether it matters at all. At the risk of reducing complex discussion and presenting only my side, here’s what I concluded: we need to be able to describe what we do for various reasons, ranging from the small-talk conversations I mentioned previously to job-application reasons, even though we also recognize that the terms used don’t always serve us well. Lately I’ve been calling my project a website, but “digital exhibition” works, too.
You can find my website, which I made using the free version of Omeka, here. Pdfs of the Commonwealth are there with metadata, recorded in Dublin Core, about those pages, and I also made a page about the newspaper describing its founding and including a pitch for its importance. Most of the pdfs that are currently posted are of varied contributions to the paper by Louisa May Alcott, whose three series published in winter, spring, and summer of 1863 are progressively more autobiographical. In coming days, I’ll be adding pages on two editors, Moncure D. Conway and Frank Sanborn, as well as Alcott’s first series for the Commonwealth, a short story about an interracial romance that’s based on the true story of William Allen, an African American professor, and his white wife Mary King. One expectation I had of this summer was that I’d be finished with the project by the end of summer. Well, I was wrong about that. Now I’m thinking that material about teaching periodicals might be a good addition to the site in the future, and I’ve thought throughout the process about other directions I could go in. Since I’m taking this expansionist approach, I’m less shy about sharing the website I’ve created, which I consider to be still unfinished, than I would be about, say, sharing a draft of my dissertation.