Lately, every time I attempt to post here, it seems that there is a new torrent feminist griefs and grievances that pulls us out into a giant ocean of tears and anger. It’s been another week of allegations, accusations, and awfulness. And some stuff hit closer to the H&E home than usual and we learned that, sometimes, the way to deal with bullies is to ignore them into obsolescence. It’s all been really hard and I know we are still feeling all of it.
But, still, there’s work to do and we rock at this work thing when we need to. So here’s a small starting point for thinking about setting up a website for your research project.
When I started working on my current Big Project, it occurred to me that I should have a website for it, but I had no idea how to set one up. It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do, and how to do it, and I’m still figuring a lot of it out on the fly. Over the next few months, I’m going to post about this process and talk to other folks who have done this too.
I launched my project website about a month ago and it has been so lovely to see some of the work moving out into the world. It’s called Mass Capture. Check it out, if you’re so inclined. It’s cool and beautiful and I’m really proud of it.
Thinking back on the process, there were a bunch of starting questions that I needed to work through but it took me longer than it should have to even know to ask those questions.
In the end, for me, this was the most important one: how do I want the information on the site to be different than what will be in my book?
Ok, I am betraying my humanities-oriented sensibilities here. The Big End Thing of your research project might not be a book but, in my field, it is still generally that most staid academic object: the single-author monograph, peer-reviewed, and published by a university press or equivalent. So, yes, for me, there is a book, and I am writing as fast as I can. I knew that I had a lot to say, and that not all of it should be said in the book. It took a while to figure out how to separate material that would work best for the book and material that would be best for the site. Of course, there will be some overlap but it has been interesting to see how clear the division between those two things became once I started to really think about what I wanted to say and how to say it.
To get to this first question, I would say that it helped me to think about how some material just works better online. That includes things like maps, interactive elements where I knew I would want to embed a lot of links, and writing that wouldn’t fit in a peer-reviewed academic book like interviews with members of my research team. You will likely have a different list. The key was realizing that I could and should disaggregate the stuff for the book from the stuff for the site. And, as the postscript at the end of the post reminds us, the stuff for the site could be the place where I could design my project so that it could be really public from the ground up.
I also wished I had talked to more people who had already set up project websites about their experiences. So, over the next few months, I’m going to interview other people who have done this and share those conversations with you. To start us off, here are some thoughts from Sharon Sliwinski whose gorgeous project website, the Museum of Dreams, has been a source of huge inspiration for me.
Here’s what Sharon say:
Q: What’s your favourite thing about having a project website?
A: The ideas travel! One of my favourite features about website analytics is the information about geography. The Museum of Dreams has been viewed by people in Brazil and Bolivia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. It’s also interesting where it hasn’t gone — no hits in China for instance. Of course I realize that website “clicks” doesn’t necessarily mean that the ideas are being meaningfully engaged, but then Stuart Hall taught us that’s true of any form of communication. I’m in a Faculty of Information and Media Studies, so we think hard about the medium, about the relationship between form and content. Websites are a familiar form. Billions of people engage them daily. Scholarly journal articles have a rather more specialized role in the dissemination of ideas in the 21st century. (She says with just a hint of sarcasm.)
Q: How did you work out how to distinguish your project website from your other publications? Was it important for you to do that?
A: The animating idea of the project is itself is fairly unique (I’m tempted to say “odd”), so distinguishing it from other publications wasn’t much an issue. The initial idea for the Museum of Dreams was to create a place to house the various dream reports I found in the historical record. Dreams are rather difficult things to find through the usual search methods, but then when you start looking for them, they’re everywhere. I had way more research “data,” so to speak, than I could manage in traditional scholarly form. Dreams don’t exactly lend themselves to academic scholarship. (I got a lot of eye-rolling in the early days of this project—political scientists were particularly dubious.) At first the idea was simply to build a searchable database. I looked at a lot of museum websites to get a sense of how they handle representing their collections online. Then I borrowed from museum websites I love. The International Center of Photography has a great site. Google’s Cultural Institute is also an inspiration.
Q: What surprised you about this process?
A: It’s a lot more work than it seems. If all goes well, a website is intuitive and easy to use, but also compelling. But there’s a lot more behind-the-scenes work to information management and website design than I expected. My project also turned into something much more collaborative than I first planned. We have a growing roster of collaborators who produce entries for the “collections.” Working with artists has been a special pleasure. I learned so much, for instance, from the way the Canadian dancer and choreographer Cai Glover transformed on of Walter Benjamin’s dreams into a dance piece. He really shifted my thinking about the nature of dream-work—as the labour of turning experience into a new form. These kinds of unexpected dialogues have been immensely enriching.
Collaboration has its challenges, too. At the moment a small group of my colleagues and I are designing a workshop that will bring the Museum of Dreams to a migrant community in Geneva. This opportunity came about as a result of the website. It’s been a struggle to figure out how to make this project “relevant” to people in serious states of social and political precarity, but it’s also been generative. I didn’t quite realize that having a project website meant making a long term, open-ended commitment to translating one’s scholarly ideas into something that is useful to the public. But I take comfort from the fact that Sigmund Freud worked hard at this as well — he constantly strove to make his ideas understandable to a broad public. He failed a lot. Failure is part of it.
Q: Is there anything you would do differently if you were to do it again?
A: I think I would have talked to web designers sooner in the process. I thought I could do it on my own in the beginning. There’s an inbuilt narcissism to the scholarly profession which can get in the way sometimes. I’m still learning how to shed the armour of being a professor, the subject-who-is-presumed-to-know, as Jacques Lacan would say. More humility is an on-going life goal!
p.s. It occurs to me that I didn’t say anything about access — obviously SSHRC and other agencies have a mandate to make their funded research more publicly accessible through “knowledge mobilization” initiatives. But as you well know, there are profound barriers to accessing scholarly work with most of the academic journals being behind paywalls. So the access question also played a huge part in my thinking about the Museum of Dreams. How to build a research project that is designed for the public from the get-go?
Thank you Sharon!
Finally, if you have project website stories, please get in touch!