Kelley Kanon, Anne Krohn and Annika Peterson 2015-10-07 23:06:40
How Three Student Assistants Kindled Interest in a Piece of History Students boycott class and parade downtown carrying a casket representing the “death of academic freedom.” A university fires a professor for publicly opposing university expansion into poor neighborhoods. African American students assert they are unjustly targeted by campus security police and have been shot at by white students on campus. An administrator claims that the Black Student Union held him captive in his office. Attendees of a student judiciary hearing reported that an administrator made threatening comments, but the incriminating tape mysteriously goes missing. Shedding Light Each of these controversial events were part of a turbulent time period for Northern Michigan University in the late 1960s. To shed light on these events, the Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives digitized much of its material relating to student protests in the 1960s to create an online exhibit. The website highlights primary sources from many different collections and newspapers and features a narrative explaining the context of the sources. An online exhibit encourages students, faculty, and community members to learn about this time period and allows alumni and retired faculty to relive the history they built. It also provides primary source materials for teachers at the high school and college levels. A Student-Run Project As three student assistants, we carried out this project with no grant money or professional help until the final proofreading. Annika Peterson, senior student assistant, researched and wrote for the website. May through October, she reviewed microfilm, paper collections, and oral history interviews. She also emailed with one of the leaders of a 1967 protest, allowing her to fill in some gaps from a former student’s perspective. From October to December, she wrote the text for the website. Anne Krohn, digitization specialist, digitized many hours of oral history interviews and audio of the protests as well as newspaper articles, correspondence, and photographs. She organized the materials, including the text for the website, into a logical format that would be easy for the website coder to use. She also edited and gave suggestions about the manuscript. By fall, we began to think about the website creation process. Although the archives had acquired Dreamweaver, an easy-to-use website development tool, it became apparent that we were in over our heads. Luckily, the archives hired a student assistant, Kelley Kanon, who could design and code a website. Despite being a new employee, Kanon jumped into the massive task of building a large website from scratch for a project that she knew little about beforehand. She used Dreamweaver to build the website and consulted Creating a Winning Online Exhibition: A Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums by Martin R. Kalfatovic for design tips. Learning from Experience The project offered many opportunities and learning experiences. Each of us worked with a part of the project relevant to our respective majors. As a history major, Peterson spent large chunks of time doing historical research and writing about it. As a digital cinema major, Krohn worked with Adobe Audition, a high-end program in the digital cinema field. Kanon, a graphic communications major, designed and coded a website far larger than any that she had ever made for her classes. Turning over such a massive project to student assistants might be intimidating. You might worry that the students will not have the will, time, or experience to do the project. Certainly the project will take longer than if professionals did it, but this is balanced by what the students are learning from the experience: how to be a part of a large project, how to communicate with others involved in the project, how to research and write, and more. Tips for Large Student Assistant–Run Projects (Or, Learn from Our Mistakes) Make sure the students are dedicated to the project before they start. They should realize that this is going to be a months-long project. The students involved already should have proven themselves to be thorough, responsible employees or volunteers. Make sure the topic is legitimately interesting to the students. Of course, the website should be something that a larger audience will find interesting—otherwise, why bother making the material accessible? But it also needs to be interesting to the students doing the research. Students who are bored by the topic they are researching will find the project challenging. Because we were fascinated with the project, we were able to maintain focus and excitement. We thought that a larger audience would enjoy the topic, and we wanted a well-developed display for them. Topics involving controversies in the history of the university or region are good bets for holding people’s attention. Make sure that the project plays to each individual’s strengths and that each student has a definite role to play in the project. In our case, it really helped that each student had an area of expertise that they brought to the project. Each of us was able to take control of a specific stage of the project without the others feeling that their ideas or contributions did not matter. Have the students create a firm timeline and stick to it. We learned our lesson with this one. Delays in research and writing can cause massive delays down the road, especially since websites with a lot of content take a long time to create. Be sure to budget in some extra time for any delays that might occur. We completed the project two months after our projected end date of January. Be organized. Make sure from the start that notes and digitized documents have a clear organization and naming system that everyone can follow. Obviously, organizing large amounts of information well is something that archives try to do all the time, but with coding, it is also important to have a system. Our photographs were labeled by their topic, (for example McClellan_01, McClellan_02, Harden_01, and Harden_02). This is helpful when dealing with many photographs that we knew were not going into specific locations. Have a discussion about how in-depth you want the website to be before you start writing or digitizing. Otherwise, the writer will get carried away and hand fortytwo single-spaced pages replete with suggested links to digitized sources to the coder, and most of it will be cut from the final website (yes, that actually happened). Decide how ambitious you want to be at the beginning. Expect the students to make mistakes, and give them room to do so. Not everything is going to go smoothly. However, by being given a chance to deal with projects, conflicts, and delays by themselves, we will learn far more than if professionals jump in to fix everything. Interested in learning more about the protests themselves or seeing the website? Check it out at http://archives.nmu.edu/studentprotests.
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