Jolie A. Sheffer is Director of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society and Associate Professor of English and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. She teaches courses in American literature and popular culture since the Civil War, multiethnic American literature, American Studies, and literary theory and cultural studies.
Like most of us involved in graduate education, I’m concerned about my students being able to find meaningful, challenging employment in a time where academic jobs are increasingly scarce. But even more broadly, I care about all of my students’ ability to communicate the skills and knowledge gained in the course of humanistic study to the wider world. I am tired of having a degree in English or History or [insert other humanities major here] serve as the butt of jokes about “useless” college degrees – especially since liberal arts disciplines teach the writing, critical thinking, and analytic skills that are essential to virtually all professional work in the twenty-first century. Those qualitative skills can be applied to any industry, and adapted to any institution or organization. Consequently, I believe that one of the best ways to prepare our students for “the real world” is to provide them opportunities to utilize their skills and knowledge for projects that are broadly legible and publicly accessible. Using Omeka to create digital exhibits has been a transformative experience in my pedagogy, and for my students.
I have used Omeka digital exhibits both as a supplement and an alternative to the conventional research paper in several graduate courses. Students in my classes—who are working toward MA or PhD degrees in programs such as American Culture Studies, Art, English, German, Media and Communications, Popular Culture, and Theatre and Film—created digital exhibits on Racial Representations in the Early 20th Century and on American Youth Culture in the 1960s . For these semester-long final projects, they worked with BGSU librarians and archivists to digitize primary source documents from the library’s special collections, and then curate them into Digital Exhibits using an institutional Omeka installation hosted by our library. In order to create a distinct identity, each exhibit was given a custom theme designed by an undergraduate student intern at the library, in consultation with the graduate students creating the exhibit.
The intellectual labor of the project was manifold and manifest: students researched a historical period using primary documents and secondary sources; they analyzed visual media for its ideological and social meanings; and they wrote explanatory essays to provide historical and cultural context for interpreting dozens of documents. But the project also demanded they communicate their depth of knowledge in jargon-free language, as well as create an easily navigable architecture for complex topics. And they learned a new software platform, and gained experience with a workflow involving more than a dozen other people from units across the university. In short, they had to demonstrate a range of skills and knowledge, including the ability to collaborate effectively to create something larger than any one of them could have accomplished alone.
Unlike the typical research paper, which disappears into a drawer at the end of the semester, my students’ Omeka projects live on – providing them meaningful evidence of their research, writing, analytical, technical, and organizational skills. The URL becomes a document that they can share with friends, family, and potential employers. Just as important, it helps them see the intrinsic value of their educations, AND its utility to life both inside and outside the academy. Truly, I cannot imagine a more meaningful way for them to demonstrate their intellectual development over the course of a semester. And I’ll never uncritically assign a research paper again.