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Building “The Life DHSI with Steve Anderson”: Blogging and Professionalization in the Digital Humanities

The white paper below is my final assignment for Week 3, Professionalizing the Early Career Digital Humanist, as part of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities at DHSI 2015.


Introduction

This summer I spent three weeks at the University of Victoria completing the Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities. The certificate is offered by the English department at UVic in conjunction with DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute) and the ETCL (Electronic Textual Cultures Lab). This year at DHSI 2015 was the first run of the program, which requires five weeks of study. I was able to transfer-in my classes from DHSI 2014, and also HILT 2014 (Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching) which took place at the University of Maryland last August, enabling me to complete the certificate this year. Requirements for the certificate include a daily log or journal, a presentation on work-in-progress each week, and also a white paper discussing each week’s material. In addition to these items, a digital project must also be completed for each class. Since I was at DHSI for all three weeks this year, I made this website or blog for my digital project, The Life DHSI with Steve Anderson, which extended across all three classes. This digital project especially connected with my last class in week three, Professionalizing the Early Career Digital Humanist.

Professionalization and the web

One of the key takeaways of the professionalization class was the need to control our own digital presence. In order to present ourselves online in the best possible light, we first need to be findable on the web. With a common name like “Steve Anderson” finding myself with a Google search was not as simple as it might seem. Adding more information, such as my middle name (Gordon), my university affiliation at UC Riverside, or my hometown of La Verne, California, definitely helped. The idea is to make the task of finding you online as easy as possible for job search and hiring committees. I already had a personal website at stevenganderson.org, but the domain name didn’t match how I usually represent myself, I rarely use “Steven” or my middle initial. Through the professionalization class I changed the domain name for my personal site from stevenganderson.org to steveanderson.digital This new “.digital” domain name is much more memorable, and also in line with my digital humanities work. With some SEO or search engine optimization, I might be able to raise my profile a little higher in a general Google search. In addition to my steveanderson.digital web presence, I also created this WordPress blog, The Life DHSI with Steve Anderson, for my DHSI classes as an homage to Wes Anderson (no relation!) and his film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Through The Life DHSI website, the journals and essays required for the Graduate Certificate in DH found a home on the web, possibly helping others attending DHSI and those interested in the DH certificate. By combining the writing for the certificate program with a new blog centered on DHSI, I increased my digital humanities web presence as well.

Finding a theme

The notion here of “finding a theme” is twofold. First, there is the need for a certain aesthetic or design for the website that is interesting and memorable. With The Life DHSI I was drawing on Wes Anderson’s films, which use carefully chosen typographical elements and interesting color palettes. Anderson’s films rely on analog and digital techniques and they focus on the art of storytelling, and these aspects are very much a part of my own work in digital humanities. I purchased the domain name thelifedhsi.org from Hover, and began searching online for graphics related to The Life Aquatic film. The second part of “finding a theme” is the template or digital design. I thought briefly about working with Drupal for this project, but I settled on WordPress since the weeks at DHSI were already so busy. I’m more familiar with WordPress, and this made it easier for me to focus on content for the site, which I would be generating on a daily basis. The theme for the site is Make Plus by The Theme Foundry ($99 yearly subscription), and the typography or web fonts are provided by Typekit which I use as part of my Adobe Creative Suite subscription ($20 monthly for students and teachers). With my (Wes) Andersonian design and Make Plus theme, I was ready to construct the website. My idea was to keep the blog fun and friendly, but also informative and professional — DHSI is a wonderful mix of these two qualities, and this is something I tried to capture in digital form. I also made sure to include Accessibility features by using Joe Dolson’s plugin that allows users to change the color, contrast, and text size as needed along with other options. Twitter is a major feature of many academic conferences these days, and especially at DHSI there is a constant stream of activity. On The Life DHSI homepage I included my Twitter handle (@sgahistory) front and center, as well as a feed of #dhsi2015 activity.

Managing content, and sanity

A year or so ago a few of the WordPress websites I was working on were hacked — all of the WordPress core data and plugins were up-to-date, the attackers may have gained access through simple user passwords, or perhaps through out-of-date server software. These sites ran open-source software from WordPress.org which requires self-hosting, WordPress.com sites are run by the company Automattic. One of the sites was totally destroyed, and it had to be rebuilt from scratch as the backups were infected and damaged as well. All of the hacked sites were hosted on university servers at UC Riverside, and while free of charge for academic projects there was little support, especially for dealing with viruses and backups. For the sites that were hacked but still online, I was able clean them with the help of Sucuri (yearly fee of $89 per site at the time, less with multiple sites, but plans have also changed). The frustrating and time-consuming experience of cleaning, repairing, and hardening multiple WordPress sites led me to look for hosting outside of the university when possible. Many web hosts offered low prices, but much needed services such as backup and security were either an additional cost or not available at all. Managed hosting with WP Engine has been much more reliable, and with fantastic customer support as well (WP Engine helped me automatically redirect all posts at stevenganderson.org to steveanderson.digital so that no links were broken in the changing of domain names). WP Engine updates WordPress core files automatically, and they include data caching so no plugins are needed to speed up the site. Security, anti-malware, and automatic backups are included in the $29 monthly fee, and a global CDN or content delivery network is also available (WP Engine also has yearly options, and packages for multiple installs). Building digital projects and creating content is one thing, but managing them can be quite a chore, and sadly the time, labor, and monetary expense necessary for proper maintenance is often overlooked. Through our discussions in Professionalizing the Early Career Digital Humanist we found that while many social media and blogging platforms are free, sometimes it’s best to go with premium services. Along with WordPress and WP Engine, the online platform Squarespace also provides managed hosting for websites and blogs. Many in the professionalization class chose Squarespace to develop their first personal website ($8 a month for hosting, security, and design all in one, or even less with education pricing).

Archiving a digital project

Using a managed host like WP Engine or Squarespace is fantastic while the blog is being developed and actively maintained. Over time though, the associated costs might overwhelm a tight budget, and if new content is no longer being added it could be time to archive the website. Self-hosted WordPress installations require a MySQL database, Php software, and a web server to host the data. With WP Engine these things are all taken care of, but when it comes time to archive the site a new strategy is needed. Making sure the website is captured by the Internet Archive is one way to make certain that the content remains online for the foreseeable future, and making local offline backups is always a good idea too (BackupBuddy by iThemes is great for this). During the professionalization class I signed up for Reclaim Hosting, a new web hosting company focusing on academic institutions and individual students and scholars with yearly plans as low as $25! I chose the “faculty & institution” plan of $45 a year, which includes unlimited domains. The Life DHSI website could be moved to a functioning WordPress installation at Reclaim Hosting, and I could also setup test sites for working with Drupal, Omeka, Wikis, and Scalar. If The Life DHSI blog is no longer being actively updated, transforming the WordPress data into a static HTML5 website would eliminate the need for a MySQL database and also make the data more portable and secure. Static HTML5 could be hosted at Github for free, even with a custom domain, although the domain name would need to be paid for each year via a domain registrar. For the time being I’ll keep The Life DHSI at WP Engine, as I’d like to add posts about DHSI 2014 and also HILT 2014, and I plan on attending DHSI in the future as well.

Conclusion

Building The Life DHSI was not an easy task, but it was an enriching one. Through the website I have been able to share my daily logs, white papers, and other posts about DHSI openly on the web. Digital humanists and digital scholars are especially active on the Internet, and it’s important to consider our digital projects and web environments from a variety of perspectives. The process of building The Life DHSI helped me to see how even small digital projects have many points to consider, from online security and data protection, to aesthetic design choices and accessibility features. Many times the lowest cost alternative is used, especially for social media, but even users of free services such as Twitter and Facebook can have their information put at risk. Digital humanists, whether early-career or otherwise, should be adept at analyzing online service providers, as well as making informed decisions about the amount of effort and funding that digital projects require for sustainability and longevity.