The Last Word

Part 1: How I Feel About No Man’s Land

My feelings for No Man’s Land are complex.  On one hand, I am so insanely proud of what I have created from a blank theme on WordPress.  When I started this project, it was nothing, just a blank slate; now, No Man’s Land is visually lovely and full of useful information.  On the other hand, I know how much more I want to do with this project.  If it was possible, I would continue into well into next semester.  I would find places to put my favorite stories from the newspapers and track down more images.  I don’t like doing things halfway, so having a project which feels unfinished (even through I have accomplished so much in just a semester) hurts my historian soul.

I love that my site reads like a collection of stories. (I think my English major is showing.)  This is the kind of site I would want to read.  While I did not necessary create the largest narrative from a collaboration of sources all combined into large swaths of text, I did collect stories that present tremendous narratives on their own. I could have written a long section in the letter collection section about the insights on military life these letters have, but I would rather let them stand on their own.  Reading a digital copy of a letter takes some of the tangible fun out of history, so I did not want to further damage these letters by summarizing them.  There is something to be said for the joy found in finding a nugget of wonderful information hidden in the letters.  While I simplified the reading experience by transcribing, I was not going to take away the hunting and sifting experience.

My project changed a lot from the contract I signed, but I think most of the changes were for the better.  I believe I met the overall goal of the site: to create a page that reconnects readers with the individual experiences of the Great War in Kirksville.  The letter collection especially has a strong voice on my page, as well as the Earl L. Stahl Collection.  Most of the contract deviations came from time constraints.  Those amazing letters just took so much time to scan, upload, and transcribe. I found students interested in reading them for audio recordings, but I just ended up running out of time with transcribing the letters.  In hindsight, I would have selected fewer letters; however, if you asked me now which ones I would cut, I would not have a good answer.  I love them all so much.  While I cut pages out of the final project: The Digital Library and the Memorial Wall, I included a section on War Stories from the Kirksville War record and greatly expanded the State Normal School areas.  My site map changed considerably as time went on.  Again, had I been able to start again, I would have definitely story-boarded my page rather than just putting everything on and then organizing and reorganizing over and over.

In addition to time, my digital design abilities also proved problematic for the No Man’s Land.  I have so many grand ideas that include a really neat map that traces the origin and receipt locations of the letter; I wanted to include a video that pans sections of letters as individuals read them.  I wanted a entire page on newspapers.  There are  so many ideas that I have that I would love to put on the site, I just do not have the skills nor time necessary to tackle them on my own.

Scheduling too was difficult with this project.  Between limited hours, helping my parents sell our house in Kansas City and then move to a new house, getting the world’s worst sinus infection, and my computer trying to off itself at least once, this project definitely would have benefited from unlimited time.  Exact deadlines may not have necessarily been met in the contract, but good material made its way on the my site nonetheless. Deadlines also changed as I realized just how monumental the effort of digitizing was. In my naive mind, I was just going to shoot a few letters through the scanner and upload them right quick.  Little did I know that it would be a 40+ hour endeavor.

The internet is hard.  Especially coming from a school like Truman.  My history professors never stress technology in history.  The closest we get is to using powerpoint presentations in class, and I have a professor who won’t even let us use those.  Wordpress was so infinitely more challenging than I ever expected it to be.  Especially when I changed my mind about something I had on each page.  I needed to eliminate a link on the sidebar of the Letter Collection, and spent over an hour going in to each page, editing it, opening the widget, deleting the section of code, saving the widget, and then updating the post.  There is certainly no DELETE THIS ____ ON EACH PAGE button in WordPress.  If I wanted to create a site of the caliber of UMW’s site, I think I would have had to describe in detail to a professional what I wanted and then paid them to construct it.  While this would have made my life 10,000 times easier, I would have lost much of what I gained from this project.

Part 2: How I Feel About The Project

This project has been so unlike anything else I have ever done that I struggle to verbalize how I feel about it.  But I shall try nonetheless.  As Dr. Pearson dismissed us from our final group meeting, I sad — a surprising feeling for this project which has been full of so much frustration and floundering.

I really loved the days I was able to be in class early and heard the discussions of my classmates about their lives and research interests.  I wish I could have been there earlier and interacted with my classmates more.  I also wish I would have reached out to Leah earlier.  She is such a cool person and gives the best pep-talks!  She also was amazing in helping me in the wee hours of the morning when I had a crisis. Like at 2 a.m. when I couldn’t figure out how to change the color of my links.  My connections with her and Dr. McClurken when he came to campus really defined my feelings of this class.  I am sure my perceptions would change even more if I was able to attend the conferences this summer. (But I will not be too sad as I ride fat little ponies through the hills of Scotland instead of nervous sweating in Washington D.C.!) I never expected to grow so attached to this class, especially since I figured out early on how old-fashioned my history tastes were.

As I said at the beginning of the class, I am not a typical-student of the “digital age”.  Yes, I use my computer to write papers and check my email, but most of my research has been done with books and tangible primary source materials.  Blogging and tweeting made me feel like an angst-ridden teen and seemed redundant when I would update everyone in class with my results and thoughts on the project.  (This is probably why I have less than an ideal number of blog posts and rarely commented on my peers pages — but I did read them, I swear!) Those really were the only two aspects of this project that I did not enjoy.  Keeping a blog myself was a pain, but I enjoyed reading the blogs of others.  My inner grumpy old man wants to shake his fist and groan, The internet has ruined face to face communication these days! You young whipper snappers spend so much time online, you can’t interact with real people. So I appreciated face to face in interactions on our online meetings more than the commenting and blog-keeping requirement of this class.

More than anything else, this project has taught me to always think of history in creative and innovative ways.  Century America was such an amazing opportunity to learn about a brand new field of history that most colleges have not even picked up yet. I feel vastly ahead of my Truman peers who have no concept of digital history.  I think Truman would benefit immensely from having a digital history class like this as a course option.  This class has also restored my hope in the future of online learning.  My online class in high school was horrendous; this project was so much more successful, it is hard to describe just how great it was.

Furthermore, this project has given me so many new research skills and web-building skills.  In the course of this project, I have learned about historic preservation, how long it takes to digitize historical documents, how long it takes to build a website, how to organize a website, how to creatively think about making a website informative and also appealing….and so much more.  Century America also reminded me why I love this time period so much. It is so full of information, that my project still feels so shallow after an entire semester of research! (And I think that is a great feeling to have as an undergraduate, knowing there is always more for you to accomplish in your remaining time at school!)

I have now rambled on for so long, Dr. Pearson and Dr. McClurken have most likely failed me simply for the length of this final paper.  So I will close for now.

Thank you all.

-Jennifer Marks

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