A River of Parties, an ongoing endeavor
What’s been done?
So far, the website has three test posts, in chronological order. One post looks at colonial politics between Tories and Whigs and the Articles of Confederation. The second post looks at the Constitutional Convention and the creation of the Federalist Party. The third post looks at the Washington Administration and the creation of the Democratic-Republicans. The further reading page is developing quite nicely. A few personal favorite works have been added in various topics, with an eye towards diverse accounts in terms of authors, subject matter, and methodological approaches. This page will continue to expand, and will need some sort of organizational framework, probably thematically for easier navigation. The master directory page that holds the image of the document now introduces the project a little better, with information about the document itself, the intended audience, and telegraphing the future of the project. Another page has been added that will contain a list of suggested questions and activities to help facilitate using the site. Additionally, the project now has a rough timeline that I can work with. Colleagues Allison Russell and Melyssa Laureano both work in secondary education, at a private school and a public school respectively. Both educators have offered to use their classrooms as guinea pigs to gauge student response, the utility of the site, and further develop content and suggested questions/activities. I’m really looking forward to sharing this site with students, and the initial feedback from Russell and Laureano has been extremely positive. Their remarks focused primarily on the appropriate tone and reading level for that age group, and the potential that a close reading of this document has.
What needs done?
Most of the remaining work will focus on fleshing out content. I am trying to limit each post to between seven hundred and a thousand words. Reading through each individual post should have a minimal time commitment, so that classrooms have enough time to do activities. Even a thousand words is probably pushing the envelope. There are sixteen remaining segments to the documents. So, theoretically, there’s about sixteen-thousand words left to write. I think that qualifies as a novella. The further reading page needs greatly expanded as well. The hope is to have at least three works for every topic of study, a mini historiography that includes diverse representations of scholars and helps flesh out the narrative I am presenting. The website will be largely top-down in its approach, which is not my preferred method. Since the website is offering a wide narrative, I can use the further reading page to present some depth. The page that introduces the document now has a better introduction to the project, but I’d like to refine it more as work continues, if only to update readers on current progress.
There is a lot of technical work remaining as well. First, the site needs repurposed entirely to present the stories on stable pages instead of posts. This will provide a much better structure to the website and ease the process of exploration. It’s also difficult to continually refer to the artifact in writing, especially as the cropped image for each segment is presented at the top of the page. I could simply copy and paste the image several times throughout the story for readers to refer to, but it would be better if the image could float down the page with them, focusing more on the image in a dynamic way that would make it so readers didn’t have to scroll up to reengage throughout the narrative. This is a technical challenge that will be approached more fully after the content is developed in an initial, but compete, draft.
One of the most intriguing projects we looked at in class was the now defunct History Wired site run by the Smithsonian. I have expressed this often in class, but digital space has a great potential for exploration and community-creation. History Wired had a sense of exploration, and by determining the size of clickable links by popularity, sort of created a sense of community. I’ve kept the potential of that project in mind the entire time I’ve been working on River of Parties, encouraged by working so closely with a Smithsonian artifact. I want to create a space where students can explore and be entertained. As a historian I have a ton of fun engaging with history and with others about history, and its so common to see kids (and adults) complain that history is boring. But it doesn’t need to be; whether you’re telling a darkly hilarious story about the Aztec prince who served his wife to his father-in-law or comparing Revolutionary War slogans to internet memes. Maintaining a sense of discovery and fun will be a constant challenge throughout the project, but so will trying to foster a sense of community. This can be done through comments on the site itself, but I may disable those. The website is primarily intended to be a group activity for students, and only secondarily a place for bored adults to peruse. The students themselves will be able to share stories and learn together outside of a textbook or ten-year-old notes the teacher puts on the projector.
I’m so excited to continue working on this project and looking forward to developing and refining it over the summer and fall. The ultimate vision for this project is much more expensive and technically demanding, either as a more functional website or as an interactive digital exhibit, and hopefully a working model like this can help explore those possibilities in the future.