Teaching with Omeka

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Teaching with Omeka

Is Omeka the right tool for my class?

Although Omeka is a polyfunctional software, it’s not the best tool for all purposes.

If you are looking to create a website for your students to engage class material, write blog posts, and interact with one another, a WordPress course site on the Commons is often a better and more flexible option. Omeka, by contrast, is best suited for projects that involve a digital (or digitizable) collection with metadata that you want to curate, organize, and describe. 

With a little bit of work, however, you can have both options at the same time. You might opt to have your main course site on the Commons, where you can provide a link to your Omeka site, and even style them in a similar way. This option allows each platform to do what it does best.

Project Ideas

Omeka offers some great features that integrate well within teaching environments and is especially well suited for projects that involve:

  • Archival Preservation – Digitizing and describing objects from physical archives and creating metadata descriptions and virtual exhibits.
  • “Archival Recovering” and “Archival Remixing” – Presenting visual analyses or reinterpretations of holdings, including born-digital material, from other websites or digital archives. I borrow the terms “recovery” and “remix” from Laura Helton and Elizabeth Maddock-Dillon, respectively.
  • Coursework Archiving – Omeka allows teachers to create a repository of final course projects, such as digital and multimodal essays, with metadata attached. These can be offered private resources or be open to the public. 

Desirable Outcomes

  • Digital Literacy

Teaching with Omeka allows students the opportunity to engage in some best practices for working with digital tools: how to use documentation, how to make use of/participate in communities of practice, and how to Google things effectively. An Omeka-based assignment can also be an opportunity to provide students basic training on essential digital skills. Students will likely encounter questions on file formats, standards, sizing, copyright and licensing. 

  • Archival Research Skills

In addition to learning about artistic, historical, or literary subjects and introducing students to the field of Digital Humanities, digital archives also provide basic training in archival research. Students have the opportunity to both conduct research in local (or digital) archives while thinking like archivists and curators. 

  • Public-Facing Academic Writing

Curating a digital archive requires students to engage with forms of writing that differ from standard academic writing. Public Humanities-oriented work allows for class reflections on effective storytelling techniques, the affordances of digital writing, the intricacies of visual rhetoric.

  • Collaborative Work

Digital archive-based courses allow students to participate in the kind of collaborative praxis that, according to Lisa Spiro, is one of the central tenets of Digital Humanities. “Lab Culture” can be enacted by working collectively on assignments, building on (and crediting!) the work of previous cohorts, and connecting work conducted in class with the local community. 

Best Practices

  1. Plug-ins for classroom use

TeachingHistory.org recommends four essential plug-ins for classroom use: Docs Viewer (for scanned or digital files in DOC, PDF, PPT, or any image files), Simple Pages (which allows users to create a standalone page, such as an About page or course syllabus), CSV Import (for importing large quantities of items into the collection using an Excel CSV sheet), and Exhibit Builder (which offers the ability to create rich expository exhibits around selected items and collections). Extended documentation for all four plugins is available on the Omeka website. Editorial, Image Annotation, Text Annotation, Simple Vocab, and Neatline are additional plugins that can be of use in the classroom.

  1. Get familiar with user permissions and Omeka theming – customize your website with logos, picture headers, customized menu categories, or match the stylesheet of your Omeka site to that of your course blog. Play around with the website and familiarize with the platform before your class starts – the Omeka Gym and Omeka for Millenials are two fun ways to do just that.
  2. Consider developing metadata guidelines with the students in class and compile some sample items in a spreadsheet with them.
  3. Hold a session on copyright and licensing. Alston Cobourn points to this useful tool to teach Copyright and licensing.
  4. Develop a process-based grading rubric. As Allison C. Marsh suggests:

“In assessing [students’] work, it is important to be mindful of the learning process; remember that they are professionals in training, and they should not be judged on their first attempt but rather on the progress they achieve by the time they graduate.” 

Some Examples

Fifteenth-Century Italian Art (Nicole Riesenberger)

Goin’ North

Ice Age Flood Explorer (Chad Pritchard, Larry Cebula, and Paul Lindholdt)

James Monroe Papers (Alexandra deGraffenreid, Seth Mintzer, MacKenzie Murphy, Chris Wright)

Fredericksburg: City of Hospitals (Jeffrey McClurken)

The Berkeley Revolution (Scott Saul) – please note: not an Omeka site, but easily replicable with Omeka

DARC!

Don’t forget that the Graduate Center Digital Fellows have created a working group, the Digital Archive Research Collective (DARC), for students and faculty engaging with digital archival work. DARC defines ‘archive’ in the broadest sense, working with everything from physical collections to projects that incorporate methods such as sampling, mining, recording, exhibition, and cataloging. Sign up to the DARC group on the Academic Commons here, and if you have questions or an interest in teaching with Omeka or other digital archival tools, don’t hesitate to reach out to us! 

Stefano Morello is a doctoral candidate in English with a certificate in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY and a Teaching Fellow at Queens College, CUNY. His academic interests include American Studies, pop culture, poetics, and digital humanities. His dissertation, “Let’s Make a Scene! East Bay Punk and Subcultural Worlding,” explores the heterotopic space of the East Bay punk scene, its modes of resistance and (dis-)association, and the clashes between its politics and aesthetics. He serves as co-chair of the Graduate Forum of the Italian Association for American Studies (AISNA) and is a founding editor of its journal, JAm It! (Journal of American Studies in Italy). As a digital humanist, Stefano focuses on archival practices with a knack for archival pedagogy and public-facing initiatives. He created the East Bay Punk Digital Archive, an open access archive of East Bay punk-zines, and worked as a curator and consultant for Lawrence Livermore’s archive at Cornell University. He was a Wellcome Trust Transdisciplinary Fellow in 2019-2020.
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