Digital Studies 395: Applied Digital Studies

DGST 395: “Capturing Seacobeck” Reflection

This semester in DGST 395: Applied Digital Studies, we were tasked to create a “Big Project” that incorporates one or more of the new digital skills we learned. For my “Big Project” I decided to make a website about UMW’s Seacobeck Hall, our currently vacant dining hall of years past. You can view my project here.

What is “Capturing Seacobeck?”

I will start off by describing my project in the same terms I’ve used in past project proposals and progress reports. “Capturing Seacobeck” is a web-based project that aims to provide both a narrative of the history of the hall, as well as a glimpse into the changing relationship between students and the hall and student perceptions of the hall.

Personally however, I would describe Capturing Seacobeck as a really big primary source archive. When I first began creating the website, I honestly wasn’t sure what I would be doing other than transcribing primary sources – which mainly consisted of copies of The Bullet student newspaper from Simpson Library’s online Special Collections database, Eagle Explorer. (Which is absolutely awesome, by the way.)

Eagle Explorer: AKA; How Searchable Text Made My Life Better

Eagle Explorer is a neat tool that I hadn’t really investigated before taking DGST 395. As a Library Aide at Simpson, I knew a little bit about the great resources offered by Special Collections, but as a Circulation Library Aide, I wasn’t too well-versed in exactly what their resources could be used for.

Nevertheless, I was really excited to use the feature this semester. Creating a project on Seacobeck Hall, a Mary Washington based landmark, felt perfect for me, as it allowed me to work deeply with resources that the school had full, unique access to.

When I first started looking for sources on Eagle Explorer, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for other than something “cool,” and figured that I would shape my project based on whatever seemed to pop up the most.

I started limited seriously looking for sources by limiting my search results to a specific decade using a slider tool specially made for the website by one of the librarians who created the site. From there, I would simply read the synopsis of each text that came up and decide whether or not it looked interesting enough to include. A newspaper article where students complained about the food quality at Seaco? Sure, include it. Another copy of a Student Handbook with some obscure information about Seaco? Nah, that’s probably for another project.

So, What Did I Learn about Seaco?

After spending nearly 30 hours transcribing select sources from 1930 to the present day, I took a step back to figure out what type of narrative I had about Seacobeck and Mary Washington as a whole. As it turned out, I had a lot of complaints about the food quality, wait times, and overall “blandness” of Seacobeck as told my UMW/MWC students of years past. Some of these texts repeated the same sentiments and complaints, while others, like that of the Pork Chop Revolution, were very unique.

From reading what essentially turned out to be complaints about a dining hall for a seventy year span of time, I learned more about what current UMW students have in common with their peers of the past. (It’s that it’s really easy to bond over complaints about food.) While a lot has changed, such as the “spirit of protest” that festered during the 1960s and 1970s, or the time when a mysterious company called “Sodexo” purchased the former Wood Company dining management service, a lot has also stayed the same.

In addition to including transcriptions of mostly dining hall complaints, I also included photographs of Seacobeck, mostly from UMW’s Centennial Image collection.

Organizing My Website

You might notice that my website has a few additional features that aren’t standard to your typical WordPress layout. That’s because the wonderful student aides at the Digital Knowledge Center showed me this great free tool called “Elementor.” Elementor is a free WordPress plugin that allows you to add additional features for managing text, images, and other visuals.

Primarily, I used Elementor to organize my transcriptions in an “Accordion” style. This allows users to explore texts at their own pace, rather than having to scroll down a lengthy page of text to find a headline that sounds interesting.

Final Thoughts

All in all, Capturing Seacobeck was my attempt as a History major to explore archives, or digital history, or public history, or whatever best describes my project, in a more casual and creative way than I typically encounter in my other history courses. After putting nearly forty hours of work into the site, I’m pretty proud of the results. While there’s plenty more sources in Special Collections that I could add (as well as plenty of footnotes that I’m sure have commas out of place…) all in all, I had a really fun time creating this website.

Below, I’ve listed my answers to more specific questions about our final projects posed by Dr. Whalen.

Answering Dr. Whalen’s Questions:

The following are suggested questions posed by Dr. Whalen to include in our Final Reflection and Self-Evaluation of our projects

1. Ultimately, how successful were you? What grade would you assign your project based on your proposed assessment method? 

In my project proposal, I listed my measure of success as simply whether or not I could create such a project – which I did! I believe that I successfully created a unique, previously inaccessible narrative about Seacobeck Hall. While this is a project that will likely only be enjoyed by the UMW community, I believe that I succeeded in organizing interesting information about Seacobeck Hall in an accessible manner.

In terms of letter grades, I do genuinely believe that my project is “A” work. (If you really wanted to get technical, there are some discrepancies between how I wrote my footnotes in various decades – mostly because early “Bullet” articles didn’t always include authors, so maybe if this were a history course some points would be taken off there?)

In addition to making information accessible, I also personally learned how to use a new digital tool – Elementor. In addition to using Elementor, I also learned a lot about my own work habits, and actually surprised myself with how much work I was able to get done. I have never worked with primary sources this extensively before, so I believe that this project has better prepared me for future history projects.

2. If you weren’t as successful as you’d hoped, why not? What could you have done differently, or what resources could you have benefited from to be more successful?

While I do believe that I was successful in my project, I wish that I included more images in my website. There are fewer images of Seacobeck than I had hoped mainly because of copyright, as I did not want to use images that were not freely available with ready-to-cite information.

In addition to this, I think that it would’ve bene interesting to include screen captures of the old Seacobeck dining hall websites, which date back to 1996, the same year that Mary Washington College got its own website. On the day we submitted our Big Project, Dr. Whalen showed us examples of old MWC/UMW websites from the Wayback Machine, which we submitted our own projects to.

That night, I browsed the Wayback Machine for myself, and found an absolute gem. Below, I’ve included a screenshot of the absolute ADA nightmare that is the official Seacobeck website from 1996 – berries and all. My, how far accessibility has come.

The 1996 MWC web page for Seacobeck was a “berry big” accessibility nightmare. At the bottom of this image, you can see that the Wood Company – who had not yet been purchased by Sodexo. – ran dining services. Screenshot captured on December 10, 2019.

3. If you exceeded your expectations, were there aspects of the project that turned out to be easier than you expected? Were there resources or support units that were particularly helpful in getting your work done?

When I first began my project, I was nervous that transcribing the sources from Eagle Explorer would take too long or that I wouldn’t find anything interesting. After looking at my project Time Log, I surpassed my own personal estimates as to how many sources I could possibly analyze and transcribe. For that, I am proud of myself.

Concerning resources that I found helpful, the DKC (specifically Jenn Hill, thanks Jenn) provided me with the perfect advice for how to format my many transcriptions using Elementor. I would’ve never found Elementor on my own using the search terms that I had been using to look for similar WordPress plugins! Thanks, DKC!

Final Thoughts

In addition to wanting to explore Special Collections, I wanted to learn more about Seacobeck because it is slated to be the future home of our College of Education. I am really happy to know that, despite budget scares, the building will be used for a purpose that mirrors the original mission of Mary Washington. With this change in mind, I hope that future UMW students won’t forget Seacobeck’s past – pork chops and all.

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