Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Tool Review: Working in WordPress and InDesign, a Conversation

July 24th, 2014 by

A Bit About the Beginning of Education’s Histories

Adrea: We began our collaboration at the History of Education Society (HES) meeting in Nashville in early November 2013. I had set up the site,, in 2012 with the intention of publishing solo. Though the bones of the site were in place on a WordPress site, no content was published. I knew we wanted to focus on methodological issues in the history of education, but I was unsure where to begin. Conceptually, it was clear the site could address some things that was not part of what I was hearing by lots of people at HES conferences: applications and tools that can be used for historical research, reading education outside of schooling, and what education history might look like if we treat “education” as a methodological frame instead of a definitional starting point. In thinking and talking about these issues with colleagues, I have been repeatedly impressed at the innovations that folks like Jack Dougherty and Andy Anderson are developing. I have also been struck by the incredulous expressions some of their presentations garnered. I wondered, “Do education historians have Ludditic tendencies? If so, what does this mean for how they [we] conceptualize the field and its movement?” When Sara and I talked after a long day of conferencing in early November, I felt like our conversations had given me some traction in how to begin the first essay. Our collaboration released the sense of being stymied.

Sara: I first met Adrea on the page as I read her Lessons From an Indian Day School (2011) in Fall 2012. I can remember breathing a sigh of relief, as I felt I had found someone in active pursuit of education history, the type of history that did not feel bounded by classroom walls or long retold institutional narratives. We both wanted to create a space that encouraged questions to emerge, a place for uncertainty. Questions like “Who and what is a teacher?” “How can education historians demonstrate and promote interdisciplinary scholarship?” and “What is the relationship between the historian and her subject(s)?” are just a few that have allowed me to locate methodological uncertainties. Our collaboration was born out of the spirit of this shared pursuit. In November 2013, I was wrapping up work co-curating an exhibit at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures and turning my attention toward the digitization project of the same exhibit, “Ojibwe Public Art, Ostrom Private Lives.” This project allowed me to dive head first into emergent museum digitization practices while simultaneously venturing into unknown territory with Education’s Histories. The digital museum project was built using Omeka, a free and open-source content management system (CMS), which enables cataloguing of digital collections, while Education’s Histories relies on WordPress, another free and open-source CMS, known for its reliance on plugins to provide additional features.

WordPress—Talking About It and Working Within It

Adrea: I have been using WordPress for several years for my course websites. In fact, I have conducted online courses with WordPress and some of the available BuddyPress plugins. I felt like a competent user, though I didn’t—and still don’t—know how to code in html and css. Rather than using a new platform, such as Drupal, I opted to set the Education’s Histories site up with WordPress. One of the challenges and motivators in operating in a digital environment is that the aesthetic sensibilities can help convey the modus operandus of the endeavor. For example, I am a historian, and I love and appreciate how footnotes document and provide contextual information about a writer’s thinking and argument construction. Because of this, I like footnotes to appear with the text they reference. In print form, book publishers have lately tended to sequester notes at the end of chapters or at the end of books. This makes them difficult to follow as one reads. Many journals, like the History of Education Quarterly, do print footnotes, which allows the reader to read the body text in tandem with the note text. This does not work so well, however, in a scrolling digital environment. That was the primary reason for using the Side Matter plugin on WordPress: they make the reader’s job easier and more informed. The only constraint in using the Side Matter plugin was finding a theme with which it would work, and that turned out to be relatively easy. I chose The Frances Wright theme developed by ThemeSweet and named after the illustrious Scottish feminist, abolitionist, and advocate for free schools. Not only does the theme work with the Side Matter plugin, but it also has clean lines and ample white space. Collaboration on has proven to be quite easy. WordPress allows for multiple contributors, editors, and administrators. In adding tools to and modifying the site, we met regularly on Google Hangouts, which allowed us to hold up drawings that each of us had done to visualize the site, talk face to face digitally, and literally show each other what we were seeing on our screens through the screenshare feature. In fact, it was Google Hangouts that signaled to us that collaboration with InDesign might well be difficult, if not impossible.

Sara: As Education’s Histories has grown, so has our awareness of what efforts do and do not scale. We’re excited to begin publishing articles and review essays written by new collaborators. With this hopefully comes increased site traffic and readers with the desire to cite these works in future research. Although we’ve been preparing for the questions that follow since the beginning of Education’s Histories, we are now more than ever aware of the need to scale our curatorial efforts in order to better manage the site for user experience. Unlike Omeka, the WordPress Dashboard does not easily enable archiving and connections among related articles and essays. The built-in options are more familiar for their blog-like qualities, rather than as digital scholarly publications. This visual discrepancy leaves us in search of plugins to fill these needs. For example, we are currently testing the Organize Series plugin as a possible solution for linking essays published in serial. We also utilize the built-in category function to label articles according to their general subject in order to make them more searchable as our catalog grows. At this point we are satisfied with with the WordPress platform, specifically for its easy theme-based page and post design. However, we remain anxious to find solutions to problems of scale that will encourage increased reader accessibility to and searchability of previously published essays and articles.

InDesign—the Beauty and the Frustration

Adrea: Because we were using Side Matter on the Education’s Histories site, we wanted to continue using sidenotes for the pdf versions of essays that we were publishing. Microsoft Word for Mac, which we both use, does not offer the possibility of formatting footnotes as sidenotes. After doing multiple searches on how one might create a printable file that uses sidenotes, we settled on Adobe’s InDesign, which is part of its Creative Suite. Being at large research universities proved a benefit in this case—both of our institutions offered the software without additional cost to us. I had drawn the maps for my book, Lessons from an Indian Day School, with Adobe Illustrator, so I felt like I could learn InDesign with practice. I found a Dynamic Sidenotes script that we could run in InDesign, which looked to be both flexible and easy to use. And if Sara and I could share files and work collaboratively on the print versions of essay by sharing our files on Box, all the better. This proved to be our hangup. Most of the Creative Suite software was already loaded onto my computer, but it was version 5. Sara had access to version 6. Both of us are used to working in Word, where different versions typically do not prove to be a disaster, particularly if it is a basic document file. InDesign was different, though. I began putting together “Our Trickster, the School” in InDesign, version 5, and saving it in our shared Box folder. When Sara began to work on the document, I could no longer open it. We thought we found a workaround by saving it as a backwards compatible file type, but much of the formatting was either lost or garbled. This was more than frustrating because it defeated not only our attempts to collaborate through this software, but it deformed the design, which was the central reason for us using InDesign in the first place. It also meant that only one of us could put together the print version of each essay. This had significant implications for our research and writing schedules. In comparing summer schedules, we determined that I would create the print file for “Our Trickster, the School.” Before starting over in formatting the essay in InDesign version 5, I asked our tech office if they had Creative Suite version 6 and a license that would permit me to use it. They did, and they loaded it onto my computer. This took half a day. After beginning again on formatting the essay, I completed a portrait version of the file, which looked good on my monitor. When I printed it out, though, it looked very compressed and busy. I changed the width of the sidenotes and the margins for the essay, and it still looked compressed and busy. So, I scrapped that file and created a new one. This time, the essay was in landscape format. When I finished formatting the new version of the essay, I liked it much better. There was considerably more white space, the sidenotes were complementary to the text, and the graphics all came out well.

Sara: The potential for capturing and understanding history creatively stands out as both underutilized and one that digital tools are particularly well-suited to encourage. Although it’s been seven years since I’ve used InDesign with any regular frequency, it’s mainstay toolbar features remain familiar, and I looked here when hoping to create a color-matched theme for our pdf publication. We utilized ColorZilla, a free browser add-on available for Chrome and Firefox, which provides an eyedropper, color picker, and color analyzer. This tool allowed me to use an eyedropper, much like the one found on the InDesign toolbar, to get a color reading from anywhere in the browser. In our case, I made color readings from our logo at These readings could then be easily pasted into InDesign’s color swatches tool using the RGB color model for an exact match. These color readings were also easily shared with Adrea, even as we navigated our versioning issues.

A Bit About the Future of Education’s Histories

Sara: Education’s Histories remains wholeheartedly a work-in-progress. Our web publication skills are primitive but our desire to engage in conversations about methodological innovation and ongoing research is here now. We needed to start yesterday. If this essay is not your first foray into our project, then you have likely noticed that we consider our webspace to be a laboratory. It’s a place for testing web applications and modifying page design as we learn new skills. We hope those who write with us consider these as opportunities. We feel that waiting for perfection may hold back learning and certainly prevents the conversation from beginning. We know we have more to learn; this is intentional. By choosing to share our works-in-progress, we hope others will lean in to share their own skills and growing expertise. In the eight months since joining Adrea’s adventure, I’ve learned to listen even more broadly than before. Last week I was listening as Evan MacGonagill, who writes for Educating Women (blog of the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College) shared thoughts on, “Technology and Feminism: Rethinking our Digital Tools.” Empowered by a recent feminist digital humanities training session McGonagill, the Center’s Assistant Director, reminded readers that technology is never free from social power structures:

Clean and elegant design, by many definitions “good design,” makes for a smooth and pleasant user experience but also narrows the group of people who have access to what it offers. An important extension of this idea is that technology is never neutral: it is always situated in context, relationships, and history. 1

We are listening and hopeful to keep our conversation, design, and technology necessarily open-ended.


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