Homepage of the Pandemic Diaries Project

The Semester of Living Dangerously: SUNY Oneonta’s Pandemic Diary Project

One of the thing that I like about having a Domains of One’s Own initiative is that when a project idea comes my way, we can quickly get it off the ground. In March of 2020, when we were just starting to understand the effect the Global Pandemic was going to have on our institution, the library director contacted me to see if I wanted to be part of a group that was planning a massive digital humanities project. Code named, “The Semester of Living Dangerously,” SUNY Oneonta wanted to start a pandemic diaries project that would encourage students to stop and reflect as this historical event happened with us.

The main sponsors of the project were the history department. Their original idea was to create a competition among their own students where they would keep a diary in the style of the mass observation project in the UK.

As the project idea developed and changed overtime, the project team began thinking about what a meaningful web presence would look like. We looked at two main options, an Omeka archive of the diaries and more visual WordPress page. As I began designing the site, I used the built in tools of WordPress to allow students to create their own account, submit entries, and then have those entries reviewed and released to the public. We used the core features of WordPress plus some plugins to create the workflow.

  • OneLogin– We used a plugin to attach the site to our institution SSO. This took buy in from our IT Security Team, but it was an essential step to making the process of creating an account seamless, easy to understand for our students, and feel familiar. When a student attempts to write a post for the first time, they are directed to login with SUNY Oneonta Credentials. Although they don’t know it, when they sign in the first time, the SSO plugin is automatically creating their account, and assigning the appropriate privileges.
  • PublishPress Capabilities– Students, Staff, and Faculty are all given the role of WordPress Contributor on the new blog. The basic role of Contributor is one of the lowest WordPress users. They are allowed to write posts and pages, but before they become public they have to be reviewed by someone with the Editor Permission or higher. They can go back and make edits to their contributions before they are published, but once they are public they lose the right to. By default, a Contributor can’t even upload files or photos, because the ability to load a file on the could be a security issue. The PublishPress Capabilities plugin allows the site admin to adjust the basic user roles, or to create new roles based on the existing WordPress User Roles. We only made a few changes to Contributor role, but we allowed them full access to write media-rich posts.
  • Better Notifications for WP– We used a great plugin to send out automated emails to students throughout the process. The Better Notifications for WP allows us to see and edit all of the default WordPress emails. For example, WordPress already has a stock email for when a new account is created on a website. The Better Notifications for WP allows us to see that original email, add in extra information specific to our context, whether that’s explaining how our project is using our platform or letting the author know what is coming next in the editorial workflow. In addition to the default emails from WordPress, Better Notifications for WordPress adds dozens of additional triggers and emails that can be sent out. For example, we made it so that when an author submits their post, they get an email right away that tells them that it won’t be immediately available on the website, but will be shortly after a quick review by the editorial team. At the same time, the entire editorial team is alerted that there is a submission that needs to be release. When the submission is released, another email informs the author that it is active. Any of these emails can use shortcodes or pull contextual data directly from the trigger, so for example, when the post is released to the public, the email the student gets is addressed to them, has the name of their post, and a live link to their work, and how to share that online in their own digital presence.

Overall the goal of platform was to make it easy for students to share their stories, and the design seems to have been effective in that goal. Over 150+ diary entries have been added to the Semester of Living Dangerously. Here are the top 5 most viewed posts on the blog:

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