Beyond Websites

In my keynote at last summer’s Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute, Making and Breaking Domain of One’s Own, I unpacked the history of the Domains project at the University of Mary Washington, while making a case for why higher education, more generally, needs to grapple with the Web more deeply. As I think about leading a track at DPLI this summer about Domain of One’s Own, I’m considering more deeply than ever how we push beyond the perception of this project as merely a space in which we build personal Web sites.

In fact, four years into this project, I’m still experimenting with how to approach the project, how to talk about the project, and how to teach the project. In some ways this may seem odd; four years in, shouldn’t we have a handle on all of this? But this is the beauty of Domains: it reveals itself to us through its use. It is further inflected by the various cultural, political, economic, and social forces that are constantly shaping our understanding of the Web. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a new framework for thinking about Domain of One’s Own, one that focuses on what I see as the four primary activities of the project: naming, building, breaking, and knowing.


The very first step in signing up for Domain of One’s Own is choosing a domain name for yourself. At UMW, we offer some guidance about making this choice but have a few restrictions. Our goal is for the naming to represent a moment of taking ownership: a consideration of what a thing is through its naming.

I believe there’s something metaphysical about the act of naming a thing. I believe that on some level it’s the naming that helps call a thing into existence. For many of our students this possibility of creating a space for themselves on the web that they not only can build but that they can actually name represents an opportunity that they’ve never had before. It’s certainly represents an opportunity that is nothing like anything else we ask them to do on the web within the context of their higher education.


The building of things. The building of websites. This is absolutely the core activity of Domain of One’s Own at Mary Washington. For many of our students they’ve lived on the web their entire lives. Literally as far back as they can remember they have always been engaged with the web in some way, and yet they have lived primarily in spaces that have been controlled for them by media conglomerates, television networks, schools, and social networking companies.

Through Domain of One’s Own, I want us to realize that the web is not something that is happening to us, but rather it is something we are creating. Every day we’re already doing this: contributing posts to Facebook, pictures to Instagram, links to Pinterest. We’re creating content all the time but we’re not doing it in our own spaces. We’re doing it in spaces that have been created and curated and programmed and coded for us. Domain of One’s Own is about giving us a space where we can build something that is by and for ourselves.


There is nothing inherently streamlined or predictable about Domain of One’s Own, and as a result, things go wrong from time to time. We have no magic solution to this at UMW, but we do have an approach. We try to build support models that embrace adaptability, peer support, and a commitment to understanding not just how things break but WHY they break.

In addition, we try to work through what it means when the thing “going wrong” isn’t techincal: what if students post things they shouldn’t? What if they embarrass themselves, their instructor, or the institution? What if they make mistakes, publicly and loudly?

As overwhelming as these scenarios may feel, it’s important to remember that there is no way to keep our students off the Web and this is our opportunity to “have their backs” as they learn how to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.  I think it’s our responsibility to work with them in these spaces now for the very reason that we can have their backs.

I would rather have that difficult conversation with a student now about a comment they left that comes across as racist, or a biased news article they shared, or a half-baked idea they espoused.

I would rather unpack that with them now. I would rather talk with them, listen to them now. I would rather do all of that now if it means that somewhere down the road, when they’re out there in the “real world” they think twice before making an offensive comment, sharing a biased piece, espousing a vile idea, or trusting a false prophet.


As important as naming, building (and breaking) are to understanding Domain of One’s Own, I think it’s easy to get bogged down by the idea that the project is purely about helping students create a product. Surely, it is that ability to build something that so many students (and faculty) find particularly compelling and enticing, and there is something quite wonderful about students graduating with a rich portfolio of their online work, a digital resume that they can share with future employers or graduate programs. These products matter.

There are other practical aspects to Domain of One’s Own that matter as well: WordPress, which so many of our students use and learn, is a powerful force on the Web. Because it is used by so many sites, learning it is an actual skill that students can include on their resumes. This matters, and it’s worth pointing out and emphasizing to our communities.

But let’s talk about the other side of Domain of One’s Own. The more philosophical underpinnings of the project — the notion that we are pushing our students to develop a deeper understanding of how the Web works and why that matters to us in 2017. Let’s return to WordPress for a moment. WordPress is, indeed, a specific, popular content management system. But even if it wasn’t the most popular, or, even if some other open source tool were to overtake it in popularity, that doesn’t mean that the experience of learning it loses value for students.

For WordPress can serve as an exemplar, a symbol with which our students can grapple as a way towards deeper understanding. The things they learn to do in WordPress are generalizable to other systems and other online spaces: identifying an audience; honing a voice; organizing and architecting an online space; mixing media to create compelling narratives; considering the interplay between design and content; understanding how Web applications work “under the hood” and how databases and scripts interact; adapting sites to consider accessibility and universal design; connecting disparate online spaces so they relate to each other in synthesized whole; adapting a site as it grows and develops in new directions; responding to comments and finding other spaces and sites upon which to comment; learning how search engines rank sites and how those search engine’s algorithms impact the findability of their own site. This list goes on and on, and leads us to a more fundamental conversation about the Web and it’s place within our classrooms, our disciplines, and our culture.

And so, as I plan the curriculum for the Domain of One’s Own track this summer at DPLI, I’m thinking carefully about what we will do together. We will spend time naming, building (and breaking) new spaces together, and we will also spend time naming our practices, unpacking how students can build their learning experiences, discussing how we handle those difficult conversations in our pedagogy and our classroom communities, and, finally, how we can learn to create and live on a Web of our own making.

[This post is adapted from a talk Martha gave at Keene State. Click here to read the full text of her talk.]

Register for Martha's Track at DPL Fredericksburg

Jesse Stommel

Among with Digital Pedagogy Lab

Jesse Stommel is co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy: an open-access journal of learning, teaching, and technology.

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