A New Minimalist and Versioned Website

Isn’t it silly to expect people to pay $600 for a scarf? Fashion designer Tomas Maier replies that we should all just have less, embracing the philosophy that we should simply have a few nice things that can be replaced when needed. I recently found this logic especially attractive when packing up a house full of too much stuff I just have to have but didn’t remotely miss once it was boxed up.

This militant but elegant minimalism permeated my thinking about my website as I began to think about both old and new projects and posts and syllabi upon the dawn of a new academic year. How could I convey what I’m thinking about and working on and teaching in the clearest and simplest way?

I thought I would start by stripping away absolutely everything that isn’t absolutely essential: sidebars, categories, tag clouds, antiquated punctuation for print publications, extraneous typefaces, design elements. How small could my headers and footers be? Do I need an extensive list of post categories? Archives organized by date? An automated navigation bar? An administrative backend?

I wanted the simplest experience not only for reading, but also for writing and managing what I’ve written. I never was entirely comfortable that an essay or CV or syllabus existed entirely as an entry in a database table rather than a document that could be managed separately. I wanted, for example, to improve some essays or courses supposedly finished some time ago but that hadn’t quite reached their potential. I wanted to embrace the potential of ongoing scholarship (rather than the one and done model that we propogate for silly reasons), yet still maintain the traditional space/time publishing continuum so that people can know what version others may have read at a particular time. This is not to say that Wordpress cannot manage versions of pages, simply that there are far more efficient ways to do that.

Thus I decided to experiment with using Jekyll to create a static website from Markdown and Textile. It’s far easier to write, revise, and publish than it ever has been. Jekyll also makes it a snap to work locally and preview any website pages before making them live. Using “Git” to manage my files means that I can easily see where I am in the editing process even after I’ve put the website down for a while.

Thus the current website has been culled (I have plenty of evidence that not everything is worth saving!), revised, rebirthed, and relocated to Github Pages Obviously there was a small hurdle in using the command line to install the necessary components and learn new markup languages, but the entire exercise was considerably less painful than I expected (even with a few version issues to work out); cobbling together a few tutorials brought the learning curve within easy reach.

The processed proved unexpectedly rewarding in the ways that using version control forces decisions about writing workflows, serialized scholarship, publishing, archiving, and sharing. It’s not that I hadn’t previously thought about these issues in general, but that I never really had to make decisions about what was most important to me and decide how to implement them. I realized that I had resisted using version control on my website under the auspices of experimental freedom, but it turns out that it was freedom of sloppiness that I wanted. In reality, the layer of bureaucracy that using version control (via Git) adds to my workflow is far less encumbering than the combination of Wordpress, FTP, and Copy and Paste that I had come to see as standard if not inevitable.

Using Git to manage (make changes, stage, commit, and push them to the repository) essays and syllabi gleefully challenged invisible habits. I used to think of each version of a document (a syllabus, say) as its own separate file that had to be archived as it changed over time. Now, I’m treating a post or syllabus as a facet of a more abstract object that is continually evolving. Versions that had been separate files that I had to manage are now simply snapshots viewed in the Github history browser. In terms of the revision process, I now have to think carefully about what I am changing and why. I’m still learning to work with greater clarity, purpose, and precision. Freedom through discipline!

Have I succeeded at having less? My readers will have to be the judge of whether the new website design is effective, though I think one must agree that there is generally less (and profitably so) than before. In terms of my own workflow, I know that I traded one sophisticated infrastructure in Wordpress for several more specific infrastructures, like Git, Github, Ruby, Jekyll, etc. In a way, I have more. But the gestalt of these tools, each of which does one job very well, makes a much less encumbered experience of writing and revising and staying organized. And it’s way better than a nice scarf.