Category Archives: web resources

Cultural Studies and the BABL

The 18th-century cultural studies panel from MLA provided an excellent discussion about the opportunities and limitations of cultural studies as pedagogy, especially in the undergraduate classroom, and has got me thinking about ways to solve, or at least massage, some of the problems discussed on the panel, using some of the resources that are cropping up for instructors as guides for my students. The main problem that emerged during the cultural studies panel and the ECCO panel that morning was the lack of a guide to navigate the wealth of contextualizing sources available to our students, many of whom lack the research experience and intuition necessary to decide what is relevant to the study of a historical text and what may not yield a fruitful contextualization.

One of the resources I’m excited to have accessed is the Broadview Anthology of British Literature’s Instructor’s Guide, which I contributed to last summer. I got a passcode for these materials at Broadview’s display at the convention, and am very pleased to see the materials assembled there, which I can see using quite actively in the classroom. The guides generally provide a series of critical approaches to the authors, a few thoughtful readings of their major works, some questions for discussion, some material on critical responses to the works, and often a nice section of texts that provide some cultural context for the work. Although not all of the authors are covered yet, the ones that are provide a sort of roadmap to criticism and historical sources for many of the authors and texts we teach at the undergraduate level.

Obviously, the guides provided by BABL are limited in that the historical sources they suggest are those chosen by whatever scholar wrote the draft of the guide, but they do offer, at least, positive suggestions (i.e., something like “Try looking here”) as opposed to the negative suggestions we often find ourselves making to undergraduate researchers (“No, that’s probably not going to be a good source; try again”). My own guide, on Swift, reflects my personal interests in popular print culture and political economies, and is therefore quite limited, beyond some suggestions about other topics to research. However, I hope it offers something like what I offer students in class who simply don’t know where to start—a suggestion of a few leads that have the potential to produce an exciting research project, leading to further research more specific to that student’s interests.

One of the most exciting things, pedagogically, for those of us who encourage historical research in literature classes, is that our students may find wonderful sources that we’ve never encountered before, and make excellent connections we haven’t thought of. Those who have a knack for sussing out sources and making interesting conclusions can respond to an open-ended research assignment with passionate inquiry. However, at the undergraduate level, these open-ended research assignments can result, as Dwight Codr suggested during the panel, in a kind of despair.

In my own historical-research wiki assignment, in which I offered 70 narrow topics for research to my students, the results were either inspiringly brilliant or depressingly nonexistent. Quite a few students chose to take a zero for the assignment rather than complete the work, and a great number did only cursory and often inappropriate research (citing other student-made websites rather than primary sources, etc.), despite a great deal of class-time devoted to discussion of how to find and use primary sources. I eventually had to make the assignment extra-credit, so as not to fail a third of each of my classes. I assumed at the time that the project itself was doomed, but now I wonder if the problem was that one must not just teach students to do primary source research; one must model it for them by guiding them to examples of appropriate sources first, not just topics and suggestions for where to look.

What I hope to use the BABL guide for next semester is to mine it for historical sources that I can assign directly to students who do not readily come up with sources of their own, and to assign them the contextualization work suggested by the guides and by my own previous reading experiences. Once they have followed a path that previous scholars have found fruitful, perhaps they can then be more attuned to the kinds of sources they might look for in future assignments. After all, most of us learned to do contextualizing research by reading professional historicist criticism, not by slogging blind through special collections or databases. We learn to do this work largely by example, not by trial and error.

The problem in the past, for me, has been that my reading of primary sources outside of literature has largely been in special collections that my students do not have access to, and little of it has been the kind of stuff that interests my students. While I’d love to get them all interested in the Gentleman’s Magazine or in Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England, I can’t necessarily expect them all to travel from their homes on Long Island to midtown Manhattan to spend four or five hours trying to decipher typefaces totally unfamiliar to them, and expect them to find something critically interesting and relevant to the class, and expect them to then draw knowledgeable and well-written conclusions about those sources that their classmates will then read and use. Out of the past 200 or so students I’ve urged to go use a special collection for their research, exactly one student actually did it, and she ended up citing almost nothing she read there.

Although the BABL guides don’t tend to reproduce entire sources, they do often provide a few pages of contextualizing sources, from which a student could at least get a hint of whether she wants to spend time looking further at that source or not. On a larger scale, one could imagine a resource like the BABL guides, except perhaps in a wiki form, with suggestions by scholars of possible contextualizing sources for major authors or genres and short excerpts, as well as lists of places to find these resources on the web, on EEBO or ECCO, or in special collections. This would take a great deal of time and energy on instructors’ and scholars’ parts, but, if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it’s that human beings are glad to expend energy in a collective way if there is the promise of an output greater than their individual input.

Do we think it’s possible for literary and cultural-studies scholars, a turf-warfare bunch if ever there was one, to cooperate in some kind of project like this? Would it be best to run it somewhat like Wikipedia, with mostly pseudonymous authorship and editing? Would it be a gigantic disaster?

-Carrie Shanafelt

Advertisements

British Museum Searchable Art Database

diog.jpg

Ooh, this is good.  Thanks to Mercurius Politicus for letting us know about this one.  I could spend hours goofing around with the database, but as usual, I just typed in “Diogenes” to see what came up, and found this nice mezzotint of “Diogenes looking for an HONEST MAN” from 1776.   Here’s the link to the BM: happy hunting.

DM

Discovering history and memory on the Web

A good piece by Allan Kulikoff in the latest Common-place, on Early American History on the web. It’s relevant beyond American history: for a start, his description of the process of tracking down source materials should be useful for teachers and students looking for useful online primary sources in any historical field. One thing that stands out is how surprised Kulikoff was at just how much he found:

The Internet contains everything from newspapers and magazines to travel accounts, from maps to sheet music, from woodcuts to oil paintings, from novels to critical essays, from the proceedings of governmental bodies to the intimate details of family life. Searchers can find materials on every imaginable topic: Civil War hospitals; the Salem witchcraft trials; Revolutionary and Civil War battles; proceedings of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the U.S. Congress; slave resistance; Indian battles; the abolition and proslavery movements; the beliefs and religious practices of Evangelicals and Unitarians; the Lewis and Clark expedition; westward migration; economic development and immigration; and the writings of Cotton Mather and Walt Whitman, to name but a few. In sum, there are far more primary sources on the Web than in public libraries (except the greatest) and community college libraries, though many fewer than in the libraries of research universities.

But, as the discussion shows, these can still be difficult to find. Information multiplies endlessly on the Web; we have rapidly gone from scarcity to abundance. But locating that abundance is often a hit-and-miss affair.

Moreover, there is a thoughtful rumination on what these primary sources, the choices made in digitising history, tell us about history and memory.

Putting materials on the Web is a time-consuming process: they must be discovered, digitized, indexed, and uploaded. Historians, archivists, librarians, curators, genealogists, and institutions like the Library of Congress all put historical sources on the Web. These individuals and institutions have competing interests and hold widely contrasting views of American history. As one looks in detail at Web primary sources, one senses great conflict and contests over the meaning of our past, over the historical memories they wish to sustain or suppress. Who holds the keys to our history—historians, archivists, preachers, politicians, ordinary citizens?

Kulikoff notes how – unsurprisingly – trends in historiography influence the sources put online. The unfashionable, such as ‘quantifiable’ materials like probate inventories, doesn’t get as much attention as images and narrative texts. (Mind you, it doesn’t help that digitising sources like these in a way that will be of real use for quantitative analysis is one of the hardest tasks going: it’s easy to put images of manuscript sources online, but converting them into searchable texts or databases is difficult, labour-intensive and expensive; and you can’t just dip a toe in the water: you’ve got to do them en masse.)

The long 18th century is well represented online, which reflects its popularity among various different kinds of historically-engaged audiences – scholars in history, literature, art, philosophy, as well as on the ‘popular’ side, from re-enactors to Jane Austen fans to the political commentariat scrapping over what the Founding Fathers really thought. It’s distant enough to be intriguing yet not so distant as to be utterly alien, and its cultural and political legacy makes it always relevant to present concerns. (And I’m sure there are many more reasons.)

This is not a bad time for historians to be giving more thought to these issues. The Web has achieved some maturity as a serious academic resource, although on the technical side there’s a long way to go. It seems strange to me that you can still encounter people whose understanding of what’s available seems not to have changed since about 1995 (I don’t know whether this is a failure of outreach or whether these are just the unreachable); still, the dinosaurs are in the minority.

Nonetheless, there are many historians who need to become more savvy about how to make history digital; what is possible and may become possible, how to get it done, how to get the money to do it. Learn these skills and you have the opportunity to influence public perceptions of your field as well as contributing to scholarly research.

Digital History: a few Essential Resources

Digital History: a guide to gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web (also in dead tree format)
Digital History Hacks – Bill Turkel’s indispensable blog
Center for New Media and History
Dan Cohen

X-posted, slightly revised, from Early Modern Notes.

What is a wiki for?

Many of you have asked for an update about my wiki experiment of last year, and I held off on responding because it didn’t go very well, and I don’t really blame the wiki itself as a medium.

To review, what I did with my British Literature survey wiki was to ask students to research a topic of cultural, political, sexual, or economic history in Britain between 1600 and 1800. They were supposed to find a few good sources and sum up what they found in a brief and informative wiki article with citations, so that their peers could easily glean a great deal of interesting information about, for example, Restoration fashion, the Gunpowder Plot, or the social position of Jews in London in the mid-18th. If we had time, we could have revised, sharpened, and interlinked the articles to create a very interesting and useful resource.

I chose that assignment because I had done something similar when I was taking Nigerian Lit as an undergrad. The course was so packed with novels and plays that the professor did not really have time to lecture on the entirety of postcolonial Nigerian history and culture, so each member of the class developed a one-page annotated summary of a particular topic, which we briefly presented and provided for our classmates. It was an excellent wake-up call to me as an English-centric student that What We Do is so deeply tied into matters of history, political science, religion, and philosophy that we have to be able to do research in other fields just to be able to understand what we’re reading. We can’t just wait for a professor to give us all the context we need.

With a similar purpose, I asked my students to go to the library and look up things about their topics. I gave them names of books I knew might be good. I helped them get access to primary sources from the special collection I worked in. As far as I knew, everything was going swimmingly.

But when the time came for me to check in on the wiki, I was dismally disappointed to see that only a handful of them followed the directions. The ones who did produced interesting, lovely little summaries, often with visual aids and excellent sources. But most of them cited only websites (which I’d explicitly banned so they’d go to the library), simply copied paragraphs out of encyclopedias (again, banned, and, well, plagiarism), or did not do the assignment at all.

Grades plummeted. What happened here? I gave explicit directions, which several people were able to follow without incident. But when 2/3 of the class simply cannot do an assignment at a passing level, I have to assume that there is something wrong with the assignment. Because the resource they created was so poor as a whole, none of them read their classmates’ work, and no one bothered to create links between articles. As a wiki, it was not functional.

The following semester, I made this assignment extra credit, and, again, several of the articles I received were excellent, but many received no extra credit at all. In the end, the extra credit only ended up benefiting those who were sure to receive A’s anyway, which was proof enough to me that it was a failure as an assignment.

I asked, both semesters, what had gone wrong. The main answers I got were that they had no idea how to summarize (not surprising, given that an analytical summary is a pretty sophisticated rhetorical skill most students aren’t asked to do until grad school) and that they had no idea how to skim sources. I got many emails asking the repeated question, “Are you saying I have to read three 500-page books???” I’d say, no, you have to look in the index or table of contents, find the relevant information, and figure out what would be important for your classmates to know, regarding your chosen topic. Many of my students did not know how to find information in non-fictional texts. They are English majors, and they’re used to reading every word.

In addition, I fear that asking them to post to a website was just one more hassle on top of scholarly/rhetorical hassles that created an inappropriate amount of stress. All of these skills are important, and I wish I could say that I could teach all these skills in my class, but in the context of a Renaissance-to-Modernism survey, I just don’t have time to teach rhetoric, research, and reading at that level.

When I taught the class this summer, I dumped the wiki assignment, which was clearly going nowhere and was not helping the students it was designed to help. I refocused my efforts on getting my students to practice analytical summary (which, by hook or by crook, I’m going to teach them) and research. This time, I asked them to write a three-page summary of a significant critical article on a poem or poems from the syllabus, and another one on a prose work from the syllabus.

This assignment got them to isolate for themselves (a) what literary criticism is, and (b) what a literary-critical argument does, as well as (c) how that relates to their own reading of a work. I know this sounds very basic, but I’m not sure it’s something they think about when they’re writing run-of-the-mill research papers. Many of my students have somehow gotten through most of their coursework without really seeing that literary criticism is not about “facts” and “opinions” but about arguments that open texts up for more interesting and engaged reading.

The responses I got from this assignment were, on the whole, really magnificent. My students said they struggled with the summary mode, but the assignment was do-able, and they were happy to see how this would improve their research papers at the end of the semester. A few students turned in summaries of study guides on the literature, which was depressing, but depressing things in isolation are not as depressing as an entire class of depressing things. Most of them found really fascinating articles, and many of my more excellent students developed a strong attachment or aversion to the article they found, which often became the basis of a fabulous paper at the end of the semester.

This is where the wiki comes in. I was so thrilled by the work they were doing this summer that I’d like for them to turn their summary essays in to the wiki. This would create a genuinely useful resource for the class, helping them to see what kinds of literary-critical work is out there, and what a broad range of journals they could dip into. Of course, there is the mild concern that they will merely read a fellow student’s summary of an article and not look into the article itself, but there are easy ways of making sure they know that is not sufficient.

The point of a wiki, after all, is to get my students to have an attitude of collaboration, rather than competition, which is extremely difficult to instill in a population like Queens College, which doesn’t have dormitories or a “campus” mentality. I often fear that many students show up to school every day thinking about how they can beat out another student for a grade, as if it worked that way, mostly because they then get in their cars and drive home, out of the city. I feel like much of my work as a teacher, throughout CUNY, has been trying to convince my students that the sea of camaraderie raises all ships, and that I’m not interested in just focusing on a few brilliant students in the front row and leaving the rest behind. With the wiki, I’ve been hoping to allow them to see their classmates not just as personalities, but as other minds in the classroom who have something to offer them.

We shall see, we shall see. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m not ready to abandon the idea of my class producing content for one another, so I will keep trying.

Guides for instructors?

Wow, it’s been a long time since I showed my face around these parts! I had expected to be able to throw myself into the Long Eighteenth this summer, but found myself stymied on all sides. (Yes, I am finally going to do my orals.) I did want to make a small plug, though, for one of the projects I was working on, mostly because I found it both absurdly rewarding to do and potentially an excellent resource for the English scholarly community.

Broadview Press is currently developing an instructors-only resource on the web to provide a supplement to their British Literature anthology series. As most of us who teach survey classes know all too well, the survey class can be rather stressful when we look back and remember that the last time we read a particular major text was eons ago, if at all. We all have those odd gaps, and organizing a syllabus for a survey can provide a sudden and uncomfortable wake-up call.

Broadview has been asking scholars of particular authors to provide guides on their own authors of expertise, aimed at instructors who may be fully aware of general theoretical problems and interests, but could use some assistance when planning a lesson on a period or author who may not be a part of their own research. In my own classroom, for example, I feel comfortable talking about the critical problems around seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century authors, but when we get to the Romantics, I’m stuck with my own isolated readings of poems and whatever research I can fit into a busy teaching schedule.

The teaching guides will consist of brief introductions to the main critical approaches to each author in their anthology, followed by possible lines of discussion and inquiry for each of the works, suggested questions for discussion, a brief critical history, and a few excerpts from other sources that instructors and their students may find helpful. Of course, it’s far more information than anyone could fit into a survey, and instructors with expertise are likely to quibble with the focus provided, but I can think of several ways in which these guides may help me to encourage students doing research on authors I haven’t personally written about.

As it is, I find it’s difficult to teach my survey course in a way that doesn’t merely reflect my own predilections. If my students want to research Behn, Swift, or Austen, I respond enthusiastically that I know just the article or book to send them to. “What a great idea for a project!” I say. “I don’t think anyone has taken that issue up in quite that way, and here’s a good place to start.” But to the student who wants to write about Carroll or Pater, I end up saying, vaguely, “To the library! Go team!” I love teaching them, but my reading in the field is not exactly thorough.

Do you find your own research interests and limitations getting in the way of helping students to research authors you haven’t personally studied? Is this a ridiculous anxiety to have? If you were to have some kind of guide at your fingertips, what would it provide you with and why?

Where did you get that Grandison?

On Tuesday, I was having a chat with David Richter about his upcoming ASECS paper “Postmodern Pastiche: Jane Austen in New York and A Cock and Bull Story,” about films based so loosely on eighteenth-century texts that one would need to have fairly intimate familiarity with those texts to understand what they’re doing in the film. Jane Austen in New York is especially difficult for viewers, as it depicts a theater company putting on a rarely-seen theatrical adaption by Austen of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, a book so out of print that even bad, stained, and incomplete copies of it go for $75 to $2000 online.

This reminded me that Grandison is on my orals list, but I have never actually held a copy of it in my hands.

The only remedy for this problem seems to be saving 50-page PDFs of it from ECCO, which is how I’ve gotten to read many of Johnson’s more rarely reproduced texts. However, I am not above begging.

Does anyone here know of anyone who would part with a Grandison? I am willing to pay something reasonable for it. Email me at carrieshanafelt at gmail if you have a lead for me.

Also, if you get the chance to see Richter’s presentation (Session X), I’d love to hear how it goes!

Women Writers for March

I’ve learned from Intute: Arts and Humanities that Women Writers Online is available FREE!! for the whole of March, to celebrate Women’s History Month. It’s a treasure trove for the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, so this is great news.

Intute also has a special feature on web resources for International Women’s Day. And while I’m at it, let me point you to my own webpage for all online things early modern and gender-related.