Collaborative, interactive student bibliographies: a vision

I’ve posted my thoughts about how we do research and structuring the use of library resources.  The next step I want to take in teaching the research process is to create new ways of consolidating and reshaping the information my students gather when they write annotated bibliographies.

My first attempt at doing something like this, in 2004, involved a summer project with six students working on The Transatlantic 1790s.  That project involved my first experience programming dynamic, database-backed websites; I frantically learned just enough PHP/MySQL to make the site work while my students wrote the content.  The bibliography they compiled had some limited but useful search functions.   Ever since then, I have been pondering ways to brush up my programming skills so that an enhanced form of searchable, customizable bibliographies could become a regular part of my upper-level undergraduate teaching.

The students in my Ulysses seminar are creating the raw materials for a more advanced version of this kind of bibliography.  They are working this semester to compile hyperannotations–treatments of secondary works that include detailed summaries, thematic references, key source texts, and line references from Ulysses.  These materials will allow their bibliographies to be collected and filtered, so researchers can find secondary and theoretical materials that deal with the Circe episode, or Irish nationalism, or Bakhtin.  This collaborative bibliography can then become a skeleton upon which to build online projects (as did the Transatlantic 1790s students), and subsequent generations of students in the seminar can learn from and build on the current work.  I hope that this way of compiling and displaying bibliographical information will address some of the problems I raised in my recent posts on research.

The students are doing their part.  It’s up to me to create the digital environments that make the most of their work.

Obsessively reading Ulysses

The Ulysses seminar read the first three episodes of the novel yesterday.  The students’ experience of the novel is largely structured by what we call obsessions: each student chooses a topic (from a list I hand around on the first day) to follow for the whole semester, tracing the treatment of the topic in Ulysses and in related criticism and theory.  The obsessions of this class include medicine, sports and competition, reproduction, and the unspoken.  Half of the students wrote blog posts about their obsessions in the Telemachiad, and their posts informed much of our discussion on Tuesday.

I started the session, however, by asking the class to join me in delving as deeply as we could into the first sentence of the book:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Goodness, that first word alone: stately.  One student pointed out that it can attach itself either to Buck Mulligan (in parallel to plump) or more narrowly to his current action.  Another noted that “stately” gives Buck a priestly air appropriate for the black mass he is about to begin.  Then we got to the political sense of “state” and thereby Buck’s stateliness as he represents the temptation of compromise to institutional authorities.  And the states of matter, with the lather he bears constituted by liquid and gas, a stable instability.  (And the crossing of states sets up the “cross” of the razor, which is probably has a mirroring surface, and the mirror, which, being broken, has cutting edges like the razor.  And on . . . .)

We did not linger long on the first sentence, as we needed to digest the rest of the Telemachiad and prepare for reading secondary materials later in the week, but that block of collective close reading was a delight.

Another note: along the way, we wondered whether the sporting sense of “Mulligan” (a do-over of a golf shot) was current when Joyce wrote.  According to OED, it was not.

Alas.  Consider the perfection of the word in Ulysses: the golf mulligan is a throwaway, an abortion, a disappointed bridge, a waste, an imposition of forgiveness into competition.  In this sense, the word reaches out to the hockey game and the pedagogical competitions of episode 2, to the midwives of episode 3, and to much else beyond.  Joyce didn’t mean for the word to work so well, but it’s a powerful, straight drive of a concept, one I don’t want to take back.

The rush of freedom

I want to begin describing what I’m trying to do with the advanced seminar I’m teaching right now, a class focused on the intensive study of Ulysses.

I’ll start with a simple contrast.

Here is the current version of a response assignment I have used for years, at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. As you can see, the assignment is longer than the responses themselves; the assignment is long, detailed, procedural.

Here, by contrast, is the version of that assignment I have given to the Ulysses seminar: short, suggestive, non-directive. I wouldn’t attempt this one without a great deal of confidence in the ability and ambition of the students.

You can see the results to date on the class blog: Prairie Bloom.