So, in the next few days I’m going to be working on my syllabi for the upcoming semester. One of my classes is called “Classical and Early British Literature”: it’s one of those big surveys of Western Culture’s Greatest Hits that runs, in this case, from Homer to Shakespeare. Most of the people taking the class are likely English majors; most of them are freshmen. I am required to assign them one big research paper, and I often assign two — but this time I want the second chief assignment to be something different, something that helps them to be more thoughtful and creative users of the online resources that they otherwise will draw on pretty unreflectively. I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear from my readers. Can y’all come up with come creative assignments for me?

(I should add that while for other classes I sometimes create class blogs, I probably won’t do that this time.)

Text Patterns

July 28, 2010


  1. How about a little digital reception history? Search an early modern database like EEBO for references to one of your premodern authors (say, up to Dante if you're doing him). Try to summarize how early modern writers saw, read, used, translated, cited the classics — what they thought they were important about the earlier writers and why. Maybe with an extended analysis of one particularly surprising use, or one from an unlikely source.

  2. Web 2.0 is about interaction and users providing content. How about having them create either and individual or a class Wiki for a particular author, work, or genre. Something that might be helpful for classes in the future to learn from and add to. They will "do research" on line no matter what, but that is all about "taking." This would be about giving back and might make them more sensitive/weary about the stuff they find online.

  3. Tim, there are actually more possibilities for Dante than for any of the other pre-modern authors, largely because of the Dartmouth Dante Project. For instance, I could give them a single canto and ask them to analyze and synthesize the views of some percentage of the 70-plus commentaries they have there. I would definitely do that if we were doing Dante earlier in the course, but such an assignment might encroach on their research paper.

    Brad, if I decide to go the group assignment route it will almost certainly be a wiki. For individual assignments I might ask them to make a Jottit page (or some similarly simple weboage).

  4. Create an assignment that focuses on textual transmission—from oral/aural traditions (Homer) and performances (Shakespeare) through manuscript traditions, printed editions (early, critical, etc.), and digital manifestations (EEBO and online transcriptions). See if your institution’s special collections staff can help.

  5. You could have them do something like David Shield's did in Reality Hunger, splicing together a collage of quotes to build a broader argument. This would get them involved in looking for quotes and content from numerous sources (online, offline, classics, articles) and bring them together into coherence.

  6. I've been collecting assignment ideas like this for my own use recently. Here's what I've found:

    1. If you're thinking about the wiki route, Brian Croxall and John B. Jones have created an interesting class notes wiki assignment that I plan to use in a modified form this semester. Brian's assignment description is available here: I especially like the way in which this assignment asks students to build a narrative for the course (an aspect of courses that is often implicit, but less frequently articulated or discussed) and ties the notes to specific passages from the assigned reading.

    2. Even more in the direction of web 2.0, Jeremy Boggs has his history students research and write a wikipedia article, track the changes that users make to it throughout the semester, and then write a followup essay in which they distill what this activity has taught them (pro or con) about Wikipedia. He discusses it here:

    Good luck!

  7. I wasn't actually thinking about commentaries per se, but more a range of genres. For instance, I just EEBO searched Homer, for 15th-17th century hits only, and got over 10000 hits, including sermons, histories, political tracts, commonplaces, parodies. Drill down by genre or gloss the context and you can quickly get some terrific material.

    Early modern readers overwhelmingly used classical authors as material for living AND models for writing, thinking, and persuading others. And gleaning material to be cited and repurposed wherever you might find it has its own analog in our digital age. I think those are two lessons that are well worth learning.

  8. Similar to Andrew Logeman's #2:

    Have students pick one of the course works with a highly developed Wikipedia page.

    Have them use the history tracking feature to describe the evolution of that page from its first creation, paying special attention to (1) which users have been most influential in its development, and whether its major development seems to be primarily the product of a single user, a small group, or a wide variety of creators, and (2) which outside sources came to be referenced, why, and how those particular outside sources affected the article's emphases and further evolution (this will require them to read the cited sources).

    Also, they should refer to the page's discussion page, describe the current controversies over the page's content, and assess their importance relative to the article's current nature.

    If you want them to get more critical, ask them to assess the measure to which the article's emphases correspond to or differ from the areas of major scholarly interest. Are there certain qualities in the work that the article overlooks? (e.g. Does the page on The Divine Comedy over-discuss Dante's politics at the expense of his theology, or vice versa?) Does the article contain distortions or errors that are evident to you as an undergraduate reader of the work? How would you suggest the article could be significantly improved? Finally, have the students improve the article.

    This could be either an individual or group assignment.

  9. Thanks to everyone for your recommendations. I'm particularly intrigued by Tim's comments about how we might replicate, or at least imitate, certain pre-modern habits of reading through digital means. Much to think about!

  10. What about something like a comparison of reading/writing styles, examining how texts evolve in the Internet age compared with how they evolved ca. Homer? I was just thinking about Ong's Orality and Literacy the other day, and wondering if the Internet encourages a movement back to an oral-style culture, since text is/can be so transient online. I wonder if that changes how we write. Not sure how this would translate to an assignment, though. This is why you have a PhD and I don't 🙂

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