Since Anna and Eleanor asked about this, I thought it would be easiest just to give you a bit of a background to the special collections work that I do with my students, then show you the assignment, and see what comments or suggestions you all might have.
The background here is that, while I am not really a bibliographer or researcher in the History of the Book, I think these issues are interesting and pertinent for students in literary studies, especially in regards to undergraduate research. Frankly, though, the focus is really on the research dimension, and getting in the habit of extracting, and building upon, the information they can glean from these items.
I’ve always had a special collections “day” since I started teaching this course, but after a decade or so, I’ve learned how to get more from special collections visits by focusing on the Swift-oriented rare book materials as the basis for small, discrete, group research projects that are explicitly aligned with their course readings in Swift and Swift literary criticism. I do rely heavily on group work in this course, which I’ve never regretted, but which does demand some special pedagogical attention for it to work. This is their first group assignment, and it comes just after I’ve formed my five “research teams,” which consist of 3-4 people, and are organized around certain recurring themes of Swift criticism (Swift and Empire, Swift and Femininity, etc.) which vary slightly from term to term.
The point of the assignment is for them to handle some Swift or Swift-oriented books, and then make some connections in a brief course blog post between what they have examined, what they have researched, and their overarching Swift topic. This group project demands that they describe and compare the physical attributes of some items examined, speculate a little about the sources behind the item, then do a little research off-site (using our library digital resources like the ODNB, MUSE/JSTOR, etc.) to generate about a paragraph’s worth of information about either a) the Swift work examined, b) the editor or bookseller named, and any connections to Swift, or c) any historical person named in the work, and his or her connections to Swift.
This is posted on the course blog the same week as the visit, and students are able to view and compare each others’ findings.
The other important aspect to this exercise is my “sourcing heuristic,” which I developed from Samuel Wineburg and his followers for teaching historical thinking, and which I now try to incorporate into all my classes as a way to explain the uses of historical materials. I think I’ve discussed this before, in my description of my Burney assignment, but I really do think this is an important aspect of our research. I am simply asking them to ask a simple series of questions about whatever text or item they handle, and try to answer them as they learn more: Who wrote it? When (and where) was it published? What type of document is it? What type of audience was it written for? And finally, Why was it written? If the majority of students are able to ask and answer these questions about whatever they read in a literature class by the time the semester ends, I’m doing a pretty good job.
I should add that in my own thinking about literary studies (as a discipline? as a set of professional practices?), I’m much more inclined to think that the core of our disciplinary practices reside in organizing principles like sourcing and organizing concepts like “author,” “work,” “genre,” “period,” rather than in a list of canonical writings or writers as such In other words, I’m interested in teaching students how these lists, or canons, are generated, and how disagreements are argued, rather than trying to get them to memorize and recall a particular version of the list. To enter into that scholarly discussion, however, they have to understand how that information is collected and those valuations are asserted and argued and finally collected in particular bodies of critical traditions. That, after all, is what the course is about.
So here’s the worksheet.
[ I’d be thrilled if others took this assignment and adapted it for their own classes, but please leave a note here to let me know your name, institution, and the class for which you adapted it. Thanks.]