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.

Teaching research: one way of structuring the use of library resources

My last post concerned the problem of teaching undergraduates how to do humanistic research, when so much of an experienced scholar’s process relies on experience-based heuristics that undergraduates can’t use.

My current answer to one part of that question is expressed in a handout I have used for a few years and recently webified.  It is a guide to finding secondary sources for a research paper in English.

At its heart is a journey backwards and forwards in time.  I suggest using recent bibliographies and critical pieces to identify keystone texts, the older critical works that did most to shape current debates. Those keystone texts, in turn, provide search terms that help structure searches of full-text databases.

I hope interested students, faculty, and librarians will have a look at the guide and let me know what they think.  I’m always tinkering.

Three things I’d like online research guides to do

Can the research process come to life in a handout?

I participated today in an interesting and productive conversation among librarians, academic support staff, students, and faculty about resources our library has developed for explaining research.

This “Guide to Academic Research” was one of the main pages under discussion. I take the page to be a good example of its kind, in both senses: a typical and well-constructed one. The conversation helped me understand three elements that I find important to the research process and generally missing in guides, even good and thoughtful guides, to that process. (I’m thinking here of relatively compact guides, not book-length treatments that one might use in a research methods course.) Here they are:

1. That the research creates the research question as much (or more) than the research question creates the research. I don’t want my students to understand research as a process that can begin with a topic and research question that form a stable ground for serious reading. We all know that our questions guide our readings, which then refine our questions, and so forth. How can we represent that reciprocity to our students? Can forming the research question be step 1, step 4, step 6, step 9, and so forth?

2. That research requires you not only to “Access useful sources” but also to order the process of reading meaningfully. A good web interface will allow most users to figure out how to find books and articles on a topic. A guide to research could explain logic by which a scholar might order the use of subject-oriented bibliographies, general bibliographies, library catalogs, article databases, and so forth. How can we help our students see the conversation that develops among scholars rather than dropping them into an ocean of keyword-linked data?

3. That good research involves reacting to what you read, or picking up the signals that other authors are sending about the research field. How should you react when an author refers to a classic (seminal, foundational) treatment of a subject? How do you read academic footnotes?

I have developed a handout to address some of these issues for advanced undergraduates, and I’ll try to post a digital version of that document soon. Our conversation today, however, primarily addressed introductory undergraduate courses, and I wonder what teachers and students have found useful in that context.