Author: David Squires, Assistant Professor of English, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Role: Project manager, editor, contributor.
What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?
Practice archival research methods.
Present research in different forms to different audiences.
Collaborate to design and implement a public-facing research project.
Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?
The opportunity to work with archival materials and design a project, conception to implementation, based on those materials gave students a strong sense of various research methods. They got to engage theoretical interpretation, practice archival research, and communicate their findings in various formats, ranging from the academic essay to the conference presentation to a public-facing digital exhibit. One of the most useful things students learned was how to handle digital materials using scholarly standards. A number of students began populating the Scalar project with any interesting images they found online. But when their peers and I reminded them of metadata documentation and the need to explain the evidential value of each image, they began thinking of digital materials just as they do peer-reviewed research or other historical artifacts. That is, they started vetting digital materials for credibility, provenance, and intellectual contribution.
What is the course title and level?
This assignment served as the major project for an introductory course on research methods. The course prepares first-semester graduate students (MA and PhD) for coursework in English.
What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?
The course assumes students arrive with some experience writing in the humanities and basic computing skills. The course covers some fundamentals of library research, introduces students to research with archival materials and special collections, and offers instruction in web publishing.
This assignment asked beginning graduate students to produce a digital exhibit about Ernest J. Gaines's novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. They worked collaboratively as a class to research Gaines's manuscripts and relevant archival collections, which are housed at the Ernest J. Gaines Center in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's Dupré Library. The project began with archival research before moving toward project design and digitization, then ended with the implementation of the digital exhibit using Scalar. Scalar, an open-source platform designed for academic web publishing, provided a free and relatively easy-to-use option for presenting the project while also pushing students to think about page design, project structure, metadata standards, and user experience. The students decided as a group to organize the project around keyword entries while also including interactive elements such as a timeline and a manuscript exhibit gallery.
How much time did you allot to this project?
We completed this project in an introductory research methods course for graduate students. In a way, we dedicated the entire semester to it. The class began by reading the novel, then working through five weeks of theoretical readings that we used to address different aspects of the novel (from form to genre to representation). Each student produced a substantive, 3,500-word paper on any aspect of the novel they chose. That expertise then became the basis for their archival research and eventually their keyword entry. The sequence of tasks that began with archival research and ended with a (more or less) completed project took eight weeks. Students did their writing and some archival research outside of class time, while we used class time to get acquainted with the archival collections, plan the project, workshop writing, and build the Scalar project. My own time commitment involved contributing an entry and serving as project manager.
What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?
The student training broke down along two main lines. First, they needed to learn research methodologies, including how to use archival materials. Second, they needed to learn to use Scalar, which we managed by dedicating two class periods (six hours) to Scalar workshops and in-class collaboration. As project manager, I continued to troubleshoot issues with students, either by email or outside of class.
Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.
The main resources we needed for this project were the archival collections at the Gaines Center. They were both the occasion and the basis for the project. But along with those collections came help from the Gaines Center staff, their scanner, and expert guidance from archivist Cheylon Woods. We used a departmental computer lab for writing workshops and Scalar tutorials. And I checked in with the Scalar team at the University of Southern California once to troubleshoot a problem. The only other special resource was Scalar itself, which is free and easily accessible at https://scalar.me/anvc/. Although not necessary, I installed an instance of Scalar on my personal website using a third-party hosting service (Reclaim Hosting) with the goal of transferring the project to the Gaines Center once complete.
How did you assess or grade this project?
For assessment purposes, I broke down the graded tasks into a few big chunks. Students had the initial paper, which earned a grade and provided an opportunity for feedback. Then they produced their own keyword and timeline entries, which earned another grade. I also asked them to present their portion of the project, which I assessed as a conference-style presentation. Finally, each student earned a participation grade.
If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what?
I plan to do a similar project again next fall and will make a few important changes. For one thing, the next class will use a different novel for the basis of their digital exhibit. In terms of our own methodology, however, I will also do more work in advance to set up digital collection management protocols. Naming manuscript images proved an especially important part of the project and should have been standardized in advance. Finally, I plan to break down the set of graded tasks into smaller pieces so students have a clearer idea at the outset what they will need to accomplish on the way toward a finished project. A rubric for larger elements of the project (e.g. the keyword entry) might help isolate requirements that cannot be separated out for grading purposes.
Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.
The most important lesson I learned is to plan project protocols in advance. I imagined students designing those together as the project required. In reality, however, they had a lot on their plates already between learning new research methodologies and a new web-publishing platform. Putting specific parameters and protocols in place would have saved students some confusion and me a lot of time. For instance, I ended up renaming almost all the manuscript images for the sake of consistency. (Some of that editing work took place beyond the end of the semester.) The only other trouble spot was a minor technical issue with Scalar. It does not work well to have students edit the same page at the same time—revisions get lost. Instead, have students work on their own pages simultaneously, then revise collaborative pages one at a time.