At Watson last fall, I gave a talk that was about, among other things, the idea of the "antilibrary" from Taleb's Black Swan, the idea that significant parts of our libraries are unread because for researchers, having read something is less valuable than knowing where to find it when you need it. And at the end of the talk, I said something like this:
this is less about technology, and more about rethinking our basic practices to include collection as one of our goals. For example, imagine a graduate seminar where instead of studying 2 or 3 articles chosen by the professor, students are instead responsible for locating and representing 2 or 3 articles that they've found themselves on that week's topic. Instead of 10 sets of detailed notes on the week's readings, each student would walk away with detailed notes for 25-30 essays. The conversational dynamics of such a course would be different, certainly, but such a seminar could accomplish a great deal in a short span of time if it were devoted to mapping out broad sets of texts rather than mastering a small handful. The point would be to shift our focus from reading to a combination, at the very least, of reading and not reading.
So this spring, I decided to take myself up on this thought experiment. The experimental part of the course won't begin in earnest for a couple of weeks yet, but I've started assembling the online portion of it. Here's the idea:
Over the last ten weeks of the course, we're going to be looking at the past ten years of composition and rhetoric, one year per week. During the week, everyone in the course will read that year's Braddock Award winner from CCC and the Kinneavy Award winner from JAC. In addition, each of the students will be locating 4 essays (or book chapters) published in that calendar year, taking notes on each, posting those notes to our course blog, and then tagging that entry in delicious. (I'll be doing the same for the shared essays.) Multiply this by 10 students, and by the end of the semester, we'll have a database of more than 400 essays from the past 10 years of the field.
I've encouraged them to use this exercise as a way of doing some preliminary research for their comprehensive exams, so the database won't be representative. Nevertheless, we'll be paying attention, via tags, to methods, key thinkers, etc., and so my hope is that certain patterns will emerge. I'll be encouraging them to think about their focus areas rather than extrapolating their findings to the discipline as a whole, so I'm hoping that some value will come of it.
And I'm certainly curious to see how our discussions will go. I'm still not sure how that part of things will work out. But that's what I'll be thinking about in my teaching this sem.