Experimenting with my graduate course

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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.


Looks good Collin. I wonder if it might not work better as wiki rather than blog in the sense that your students will be engaged in a kind of encyclopedic effort. It might be easier to go back and revise/add to entries, making links between methods, thinkers, etc.

Colin, this sounds like an awesome approach to things. This should give your students an awesome resource and also some more responsibility for the course. Great idea!

I like what Alex suggests. A wiki might be more easily navigable after the course is done, and has the added benefit of continuing to be updated after the course.

Love the idea!

Yeah, I've been thinking about that too. I used wikispaces for my fall course, and could do the same here, since they won't be posting for a couple of weeks yet...


CGB--I'm doing a similar thing with my intro to comp theory course this semester, except they're supposed to be providing a brief summary of the "conversation" in CCC for that year. (I might bring up your idea to them and see if they like that better.) But we're using pbwiki and hopefully a tag cloud, if I can ever get it to work. maybe we could have some kind of cross-university wiki-ish collaboration...?

Shoot me your URL, J, and let's yap on the phone about how it might work.

My recommendation for tagclouding is pretty much always delicious, but it's been a couple of years since i looked around for alternatives...

There really needs to be more pedagogical thinking like this in the field. I really like the idea of reading the award winning articles in common and then bringing in others from the year. They are going to get a really good image of the field.

My experience in doing smaller versions of this sort of thing in classes (meaning students leading discussions of readings, students presenting book reviews, etc.) is that it's useful to do some modeling first, to make it clear what it is you're expecting. Maybe this is the difference between a PhD program and an MA program, but sometimes, my students haven't had quite the same vision as I had about research.

I've actually done this with freshmen, with some heavy modeling up front and put them into pairs so that there are some checks and balances. The topic was education. We'd been reading some Kozol, and for the most part, they came up with articles that were related and interesting. It taught them some basic concepts about using the library databases and they had to lead the discussion.

We're doing this in a major way in our Gender and Tech course this semester, except that we've started with a bibliography that they can draw from, or they can go out on their own. I'm a little nervous about that, but we'll see.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on January 24, 2009 2:11 PM.

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