The Early Novels Database: a Case Study

 by Rachel Sagner Buurma, Anna Tione Levine, and Richard Li, Swarthmore College

Project description1

The Early Novels Database (END) is a bibliographic database based on the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s extensive collection of fiction in English published between 1660 and 1830. Produced by the collaborative effort of Penn librarians, information technology specialists, faculty from Swarthmore College and Penn, and Swarthmore College undergraduate researchers, the completed database will include richly descriptive records of more than 3,000 novels and fictional narratives, from the very canonical to the almost unknown, from fictions that clearly announce themselves to be novels to the works of fiction (fable, travel narrative, romance) that formed part of that genre’s notoriously murky origins. Users will be able to perform both keyword and faceted searches across bibliographic records containing both edition-specific and copy-specific information about each novel. END seeks to unite twenty-first-century search technologies and twentieth-century descriptive bibliography with the sensibility of eighteenth-century indexing practices in ways that enable researchers to write new histories of the novel.

We have designed END to complement the extensive existing full-text facsimile archives that contain early novels (such as ECCO, GoogleBook, the Internet Archive, and HathiTrust, to name a few). One of the major problems with recent large-scale book digitization projects has been the loss of edition-specific and copy-specific structured metadata–of information about and describing the book–of the kind often available in library card catalogs. The absence of this data can make it difficult for scholars and other researchers to find particular novels or sets of novels they are interested in, because even as our archive of digital texts from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries has expanded exponentially, our ability to access them in precise, controlled, and complex ways has diminished. While recent projects have begun to take on this challenge–Brian Geiger’s (University of California, Riverside ) and Ben Pauley’s (Eastern Connecticut State University) Google-sponsored effort to automatically match ESTC (English Short Title Catalog) records to GoogleBook items is a notable recent example–our project seeks to use human eyes and brains and hands to create and control bibliographic descriptions in ways that computers cannot. For example, we tag each noun, adjective, person name, place name, and object mentioned in the title of each novel; the resulting information can be keyword searched but also appears as a set of “facets” that display how often a given word in each category appears. Therefore, researchers can not only perform traditional keyword searches of the title field to turn up relevant items, but can also see the entire array of nouns appearing on all title pages sorted alphabetically or by frequency. We also include in-depth information on other aspects of the novel’s paratexts, describing the prefaces, introductions, dedications, indexes, tables of contents, copyright statements in both controlled and more discursive vocabularies. As a relatively slow-moving project–because of the inherently slow and careful nature of the catalog work, the need to train students thoroughly before they can begin creating records, and limited amount of time our student researchers have to spend each year on the project–we continue to think through how we can create value that is complementary to and not soon to be substituted by faster and more automated modes of computer indexing and searching. So for us, the very subjective nature of many of our detailed bibliographic descriptions–often perceived as a problem by traditional cataloging and bibliography–has become a strength, particularly because these descriptions can be used alongside more objective and standardized modes of description from both within and outside our database.

Figure 1. Early Novels Database (END) search interface

An example of how END might be used by an individual researcher will make things clearer. A scholar interested in when the types of works we now think of as novels first began calling themselves “novels,” to take a hypothetical example, can not only instantly call up all 189 records of works of fiction with the noun “novel” or “a novel” in the title; she also, at the click of a button, can see that of the records of novels with “novel” in the title, 27 of them also include the adjective “young”; that 56 of them have prefaces; that the majority of them are written in the third rather than the first person; and that eight of them profess to be written “by a lady” but were in fact penned by men. She can sort and unsort them by year and decade of publication, and notice that most of them are published in London, but that after 1775 many of them also are published in Dublin; she can pull up records of all novels that contain prefaces, and click on each record to see the individual idiosyncratic titles of each one; she will also find detailed cataloger notes quoting interesting passages from the prefaces, passages which may either tell her something she needs to know or indicate to her that she needs to take a closer look at a particular novel herself. She can find also out instantly that 134 of her set of novels have epigraphs on the title pages, and by looking at the authors of those epigraphs she can determine at a glance how many are by “ancient” and how many by “modern” authors. And she can do all of this work in seconds, rather than in the weeks or even months it would take for her to generate this information herself. So while as a bibliographic tool END does not itself make a claim about literary history, or even represent to its users the “insides,” or texts, of the novels it includes, it helps enable the writing of new, alternative histories of the novel.2 Using the well-worn digital technology of the electronic card catalog–a technology that is the result of a few centuries of changes in tools we create to locate books–END seeks to offer students and researchers a set of new and more flexible ways to locate and learn about early novels.

The Undergraduate Researcher: Classroom, Library, Database

AnnaLevinebook.jpgEND relies on undergraduate researchers–so far students from Swarthmore College and Bryn Mawr College–as the primary creators of the records that populate our database.3Recruited mainly from history of the novel college classes, the students usually have at least a little background in the history of the novel in English and descriptive bibliography before joining the project team. Nevertheless, if the detailed, painstaking investigation of each novel and transfer of information into the proper record fields necessary to create database records is to be a meaningful and interesting task, and for the student to be capable of making observations about noteworthy aspects of the novel, each student needs a certain amount of general background on eighteenth-century literature and culture and the material form of the novel. We therefore run an informal week-long training on the eighteenth-century novel, descriptive bibliography, and the design of the database each summer before work begins. Further, if the work is to become meaningful in the context of the student’s own ongoing education, it is important that she develop a personal project related to the database work; in informal blog posts and more formal papers, students have developed their ongoing interest in topics ranging from narrative form to the representation of dialect to the quantitative study of the link between the novel’s representation of time and the novel’s length in page numbers.

To us, one of the most valuable aspects of our database project is the fact that it offers undergraduates an opportunity to work with librarians, programmers, other students, and professors in a collaborative environment.4 Also valuable is the way that the project teaches students to begin to think like researchers as they work to puzzle out what kinds of information researchers will want to know. This skill is important not because of the specific content involved–few students who work on this project will go on to research in English literature professionally (and in fact our team’s first “graduate” is heading off to an excellent law school in the fall of 2011). Rather, the critical thinking skills that the ongoing attempt to think like a researcher develop–the development what we might call the “research imagination”–is what is important in the context of the student researchers’ liberal arts educations. Also important is the way working on the database helps students develop a very concrete understanding of the difference between the canon–that small subset of books that have been carefully preserved, regularly edited, and (most importantly) routinely taught in the classroom–and the library or the archive in which a much wider array of texts are preserved. For example, when I (if Rachel may interject in the first-person for a moment) teach my mid-level survey class The Rise of the Novel, students read canonical works like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Frances Burney’s Evelina; the syllabus does not contain, for example, John Battersby’s Tell-tale Sophas: an Eclectic Fable in Three Volumes, Mary Walker’s Munster Village, the anonymous The Example; or, the History of Lucy Cleveland, or any one of the several thousand eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novels that have survived but not become canonical. To see these texts, to turn their pages and skim their chapters, is necessarily to grasp an entirely different history of the novel; or, perhaps I should say, to realize that the history of the novel we teach depends upon the few texts we choose to assign. This isn’t to say that the canon isn’t valuable or that databases like END should replace the Penguin Classics, but merely that there are kinds of learning that undergraduates can do in the library and not in the classroom, and vice-versa. And at the same time that working on END enables students to live and grasp this difference–a difficult one to teach as an abstract concept–it also enables students to live and grasp the ongoing tension between the particularity of the book’s material form and the database’s attempt to categorize and capture a certain set of fixed and more-or-less objective characteristics. Again, the ultimate goal is not that students learn a lot of things about eighteenth-century novels–though they certainly do–but that the sustained examination of books, creation of database records, collaborative working environment, and library context make it possible for students to learn the kinds of things that they can’t learn in the traditional classroom, that they engage in a kind of learning that isn’t possible in the context of the course and the delimited class meeting.

Potential Futures of END

While this project is potentially endless–we’ve completed only about 200 records of the 3,000 Penn novels we plan to include and are currently piloting the inclusion of French novels in a partnership with Bryn Mawr’s Canaday library as we continue to seek new partner libraries and institutions–we are currently performing user testing and preparing to seek peer review from the 18thConnect group5before embarking on the task of streamlining our cataloging protocol, training more undergraduate cataloger-researchers, and adding more records. We’ve written an article about the project, forthcoming in a collection titled Past is Portal: Teaching Undergraduates Using Special Collections and Archives.6 And we hope that some part of the value of END lies in its potential inspire other forms of collaborative humanities research that cross institutional lines in order to engage undergraduates in the process of producing new knowledge in the humanities.


1. END would not have been possible without the unwavering support and concerted efforts of the following individuals: Lynne Farrington Curator of Printed Books, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania; Michael Gamer Associate Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania; Heather Glaser, Curator and Assistant Fine Arts Librarian, Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania; Marianne Hansen, Special Collections Librarian, Canaday Library, Bryn Mawr College; David McKnight Director, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania; Dennis Mullen, Web Developer and Designer, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania; Jon Shaw Head, Research, Training and Quality Management, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania; Laurie Sutherland, Metadata Specialist, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania; Eric Pumroy, Director of Library Collections, Canaday Library, Bryn Mawr College; Leslie Vallhonrat, Web Managing Editor, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania. View the database at . [return to text]
2. While END is in many ways a database of information designed to give researchers a “middle distance” view of the novel (as opposed to enabling the kind of “distant reading” of visualized large-scale sets of information about the novel which Franco Moretti and others are interested it), some of the types of macroscopic information included may eventually lend itself naturally to graphical representation. (See Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London; New York: Verso), 2005.) Eventually, for example, END may be able to map the frequency of epigraphs against a timeline, or even more specifically, the frequency of quotations from Shakespeare used as epigraphs against a timeline. Even more important than building our own data visualization tools, however, will be making our database and data compatible with digital tools that others create; for one example, we are working to make sure that END is as compatible as possible with the Zotero citation manager. [return to text]
3. The database construction itself–a complicated endeavor–has been expertly overseen by staff involved with the University of Pennsylvania’s Digital Library Architecture, with whom we meet regularly to discuss questions that cross database structure and record creation matters. See for more detail. [return to text]
4. For a look at our project’s internal blog that gives a bit of a sense of what day to day learning and work is like see . [return to text]
5. 18Connect is a group dedicated to the aggregation and peer review of digital resources relating to the long eighteenth century; see [return to text]
6. Co-edited by Eleanor Mitchell, Peggy Seiden, and Suzy Taraba, to be published by the American Council of Research Libraries. [return to text]

English Majors Practicing Criticism: A Digital Approach

English Majors Practicing Criticism: A Digital Approach

Project Overview

At SUNY Geneseo, Practicing Criticism uses digital technology to help build a sense of community, common purpose, and shared identity among undergraduate English majors enrolled in separate sections of a required, introductory course, English 170: The Practice of Criticism. A long-established course at Geneseo, English 170 introduces students not only to the essential disciplinary skills of interpretation and critical writing, but also to some of the basic theoretical questions that help constitute English as a discipline: What types of works should we read? Why should we read these particular works? And, most important, how should we read them? By prompting students to engage with these fundamental questions, English 170 aims to create self-reflective majors who are skilled at critical analysis and have a deep understanding of the disciplinary issues and debates underpinning the various modes of critical analysis. In other words, students in this course learn both to practice criticism and to examine criticism as a practice.

This essay reports on our effort to launch Practicing Criticism in the fall 2010 semester. It explains our purpose in creating the project, describes the tools we chose and the assignments we designed with them, and explores some of the lessons we learned.


Although English 170 is the gateway to the English major at SUNY Geneseo, instructors are free to choose their own texts and develop their own assignments. Ideally, the primary learning outcomes are enough to give students a sense of how these different sections are connected, but in reality, because the contents of the course and the intellectual commitments of the instructors vary, students often come away with only a minimal sense of these connections. In this respect, the course is tailor-made to confirm students’ suspicion that success in English is a matter of discerning anew in each course “what the professor wants”–as though there were no identity to the discipline that a student might recognize across the inevitable individual differences in critical perspectives and teaching styles among the faculty.

The problem is to some degree a microcosm of the problem that Gerald Graff has identified within literary studies as a whole, in which a structure of “patterned isolation” or “uncoordinated individualism” among faculty and courses, resulting in part from the live-and-let-live solution to an earlier era of theory wars, fails to acquaint students with the constitutive role played in literary studies by the conflicts–over “assumptions, premises, and legitimating principles and concepts”–that have driven different faculty to adopt different methods and approaches in the first place.1

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested that discussion and debate over core principles structure traditions of practice generally, so that “when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict.”2 Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave’s influential notion of “communities of practice” identifies the same constitutive role for ongoing conversation in less formal settings (and with less emphasis on conflict), including tighter or looser networks of individuals who “share a concern or a passion for something they do” and who may or may not meet face to face.3

The internet, of course, offers new ways for these communities of practice to engage in shared enterprises while sustaining the conversation that constitutes them. Wikipedia, with its communally authored “article” pages and their attendant “discussion” pages, is perhaps the quintessential example, but online discussion boards for shared-interest groups large and small serve a similar purpose. Yochai Benkler argues that these and other tools for networked communication and peer production are helping to foster a more general “culture of conversation about culture” in which the habits of linking and commenting produce a structure of “response and counterresponse,” increasing “the transparency of culture to its inhabitants.”4

The Practicing Criticism project at Geneseo might be described as an attempt to leverage this culture of conversation so that students experience their own involvement in English 170, and in the major, as the experience of a community of practice, a community that mirrors but also strives to understand the larger practice that is “literary study.” If successful, the project should increase for students the transparency of both their own local practice and the larger practice that they are studying and that some of them may aspire to join. It should do this by putting them in conversation with each other and allowing them to hear, in their professors, the style of conversation that characterizes the practice of criticism. It should do this not only in spite of but because of the fact that the different instructors approach texts in different ways.


In its first semester, the collaborative tool at the heart of this project was wiki. SUNY Geneseo uses Atlassian’s Confluence software to provide a wiki platform for the entire campus. We created a “space” in Confluence titled “Practicing Criticism,” and inside the space we set up three different sites for collaboration: two for collaboration among the students, one for collaboration among ourselves. A discussion site allowed students to engage in conversation about questions touching on their shared identity as English majors. An annotation site invited them to collaborate in annotating over a dozen poems that were assigned in all three sections of the course. An approaches site attached four audio clips of interpretive commentary, recorded by the four professors, to the text of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916.”

We decided that the simplest and most direct way to involve students in the kind of conversation about “assumptions, premises, and legitimating principles and concepts” that constitute our discipline, and to simultaneously constitute them as a community of practice, would be to build some discussion forums around a few fundamental questions cast in terms of their identity as English majors. Prior to the 1970s, most English programs operated on the assumption that students, in order to master the discipline, needed to study a series of “great” authors, with critical debates tending to center on which of these authors are truly essential (say, Milton or Shakespeare) and which are merely important (say, Pope or Keats). Since then, with the advent of feminist, Marxist, New Historical and other critical paradigms, debates about “the canon” have changed considerably. Many professors now teach previously marginalized authors, many reject the idea of abstract aesthetic hierarchies, and some have called into question the very notion of the literary work as a distinct textual entity. Our discussion forums personalized and localized this constitutive debate about the “canon” by asking the students across our four sections of English 170 to discuss such questions as, “How should a professor decide what works to include on a syllabus?” and “What factors or issues should be considered in deciding whether all English majors should take a course in Shakespeare?” The forums also asked students to reflect on the differing principles that inform the practices of reading and conversation within and outside the discipline of English by posing such questions as “What are the advantages and disadvantages of close reading?” and “What’s the difference between a book club and an English class?”



Whereas the discussion site fostered conversation about the practice of criticism, our annotation site required students to practice criticism in conversation; that is, to construct a “reading” of a poem, or take the first steps towards a reading, by collaboratively elucidating and interpreting particular words and phrases within it, and by articulating a shared thesis statement about it.5

Confluence wiki software allows for a hierarchical page structure of “parent” and “child” pages. We put each of the poems to be annotated on its own page, then asked students to annotate by selecting words and phrases within the poem that seemed to require interpretation or explanation and linking these words or phrases to individual child pages with commentary. Thus a student could select the phrase “shallow rivers” from Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and link it to a page holding commentary about the phrase. Another student could improve the annotation by elaborating on it or polishing the wording. We asked the students to adopt a Wikipedia-style “neutral point of view” in writing these annotations, so that they could collaborate in producing commentary that spoke in a single voice. We also asked them to use Confluence’s “comment” feature in the same way that Wikipedians use “discussion”–to suggest an individual viewpoint for consideration by the group, or to hash out a disagreement. Making this distinction had the potential to create, in effect, two layers of conversation: the conversation formed by the individual annotations in relation to the poem, and the conversation among the creators of each annotation as to what the annotation should say.

. marlowe_high_quality.jpg

ApproachesThere is no shortage of pedagogical tools for illustrating the kind of conversation that characterizes the practice of criticism. The most popular of these is probably the “casebook,” which juxtaposes a primary text with critical essays representing a variety of viewpoints on the text. In collections where these essays are meant to exemplify the different kinds of reading generated by different “schools” of critical practice (Marxist, feminist, postmodernist, etc.), the impression left on the student can be precisely the one we were attempting to counter: that these specific practices are not instances of any general practice–that the schools, in effect, have nothing to say to each other.

Our approaches site in the wiki attempted to model critical variety by using the same localizing logic as our discussion forums about the English major. We ourselves became the exemplars of critical variety, and we did so in a manner that was “conversational” in tone as well as form. We put the text of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916” on each of four wiki pages. We each recorded a brief audio commentary on the poem and attached one clip to each page. On a parent page for the four commentary pages, we reproduced the text once more, together with an explanation of what we wanted our students to see: namely, that “four practicing critics can look at the same poem and find different things in it,” that the differences spring not from mere personal idiosyncrasy but from adopting “different intellectual angles,” and that “despite our differences, all four of us are doing certain things in common.” Two of us took the lesson this site was designed to teach a step further by bringing their sections (scheduled at the same time) together for a joint lecture in which each offered a viewpoint on a novel assigned in both sections. The lecture was followed by group discussion.


ResultsWe surveyed students at the end of the semester in order to get a sense of how the course had or had not changed their knowledge and attitudes. Only 4% percent of the 88 students surveyed said that they began the semester with a “very clear conception of the skills an English major should have”; 52% said they had a very clear conception of these skills at the end. Thirty percent began the semester “wondering” what skills an English major should have but lacking an answer; at the end, no student agreed with the statement, “I still don’t have an answer that’s even moderately clear.” Fully 19% “hadn’t really asked [themselves] what skills an English major should have” before taking the course; by the end, only 1% agreed with the statement, “I’m unclear about the skills an English major should have, and I haven’t given the question much thought.” Exactly the same percentage–47%–began and ended the semester with a “moderately clear conception of the skills an English major should have.” Most of the students who fell into this category at the end had likely moved there from the “I wondered but didn’t have an answer” and the “I hadn’t really asked myself” categories.

Similarly, we asked the students how clear their thinking was before and after the course about “the works an English major should read” and “the debates an English major should understand.” Eleven percent began the semester with a clear conception of the works a major should read; 39% ended the semester that way. Nine percent had wondered about this question at the beginning but lacked an answer; at the end, no one was without at least a moderately clear idea. Twenty-five percent had not asked themselves this question at the beginning; at the end, 9% said they still had not given the question much thought. Again, the percentage who possessed moderate clarity remained about the same, declining slightly from 55% to 52% as, presumably, some moved up from moderate clarity to great clarity and others moved up to moderate clarity from not having asked themselves this question.

Four percent began the semester with a very clear idea of the debates a major should understand; 31% ended with a very clear idea. On this question, we saw the largest percentage–36%–who had wondered about the question without finding an answer; only 7% said they lacked even a moderately clear answer at the end. Twenty-five percent began the semester without having asked themselves the question previously; 7% ended the semester without having given it much thought. On this question, the percentage that began and ended with moderate clarity–35% and 55%, respectively–showed the greatest change.

Asked generally whether “this class changed your thinking about the skills of an English major,” 72% said “yes,” while 28% said “no.” Asked the same question about “what works an English major should read,” 63% replied “yes,” 37% “no”. Asked this question about “the debates an English major should understand,” 64% said “yes,” 36% “no.”

These results suggest that we were modestly successful in giving our students a better sense of what makes English a discipline. We asked some additional questions about their experience of the online assignments; judging from their answers, our success on this part of the collaboration was more limited. Asked to rate, on a scale of 1-5, the usefulness of our online annotation assignment for clarifying or stimulating thought about close reading, their ratings broke down as follows: 5 (very useful), 14%; 4, 19%; 3, 33%; 2, 23%; 1 (not useful), 11%. Asked to rate the usefulness of online discussion forums in clarifying or stimulating thought about the skills, content, and issues an English major should master, the ratings were 5 (very useful), 5%; 4, 24%;  3, 35%; 2, 23%; 1 (not useful), 14%. Our most effective online assignment was the one in which we ourselves were the collaborators. Asked to rate the usefulness of our audio commentary on Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” in providing a sense of how professional scholars/critics approach a literary work, students responded as follows: 5 (very useful), 28%; 4, 32%; 3, 22%; 2, 7%, 1 (not useful), 11%.

Lessons Learned

Practicing Criticism has been dormant during the spring 2011 semester but will continue in fall 2011. As the project goes forward, it will benefit from some of the lessons we have already learned.

The challenges faced by the project in its inaugural semester were technological, organizational, and motivational.

The technological challenges themselves were threefold, involving, respectively, faculty, students, and tools. One member of our faculty group had had a great deal of experience teaching with technology and was already a “power user” of the Confluence wiki software. Another was less familiar with the software but highly invested, from the beginning, in adopting digital methods to expand conversation beyond the classroom. Two members of the group saw technology more as an aid to pedagogical collaboration and coordination of purpose than as a central feature of the project. These differences in technological comfort and investment were not a drawback–on the contrary, they created a healthy balance of perspectives on the value and limitations of our digital tools. But they led to occasional frustration with the tools and less than perfect agreement on what we hoped to accomplish with them. Going forward, the project will benefit from some formal efforts to increase everyone’s familiarity with the tools and ongoing conversation within our own community of practice as to how they can best be used.

It was not only the professors, however, who found the wiki a challenge. Our students are thoroughly used to inhabiting online spaces, but these spaces do not all work the same, feel the same, or serve the same ends. A social network such as Facebook is not the same as a networked community of practice. Writing collaboratively from a “neutral point of view” is not a skill that digital natives automatically possess. (A good number of students had difficulty adopting this style in their poetry annotations, and fewer students produced collaborative annotations than we had hoped for.) Finally, even geeks need help with an unfamiliar interface. The project will go better in the future if we set aside some time to train the students in using the tools.

But what will the tools be? Wiki works well for collaborative authorship, and a flexible platform such as Confluence can extend the capability of wiki into other areas, such as group discussion. But a dedicated tool for building conversation around a central text, such as VoiceThread, might be a better alternative for the “approaches” component of Practicing Criticism.

The main organizational challenge we faced was that of giving students a sense of community while each syllabus went its own way with readings and other assignments. Although this combination of collaboration and autonomy was in some sense the point of the project, we ran into difficulty when, for example, collaborative online assignments across the sections took place out of sync with the readings on one or another professor’s syllabus. As already indicated above, two of us did coordinate readings and assignments more closely than the rest; in conjunction with synchronized scheduling, this planning made possible the joint lecture and group discussion offering a live reprise of the online “approaches” to “Easter, 1916” in the wiki. Better coordination might have also enabled students working across sections online to combine their virtual meetings with live ones. There are times when, as one student told us, you would just “rather meet in person” to accomplish collaborative work. In future semesters, at least a few planned meetings of the four sections–for technology instruction, open discussion, give-and-take among the professors, or even just pizza–would also help create a greater sense of community.

From a theoretical perspective, perhaps the most interesting challenge we faced was that of generating excitement about the work. Communities of practice form, by definition, because of shared passion or concern. By contrast, students choose courses and majors from a wide variety of motives and come to them with widely varying levels of interest and commitment. In the conventional classroom situation, the familiar remedy for this discrepancy is to incentivize “participation” using grades. But the familiar remedy seems inappropriate, at a deep level, to the culture of the Internet, whose very ethos is self-motivated participation and whose most powerful social lesson has been the capacity of self-motivated participants to produce lively, engaged discussion and (in the case of Wikipedia, for example) highly organized content without central direction or extrinsic reward. We went into the semester before having resolved this quandary, and, to judge from the survey results, without providing our students sufficiently clear guidelines for how active they should be online or how their work would be credited. We are still uncertain where the balance lies between meeting students’ expectations for guidance and protecting the culture of self-motivation that makes the Internet an exciting place to collaborate and share. We will surely need to make adjustments on both ends–not only by formulating clearer expectations but also by structuring opportunities for discussion in ways that keep the conversation lively and fresh. Offering a wider range of discussion questions, introducing new questions at strategic points in the semester, and allowing students to pose their own questions would all help produce more participation for participation’s sake.


As we write, the community that is SUNY Geneseo’s English department is in the midst of revisiting its own practice. In face-to-face as well as asynchronous virtual conversation (within a dedicated space of Geneseo’s Confluence wiki), department members have been discussing a substantial revision of the major that would shift the major’s emphasis from coverage of content to the self-reflective practice of analytical reading and writing skills. Not surprisingly, the department’s conversation has returned again and again to the very questions we posed to our students in Practicing Criticism: What should we read in English? Why should we read it? How should we read it?

For the four of us, the department’s conversation has reinforced the conviction that students need to see through their course syllabi, their assignments, and the requirements of the English major to the issues and principles that lie behind them–in other words, that students should experience English courses and the English major as transparent.

The department is considering making multi-section collaboration and cross-section conversation using digital tools a permanent feature of English 170 in a revised major, perhaps transforming Practicing Criticism into the official locus of the course. Needless to say, the four of us believe that such a decision would go far toward promoting the transparency of English at Geneseo. But whatever the department decides, we are certain that our project has improved the quality of our own conversation, while making our own practice more transparent to ourselves.

1. Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History, 20th anniversary ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 252-62. [return to text]
2. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 222. [return to text]
3. Etienne Wenger, “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction,” last modified June, 2006, accessed March 14, 2011, See also Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). [return to text]
4. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 293-94. [return to text]
5. For a discussion of the same kind of assignment in the context of civic engagement, see Paul Schacht, “Rowing Alone: Technology and Democracy in the Humanities Classroom,” International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society 4 (2008), 61-68. [return to text]