War News Radio

by Abdulla Mizead, Swarthmore College

IMG_7381.jpgWar News Radio (WNR) is an award winning, student-run radio show produced by Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. It is carried by over thirty-seven radio stations across the United States, Canada and Italy, and podcasts are available through our Web site. It attempts to fill the gaps in the media’s coverage of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan by providing balanced and in-depth reporting, historical perspective, and personal stories. Since its founding in 2005, WNR has greatly enriched US media coverage of the Iraqi and Afghan war by giving voice to Iraqis and Afghans living daily in a war zone. But it has also had a significant impact on Swarthmore and its students, and has even motivated students and teachers beyond the college to seek out new ways and technologies to tell stories that are left out by the mainstream media.

Starting WNR
It would have been difficult to conceive that a group of college students would be able to report about a conflict 6,000 miles away without leaving their peaceful campus. The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are probably the most important events in U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, but unlike the Vietnam War, the recent wars don’t have a direct impact on students’ lives, though they will witness the effects for years to come. Dissatisfied by the mainstream media’s coverage of the conflicts, and a sense that Americans weren’t getting the real story about the impact of these wars on ordinary Iraqis and Afghans, a group of dedicated Swarthmore College students launched War News Radio in January 2005.

The brain behind this program was David Gelber, a 1963 Swarthmore graduate, and senior producer at CBS’ 60 Minutes. Gelber, who is also a member of the college’s board of managers, says he was “particularly irritated by the quality of network coverage of the lead-up to the war in Iraq and of the war itself in 2003 and 2004.” He felt the US media wasn’t really doing a good job at bringing the conflict closer to home, and that there was more to it than just reporting about the everyday violence, suicide attacks, roadside bombings, and the death tolls. There was more to it than just the stories coming from reporters embedded with the military and covering military tactics. He wanted the students to get involved and broaden the scope of the media coverage.

After the idea won support from several college administrators and faculty members, came the first challenge: how to teach the students the basics of journalism. Swarthmore College does not teach journalism, and if the students were to report about the wars, they definitely needed the basics. So Gelber and several other producers organized an intensive journalism workshop for the thirty students who joined this new project, some of whom became founding members of War News Radio. One of those students, Aaron Strong ’06, remembers the event, “Four years ago on a snowy day in January, fresh from a lengthy winter break, a small group of Swarthmore students, myself among them, huddled in an office space and started talking about media coverage of the Iraq war. We had all signed up to be a part of this new project–a radio show covering the “untold stories” of the Iraq war, and, well, we knew what we wanted to do, but we had no idea what we were doing.” The vision for the program was clear: to tell the stories of ordinary people who experienced the conflict firsthand, and were living with its effects. But how would these undergraduate students find these people and interview them?

That turned out to be easier than expected. With Google and online phone directories, it was fairly easy to find Iraqis living in particular parts of the country. In fact, Robert Fisk, one of the best journalists covering conflicts in the Middle East, described this as a kind of “hotel journalism.” “More and more Western reporters in Baghdad” he writes in a survey of media coverage in Iraq, “are reporting from their hotels rather than the streets of Iraq’s towns and cities.”1 If the journalist in Iraq could prepare his or her reports by relying on phone interviews, Swarthmore students could do that as well. And they did. The first shows ranged from pieces about challenges getting a decent phone line to Iraq to conduct an interview to anti-war protests and profiling government contractor companies.

Challenges in Developing WNR
Initially college administrators and faculty explored the idea of incorporating War News Radio into the college curriculum, where students involved in the program could receive credit for their broadcast work. Students took courses through the film and media studies department and completed required readings on the Middle East. However, it was hard to do both things at the same time and the college stopped giving credit, which made the show more focused on reporting. And then it became clear that an experienced journalist was needed to guide the students.

Marty Goldensohn became WNR‘s Journalist-in-Residence in 2005. Goldensohn, a veteran award-winning broadcast journalist, with a career in radio spanning more than three decades, shared his rich experience with the students. He instilled in the young student-journalists the confidence to call up US senators and generals, Iraqi politicians, and complete strangers–ordinary Iraqis and Afghans–asking them to share their stories about living every day in a war zone. Hansi Lo Wang ’09, a senior producer at WNR, says that to have the confidence to do such interviews, Goldensohn asked us to “ordain ourselves as journalists,” and to “mumble with authority.” Students took these words to heart, and that gave them the confidence a journalist needs.

Goldensohn was also innovative in employing new technology to connect the students with Iraqis and Afghans. He introduced Skype, allowing students to make free voice calls over the Internet. Another great feature of Skype is that one can search for users by country and language, which enabled the students to reach out to even more people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Students captured the audio from those interviews through software called Audio Hijack. This made it possible for students to conduct interviews using just a Mac computer. Though this technology was very effective, it also had limitations. Students could only interview people who had access to the Internet, for example. And without translators, students could only interview English speakers, which limited them to the well-educated middle class, whose opinion wasn’t necessarily representative of the larger society.

Despite these issues, the students were becoming better reporters and the show became more professional as it moved to a weekly format. Stations throughout the U.S. began to take interest in what WNR was covering as the shows were uploaded to Public Radio Exchange (PRX), a Web-based platform for digital distribution, review, and licensing of radio programs. Students’ reports were now being heard by thousands of people in the U.S. and abroad. With this publicity, students felt increasingly responsible for meeting weekly deadlines and producing a high quality program. Currently staff members contribute more than twenty hours of work into every show, and Thursday nights often extend into early Friday morning, as students refine their pieces and collaborate on producing a twenty-nine-minute show that is true to the program’s mission.

Photo of a staff member sound editing an interview. (Swarthmore College)

War News Radio is a huge undertaking for students. It requires a sizable time commitment that sometimes interferes with coursework. Interviews often take multiple phone calls over several days to complete because it is difficult to get a decent phone line and record an audible interview. Calls often take place after midnight because it is nearly half a day later in Iraq and Afghanistan. What makes things even harder for students are the frustrations they face in reporting about a conflict that is increasingly harder to grasp in its complexities.

The biggest challenge, however, remains financial. WNR continues to be funded by Swarthmore President’s Office and the College’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and has not yet raised much new money to support itself. But as Vice President Maurice Eldridge notes, the program has done much for the college. In addition to placing Swarthmore on the map, it has boosted the number of applicants. WNR is “one of two or three things that have influenced applicants to the college, so that people who want to come to Swarthmore and have to write the essay: “Why Swarthmore?” one of the most frequently cited things in the last few years has been War News Radio,” Eldridge says.

Educational Impact at Swarthmore and Beyond
For the students involved in the project, the rewards are clear and keep them going during their everyday frustrations with logistical and production issues. Part of it has to do with the uniqueness of the program. Eva Barboni ’07, a former producer of the show, felt it enriched her academic studies in international politics. “In my political science classes, I was exposed to the arguments of prominent political thinkers about the war. At War News Radio, I could speak directly with the everyday Iraqis, American soldiers and politicians who were making the news about which these thinkers were writing. These two parts of my education, working together, gave me a fuller understanding of the war and international politics than I could have gotten just in the classroom.”

Wren Elhai ’08, a former host of WNR, believes the program has exposed students to one of the most important geographical areas in the world today, but also influenced the way they communicate information to the larger public. “War News Radio has shaped the way I write, the way I talk, and the way I think. Every time I put aside a fancy, unnecessarily dense turn of phrase for a simpler one, or ask myself ‘how would you say that in plain English?’ I thank War News Radio,” Elahi writes.

The experience has also influenced students’ professional choices. After working for a year and a half, Reuben Heyman-Kantor ‘06 is now a broadcast news producer at CBS. “Without the skills and direction I gained from the year and a half I spent at War News Radio, I would not be where I am today,” writes Heyman-Kantor. The use of the Internet in journalism has been particularly important, as Alan Smith ’05, who worked on the show from its inception, is quick to emphasize. “What we in some ways pioneered,” says Smith, “has become commonplace: the idea of using the Internet to re-make the way stories are told and to re-imagine who gets to be the storytellers about a war. Thinking about the Internet, and how it is changing and will change journalism, has become the focus of a television show that I produce ever week with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, and it has become one of the most important and highly debated concerns in the journalism industry.” Other WNR staff members have gone to work for 60 Minutes, Marketplace, and WNYC public radio. Amelia Templton ’06, who was part of the program from the start, has taken a different direction. She now serves as a refugee policy analyst for Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization, with a special focus on the plight of Iraqi refugees.

War News Radio has also inspired like-minded projects on other campuses. It served as a model for students to investigate the conflict in Sudan through Sudan Radio Project, Chinatown Youth Radio Philadelphia, and most recently the Swarthmore Migration Project, an online multimedia project raising awareness about migration issues. Zachary Fryer-Biggs, who volunteered to work for WNR in 2006, founded The Epoch, an international affairs magazine with funding from his school, St. John’s College, a small liberal arts college in Annapolis. He says his magazine was about “applying War News Radioon a global scale.” In 2006 students in the “Global News Analysis” class taught at St. Lawrence University created The Weave, a public intellectual project that brings together a range of perspectives on local, national and global issues and on mainstream and independent media coverage of those issues. War News Radio inspired them to create The Weave.

War News Radio has also become an educational tool for both high schools and colleges. Social sciences teacher Jeff MacFarland uses it in his classes at Springfield Township High School in Erdenheim, PA. He writes: “I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy that Americans are not getting many of the real stories on the ground in Iraq and I use [WNR] to show the students there are many different perspectives on issues beyond CNN or Time. I pattern the class’s unit project around a War News Radio report and ask the students to portray their unique viewpoints through an online technology called VoiceThread. This allows them to be reporters crafting the story behind an issue they research and back up this story with poignant visuals. In short, War News Radio is central to my teaching on the war in Iraq.” Dr. Brad Nason, a media professor at Pennsylvania College of Technology is also a fan. “I’ve played it in my classes before as an example of quality, in-depth journalism. Second, it offers a perspective that traditional media don’t give.” It’s been cited in THiNK, a textbook for undergraduate students in logic and critical thinking, by Judith Boss. Asked why she used the show, Boss replies, “I used War News Radio to illustrate creative thinking and innovation in the use of the media, as well as the limitations of traditional mass media.” WNR is even listed as a resource on the Foreign Policy Association Web site, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring the American public to learn more about the world.

It is remarkable and gratifying for us to see how influential WNR has been in just four short years. In fulfilling a simple mission–to make some kind of difference in the world by giving voice to those who would not be heard otherwise–WNR has been particularly effective in empowering students and motivating them to empower others. It serves as medium to expand beyond the abstract experience, and to bring some of the most abstract experiences into concrete realities. It has deepened the liberal arts learning into one full of self-discovery and increased the potential for communicating information to a large public in very exciting and challenging ways. WNR is the product of some innovative thinking, generous institutional support, and very dedicated students. With those simple ingredients, projects like War News Radio can happen in any liberal arts setting.

Interviews for this article were conducted by several WNR staff members through the Internet. I conducted the interviews with Vice President Maurice Eldridge and David Gelber.
1. Robert Fisk, “Hotel journalism gives American troops a free hand as the press shelters indoors,” The Independent, January 17, 2005, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/hotel-journalism-gives-american-troops-a-free-hand-as-the-press-shelters-indoors-487023.html. [return to text]

Using Student Podcasts in Literature Classes

by Liz Evans, Swarthmore College

Instructor Name:

Peter Schmidt

Course Title:

U.S. Fiction, 1945 – Present


Swarthmore College

What is the overall aim of the course?:
The course is a survey of important novels published by U.S. authors since World War II. Shared themes include war, peace, complex personal and family histories, U.S. state power, border-crossings, and the use of fiction to narrate crises in individual and national identities. Students learn to vary their interpretive techniques so as to appreciate tragedy vs. comedy, satire, and farce. This is one of a number of survey courses offered by Swarthmore’s English Department designed to introduce students to a wide range of authors, historical contexts, and interpretive techniques.
Course design and scope of the project:

Forty-six students enrolled for thirteen weeks in Spring 2006. We met twice weekly for an hour and fifteen minutes per class, with a mix of lecture and large- and small-group discussion. Aside from reading the novels, students also had to do secondary assignments, including making and listening to podcasts and reading and evaluating discussion summaries.

This podcast project tied in very well to a literature course, because in addition to teaching students about particular works of fiction, the key skill modeled when students quote and expand on each other’s words is that thinking about cultural works is a collaborative process that happens in dialogue, not only in isolation. Cultural objects (including novels) are not static; they circulate, they are events. We may receive them privately, as when we read or work on a computer, but the process is not complete until we take the next step, which is to re-connect with others. We get ideas about interpretation from others, improve them (we hope) on our own, then place these ideas back into the cultural stream.

Incorporation of Technology:

Each podcast assignment consisted of a “podcast pair” (two podcasts); students made a five-minute reading of a passage from a novel, coupled with a five-minute discussion of that passage: why the student chose it, what details were most important, what themes and issues the passage raised, and how the passage related to the rest of the novel. These podcasts were posted on a server and all students in the class were required to listen to selected podcasts on what they were reading before coming to class discussions.

The students received two sets of instructions for making podcasts. One, written by the professor, stressed what kind of content was expected. The other, written by Liz Evans of Swarthmore’s Information Technology Services in collaboration with the professor, gave step-by-step technical instructions for recording and posting and subscribing to podcasts.

In order to prepare their MP3 recordings, students were given instructions for basic installation and use of recording software (Audacity or GarageBand) on Windows or Macintosh PC. In most cases, students used their own computers and devices, although additional equipment and assistance was available through Information Technology Services. After recording, students were provided guidance on posting their MP3 files on a weblog page hosted on the college’s OS X web server. This page, in turn, created the URL for subsciption to the podcast in iTunes or other players. Students were required to subscribe and listen to the recordings each week on their computers or portable media players.

A key to the project’s success with a relatively large class was placing the technology in the hands of the students themselves. Though the comfort level of individual students varied, providing good documentation from the outset helped most students handle the recording work independently, and only a very few technical problems with audio quality or file format issues were encountered.

Lessons Learned:

Podcasts are a superb new technology that can be used in any situation where instructors want students to read and perform written material and then discuss it. Beyond literature or theater classes, they can also work well in foreign language courses to help students improve their speaking and hearing skills. Requiring students to post the material before class meant that the performances, passages, and student materials could be one (not the only) focus of the in-class discussions, which greatly enriched the quality of the discussion. Students found that the readings brought the passages and the novels to life—and that when they heard passages aloud, they noticed many more things than when they just read an assignment before class. In addition, students could respond to the interpretations of the selections that the podcasts made—adding their own collaborative insights, arguing with the interpretation, etc. With literature, this new technology encourages close reading, thoughtful interpretation, and student involvement. Also, students love performing works of literature (even excerpts) aloud—it greatly adds to the fun of the class. Students took the assignments very seriously and in general did very high quality work with them.

Student-made podcasts could work well for many other kinds of courses (from history to foreign languages to any of the social sciences) where a premium is placed on texts and careful interpretation.

The one thing I would do differently next time is cut back on the number of podcasts required for each class. For some assignments it was 3-4 podcast pairs, given the popularity of an author and the large number of students in the class. Since the reading assignments were long, most students did not have time to complete both the reading assignments and all the podcast assignments. I made a mid-course correction and had the students listen to just 1 pair of podcasts of their own choosing before most classes, and then we discussed these in class; this worked well. Professors incorporating podcast assignments into their syllabi need to be sure that they are well-integrated and well-balanced with the other assignments.

Aside from giving the students clear instructions about the goals and methods of making podcasts for the course, I recommend that some class time be devoted to discussing the podcasts when they are assigned. Otherwise, the students who make the podcasts for that day won’t get enough feedback from their fellow students, and there will be too big a break between the outside-class and in-class work. Most often I found that beginning with a discussion of the podcasts was a superb way to open a larger discussion of the themes and ideas and interpretive issues of the assigned material for that day. Podcasts also complemented well the lectures that I gave; I often found myself referring to assigned podcasts as part of my lecture on the novelist we were studying.

References, links:

Course Podcast Webpage:


Podcast Creation Guide for Students:


Measured Results:

The student podcasts did not replace traditional writing assignments, such as exams and papers; they were a very successful supplement to them. I gave students written feedback and grades on their podcasts, evaluating both their dramatic readings and the subsequent interpretation they gave of the material.

We discussed in class what the students thought of the podcast assignments, from how clear the instructions were to how they evaluated the results. Many students also gave me their opinions after class, or comments via email later and via the written course evaluations. The vast majority (40+) of my 46 students loved the assignments and put lots of effort and thought into them. They understood right away the learning possibilities in this new medium. They also much preferred making their own podcasts on material relevant to the course, over listening to long podcast lectures by the professor.

Additional measured results: Students were required to evaluate podcast content as part of some of their writing assignments, especially the in-class exams. (I had told the students that the podcast analysis would be required on the exam, so they had to listen to some as part of their exam preparation. The exam was open-book and open-notes for this reason.) In this way, I could judge how well the students were paying attention to the podcasts and using them to supplement their own ideas. Here are two examples:

The first exam essay excerpt below is on Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible. The student transcribed a quotation she liked from a podcast she had listened to ahead of time, then embedded it within her own discussion:

“In his podcast, Dan discusses how [the character] Nathan, ‘by never forgiving himself[,] … effectively prevents God from forgiving him as well, as Christianity requires both penance and acceptance of one’s own flaws, a concept that seems entirely alien to Nathan’s perception of the world…’ Because Nathan retains the characteristic of being ‘more sure of himself than I’d thought it possible for a young man to be,’ as [the character] Orleanna describes him, he can never be forgiven…”

The quotation from the student named Dan shows, first of all, the high level that some of the podcasts achieved as they discussed their chosen passage. This excerpt also hints at how the student taking the exam then proceed to develop Dan’s idea that the two major adult characters seek forgiveness but create only a cycle of self-punishment. She made the idea her own, adding her own nuances and examples and new directions. But clearly the “germ” for her idea was inspired by the podcast.

Another example, from a student writing on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, well shows how podcast content can be “quoted” just like any text-based source would be:

“Similar to the blurring of identity found with the Thanatoid characters, there also exists in Vineland a blur between the present and the past. Throughout the novel, the reader is constantly confronted with flashbacks, many times caught unaware where the flashback ends and the present story begins. As Micah states in his podcast, the blurring of the present and past is done to such an extent so that ‘present and past are inseparable.’ The blurring is heightened by Pynchon’s use of media, notably TV and film….” The student then proceeded with discussing examples.

Podcasts are a great new way to communicate. In some ways, though, educators have been slow to explore the possibilities for back-and-forth interaction that the web allows, so that such interchanges can occur outside of the classroom as well as within it. But anything we can do to heighten the intensity and intelligence that students will bring to the classroom conversation is a good thing. Podcasts present fascinating new possibilities for doing just that.

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 http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/88396 . [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 http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/staff/ancillary.html?id=dla/poweredbythedla 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 http://transatlanticfictionproject.blogspot.com . [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 http://www.18thconnect.org. [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]