Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Head Meet Wall

Some days! On Monday, my Shakespeare class has an assignment using an academic database called Early English Books Online (EEBO). Their assignment is to find two specific sonnets by Shakespeare, print them out, look at them and think about how they're different (or not) from the sonnets printed in their text book.

I had my first alert that something was wrong about the assignment last week, and since I'm giving them a midterm on Friday, thought today was the day to give them some last minute help. The problem is that one of the best students in the class couldn't find the sonnet. And I know if she can't find it, the others aren't likely to do a lot better. So, be frustrated in class Monday or give them the basic answer to the challenge today. I chose the latter.

EEBO is a subscription database service that basically updates the great bibliographic efforts of the early 20th century by making information about printed early modern texts available on line in a readily searchable database. Sometimes the information is basic publication information; but for most texts, the database provides full scanned images. That's right, you want to read a scanned image of Dalton's The Country Justice and you are in luck! It's on line! And so much easier to read than the old microfilm rolls! And even better than having to try to travel across the ocean to a library, especially on a limited budget!

Here's the kicker, though. My student had diligently searched using the keyword "Shakespeare" and the keyword "sonnet 116" and come up empty handed.

So I asked in class if anyone had tried to do the assignment, and one brave young woman said that yes, she had, but that "it wasn't there, Bardiac!"

Now, the electronics age has taught me to distrust technology, so I have a habit of always checking my assignments to make sure that they actually can be done, and I'd written up an assignment sheet with fairly detailed instructions. What I hadn't done was to explain what I just did about EEBO. You see, they were looking for a sonnet, and NOT for a book! Sometimes things seem so transparent to me, and I'm just stunned that they aren't transparent to students. I guess I thought the "Books" part in EEBO would give it away? I'm not sure.

At any rate, the assignment sheet had suggested that they use their own text to find out when the sonnets were printed and use a date limit in their search, since "Shakespeare" was sure to bring up more hits than they would have time to look at. I also hinted that they might want to look for the original title, but apparently my hint wasn't strong enough.

I'm irritated at myself for not explaining EEBO better on the assignment sheet.

But I also worry about my students. Faced with a limited searching problem, or almost any sort of limited problem, they seem to give up really easily. One keyword search and they're done. They don't seem to have much joy in the hunt. I'm not asking them to cure cancer, but to find a text, a famous one at that, in a searchable database with a darned easy search system. I assume they've done internet searches before, but their unwillingness to bang their heads against a wall for a while til things soften up worries me because the joys of research and learning for me isn't just about finding factoid A or quote B to use in a paper or in a class. The joy for me is in the pleasure of the hunt, in learning something, putting concepts, facts, ideas, images, whatever together for myself. Even though I'm always eager to figure out the argument I want to make and to actually finish something, I love getting waylaid in blind alleys, not realizing they lead "nowhere" until they've taken me into some interesting little corners of the imagination or world.

As a result, of course, I have all sorts of "useless" information. No doubt this would be useful if I went to cocktail parties much. But if you want to know what the price/earning ratio a property owner looked for in early modern English real property investing, well, I'm your Bardiac!

No comments:

Post a Comment