Friday, August 03, 2007

A Year of Reading

I've been brainstorming revision ideas for my research methods class. The central project for the class is to work with a manuscript (a letter, usually) from this area of the Northwoods in the 19th century to make an edition of it. Each student has to think about what they want/need to communicate about the contexts for the text, possible interpretive issues (with handwriting, even), how to represent the text, and so forth. It may not seem like an especially literary assignment, because it isn't. But it IS a very textual assignment, and brings students to real research questions: who wrote this? to whom? what's the context? who is this person mentioned? what's the treaty alluded to? And so forth.

When I was a grad student, one of my friends took a fin de siecle type classe, or WWI era class, or something like that, and had what turned out to be an incredibly interesting assignment. Each student had to read a full year of a periodical and then write up observations or something.

It was a great project because it made students aware of common cultural stuff we don't necessarily look at or think a lot about when we're reading lit, but that may be incredibly important. They looked at ads, at women's columns, all sorts of things. And they got a much deeper sense of what was important to the readers/writers of their periodical.

I'm thinking of having my students do something similar.

But. I haven't done this sort of project (periodicals get going after my study period), so I'm trying to get a good sense of how long it would take my students to read a year's worth of a periodical, and I'm thinking a local newspaper. When I think about it, I'm thinking that having them read a full month and then maybe one day in each other month, or something?

I need to balance the benefit they'll get from learning something much more deeply about the year their manuscript is written with the amount of time they have to spend to learn. My sense is that the learning curve for the first, say, five issues, will be very steep; they'll find all sorts of new things. And then the learning curve will slow down and finding something new will be a matter of luck or not.

On the other hand, I think a big part of research in literature has to do with spending enough time reading and reading and learning that you find things or put things together because you've been reading so much. I don't know how to teach this except by having them spend a fair bit of time reading.

I'd love to hear from folks who've done this sort of project. Did you find it useful? Do you have suggestions for organizing it? Problems I should be prepared for? Ideas about time?

We DO have microfilm of the local newspaper from the period available in our library, so at least that part works.


  1. A friend of mine has students read all the coverage of a big area event. It might be fun to have them read the coverage of a recuring event (like a local election) over time to see how things change.

  2. I've seen students come into the writing center with similar projects. Despite all of the work involved (and they do mention it), every student I've seen has enjoyed it. There always seems to be something of interest that grabs their attention in a way that (happily) surprises them.