“Major Developments in American Culture,” Fordham University, Glenn Hendler

Assignment: Dictionary Definition and Keyword Essay
Class: Major Developments in American Culture
Institution: Fordham University
Instructor: Glenn Hendler

Note: This course used the Keywords Collaboratory as its platform for the collaborative composition of keywords projects among the students.  The same type of assignment could use a different digital or non-digital means of collaboration.

Project Description:
This sophomore-level course—described as a selective cultural history of the United States and an introduction to the interdisciplinary field of American studies—has been organized around the Keywords volume and website. The course is required of all American studies majors but open to others, and it also fulfills Fordham’s American pluralism requirement, so it serves many purposes and draws a range of students. The assignment asks students to collaborate in small groups outside the classroom—online and in person—to track specific keywords through readings and discussions throughout the semester.

The collaboratory is set up in advance with abridged OED definitions of the keywords, along with usage examples, also drawn from the OED. The first task for the class, by midterm, is to replace the OED examples with usages of their keyword from their course materials. Thus students are archiving usages, but also categorizing those usages under different OED definitions (or occasionally adding new definitions of their own). In the second half of the semester, they work on a collaboratively-written keyword essay on their term. By the final due date, they submit a polished essay that fulfills the same goals that the essays in the volume, but with a smaller archive. (As we explain, the archive of a keyword essay in the book is the entire field of American cultural studies, the archive for their essay is the set readings for this specific course, along with class lectures and discussions.)

Instructor Comments:
What worked: Groups that methodically track their words every week reflect breadth and quality in their writing. Each group develops a distinct lens on the course materials, and in class discussion they often bring that lens to bear on the topic of the day. The process of collaboration seems rewarding and educational, whether or not the outcome is fully successful.

What needs work: Depending on the course focus and design, keywords may be unevenly distributed in the readings, making some words more challenging than others. Some groups require more instruction than others: how to delineate tasks, divide labor, and adjudicate different opinions. If groups manage the writing off-line, their individual participation becomes difficult to assess.

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Major Developments in American Culture: Professor Glenn Hendler, Fordham University

Major Developments in American Culture
American Studies (AMRU) 2000:001
SPRING 2008

This project gives students a thread to follow through all of the course’s readings and discussions, and an opportunity to use that thread to tie the course together at the end. The project continues through the whole semester, and it is quite complex. However, there are three major elements, all of which are collaborative:

  1. Tracking a keyword through the readings, lectures and discussions every week
  2. Revising a dictionary entry on that keyword
  3. Writing a keyword essay about the role of that keyword in this course

These elements are closely connected. The first takes place on Blackboard; the other two take place in the Keyword Collaboratory.

Your first task: Set up an account at http://keywords.fordhamitac.org/wiki2. I’ll show you how to do this on the second day of class. Once you have done so, be sure to make a note of the username you chose. Then e-mail that username to me (ghendler@fordham.edu). It will be easier for you and for me if the username you choose matches your Fordham e-mail username, and if the e-mail address you use here matches the one you use in Blackboard. Please get me this information by 4pm on Thursday, January 24. If you take care of this earlier, send me the username earlier. Until I’ve authorized you as a participant, you will not be able to edit pages in the Collaboratory, which is an essential part of the course.

Your second task: Also by 4pm on Thursday, January 24 each student should send me an e-mail (ghendler@fordham.edu) indicating which of the following keywords you are interested in working with throughout the semester: “class;” “empire;” “ethnicity;” “market;” “marriage;” “nation;” “public;” “religion;” or “white.” In case there are too many choosing a single keyword, please give me three choices, in order of preference. I will then create nine “keyword working groups,” each of which will “track” one of those keywords.

Your third task: Within a few days—and certainly before your visit to the New York Historical Society on January 30 or February 2–read the entry on your keyword in Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Do this right away; don’t wait until the rest of the class is assigned to read your entry later in the semester.

Each group will get three online spaces in which to do its work; each corresponds to one collaborative assignment within the larger keyword project. The three spaces are:

  1. In Blackboard, you’ll find a Discussion Board Forum designated for your keyword. You’ll be using this space for tracking your keyword through the term.
  2. In your collaboratory area, you’ll find one page with selections from the Oxford English Dictionary definition of your keyword as well as a sampling of “usage examples” from the OED. This page is the starting point for your dictionary entry assignment.
  3. Also in your collaboratory, there will be a page where your group will collectively produce and revise its keyword essay.

Now, to describe the three major elements of the project:

1) Tracking your keyword: From the moment you are assigned to a working group, after each reading, after every discussion, lecture, or site visit, your task is to think about how your keyword was used, what it meant in that context, and how that usage and meaning connect (or fail to connect) with the entry in Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Have our readings and discussions served as illustrations of arguments made in the original entry? Have they raised issues and questions about the keyword not addressed in the entry? Have they contradicted or complicated points made in the entry? Have they made connections between your keyword and other keywords? Are there places in our discussions, readings, or lectures when your keyword could have or should have appeared? Why do you think it did not?

a) As part of tracking your keyword, by 9am on Monday, February 11 your group should choose at least two other keywords that you think are closely related to yours. These may be keywords that have entries in Keywords for American Cultural Studies or they may be others that you have noticed are cropping up in relation to (or in place of) your keyword in our readings and discussions. Track those keywords in your Blackboard space as well; having an understanding of them may help you write your keyword essay at the end of the semester.

b) Use your working group’s discussion board forum as a space to track your keyword. Each member of the group should write in the discussion board at least once a week. Your contribution can be simply to archive your keyword’s appearances in the readings, lectures, and discussions (e.g., “‘white’ appears repeatedly in the second chapter of Johnson’s book, and Jane brought it up in class in the context of our discussion of Frederick Douglass”) and/or as a place to raise and discuss questions about the meaning of the term in these contexts (“when the keyword ‘market’ is used in Jackson’s novel, it seems to have a different meaning than it did when we discussed the slave market, but I’m not sure exactly what the difference is. Did anyone else notice this? Is there anything in the McGill entry on ‘market’ that accounts for this difference, or have we found something new here?”).

c) There may be weeks when your keyword comes up in several readings and in each of our class discussions. There may be other weeks when it does not come up at all. Use your judgment about how often you need to log on to your discussion board to keep up with your group’s discussion. At an absolute minimum you should check in twice a week, the evening before each class, so that everyone in your working group is on the same page when you arrive in class the next day. But there may be weeks when you get involved in a lively discussion with others in your group and end up contributing several times over the course of the week.

2) Dictionary assignment: The first outcome of your tracking process will be your working group collaboratively producing an OED-style dictionary definition and set of usage examples for your keyword, based in the course readings—including the entries in Keywords for American Cultural Studies—and our class lectures and discussions. This is not a task you can accomplish the night before it is due. Rather, all through the first half of the semester, be looking for opportunities to go to the collaboratory and (a) revise the OED definition there (b) replace one of the OED’s examples with one from our course. I’ll give a demonstration on how to do this early in the semester.

a) I will grade this dictionary definition at the midterm (after Monday, March 4). You may want to continue developing it after this date as part of your work toward your keyword essay, but any further changes to the definition after 9am on March 4 will not affect the grade.

3) Writing a keyword essay: Your final essay for the semester will be a collaboratively-written essay on your keyword. You are not being asked to rewrite or improve upon the entry from Keywords for American Cultural Studies, but to write an entry on the same term that has a different scope, a different archive of materials. The original entry, after all, was a keyword entry for “American Cultural Studies” as a whole; your new entry will be a “Keyword for AMRU 2000:001, Spring 2008.” You may find that your entry (or one of the other entries in the book) is a good formal model for the essay your group produces, though the content will surely be quite different. You will write this essay in the designated page in your collaboratory. Each of you can generate new text, edit one another’s text, delete, add to it, and so on. I’ll give a demonstration on how to do this early in the semester.

a) Your conversations in the Blackboard discussion board throughout the semester can serve as notes toward this essay, giving you an extra motivation to keep tracking your keyword continuously. The same goes for the dictionary definition you produced for the midterm; both the definitions and the usage examples may find their way into the essay.

b) Like many of the entries in the volume, yours may refer to the OED definition of your keyword, though this is not required.

c) Be aware that each edit you make is recorded, with your name attached, in the “history” section of the collaboratory. For that reason, especially if you are revising someone else’s part of the text, you may want to explain your revision in the “comments” or “discussion” section of your collaboratory.

d) Your keyword essay will be stronger if you start working on it fairly early in the semester, building it up gradually. This is not a task you can accomplish in the day or two before its due date, which is 5pm Tuesday, April 29, the last day of class.

Grades: 50% of your final grade comes out of your keyword project. This is broken down as follows:

a) At midterm, your dictionary definition will receive a grade. Everyone in your group will receive the same grade. Even though I will not evaluate your work in this area after the midterm, your group may want to continue to use it as a basis on which to build your keyword essay. This assignment is worth 15% of the final grade.

b) Everyone in a working group will receive the same grade on the final keyword essay. This essay will be worth 20% of the final grade.

c) At the end of the term, each individual will receive his or her own grade based on your online working group participation in both Blackboard and the Keyword Collaboratories. Even though this project as a whole is a collaborative enterprise, this grade allows me to recognize your visible individual contributions. This part of the assignment is worth 15% of the final grade. At the midterm I will do a preliminary survey of each student’s online participation and contact any students who are not making sufficient contributions to get a passing grade.

Also note:
1) You may also want to look at other discussion boards, other collaboratories in this class, and even collaboratories from other classes around the country using the book. You’re welcome to read any of these and to look at the keyword essays as they develop in the project pages. You may also contribute on any collaboratory’s “discussion” page. But unless it explicitly says otherwise in a collaboratory, only members of a working group should actually edit their page. The whole collaboratory structure depends on this rule being respected, and violations will be taken very seriously.

2) I and the rest of the class will also view you and the other members of your keyword working group as “experts” on that keyword. At any point in the discussion, one of us may turn to you for insight on a reading or topic of discussion with a question such as, “how does this topic look when viewed through the lens of your keyword?” or “How does this author, or critic, or historian, use your keyword differently from other people who have used it?” Your responses to such questions are not formally graded, but of course factor into your attendance and participation grade.

3) Others in the class (and beyond, in the case of the collaboratories) may look at and comment upon your areas; they are not private spaces. In fact, you should write your keyword essay with this in mind; its readership is potentially larger than just me and the other members of this class. But only members of your working group should actually be editing text in your collaboratory.