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Web 2.0 in "Building Textual Interpretation"

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This course was set up as an introduction to graduate study at Marymount, and given the diversity of our student body, it seemed useful to incorporate a web component as well. I teach in both the Humanities and the Literature graduate programs, and my students were about equally divided between the two–a few more in the Literature program. Some students came into the graduate program directly from undergraduate study, some students were international and found themselves struggling with a non-native language, and some students had already built substantial educational or corporate careers.  My logic for incorporating the technologies I did was fourfold. First, several students were either returning to graduate study after a hiatus or drawing on the graduate program for career enhancement, and so needed an orientation to doing research in an electronic environment. Second, the diversity of skill sets brought to the forefront the need for a framework in which to conceptualize the systematic nature of writing, literary and cultural analysis, and research–hence the title of the course, “Building Textual Interpretation.” Third, because several students were interested in pursuing careers in education, it seemed incumbent upon me to sketch out a little of the terrain that their students would be increasingly familiar with. Finally, fourth–and perhaps most importantly–I believe that the kinds of skills needed to interact successfully and creatively with the many and varied platforms and technologies available to students, from library catalogs and primary source databases to blogs and web-based research tools, enhances the individual ability to put an idea together from its parts.

While this course was not set up as a radically non-traditional or web-based course (in fact, it was fairly traditional in its writing requirements), a few of the techniques for researching and writing in an electronic environment were in some cases perceived as radically non-traditional for my students.  One, who describes herself as “a bit ‘shell schocked’ with my re-entry into school after almost twenty-five years, when we actually typed papers on a typewriter,” purchased her first laptop computer during the process of our class. Similarly, many of my students’ initial approach to research was built on the “research report” model–finding sources that discuss your topic and weaving them together into a new essay. This “research report” model ultimately stunts the critical and creative thinking essential to graduate students’ success in the program, because it neither fully addresses the question of originality nor models the fundamental skills of lateral thinking.

The course was divided into two broad sections: the first half of class was devoted to cultivating the skills of close reading and creative analysis required in graduate study, and we used Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as our primary text. This first half of class culminated in a 6-8 page thesis-driven essay in which students were restricted to using only Conrad’s novella. The goal here was to encourage sophisticated textual analysis, which requires attention to the details of the text and its language. The second half of class was devoted to cultivating the skills of creative research, and we used Pope’s The Rape of the Lock as our primary text. This second half of class culminated in a 15-page seminar essay that situated the poem in its material cultural context; the essays sought to answer the question, “How can a fuller knowledge of the material cultural context of the early 18th century help me understand some aspect of Pope’s poem more clearly?”