Collaborative Research Tools in the Methodologies Course

ASECS 2010
San Antonio, TX
Web 2.0 Roundtable


Over the past few years, I’ve been experimenting in the classroom with a variety of web 2.0 technologies: IBM’s ManyEyes, wikis, blogs, and, most recently, Omeka archives and Zotero groups. Some technologies I use to produce single-authored lecture and discussion tools, like ManyEyes, and others, I use to encourage multilateral collaboration. This upcoming term, I’m using Omeka and Zotero in an introductory graduate research methodologies course. In this course, we draw on two key primary source texts, including Pope’s Rape of the Lock, to explore a cultural materialist mode of scholarship that itself approaches the kind of decentralization of web 2.0. My goals in this class are oriented toward the varied needs of returning or transitioning graduate students, many of whom are familiar with neither advanced analytical techniques, contemporary research methodologies, nor the electronic tools that have so taken over research in the humanities. I am attempting to blend the familiar modes of research and writing, typically learned in a lecture-oriented classroom, with the demands of seminar-style courses that seek to position students well for individual participation in a brave new world of creative, collaborative scholarship. While the second major essay of the class is essentially traditional in nature, it is built from an archive assignment in which students compile both primary and secondary sources that situate the 18th century poem in a material context. I will be asking students to contribute items and annotations to a course-wide archive, which I hope to grow over time, expanded with a collection of personal, reflective responses to the research process. In this roundtable, I would like to present my colleagues with an overview of the Omeka archive and Zotero bibliography we create, as well as organize some best practices for such projects.

Web Discussion:

Like Lisa, I am very interested in student digital resistance–in fact, as I, too, continue to mull over my comments for this roundtable, I am increasingly faced with the need to deal, head-on, with such resistance. I used zotero, omeka archives, and wordpress to teach basic research methodologies and textual interpretation to graduate students at a very small, private Catholic university, the graduate student body at which is highly diverse, especially in terms of ages and skills. We also visited the Library of Congress and experimented with EEBO, ECCO, and Burney–we have neither these resources nor extensive microfilm collections on our campus. I went into the class with one idea, and realized–much later, as it turns out–that it had to be radically rethought.

In my presentation, I am now planning to frontload the class purpose, show some of the resources we used to participate in research and writing, and share some of the problems I encountered, along with some possible ways to overcome those hurdles. Part of what interests me about this topic is much like what Ben says:

I think pushing these sorts of tools in pedagogical settings is at least as valuable for the ways it might prompt students to become more thoughtful and sophisticated users of online resources as it is for the ways it allows us to teach the eighteenth century.

This class wasn’t really about the 18c, but about how to think more closely and critically and holistically about literary texts, research, and argumentation. I believe there are very real ways in which becoming more cognizant of and expert with a variety of digital research tools–even including library catalogues–can help students interact with texts and concepts in more systematic and self-aware manner. For instance, knowing how–even the basics of how–a database works and represents is data can change how we conduct searches.

I think I could do this in pecha kucha, but I also don’t want the format to suture over the real physical problems that many of my students encountered when trying to deal with our resources–the encountering of which focuses the ways technology (might) offer unique opportunities to confront some assumptions of transparency in literary interpretation. However, I also don’t want to eat into others’ time. I would be interested in the discussion format, but, like George, I think it is very important to have a resource that allows us to indulge, later and in the privacy of our own homes, in the wealth of experience the roundtable collectively represents.

Building Textual Interpretation was a course set up as an introduction to graduate study at Marymount University, a small school just outside of Washington DC. Given the diversity of our student body—age ranges, language proficiency, educational and disciplinary background–we discovered that incoming students needed a basic intro to the concepts, methods, and purposes of textual study in a seminar environment. Part of my goal was to defamiliarize their encounters with the texts we worked, to circumvent the problem that Wayne Booth describes in The Craft of Research, which we used extensivelyof falling back on what you know.

The class wasn’t radically nontraditional in its research and writing—rather, it was about how to think more closely, critically, and holistically about literary text, research, and argumentation, especially when you may not be well versed in the subject matter from previous experience. There are very real ways in which becoming more cognizant of and expert with a variety of digital research tools–even including library catalogues, which we too often use as if they were transparent-–can help students interact with texts and concepts in more systematic and self-aware manner. For instance, knowing even the basics of how an index catalogs and represents its data can change how we conduct searches.

I wanted students to be able to come up with original (not necessarily groundbreaking, but new and different) research topics based on accurate readings of primary and secondary source material, put together in logical, well organized and supported essays of varying lengths—nothing too ambitious. Another purpose of the course was to introduce students to a seminar-style learning environment, with which few had had experience—being more familiar with a traditional lecture-based model of learning. I wanted to help students claim their voices in an unfamiliar, vast, and diverse fields—to participate actively in an academic community as scholars and students, rather than just as students. Web 2.0 tools, as many here today know, can be vital sites for creating an energizing context of inquiry; however, there are very real dangers. Some were related to using the technology itself, but more were related to the need for a foundational conceptual sense of the interconnectedness of writing, analysis, and research.

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, using Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—I introduced students to Many Eyes visualizations to help them see the text as a system, and they were to write a 6-8 page essay without secondary sources. The goal here was to encourage sophisticated and interesting textual analysis. This was a familiar approach for students with literature backgrounds, but not necessarily for those with humanities backgrounds.

The second half of class was devoted to the skills of creative research, and we used The Rape of the Lock as our primary text. The course 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 some material context of the early 18th century help me understand some aspect of Pope’s poem more clearly?” It was for this second project that I used zotero and omeka. One student noted that this “focus on an object…within a contextual framework was [an unfamiliar] approach to textual criticism that demanded learning new methods of research” (McCall)–students went to the Library of Congress to use their massive print and digital collections.


For this project, students were to build an archive of primary and secondary sources; I encouraged students to post key pieces from their archives to our class Omeka site at the end of the term, and to contribute to the class zotero library throughout their research process. Both these sites were not only models for the kinds of resources that could create a coherent and responsible context for argumentation, but also the places students could go to get ideas, see what their peers were working on, and begin an ongoing public conversation—which also mimics a seminar environment, by transforming the classroom into a space of exchange rather than a site of lecture.




I pre-populated our zotero archive with subcollections of records and notes that sought to explain some starting places—how to use the web, how to use LOC subject headings, how to read catalog records to learn the vocabularies used in literary study, how to keep track of notes. There were other subcollections relevant to Pope, further divided into background resources, resources on the study of material culture, and so on. I imagined the zotero library as a model for a methodological approach to the assignment students would ultimately complete. In a way, it also modeled the kind of physical bricolage that students at Marymount have to do if they want to get good resources—use consortium delivery, physically visit better-stocked and wealthier area libraries, collect and systematically archive copies so originals can be returned.


Actually using the group zotero library proved more difficult than you might imagine, because few students were familiar with the concept of a plugin and most had very sketchy note-taking or record-keeping habits. Also, there was the problem of using zotero 2.0 on public university computers, as several students did not have laptops. Students who were careful observers and clear about the purpose of the tool were able to use it successfully, adding relevant records related to their topic and filling in all of the record information so as to allow the tool to generate effective bibliographies and keep track of notes. But, there were many additions that missed the mark, either by not being completed or by being only tangentially relevant; there were a lot of “untitled” additions.



Students did share their resources with each other through zotero, but not as fully as I had hoped—they found it more effective to simply give each other copies of the articles they’d found. None of the students used zotero to generate their bibliographies; however, a lot of these difficulties could have been avoided by using individual libraries instead of a group library, as some of the features in zotero 2.0 were clunky. If I use zotero again, I would need to spend more time demonstrating effective ways to use it—and I would definitely have students use the individual install, rather than the group. As one student commented, zotero seemed like an “interesting diversion,” and while it was useful in that it allowed him to “immediately archive links to important documents” from ECCO and Burney, the group library didn’t give him the ability to save full texts, only links—he stopped using zotero because he “feared not being able to retrieve important materials.” (McCall)




I built the Omeka site as a repository for useful materials, much like the archives they were to be creating for our second project. I wanted students to see the kinds of resources I would use, have easy access to them, and share the interesting resources they’d found. Few students were able to upload resources they’d found in fulltext primary source archives because of file size limitations, but others had difficulty downloading from ECCO and Burney in general—some of this was because the LOC computers don’t all have the same access levels, which was annoying. Selecting relevant resources and fully documenting them were additional problems that became visible with this component of the course, which is perhaps the most useful insight I gained from the experiment. For instance, students learned they couldn’t find “conduct manuals” by searching in ECCO for “conduct manuals.” What did work well, however, was the requirement that students upload their end-of-term reflections about how their research process had evolved.



One student commented in her final reflections on the differences between her undergraduate concept of research and what she came out of the class with in a particularly insightful way, referring to a process rather than the process of research: as an undergrad, “research was a haphazard search conducted to find mildly relevant sources that supported a preconceived notion of my argument. I read, created an opinion, and looked for someone who published similar thoughts.” The goal is to create a “meaningful collection of sources,” but the ability to distinguish the meaningful from the less so is a difficult skill to learn. Sometimes this means, as another student noted, “stumbling in the dark”–while it can be confusing and disorienting at first, it “yielded some interesting nuggets…that lead to the development of her thesis” (Kay); this student had started with lapdogs, but ended up with something new—a piece on the deliberate absence in the poem of good English hunting dogs, like the Great Dane Pope himself loved.

I incorporated these tools to get at some of the root causes of our difficulties—a dearth of the sense of adventure and initiative that underpins sustained inquiry, itself perhaps a result of uncertainty and lack of confidence. What questions should I be asking, and how do I situate myself within a larger argument, when I don’t really know what the larger argument is? I approached the course as a lesson in the relation of parts to wholes. All my assignments were based on the idea that these parts—whether of a literary text; a wider cultural, material, or historical context; of the discipline of literary study; or of our own writing—are networked to other parts to form wholes. The kinds of skills needed to interact successfully and creatively with the varied toosl and technologies available to students, from library catalogs and primary source databases to blogs and web-based research tools, enhances the ability to put an idea together from its parts.

Ultimately, the diversity of skill sets proved the biggest hurdle to this experiment; it brought home to me the real need for a framework in which to conceptualize the system of writing, analysis, research, and synthesis. I hoped to address this problem in part by adopting a less-is-more model for approaching textual interpretation, along the lines—though in a much less expansive way—of what Franco Moretti describes in “Conjectures on World Literature,” and in Maps Graphs Trees: “fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection” (1). Unfortunately, I think my less-is-more approach became itself a little unwieldy—in the future, I would have students use only one of these tools, but do so throughout the term, or use the individual zotero tools in conjunction with an omeka archive that students only participated in creating in a very circumscribed manner—like contributing to a growing collection of research reflections.

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 [her] re-entry into school after almost twenty-five years, when [she] actually typed papers on a typewriter,” purchased her first laptop computer during the process of our class. In fact, the lack of easy access to portable computers was a big problem, and one that I’d not really considered—because students’ ages were so varied, and because they were used to either taking notes with pencil and paper or being given lecture notes as powerpoint slides—they were very loath to bring computers into the classroom, and had to be pushed into it. Even here, not all students had laptops. Added to this lack of access, many students had never really used computers for anything more than accessing email (from a single entry point like AOL or Yahoo!) or browsing the web. Few used Microsoft Word for notetaking, for keeping track of versions, or for commenting on peers’ work, though learning how to do this was something students found helpful.

Underlying this tentative approach to the web, though, is a more fundamental problem—there isn’t a clear (or generally clear) sense of what else it is or can be, and a general unwillingness to test things out. For instance, the perceived difference between library catalogs and google meant that the knowledge of how to perform sophisticated searches in one didn’t translate into the other. They were two separate kinds of things, one of which was unfamiliar.

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 an essay that more approaches the literature review. 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. I was seeking to provide students with a model of research that emphasized growing their ability to generate both interesting ideas from their own encounters with the texts we were working with, and new insights into the texts by examining other primary sources from a relevant cultural or material context.

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, 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. Third, vast disparities in skill sets and knowledge repertoires of my students demanded a different approach. Fourth–and definitely related to the need for a foundational conceptual sense of the interconnectedness of writing, analysis, and research–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.

Challenges: giving tools that allow students to figure out the shape of a discourse or a discipline or a subject of research—for instance, knowing what a bibliography is and how a catalog works can allow you to find other bibliographies on any topic. Also giving them tools that help them to evaluate any instance in a discourse, discipline, or subject of research;

Successes: students did come away with a clearer sense of how to mine catalogs and indices for starting points, for an overview of the shape of the conversation, and of the relationships between different kinds of research tools. They became more comfortable with a mode of research that stresses achieving originality not by completely mastering a new conversation, but by being able to see what’s not been included—sure, many people talk about material culture and Rape of the Lock, and a lot of folks have researched the cultural history of tobacco, snuff, and so on; however, has anyone looked at these specific examples in the context of Pope’s poem? To help us get a handle on the poem?

Difficulties: students had a surprisingly difficult time understanding contemporaneity and periodization—I got a lot of students, for instance, who wanted to use examples from the 19th century or the Victorian period in their analysis of Pope. Some, with newfound freedom, selected very inappropriate topics and could not be swayed from them—these are related points. However, some students were able to do quite wonderful work—one student began her research interested in the lapdog as a cultural sign, but was able to refine the topic having seen what criticism was available and what kinds of primary sources other scholars were using, in addition to browsing ECCO, into a piece on the absence of good English hunting dogs, like the Great Dane Pope himself loved.

Miscellaneous Points:

In some cases, students continued to resist their own responsibility for the research process.

One of the first assignments asked students to create an account and introduce themselves to the class Every student did this, and they found the blog much more user-friendly than Bb, but my students did not use the site as much more than a static webpage that could be easily updated. All the assignments were linked from the schedule, each day in which contained a variety of specific tasks that required students to visit various resources I’d provided, interact with them in some way, or produce some kind of written response, in addition to the readings we were doing. You can view this site online, and the URL is visible in these slides.

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