I’ve written before about the final project I assigned to my students for this term’s ENGL1102: Shakespeare’s English Histories course. The assignment was an ambitious experiment to see how students would collaborate on a digital edition of the Queen’s Men play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. I haven’t yet assessed the students’ final artifacts, and before I see the results I thought I would take a moment to practice a form of self-evaluation and write some observations about what I’ve seen work and what I would do differently if I were to include a similar project in a future course.
The assignment objective was to teach students about the editorial process and test my hypothesis that scaffolded assignments with final group components strengthen the learning experience. Everything we’ve done this term has, in one way or another, built toward this assignment. Assignment components included rough and revised transcriptions of the 1598 facsimile edition with word definitions and glosses, contextual research projects pertaining to the medieval subject matter, its importance to Elizabethan culture and politics, and the relationship of the play to Shakespeare’s subsequent Henriad.
From verbal and written student reactions the transcription exercise was – for the most part – fun and puzzle-like. Students did not always understand my instructions: especially that they were supposed to collaborate in groups on ten-page sequences from the play text. This resulted in uneven and unpolished group submissions that should have been more cohesive. Several students chose not to consult with their group mates or with me, and therefore many words were misinterpreted, left unglossed, and/or defined several times with different results within the same text block. Using WordPress as a publication medium allowed for easy integration of footnotes and font/layout negotiation (although we realized too late that we could further customize dialogue and character placement. WordPress was much more user friendly than Mediawiki. [nbnote]I used Mediawiki as the CMS for last year’s Tarlton’s Jests collaborative student edition. The only real benefit to the Mediawiki approach was the more easily negotiable version history for collaborative writing.[/nbnote] Another time I would extend the transcription portion of the assignment by a week and use that second week for group revision, to ensure that each segment was seamless in approach, mechanics, and gloss. I would take more time to reemphasize that the submitted transcription would/should be consistent and that glosses pertaining to historical people and places are also required.
The second component of the assignment focused on the contextual aspects and compilation of the edition. My goal was to encourage students to rethink editorial content negotiation: I wanted them to reflect upon the idea that digital writing spaces allow for nonlinear negotiation of material that is not addressable in traditional printed editions. However, my identification of four groups to cover this component was not clear to students, who believed that the group compiling and correcting the transcriptions would have an easier task than those working on the contextual content. As I tried to explain – and as has been borne out – the editorial component is in many ways more difficult in that it is more exacting and requires more fine-grained negotiation of the work of others. Curiously – and unlike my experience with previous classes – this crop of students wanted to veer away from multimodal presentation approaches. Once they settled into their groups, however, students began to embrace the flexibility of medium that was provided to them. I won’t know until I read their final project reports how they really felt about this task. Another time I would spread out the contextual “introductory” content across the semester so that all students are invested in all elements of the edition. I would also redistribute the final editorial work so that new groups review and refine the content yet again. I would dedicate more class time to specific issues of text placement, decisions about scene breaks and stage directions, and where/how ancillary content would be integrated. I would also extend the decision about how discreet pieces of content could be produced. In hindsight I think I placed too much emphasis on housing everything within the WordPress publication environment.
I think, on the whole, that it is important for me as an instructor to model group work practices in this way. I should take more effort to confirm that I am being clear about project instructions – I always think I’m being more clear than students inform me I am. In trying to break the assignment down into manageable pieces I created too many milestones and deliverables. Students struggled with how to set their priorities (especially in conjunction with other class assignments.) This also resulted in too much grading that did not allow for substantial and time-specific feedback for students to proceed with the next component.
Was I right to experiment again with such an ambitious assignment involving students for whom writing and communication, “>not to mention Shakespeare, is sometimes an unwanted distraction from their intended majors? I think so. As I keep telling students, it is important to look more closely at what we read and how we read it. And certainly the extended forms of collaboration provide important lessons for how they will approach work throughout their lives. But I expect that the focus of such an assignment and its value to early modern literary and drama studies would be better served in an upper-level course directed at English and Theatre majors.
Live and learn.