Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Life of an Object (Digital Curation Project)

by J J Cohen

I have the pleasure this semester of teaching a survey of medieval literature filled to the brim with second semester seniors. They are a savvy bunch: toss out any facile notion and they will deconstruct it so fast it's like watching fireworks explode. With this late-in-the-major sophistication, though, also arrives a certain boredom with the writing process: they don't want to rethink what the research paper can do, because they've mastered the form and are perfectly comfortable piloting it on cruise control. And, to be honest, I'm a bit tired of the form as well, at least when administered yet again, so late in the educational process. Given that for most of my students the next step is entry into a career, I'm not certain they need to compose an exploration of the theme of lycanthropy in Marie de France's Bisclavret that draws on three critics' work to inform the frame.

Knowing I'd be faced mainly with seniors, and determined as well to integrate more multimodal writing into my undergraduate classes (I've had good luck at the graduate level already), I decided to offer a digital humanities final project rather than a traditional 12-15 page research paper. Students are just launching into their projects now. Last week they read Julian Yates' terrific essay on agential drift and the power of oranges, completing with tremendously good results an in-class writing assignment that applied his methodology to a medieval object of their choice. Today we had a workshop that outlined how the digital curation of their object will proceed. They seem excited about this endeavor, and that counts for something. They certainly get why such an endeavor is good for them: oral and digital presentations will be an important part of their life post-college, and this is good practice. But many seem passionately attached already to the objet they will follow, and that is just great: I don't feel like I am forcing them to complete yet another box ticking.

I offer my handouts below, and welcome your comments. If this works well I hope to incorporate a version of the digital curation into future classes. The list of electronic resources is rather sparse, but that is intentional: I want them to be focused rather than overwhelmed. Good students will find supplemental materials easily (and of course I am here to assist them).

The Life of an Object
(Digital Curation Project)

Select a work studied in this course upon which you would like to reflect more deeply. Choose an object within that text that speaks to you, some thing that acts in the story in a way that renders it more than a mere prop for human dramas (think of Julian Yates on the power of oranges to script unexpected narratives). The type of object to study is completely up to you: precious or practical, magical or mundane, a relic or a rock. “Object” here will be loosely defined, and can encompass anything from a bed to a storm, color, or animal. Possibilities include: ships, mounds, oceans or swords in Beowulf; jewelry, horses or camels in the Song of Roland; trees, whales or the color red in Grettir’s saga; birds, beds, or castles in a lay of Marie de France. You get the idea.

Study your object in detail, tracking what in the text it accomplishes, enables, opens up, and resists. I am using these active verbs to stress that you do not want to conduct a merely thematic analysis: the project is not just about what the object might symbolize, because that would keep the emphasis wholly on the humans. Consider what the object does. Understanding the object within its textual environment is the most important part of this project. Your ability to close read (and close look) is essential. Do not allegorize your textual object out of its materiality but demonstrate a working knowledge of what medieval objects were like, as weighty things.

Using the list of electronic resources provided, as well as others you find in your research, compose a digital biography of your object in medieval culture that includes its material composition (what is it made from?), its creation (what person or ecological forces is thought to make it?), and its uses (household object? Fashion accessory? Battle gear?). For a horn, for example, you would want to note that these objects are often intricately carved with stories, are fashioned of elephant tusk imported from India or walrus from Scandinavia, can be used for feasting or for alarms … and you would want to concentrate especially on objects from the same time period and geography as your text. Provenance matters: a walrus drinking horn from the time of Beowulf might not have all that much to say to the Song of Roland.

Your object biography will take the form of a digital exhibit that presents your findings and poses an argument about how your object works in its text. The electronic form your project takes is totally up to you: PowerPoint, blog, static web page, video, animation, Omeka, Twitter or Facebook (setting up an account for your object and using that platform to convey all necessary information), or a multimedia combination. A successful project will vividly trace the life of its object in ways that highlight interpretive differences while offering your own argument based in your specific text. Through your digital curation you will make clear what kind of heft your object carries in the world and brings to its narrative. You will deliver an engrossing FIVE MINUTE presentation in class based upon your object, after which you will email me your project (or a link to it). Your email should also include your complete bibliography for the project: all sources, printed and electronic, that assisted you in framing your project.

April 3            Digital Curation Project Workshop.
April 8            Digital Curation Project work and consultation day
                        I will be in my office from 8:30-11 and happy to meet with you.
April 10          Digital Curation Project work day
                        (no class)
April 15          Digital Curation Project presentations I
April 17          Digital Curation Project presentations II

A list of presenters for each day will be distributed at least one week ahead of time. You should plan to arrive in class 15 minutes early on the day or your presentation to set up the computer and to ensure everything works.

The project is worth a total of twenty points towards your final grade: 
  • 5 points for an engaging presentation that stays within the time limit of five minutes
  • 5 points for depth of research as demonstrated by bibliography and incorporation of relevant images, primary and secondary sources, and other relevant information into digital exhibit
  • 10 points for depth of engagement with primary text, and demonstration of how your digital object curation opens up a new way of understanding that work

Useful Links for Object Research

British Museum
· Online collection:
For Beowulf related images, check out the Sutton Hoo subheading
Viking exhibit:

British Library
· Especially helpful is the medieval manuscript collection, which holds many of the texts we examined in this course and may also be searched for images of specific objects. Difficult to use at times but absolutely essential:

Bibliotheque Nationale de France
· Especially useful is the manuscripts database:
· Special exhibit on the ocean, with a medieval section:

Victoria and Albert Museum
· Good entry to medieval holdings:

Metropolitan Museum of Art Timelines of Art History

The Aberdeen Bestiary
· Any project on animals or stones should start here:

Dictionaries of medieval languages are VERY useful for figuring out the various meanings of an object and the words associated with it (as well as for gathering references to other texts in which the object appears)
· Middle English Dictionary:
· Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Old English):
· A more thorough Old English dictionary (Bosworth-Toller):
· Anglo-Norman Dictionary:
· Perseus Dictionary of classical Latin:

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