Using NINES Collex in the Classroom

NINES[This is a guest post by Amy Earhart who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Texas A&M University. Amy is on the Executive and Americanist boards of NINES. She has published on digital humanities, American and African-American literature and is currently writing a monograph entitled "Traces of the Old, Uses of the New: The Emergence of the Digital Humanities."]

My entry into digital scholarship occurred, as it does for many scholars, through the classroom. In 2005 I was working as a Coordinator of Instructional Technology and, as such, was interested in testing innovative uses of technology in the classroom. I was scheduled to teach a Survey of American Literature course and imagined that it might be helpful to develop a website of materials for my students. I proposed the project for the NINES summer workshop and, through my interactions with NINES, have expanded the project into the 19th-Century Concord Digital Archive. The project has morphed from a simple website for teaching purposes to an under construction archive that I imagine to be of use to scholars, students and the general public. And, the blurred lines of teaching and research that launched my entry into digital humanities scholarship has remained with me, particularly in relation to NINES.

NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship) is, according to their website, “a scholarly organization…driven by three primary goals:

  • to serve as a peer-reviewing body for digital work in the long 19th-century (1770-1920), British and American;
  • to support scholars’ priorities and best practices in the creation of digital research materials;
  • to develop software tools for new and traditional forms of research and critical analysis.”

As these goals suggest, the work of NINES is primarily concerned with scholarly research. Yet, as any good teacher knows, sometimes the best teaching tools are the same tools that we use in our scholarly life. Among the tools that NINES has developed is Collex. Collex allows scholars to search and collect materials from across a broad number of peer reviewed federated digital sites.

During our 2008 NINES executive board meeting, Jerome McGann challenged each of the NINES board members to think about how he or she might help NINES achieve its goal of supporting digital scholarship. John Bryant suggested that some of us might use NINES in the classroom to demonstrate the power of the tools for both research and teaching. I thought Bryant’s suggestion was good, and, after some thought, decided to see if teaching with Collex would aid student research. Because NINES is period specific, I have developed and tested the project in an American Literature survey course that covers the beginnings of American literature through 1865. Using several guided computer classroom teaching days, I use Collex to teach students how to navigate databases and to evaluate sources for use in scholarly research.

Here is a brief summary of the assignment I have developed:

Using NINES Collex you will build a research collection. In your exhibit, you will collect six items that you could use in a research paper on a topic related to our class readings and discussions. If you cannot locate 6 items in Collex, you may use up to 3 items from outside the NINES system. Be sure that they are scholarly sources. Once you have collected items you will need to organize them in the exhibit builder. Write an introduction to the exhibit, an analysis of each item, and a conclusion. We will dedicate several computer classroom meetings to the project.

I’m not as concerned with product as process in this project. I want students to struggle with learning how to use a particular database, Collex. I also want students to think carefully about the scholarly value of the resources that they find rather than relying on a hard and fast rule like wikipedia is bad and our library database is good. Classroom workshop time is essential to the completion of the project. I teach a segment of the project at a time and use student problems as teaching moments when they arise. Students report that the project is useful to future research that they are asked to conduct in other classes, which is, to me, the reason to assign and teach such a project.

There are many things that Collex helps me to teach, but I want to highlight how it has helped me to address two thorny areas of student research: key word searching and location of sources.

Key Word Searching

How many times has a student told you “I can’t find anything on my topic”? When I ask the student to replicate the way in which he or she looked for sources the biggest problem that I see is the student’s inability to construct a successful key word search. During the semester-long Collex project, students learn to shape and modify key word searches, aided in part by the Collex tool.

The majority of my students begin to work with Collex (and lots of other databases) by typing in the author they are interested in researching. (See Figure 1) Students have difficulty framing a search query because they either don’t know what, exactly, they want to research or haven’t had enough experience creating the search terms necessary to produce good results. Here is where Collex comes in handy. If the student enters a general term, such as Benjamin Franklin, the results appear, but include suggested ways for students to begin to narrow their results. Notice that the right hand menu in Collex provides ways to narrow searches as well as an indication of the number of sources related to that particular term.

Key word searching

Figure 1: Key word searching. [larger version]

If the student decides to add another term to clarify the search, say women, then Collex provides suggestions to guide the search. When the student starts to type in the term, Collex gives several suggestions with the numbers of results that the term will provide (See Figure 2). The guided search is very useful to students as they begin to recognize that slight variations of searches produce very different results. Further, the suggested words often help them to modify searches to provide better results.

Modifying the key word search

Figure 2: Modifying the key word search. [larger version]

The limitations built into Collex, displayed to the right of the results, are also useful to help students shape their searches. (See Figure 3)

Limit Results

Figure 3: Limit Results [larger version]

While scholars might look at the resource and genre terms and understand how to narrow their search by selecting, say, life writing or criticism, many of these terms tend to confuse students. Not only are they literary specialist terms, but they are terms that help to define the critical apparatus that we use in our field, apparatus that students are excluded from if we do not take the time to teach critical vocabulary. Here’s where I teach the confusion!

We stop our work and discuss, using a student’s Collex project as an example, how the terms are defined and how they are of use in locating sources. What, exactly, is a paratext? life writing? What’s the difference between a peer reviewed item and something else? What I like about these terms is that the students get a glimpse into the critical mechanisms that drive what they research and read while also being exposed to a critical vocabulary. If they don’t know what peer review is, how are they to evaluate what is a scholarly source and what isn’t? Should it surprise us that students think Joe Smith’s fan webpage is appropriate for a research project if they have no understanding of the value of peer review in academia? We tackle these issues as we work through the Collex system and the discussion that arises from the ensuing confusion is worth its teaching weight in gold.

Location of Sources

The other difficulty that many instructors experience when asking undergraduates to complete research is the students’ inability to differentiate between scholarly and non-scholarly sources. Some instructors adopt rules to guide students–no wikipedia, no web sources, etc. The problem with hard and fast rules, however, is that you have not taught students how to recognize quality scholarly materials and, when the next electronic resource becomes available, as it will, the students will not have the ability to interpret and judge the resource (As an aside to this discussion, I like to use Alan Liu’s excellent Student Wikipeda Use Policy when discussing the use of wikipedia). I think it is imperative to teach students to understand who produces the materials that they are using for their research and how that material has been evaluated.

Sources included in NINES

Figure 4: Sources included in NINES

[larger version]

Once students have explored Collex key word searching, I spend some time discussing the types of resources found in NINES. NINES is a peer reviewed, federated site. As such, it includes scholarly projects and exhibits that students, and scholars, can trust. NINES pulls together sources from library catalogs, such as the Bancroft, databases, including JSTOR and Project Muse, and Collections, such as Wright American Fiction. Using the drop down menus found beside the search interface (See Figure 4), we scan through the materials and discuss the differences between, say, a peer reviewed project and JSTOR.

Once students understand the types of resources available in Collex, I ask them to collect texts related to their research topic. As they begin to collect materials they are faced with the issue of access to databases.

There tend to be two reasons that students are unable to access sources from within NINES:

1. An item is not digitized. For example, when they click the link to display “The poems of Phillis Wheatley, as they were originally published in London, 1773,” housed in the Bancroft Library, they find a library record with the notation “LIB USE ONLY.” Scholars understand that the Bancroft Library houses special collections, but our students only understand that they are excluded from library materials. We discuss why such materials may not be digitized and what the use of such materials is to scholars.

2. At other times students discover that our library doesn’t have access to a particular database. When I explain that our library has not purchased the particular text that a student is trying to locate, they look surprised that there is a fee structure for the electronic materials they are accessing. Or, perhaps most telling, students are not able to access a text when they are outside of the TAMU firewall. I explain that the University purchases the materials for students and faculty, but not the general public. Students, and perhaps many faculty, don’t understand the fee model that is in place for access to most scholarly databases. While access to materials is better at Texas A&M than many schools, students are always shocked when they find a source in Collex that is not accessible electronically. Perhaps this is because they expect a classroom digital project to be, well, digital. Or, perhaps, they don’t want to use the print volumes in the library, preferring the more easily accessible electronic source. Ultimately, however, this project teaches students that access to information is not universal but rather based on hidden differences. Students seem very intrigued by this point. Why are certain databases purchased by our university and others not? Why does Texas A&M have access to certain materials while another university within the state, or even system, does not?

Both examples help students understand that the materials located through online sources are not free. Costs are associated with information, whether that information is available through a pay structure, in the case of a for profit company like Gale-Cengage, or whether that information is open source, as is the case with, say, the Walt Whitman Archive, which has been built using monies collected through support entities like NEH or IMLS.

Confusing? I actually hope that this project produces productive confusion. One of the most important things for students to learn is that a hyperlinked approach to research is not sufficient. I want them to understand that research must occur in multiple databases, and that you must try various paths to find the information that is necessary for your research. Often you must look for various versions of a text and make a critical judgement as to the scholarly value of the text that you locate. As my colleague Maura Ives recently stated at a panel discussion, “When you drive somewhere and you take a wrong turn, do you just stop?!” she said with exasperation. No; you back up, and you ask someone for help. “Who teaches them this stuff?” she asked. “If not us, then who?”

Return to Top