Collaborative Modernization Assignment

Description: This assignment provides an opportunity to explore the process of editing and modernizing a primary source text for a specific audience. It could be conducted as an in-class exercise over several class sessions, or as an out-of-class assignment (perhaps with the final discussion in class, or presented as an in-class report from each group).

Pedagogical goals:

  • Learn to edit and modernize a primary source text
  • Work collaboratively to edit a text
  • Work collaboratively to decide on an editorial rationale
  • Learn about the ways in which primary texts are presented and contextualized for a modern readership
  • Learn about the relevance of audience and readership to textual presentation
  • Gain critical awareness of modernization processes as part of scholarly textual study
  • Gain critical awareness of the historicity of texts

In preparation, divide the class into small groups, and ask each group of students to choose a short text (or a few sections of a longer text) to work on. (Some suggestions are given below.) As an optional advance preparation, you could also provide three or four examples of different editions of the same text (perhaps a short poem), to illustrate different editorial approaches and prompt discussion of how they affect our reading of the text.

After students have read the text carefully, ask each group to discuss the following questions in preparation for the editorial process:

  1. What aspects of the text were most difficult to understand (spelling, sentence structure, archaic words, topic, other challenges)?
  2. What would be the most important things to modernize for a novice reader?
  3. Identify the specific details you plan to alter in the editing process, and describe why you chose to focus on these. For instance, if your group decided to modernize spelling but not sentence structure, explain the rationale for your decision.

Next, have each group copy and paste the text they’re working with from the WWO site into a wiki, word processor, or other software environment for writing and editing. This will serve as the basis for the new, edited version of the text. Working as a group (or dividing the text into sections so that each student can work independently on a separate section), the students should go through the text and make emendations following the editorial rationale developed by the group in the earlier discussion.

When the editorial process is complete, each group should exchange materials with another group (so that each group is now looking at an unfamiliar text). Each group should compare the edited version with the original, and then in discussion consider the following questions:

  • How much difference did the changes make to the comprehensibility of the text?
  • What kinds of changes were most helpful? Which ones were least helpful?
  • What is the overall effect of the editing on the text? How does it alter your impression of the author’s voice?
  • What information was lost during the editing process? Can you think of research questions for which that information would be useful, and if so how? (For instance, what if a scholar wanted to study changes in spelling practices as evidence of women’s literacy?)
  • If you were publishing your modernized version of the text (electronically or in print), how would you present it to the reader? (For instance, would you want the reader to know what had been changed? How might you signal this information? What kind of interface would be most useful and why?)

Suggested Texts

The following short texts from the earliest period in the WWO collection are easily divided into manageable segments and also pose interesting challenges for an editing exercise: