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Next time I will … assign the University of Iowa’s videos

Today is our first visit to the Special Collections library to view some of our medieval materials. I haven’t even left home yet and I already know how I wish I’d designed the day — and what I’ll do differently next time.

It’s early in the semester, so on some levels this is just an “oooh, shiny!” visit. But in this visit I do want to get my students thinking about how to pull information from a manuscript, even before trying to read the text on the page. In the second half of the class, we’ll work as a group to do just that with a grand, folio-sized gradual that is the showpiece of our small UGA medieval collection. This discussion I run yearly, at least, and it’s an invigorating, empowering experience for the students (more on the gradual in another post).

It’s the first half of the class that I’ve mis-prepared. When we arrive at our classroom, students will go to stations at which are laid out single leaves from our collection — big and small, pretty and dirty, as wide a range as I can line up. In groups of 3-4 to a station, they’ll start simply by describing what they see as minutely as they can. Seeing what’s actually there is a critical skill to refine. I also want them to start posing questions about the fragment and postulating how they might figure out the answers to their questions, even if those questions are ultimately unanswerable.

This process of observing then devising questions is modeled wonderfully in the “If Books Could Talk” series of YouTube videos I discovered this summer, put out by the Special Collections library at the University of Iowa. (There’s more on the series at this library post.) These videos work through issues such as how to derive information from a single manuscript leaf, how to interpret holes or missing leaves in a full manuscript, and how to determine provenance.

The basic observations and questions that the librarians work with in Episode 3, on a single leaf, model what I’m asking of the students today: that leaf is big, it has musical notations, and it has a lovely colored capital. And those observations engender questions that take the librarians in the video down certain research paths, That’s all I’m asking of my students today — observe in order to ask questions, ideally questions that invite certain kinds of investigations to find the answers.

Next time, then, these videos are going on the syllabus, so my students don’t have to go into the day quite so green.