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Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 27, 2011 [Scholarly Review 8]: Cross Purposes

[As a part of my own thoughts toward next steps and extended versions of this blog, but also as a way to highlight some of the amazing models for digital scholarship that are already out there, I’m going to focus this week on impressive scholarly sites. That would be in addition to the two sites of Stephen Railton’s and the site of Kevin Levin’s that I’ve already featured in this space. This is the third in that series.]

I know it’s going to make me seem like a total homer for University of Virginia sites, but there’s no way around it: I can’t spend a week focusing on exemplary digital AmericanStudies scholarship and not include the UVa AmericanStudies program’s longtime, flagship site, “Xroads” (pronounced, as I read it anyway, “Crossroads”). “Xroads,” which began in the same mid-1990s foundational moment as my prior two focal sites (1994 in this case) and continued to evolve and grow for at least the next decade, has always been first and foremost designed as a resource for undergraduate students in and around AmericanStudies; and while there would be lots of reasons to include it in this week’s conversations, I think it’s particularly great at illustrating a couple of key ways in which digital AmericanStudies scholarship can make both undergraduate work and teaching to undergraduates simpler, stronger, and more sourced and supported.
For one thing, there are the hypertexts. “Xroads” has long been surpassed in the sheer quantity and range of available hypertexts by an archive like Project Gutenberg, which sometimes seems as if it includes a hypertext version of every text published before 1900; so if you’re looking to find a particular author or work, there are definitely better options. But for an AmericanStudier, there’s just something really compelling about a list of hypertexts that features, in sequence: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land, Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, T.G. Steward’s A Charleston Love Story (Steward is a pretty amazing dude, about whom more in a subsequent post; the link to that hypertext is apparently broken, but still, part of the sequence), and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Each of those has a good deal to offer AmericanStudies students on its own terms, but I think there’d be something to be said for asking students to find ways to link any three of them together—and the very interdisciplinary, AmericanStudies-centered hypertext list at “Xroads” is really just a whole set of such assignments and conversations waiting to happen.

And so, for another thing, is everything else on the site. Having team-taught (with a few different historian colleagues) a few semesters of an Introduction to American Studies course (on the 1980s) at Fitchburg State, I can say with no hesitation that the best AmericanStudies days in a class are the ones where a bunch of different texts and media and methodologies bump up against each other and influence each other and produce unexpected ideas and conversations as a result—the day when a Cosby episode and two rap songs come into contact with a Toni Morrison short story and a Spike Lee clip and some statistics about the cocaine epidemic and urban poverty; the conversation that moves from Betty Friedan and historical details about birth control to Cyndi Lauper and Working Girl, with stops at second wave feminism and Audre Lorde along the way. The “Xroads” section on the 1930s is a very direct parallel to those kinds of interdisciplinary, multimedia, layered and contextual and interconnected AmericanStudies approaches to a historical and cultural moment, and is one of the best such concise, online intros to AmericanStudies I’ve ever found. And on a more diffuse but just as valuable level, the whole of the site exemplifies such a scholarly approach: you can get, with a click or two in each case, from a virtual tour of the national Capitol building to a hyperlink-filled essay on Southern identities and myths, realities and images; from galleries about the works of Alexander Wilson, American ornithologist to a feature on Henry Luce’s 1937 newsreel The March of Time.
There’s plenty more to discover on the site, including, under the “Yellow Pages” headings, very thorough (at least as of the late 2000s) lists of resources and links within different scholarly categories—and all of it geared quite directly toward bringing out the best in our student AmericanStudiers. Not a bad central purpose, I’d say. More tomorrow,

PS. Three links to start with:

1)      “Xroads”:

2)      The Hypertexts section:

3)      OPEN: Still repeating, with one more day to go: any nominations for sites I should include and/or that we should all know about?

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