Computer Proficiency in the English Major (Rev. 10/22/01)


        Follow the instructions below (revised 10/22/01--disregard any earlier revision!) to be awarded Computer Proficiency in the Major.  Give completed exercises to Arnie Sanders or Jeff Myers.   Randy Smith would be the best person to ask if you have trouble completing the exercises and cannot contact Arnie or Jeff.  Email tends to work best for that.  You generally will be more precise describing what you don't understand if you type it out, and you can include samples of findings or instructions you find confusing.  If at first you don't get the correct answers to all sections, there is no penalty.  You will get a comment sheet suggesting ways to rethink what you're not getting and you can try again.  No student has taken more than two tries to successfully complete the exercises, though fewer than a dozen got through on the first attempt. 

        DO NOT DELAY COMPLETING THIS REQUIREMENT!  Knowing how to operate the resources relevant to this exercise will be crucial to your ability to pass your 300-level seminars because they contain significant research requirements and demand creation of annotated bibliographies on scholarly articles which only can be found reliably using some form of these search engines or their paper counterparts.  If you delay beyond your second year, you will almost certainly receive lower grades for your papers than you otherwise would, you will remain an amateur researcher trying to compete with colleagues who have taken this step toward becoming professionals, and you risk not graduating on time if your procrastination persists.

        Pay special attention to the process you are asked to follow, and make sure your written responses contain the information requested.  Most successful students reported that it took them about two to three days of intermittent work to complete the assignment.  (Keep in mind this replaced a course in Computer Science where they taught you to program in HTML, and you can do them in small chunks in between more time-critical assignments.)

        The completed exercises can be turned in to Jeff or Arnie at any time, but I strongly recommend that you complete them before you leave campus unless you will live in the vicinity of a high quality research library at a college or university.  Community college and town libraries will not be able to support these exercises. Seniors obviously should not delay even a moment!

--Arnie Sanders, Van Meter G57, x6515 (o) / 410-461-6272 (h),

Computer Proficiency in the English Major Exercises, Rev. 10/22/01

            Perform these tasks, using for a topic any work of literature that interests you.  You might make the best use of this project if you were to start it while working on the final paper for English 211, but it should not be thought of as a prerequisite for that assignment.  Our goal is for you to discover useful information while learning more about how to use computers as a research tool.

            The assignment may be completed at any time, but the sooner you start work, the more quickly you will complete it.  In brief, these are the materials you need to turn in:

1)   A six-book, annotated book list, following MLA style, with a paragraph comparing the features and/or design of two on-line catalogs.

2)   A photocopy of a book review relevant to one of the three books, and a paragraph explaining what cautions it raises regarding how you might use the book in question.

3)  A file containing the following three sets of information (labeled #3, #4, and #5):

--an original and a revised WilsonWeb search strategy, and a paragraph evaluating the reasons for the kinds of "hits" they returned.

      --MLA bibliography search strategies for all post-1990 sources on an author, all post-1990 sources on a single work by the author, all post-1990 periodical articles only on the work, and a paragraph analyzing the differences between the kinds of topics covered by the articles as compared with the topics of the books found in #1 above.

--a list of Internet URLs and brief (short paragraph) explanations of what you found there while seeking solutions to the problems described in #5.

             You are encouraged to seek the assistance of the Readers' Services Librarians (supervised by Randy Smith), who have specialized training in this kind of research and have personal familiarity with this assignment.

 Detailed Rationales and the Tasks

 1)  On-Line Library Catalog Searching--

Rationale: Nobody can succeed in the English major without the ability to use electronic catalog systems.  Searching these systems, and evaluating the results, is a common way to start papers, to explore topics introduced in survey courses, and to connect literature to work in other disciplines.  Many students make the mistake of looking only for books that contain the name of a specific author or work in the title or subject field. This always risks putting students under the control of a very big thesis which is so persuasive that the student winds up merely repeating it rather than being able to manipulate it.  They also have trouble combining the book-length thesis with their own choice of information from the literary work or with another book's thesis to make a genuinely independent thesis of their own.  One strategy is to look for ways to combine sources, often using research from related disciplines (history, psychology and sociology are typical)  to help you find a new way to look at the literary work or its author.   A few minutes of preparation will allow you to search for new ideas that you can make relevant to such an author and/or work.

 Tasks:  Using a computer connected to the campus network, find in OLLI at least three book-length works to construct a preliminary bibliography relevant to  the author of the work you plan to write on for English 211's final paper or for some other English course.  The works may contribute biographical or general historical background, sociological or psychological background, genre studies, or more typical interpretive literary criticism.  The texts you find also may discuss works similar to the one you plan to discuss (same era, genre, or issue, for instance).  At least one of the works must have been published since 1990.  Only if, after reviewing your search strategy with one of the tutors, you still are unable to discover a post-1990 book, you may use the most recent book(s) you can locate.   Prepare a list of the books in MLA "Works Cited" style and, for each, add a one-paragraph note in which you explain specifically what kind of relevant information this book-length source might contribute to a paper on the author or work.   Refer to the information contained in the OLLI subject fields to explain the book's potential relevance. BUT REMEMBER, THE POINT IS NOT TO GET ONLY BOOKS COMPLETELY DEDICATED TO THE AUTHOR AND/OR WORK.  Good papers discover something new by intelligently combining solid reading of the primary literary text with inventive use of related research.

            Then, repeat the same search in the collections of one of the following two online catalogues: the University of Maryland system or Johns Hopkins.  Select three different books, and expand your annotated bibliography. 

            Pay careful attention to the differences between the OLLI system and the system used by the second institution.  In a separate paragraph, compare the two systems' design and describe what seem to you to be their most important strengths and weaknesses.  How would you change OLLI to make it more useful to the student?

            Print out your responses to these instructions or copy them into a Word file, and label them "#1."

 2) Periodical Index Searching and Scholarly Book Reviews--

Rationale:     We often give too much authority to ideas published in book form.  If we stick to books published by major university presses, we may be saved by the diligence of the presses' reader-reviewers and editorial staff.  However, every year major books are published with grievous errors of fact and/or method, and only the student who finds and uses scholarly book reviews is safe from accidentally importing this kind of "bomb" into her/his argument.  Reviewers also occasionally take ill-founded pot shots at books by competitors in their fields, so the student must use reviews carefully, testing the quality of the evidence and reasoning, and when necessary contacting the course instructor for help.  Some reviews even indicate good questions that a student might reshape into paper topics, always giving careful credit to the reviewer for the assistance, of course.

 Tasks: Using Humanities Abstracts Index (available on WilsonWeb online), pick one recent book-length source you found in part #1 above, and find at least one review of it which you can find in JRL or a neighboring library.  Xerox the review(s) and attach this to your paper, labeling it "#2."  Attach to the review(s) a paragraph indicating whether, according to your review(s), you would have any concerns about using the source and for what precise purposes you might find it most useful.  Be careful to explain this in terms that address the work's critical method, primary sources, or other attributes.  Don't make unsupported assertions about the "quantity of information."  In the unlikely event you are unable to find scholarly reviews for any of your three books, examine the presses from which they originated, and the authors' credentials for writing them (institution where they are employed, seniority [Ass't., Assoc., or Full Professor], or other professional affiliations).  Can you explain why these works are so thoroughly neglected by the scholarly community?

        Print out your responses and copy the printed review, or copy the responses and an online review into that  Word file, and label them #2.

 3)   Periodical Index Search for Periodical Articles or Book Chapters—

Rationale:  The most valuable sources for most papers are article- or chapter-length, because those arguments tend to focus closely upon the reading and interpretation of particular texts or pieces of text. Therefore, finding recent articles and book chapters is the most important single skill possessed by the successful English major, and the modern Internet-based bibliographic index is the most efficient way to find them.  Since Humanities Index covers articles and book chapters in essay collections, as well as reviews, it is a good second stage for any research strategy once the book-length sources have been selected and evaluated with the aid of scholarly reviews.

 Tasks:  Locate the “OmniFile Full Text Mega 1982-Present” Index from the WilsonWeb Internet site, and use it to construct a search strategy which will tell you everything in the index which has been published on your author.   Then, determine everything in the index has been published on the specific work you have chosen.  (Don't be surprised if, for some authors/works, you get no "hits.").  Type out your search strategy (e.g., "'Joseph AND Conrad' in a Subject search,"), and annotate it with a paragraph which describes the quality of the search results, including what sorts of "false hits" your search strategy returned.  Then redesign the search to yield only those sources relevant to your authors/works.  If your source returned no sources, why?  

    Print out and attach the search strategies and explanations, or copy them to the Word file, and label them "#3."

 4) CD-ROM-Based MLA Bibliography Searching--

Rationale:  The MLA Bibliography is the standard tool of reference for advanced undergraduate and graduate scholars in English literature.  It covers a wider range of journals and books in our field than any competing index, and it offers search capabilities that are as powerful as any competitor's.  The reasons for using it are the same as #3 above, but the reasons to use it, and not the Humanities Index, tend to increase in number and persuasiveness as students enter 300-level seminars or consider graduate school.  It would be unthinkable for an American English Department to graduate a major without at least some expertise in using this resource.  It is to our majors what the Index Medicus is to Pre-Med.

 Tasks:  Using the same author you chose in #1, find the MLA International Bibliography on the Internet site you can reach from the library web page, and search for what sources of all types have been published on the author since 1990.  Then alter the search strategy to produce a list of only article-length sources on the author published  since 1990.  Finally, alter the search strategy to produce a list of only article-length sources on the work you have chosen and which have been published  since 1990. 

        Print out or copy these search strategies and results into a file as you did in #3, and annotate them with a paragraph in which you discuss the differences between the periodical article topics and the topics of book-length sources you found in #1 above.  Label this #4.

 5)  Internet Resource Searching--

Rationale:     The Internet began as a scholarly tool for communications among university researchers and the U.S. Department of Defense, for whom they worked.  Since Humanities scholars have begun using this infrastructure to exchange information and ideas, it makes sense for English Majors to understand it and its limitations.  Commercial and popular sources have complicated that task, saturating the web with amateur and student work that ranges from interesting but untested to outright malicious or merely erroneous.  The following tasks are intended to expose you to a range of these types of site, and to test your ability to detect the reliability of the information you find there.  Remember that many web resources that appear to be relevant may not be scholarly, and even some scholarly sources may contain old or incomplete information, or non-functional devices (text bases, search engines, etc.).  Also note that tasks asking you to obtain access to "whole text" articles means that finding a site that contains only a bibliography, table of contents, or other list of article names (without their texts) would not meet the requirement.  These tasks are routinely faced by literary scholars writing articles and books, preparing class lectures, or investigating possible topics for all of these kinds of projects.  The skills and content knowledge needed to solve the problems they present also are transferable to similar tasks performed in other professions in which English majors typically get jobs (news, feature and screenwriting; editing; marketing, K-12 teaching; law; politics and not-for-profit advocacy; etc.).  This exercise alone may help you pay off your student loans or buy a house.

 Tasks:  Using Netscape or Microsoft Explorer, search the World-Wide-Web for the best sites to help you solve the following problems:

Copy and paste the URLs you discovered in a file (labeling it #5), and in a few sentences for each one, explain who runs the sites, whether they're scholarly or not, and what strengths and/or limitations you found once you had accessed the sites.  (In all cases, I have verified that there is at least one correct URL for each task, but there may be more than one.)