I had a very interesting idea – one that I would like to see through – for an educational tool for teachers and students of literature, possibly even extending beyond the normal literary canon to historical or sociological works. Hopefully someone will give me some feedback on how useful this sounds.

What I would propose is an online compendium of annotated literary E-texts of works (primarily in the canon but certainly not limited to it) that are now in the public domain. The main purpose for this site would be as a supplemental resource for teachers or interested students.

As far as I can tell, nothing like what I am suggesting has been done (or at least not in the way I would like to do it). There are plenty of E-texts out there of works in the public domain, but that isn’t the main function I’m concerned with. What I want is a user-submitted/-edited engine which educators can use to bring together ideas about texts and read what others have to say about them.

One site which does this with some of the elements I’m looking for is the American Transcendentalism Web. What I don’t want from this site are footnotes – footnotes are for text. For hypertext, there are a number of more elegant solutions, mostly involving Javascript. For instance, look at an example of an annotated E-text of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, which provides little “note” links which open up Javascript windows with small notes. (Ideally, I would like larger notes for more in-depth comments.) In essence, my proposal would incorporate this sort of scripting to provide links that do not take the user away from the text but instead bring the comments to the margins of it. I think this would provide a more user-friendly environment for these texts.

But the collaborative element is what excites me most about this idea. Imagine that you are a high school English teacher going through Macbeth in the senior English class you teach. Perhaps you want some ideas on the reading of a text, ideas for discussion, or maybe you want students to explore the text before discussing it in class. Maybe, just maybe, you even want students to have an explicit understanding of what you – and others in the class – have contributed to the discussion in the course.

This is all possible (at least in theory – I have my ideas on how it could work) with hypertext. Some of my ideas:

  1. A relatively open user-submission system. I’d ideally like this to be more complex than something like Wikipedia but without too lengthy a signup process. It might not require validation, but it would definitely include other spam-deflecting mechanisms (like image verification). To prevent abuse, IP logging would be utilized, as well as some limited moderation (all retrospective, not with prior restraint).
  2. A tagging system for comments. Users should be able to place a tag in a specific place – both at the end of and within a line of text – which is used as the anchor for the comment. The possibility of tagging even specific words or phrases doesn’t seem entirely out of the question (although I think it would be more difficult to implement).
  3. Categorization for comments. What I essentially mean by this is the ability to tag a comment for a specific level of sophistication. I would expect something like this to be used primarily by high school teachers and students, but I could conceivably see it being used at higher and lower levels. What I would suggest, then, is a hierarchy like such: Junior High, High School, College Prep/Beginning College, Advanced College/Graduate Studies. The lower categories would focus more on issues of plot, setting, summary, and other lower-level analysis; the higher categories would in turn deal with more theoretical issues, including higher literary criticism and references to other major works (which hopefully could be linked as well, if those works are also in the public domain and available as an E-text).
  4. User-created layers. The other beneficial element to something like this with a user login is that it could be a way of – hear me out here – personalizing the text. This is most ideal for a teacher: he or she could annotate the text on his or her own but could also amend or add annotations based on classroom discussion. The end result: an annotated version of the text by that teacher that could then be utilized by the classroom. Ultimately, my goal for this is to make a user-created layer that could be used alone rather than with the multitude of other layers created by other users. That way, you could have three ways of viewing any text: sans annotations (the text alone), the text with your annotations, or the text with any user-submitted annotations.

There are plenty of other ideas I have about this, especially about implementation (do I use a database? what scripting language? do I use AJAX?), but this is the framework. The idea excites me, although I presently have no way of seeing it through. It would be a phenomenal resource (if implemented correctly and utilized thoroughly) for anyone interested in literature, although I stress that its existence could provide a way for teachers to provide a resource for their students that gives them some help without sacrificing the reading of the text itself. Cheats like SparkNotes and CliffNotes take away some of the impact of the actual reading, but this tool would give students another layer of information on top of the text to supplement the reading, not to replace it.

Suffice it to say, this is a project I’d like to undertake but simply don’t have the resources for. If anyone out there has server space with some programming language installed (PHP is ideal for me) and hopefully some expertise with databases, scripting languages, and programming in general (as well as a desire to see something like this come together), E-mail me – we can talk.

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