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The Keywords Collaboratory

The Keywords Collaboratory

When the British Marxist cultural scholar Raymond Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society in 1976, he left a few blank pages at the end of his book. Williams understood that meanings of keywords are contested and change over time in response to social, political, and historical events. He wanted readers to use the blank pages to record their own responses and definitions to the keywords in his book.

The need for those blank pages is no longer necessary, of course. The digital age has made it possible to endlessly revise and extend a keyword’s myriad meanings and share it with the world. One of the best facilitators for ongoing revision and sharing is the MediaWiki.

Enter the Keywords Collaboratory, a wiki for students and researchers at work on keyword essays. The Collaboratory is the brainchild of Bruce Burgett (University of Washington) and Glenn Hendler (Fordham University). It arose following their publication of Keywords for American Cultural Studies (NYU Press, 2007), a book that updates Williams’s original one and ties together keyword meanings from various fields, including American Studies, ethnic studies, and cultural studies. “Identity,” “globalization,” “queer,” and “religion” are among the book’s 64 keyword essays, each written by a different scholar. In the Collaboratory, users contest, debate, discuss, and redefine many of those keywords. Anyone can sign up for their own space in the Collaboratory, and everyone can read the essays produced there.

Instructors who use the Collaboratory in their classes generally (but not always) approach it in one of two ways. The first archives usages of a keyword. Groups of students trace appearances of a keyword (or a cluster of them) in their course readings and research. They use the wiki to discuss the word’s layered meanings, tensions, and contradictions and eventually collaborate on a new keyword essay. A second approach requires students to write an essay that describes how a keyword’s meaning functions and develops in their course readings.

Some benefits of the Collaboratory:

  • The Collaboratory encourages collaboration among groups of students of varying sizes. Generating ideas, research, writing, and analysis are no longer private and solitary intellectual activities.
  • When students write papers for school, generally they’re seen by one person: the teacher. Because the keyword essays published in the Collaboratory can be read and commented upon by anyone (though the editing is restricted to class members), the audience for student work becomes considerably broader. When students know someone besides their teacher will read their work, they think very differently about how and what they write. Quite often, the quality of their work improves.
  • When an instructor has an idea for a course that uses digital tools, very often he or she has to create from scratch the online space for the project. The Collaboratory is all set up and ready to go. There’s no special software to download. Any instructor or researcher interested in developing keyword essays for a class or project can use the Collaboratory. It is easy to use, even for people with no previous experience using a MediaWiki. The companion website for the book and the Collaboratory offers instructors resources for getting things started, including sample syllabi and assignments. Ongoing technical support for Collaboratory users is available, as well.
  • The Collaboratory is a valuable tool for people with digital humanities experience who need a free and easy way to collaborate and publish their work on keywords. For instructors with little or no experience using digital tools in the classroom, it’s a great way to enter the wide world of the digital humanities.

Other things you might like to know about this project:

  • A second edition of the book will come out sometime next year. More keyword essays have been added, including “technology,” “digital,” and “media.” It will be a hybrid print / digital version.
  • The Keywords Collaboratory was initially hosted at the University of Washington and funded by the Simpson Humanities Center there. Now it is hosted and funded by Fordham University in New York.

I’m the Project Coordinator for the Keywords Collaboratory. Scholars and anyone else: I’d love to hear your comments, ideas, and questions about it.



This is fascinating.  Is the collaboratory limited to university students, or are secondary educators involving their students?  Also, do you have to have an instructor who is registered in order to participate as a student?

Recently, in one of my classes we had a vocabulary discussion that focused on Isabel Beck's research.  Of her three Tiers, the vocabulary that teachers most focus on are those in the second, because those are the words that are seen often but have multiple meanings.  I wondered how the meanings of certain terms have changed since the advent of the Internet, especially if words like "menu" and "web" would now be considered second tier words.  Nonetheless, participation in the collaboratory is a great way to understand the history of language, to engage in semantical inquiry, and to familiarize one's self with the quality of work needed for publication.




The Collaboratory is open to anyone working on keywords associated with American Cultural Studies and related fields. The words don't have to appear in the book, but they should fall within the broad field of American Cultural Studies. Generally we encourage groups to use the site, but a few of the essays at the Collaboratory are written by individuals. Secondary educators are encouraged to use the Collaboratory. If a group of students wished to collaborate without an instructor, I think that would be OK.

Yes, so many old words have taken on new meanings with the Internet. I'm not familiar with Isabel Beck's research, but it sounds like it is in the same territory as keywords. Thanks for commenting, Teresa, and mentioning Beck's work.