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[Insert Caption Here]:Teaching with a Special Collections Exhibit and Caption Writing Project, Part II

[Insert Caption Here]:Teaching with a Special Collections Exhibit and Caption Writing Project, Part II

The upshot of my class's use of the special collections exhibit on British travel writing: win. One student even emailed me her reaction: "best class ever." Students seemed genuinely engaged during the rare book "safari" -- the introductory "tour" around the exhibit that I gave with my colleague at the library, James Ascher. Students also had about 45 minutes of focused handling-time with the object in the collection that they chose to work with, and their caption drafts and questions during class reflected this. They dug in.

As for the captions they turned in on Friday, they need work before we can use them for an online library exhibit. The most common difficulty I encountered was that they made a kind of romanticized sales-pitch for their object and argued for why it's so valuable--from its "beautifully decaying leaves" to the "musty smell of this old book." I took their interest in the age and material history of their works to be genuine, but their expressions of that were generic. They also included a lot of assumptions and interpretations that at first made me cringe a little bit, and after that take a deep breath and ask them to rewrite for objectivity and precision.

Finally, it dawned on me: these students have been trained to write argument essays in literature classes: essays with a thesis statement in the introduction that is backed up by evidence dispersed and analyzed in body paragraphs. The caption is itself a foreign land for them, and its language of expository writing is equally beyond the frontier. Riffing with these unpracticed, and undervalued rhetorical skills (at least in an English classroom) and following my draft of a worksheet that needed revising led students to produce mediocre captions. We will definitely have a caption-writing lesson before revising next week.

I now think that this caption writing assignment -- even if you don't have a rare books exhibit to go with it -- is a much-needed "sister" assignment to the argument essay. Learning to provide objective, useful, and interesting information about a topic that you gleaned from research is a skill that students can apply to a range of disciplines outside of their British literature classroom. I'm even thinking about it in terms of the metadata found in the TEI header.

Has anyone else experimented with caption writing lessons, and if so, how did you introduce the concept/practice?

I'm thinking about projecting a National Geographic photograph on one screen in my classroom, and writing the as a class in a collaborative google doc while it is projected on the adjacent screen (we have two huge projector screens in my classroom!). I would love your suggestions!

Here is the revised caption writing assignment worksheet.


British Travel Writing: The Exhibit & Your Caption



Select an object in this Special Collections exhibit on travel. Your job is to use this worksheet in class today, with your object, to write a useful caption for this object in 300 words or less. By useful, I mean that this caption should teach a viewer/reader/user about this object’s history, physical form, and content. In this caption, be as objective as you can be and provide information that is interesting and potentially useful.


You will post your completed, polished caption to your blog by____due date_________). Note that if you need extra time with your object for research, Special Collections is open from 1-5pm, Thursdays and Fridays. Furthermore, if you create a caption that is correct, succinct, and helps a new viewer understand the object, your caption will be included in a collection that will be published online. (Huzzah!)


Part I: Identification

Instructions: Provide information such that someone could cite this object properly in a bibliography or works cited list. Double-check this information by looking up the object in a library database and Google search.

Author and/or Editor:

Title [if very long, abbreviate]:


Place of publication:

Year of publication:

What kind of object are you describing and, if the object comes in discrete parts, how many parts are there and what are they? For example: 1 serial novel in 3 separate volumes.

Part II: Description

Instructions:Take notes on and begin writing your description here and on the back of this worksheet. The description must satisfy these 4 criteria in a concise and informative manner:

1.     It must bring to mind the physical form, content, and history of the original – that is, the object that you are looking at right now.

2.     It answers the question: What would this object do to its original audience’s conception of place or travel? (By original audience, I mean the audience reading/viewing/using it when it was first published or made available.)

3.     It answers the question: How does this object put text and image in dialogue?  

4.     It contains one sentence that names one interesting detail about this object.


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