February 11, 2016

(De)coding Texts – Using the Text Encoding Initiative as a new way to teach the reading of texts

On 3rd March 2016 Alex Peck and Dr Clare Rowan of the Department of Classics and Ancient History will be hosting a two-hour long workshop for postgraduates, academics and teaching staff of the university that will demonstrate how TEI (the Text Encoding Initiative) can be used as an engaging and stimulating method for teaching and developing text-based skills. The workshop will provide a practical demonstration of how TEI can be used within a teaching environment and will encourage participants to reflect on how such a method could be implemented within a variety of academic disciplines.

To provide a flavour of what participants can expect from the workshop and of how TEI can be used in undergraduate teaching, Alex Peck has written a brief summary of the TEI based teaching project (De)Coding Classics that was piloted in the Department of Classics and Ancient History during the 2015/16 academic year.

(De)Coding Classics was a pilot teaching project that aimed to further develop the text-based skills of critical thinking and close reading through the use of computer coding, namely TEI. The project also looked to expose undergraduates to the world of Digital Humanities and to build an awareness of how many of their online resources in the field of Classics and Ancient History are created. This project was inspired by a similar teaching scheme that was pioneered in the UK by Dr Melodee Beals (the of Sheffield Hallam University now of Loughborough University), who had used TEI in her History module as an innovative and engaging method to help her undergraduate students engage effectively in the analysis of primary textual sources.

TEI, or the TExt Encoding Initiative, is the standard recognised means by which digitally annotated versions of texts or text corpora are created. TEi is extremely versatile, providing a highly detailed appendices of 'tags' and 'elements' that can be used to highlight and annotate a vast range of textual features. Its versatility is further demonstrated by the fact that new 'tags' and 'elements' are frequently added to reflect new trends in textual analysis or to expand the range of texts that can be encoded. This versatility renders TEI an effective tool for the teaching of text-based skills.

(De)Coding Classics was implemented in the second-year core module 'The Hellenistic World'. The module cohort was divided into two groups of approximately 35 students and each group was then led through a highly-practical two-hour seminar. The seminars were hosted in R0.39 as this is currently the only computer lab on campus that has Oxygen (the easy-to-use coding software that we had elected ti use in our teaching spaces) installed on 25 computers. The students were first given a brief introduction to TEI, shown how digital editions of texts are created and look like in their coded form, and encouraged to reflect on the similarities between traditional non-digital text annotation and the practice of coding. Following this relatively short introduction, the students were given a practical step-by-step demonstration on how to encode a simple text using TEI. Once the students had been given the basic skills needed to encode texts on their own, the students were individually assigned a text that had been taken from a complex anthology (the Archive of Hor), which they then proceeded to transcribe and code as they had done during the demonstration. They were instructed to identify and thus code the names of people or deities; topographical information; and statements or facts of historical significance. Once the students had identified these key features, they were then instructed to research them and to create a glossary entry for them based on the findings of this research. In order to conduct this research, the students were encouraged to use the wide range of online resources available in the field of Classics and to record these secondary sources using the department's accepted referencing style. A system was devised in order to avoid the possibility of multiple entries on a single topic or feature. Once the students had finished their glossary entries, and were thus armed with enough information to embark on a detailed interpretation of their respective texts, they were instructed to write a brief commentary. The coded text, commentary and glossary entries were then added to a tailor-made database on the module website. This provided them with an interactive finished product of their work.

Although only being a short pilot project that was limited to a single seminar slot, (De)Coding Classics illustrated the effectiveness of a practical digital approach to the teaching of texts. This particular method resulted in a greater engagement on the aprt of the students with regard to the texts they were assigned and thus comprehension of the utility and importance of textual sources for understanding the Hellenistic World. Moreover, the session was able to improve the students' level of digital confidence and competence, a factor that will undoubtedly be increasingly important in the years ahead. There is thus great potential for the incorporation of further elements of computer coding in the teaching and development of traditional textual as well as linguistic skills, and such a practice could become an important complementary toll in linguistic and textual teaching.

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  • Thanks for this short blog by Dave on this entry

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