introducing Yoknapedia

I just wrapped up a single-author course on William Faulkner’s major novels and wanted to share the Yoknapedia my students and I produced together.  The basic aim was to build a resource that glosses a wide range of persons, places, things, and concepts found in Faulkner’s fictional county, from the small-bore and humble (“pussel-gutted,” “brogans“) to the broad and complex (“miscegenation,” “Big Woods“).  A second, more abstract aim was to make something that was pedagogically useful both as process and as product.

Regarding process, I wanted students to think of themselves as real writers with real readers. So much of what we do in traditional literary pedagogy feels like practice for a “real thing” that never comes: students perform close readings, or do mini-research projects, or (at best) write bastardized versions of journal articles, texts that move through the tiny circuit of student-teacher-student, with only a little bluepencil or “track changes” to show for it. I hoped that giving students a forum for publication, no matter how humble the scale, would enliven the writing process and give students a sense of participation in something broader, more open, and more public.

Regarding product, I was curious to experiment with what we might offer a peer readership, given our limited range of expertise and time.  Simply put, I knew from the get-go that we could be neither comprehensive nor authoritative: we only (!) read five novels together, most of us for the first time, and I decided early on to edit the wiki only lightly, setting out some ground rules for format and style but allowing students some latitude in interpreting them.  I imagined the project as an attempt to straddle, on the one hand, the informational discourse of the encyclopedia and, on the other, the exegetical discourse of literary criticism grounded in “close reading.”

Thus I reminded students throughout the semester that what matters for the project is not what something is, in and of itself, but what it means in Yoknapatawpha Co.  In some cases, the distinction hardly matters: sometimes an adze is just an adze, and our entry is less exhaustive than wikipedia’s even if more immediately useful to readers of As I Lay Dying who just need to understand why the adze says, “Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.”  Other times, however, even the most “informational” entries are inflected towards the specific texture of Yoknapatawpha, where a Walker dog has implications of tracking runaway slaves or a Cherokee rose bears the trace of anxieties about “invasive” elements or the repressed trauma of the Trail of Tears.

I assigned students entries at various lengths (see guidelines): several short entries of the kind I’ve already linked to above, two or three medium entries of 500-1500 words, usually on a central character (e.g., Byron Bunch) or place (e.g., New Orleans), and one long entry of 3500-4000 words, along the lines of a traditional term paper.  Here lay the greatest challenge for students and for me: how to craft entries that are as rigorously argued as traditional research papers but expository and broadly framed.  Here the results were mixed, with some entries that made very fine essays but didn’t really fit a single keyword and some that were rather too “informative” and lacked consistent analysis.  But some managed to synthesize a wide range of critical material and read across two or move novels to forge surprising connections.  See, for example, the entries on religion, monuments, and labor.

I’ve got more to say about some of the implications of the project: what kinds of topics/disciplines/levels it lends itself to, implications for further development of this particular project, implications for development of new projects with this one under my belt.  But for now, I’ll call it a success.  Or, borrowing from Faulkner, our “most splendid failure.”

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