[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 of selected works in the exhibit that I gave with my colleague at the library, James P. Ascher. After our introduction, students 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.

Partial view of the British travel writing exhibit

As for the captions students turned in last Friday, they need work before we can use them for an online library exhibit, but show lots of promise. The most common challenge I encountered was that writers made a sales-pitch for their object and argued for why it’s so valuable, as if they were writing from a rare book dealer’s perspective. Interesting! I take their interest in the age and material history of their works to be genuine, but their expressions of that were often argumentative and occluded attempts at objectivity and “pure” description– two important traits of a useful caption. How can we make this adjustment from argument to description, without losing important aesthetic details that do, indeed, depict some very beautiful and valuable books?

Finally, it dawned on me: my 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. To boot, they were currently drafting this kind of argumentative essay assignment for my class — talk about mixed messages. Additionally, it feels as though the caption and its language of expository writing is equally beyond the frontier of what they’ve been taught in and expect from literature and writing classes. Riffing with these unpracticed, and undervalued rhetorical skills (at least in an English classroom) and following my worksheet that needed revising led students to produce mediocre caption first drafts (but they’re just first drafts!). We will definitely have a caption-writing lesson before revising this 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?

For starters, I’m thinking about projecting a National Geographic photograph on one screen in my classroom, and projecting a collaborative Google Doc on the adjacent screen in which we write a caption together to fit these three criteria: it should be objective, useful, and interesting. I would love your suggestions for other lesson ideas! James also suggested that I consult the ANSI/NISO Guidelines for Abstracts–though it is certainly overkill as a whole, it contains gems to mine for lesson points.

Here is the revised caption writing assignment worksheet. As always, this is just another draft.

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.



  1. Dave Mazella

    Nice. I find that lit students struggle with the descriptive and/or expository writing necessary for special collections assignments, but the struggle often produces really good research projects. I combine it with research conducted outside the special collections room, which I call the “one step further” assignment. In my mind, this makes the assignment more like authentic research. For more, take a look at the essay I co-wrote with a research librarian about the course.


    Best wishes,

    Dave Mazella
    University of Houston

    1. Kirstyn Leuner

      Dave, thank you very much for your comment – your article was really insightful and exciting to read since it corresponds so well to what I tried to do — for the first time this semester — in my course, and suggests way to enrich u-grad work with rare books. I, too, found collaborating with my librarian colleague, James Ascher, a really great interdisciplinary co-teaching opportunity. I wish there was more in your essay that detailed the instructions for the culminating research assignment that involved transcription and keyword creation as the springboard for students’ individual research projects. Right now, I am writing students’ final essay assignments for this British literature course and would love to find a way to integrate their spc. research — so that they might return to the collection and use their books again. Thanks again, Kirstyn

      1. Dave Mazella

        If you’d like, I can email the assignment to you. Just send me your email address. The notion was to use both dictionaries and outside database research to do a write-up. The culminating assignment, though, might or might not relate to their special collections work, which is collected in a semester-length portfolio. At the time, UH didn’t have ECCO, so I felt that I couldn’t maintain that expectation for the final project. We do now, so I will probably rewrite the assignment to demand more primary source work in that project. Nonetheless, one of the demands of the final research assignment is that students elaborate an historical and critical context that includes at least one primary source that lies outside our assigned readings. This makes for _much_ better, much more interesting final projects. I like this so much, that I now require it now in all my classes, which are all being taught inquiry-style.

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