iCyclopedia project–volume one

A draft of what could be the first project in the “dictionaries” syllabus. Feedback welcome and requested.  I think this is a pretty solid project, but we’ll see how it plays when workshopped in Ruth Ray’s class tomorrow.  I think it’s a good project because I, at least, would want to do this project.  That is kind of promising, I think, and, if time allowed, I’d like to do this along with my students and build my own iCyclopedia.

We’ve been talking about how dictionaries offer a particular version of language use, one that is prone to being regulated, controlled, and managed under the pretense of “objectivity.” In David Foster Wallace’s essay, we saw how dictionaries can be arguments over “proper” or “standard” usage; similarly, bell hooks’s essay considers how vernacular speech and “standard” speech confront one another in certain (academic) contexts. This week, we read Roland Barthes’s essay on “The Third Meaning,” and we discussed how Barthes’s idea of punctum represents a form of meaning that is absent from the dictionary. It is this final essay that inspires our first project.

The Basics
This project is the first step in our semester-long project, the iCyclopedia. Like a dictionary or encyclopedia, the iCyclopedia defines and explains key words and terms, but, unlike these traditional reference sources, the iCyclopedia admits its biases and interests because it emphasizes the writer’s relationship to the knowledge it reflects—hence, the “I” in iCyclopedia. We’ll be writing our iCyclopedias in three volumes, and each will focus on a different body of knowledge: the family, our disciplines or fields of study, and popular culture. Volume One focuses on the family discourse.


Volume One of the iCyclopedia asks you to choose four family snapshots and write about them in three ways, using Barthes’s breakdown in “The Third Meaning:”

  1. “An informational level: everything I can learn from the setting, the costumes, the characters, their relationships, their relationships, their insertion in an anecdote familiar to me (however vaguely). This level is that of communication” (Barthes 41). As we said in class, this roughly corresponds to the dictionary-style meaning of a word, its denotative meaning. You will have to explain the action of the photo, who the people in the picture are, your relationship to them—your goal is to provide as much information as necessary so that the reader-viewer can make sense of the image. This section of each entry should be 300-400 words.
  2. “It is intentional (it is what the author has meant) and it is selected from a kind of general, common lexicon of symbols; it is a meaning which seeks me out—me, the recipient of the message, the subject of the reading. . . .I propose to call this complete sign the obvious meaning” (Barthes 43-4). Barthes’s obvious meaning, for our purposes, corresponds closely with a word’s connotative meaning, the meaning that arises only once a word is employed and given context. Your task is to explain the “obvious meaning” of the word by describing its emotional effect on the viewer-reader. Why was this picture taken? Is the action of the image happy, sad, bored, exciting? How is the image framed? What elements of the picture does the image draw attention to, and why do you think those elements are emphasized? What is your emotional response to the image? Why does the image affect you that way? This part of each entry should be 500-750 words.
  3. “As for the other, the third meaning, the one which appears ‘in excess,’ as a supplement my intellection cannot quite absorb, a meaning both persistent and fugitive, apparent and evasive, I propose calling it the obtuse meaning. … It seems to me to open the field of meaning totally, i.e., infinitely. … Analytically, there is something ridiculous about it; because it opens onto the infinity of language, it can seem limited in the eyes of analytic reason” (Barthes 44). As noted, the “obtuse meaning” is where traditional forms of definition and analysis break down; as Barthes shows, though, we can still write about the third meaning. In each image, locate the element of the picture you think captures the obtuse meaning of your image. Use this element as a starting point for research and composition. How does this element (a hand, a hat, a color, whatever it is) appear in different media? Is it echoed in another photograph, a painting, a video clip? Is there a poem, story, film, or song that is related to your sense of this image’s obvious meaning? Does this element suggest a metaphorical description somehow? What in your experience makes the third meaning unique to your reading of the picture? Use these questions (or others we may discover through discussion) to find a way to explain the importance of your pictures’ obtuse meanings. This section of each entry should be 500-750 words.

Your writing about the family snapshots generates the first four entries in your iCyclopedia. Using our class wiki, you will put your entries online.

  1. Use the element of your picture that contains the obtuse meaning (from step three above) to title the entry.
  2. You can either put all three sections of each entry (the communicative meaning, the obvious meaning, the obtuse meaning) on the same page, or, taking advantage of the medium of the wiki, each can have its own page. There are advantages to either way of doing it. On every page, be sure to include a link back to the main page of your iCyclopedia.

We will be sharing our work in class. The goal of this, beside getting feedback from each other and using that to answer questions in and about our work, is to find places where we can cross-reference each other’s iCyclopedia entries (just as dictionaries and encyclopedias do). This will require that we are attentive and engaged as everyone presents his or her work.

  1. You are expected to take notes and ask questions of each other.
  2. After everyone has presented their work, we will have time to arrange cross-references. Cross-refs can be made at any level of meaning. Are there two pictures of a birthday party in the informational level? Cross-reference! Do two pictures feature similarly framed images? Cross-reference! Does your third meaning overlap or correspond with someone else’s? Cross-reference! You should be able to find at least one point of cross-reference for every image.
  3. After finding these cross-references, you need to incorporate them into your iCyclopedia entries. Build a link from your wiki page to your peer’s. You also need to explain the relationship between your image and your peer’s at whatever level you identified the cross-reference; this means accounting for both the similarities and differences in your images and levels of meaning.

2 Responses to “iCyclopedia project–volume one”

  1. Clay Walker Says:

    Mike, I saw you posted this on your blog and I thought I would give some more specific feedback. I like the concept, and it seems like it would produce some good results. Anyway, for what its worth, here are my responses:

    * Solid introduction, easy to follow leads me in a specific direction.
    * How many pictures should I select?
    * Can you shorten the descriptions of each segment under invention? Maybe get rid of the quotes?
    * Why different word lengths for each segment under invention?
    * Delivery seems confusing to me, maybe b/c I am unfamiliar with the readings.
    * Maybe you could be more specific under presentation – e.g., link to at least 3 of your classmates. Also, I think it would be good to make the heuristics in #2 here more prominent, this seems like it would help me make connections as I read others’ projects.

  2. mike Says:

    Thanks for feedback–some responses.

    * Four pictures–as stated in the first bit under “Invention.” Maybe I need to raw attention to that by boldfacing it?
    * Yes–eliminating the Barthes quotes would be wise–Maybe I’d keep them in the wiki write-up of the assignment, as someone suggested in class.
    * Word length–Well, sections 2/3 have the same word length. Section 1 does not because all I’m asking for is a description of the image in the photo, and I can’t imagine that would run to more than a paragraph or two. My thought here is that each level of meaning grows more complex, more open, so I tried to scaffold the complexity of each segment.
    * Essentially, by delivery all I mean is this: your work goes on the wiki. Either every photo gets it own page will all three segments on it, or you can make a different page for every segment. The link for the entry for each photo in the larger iCyclopedia project should be titled by something your write about in segment three.
    * Good advice on the last point–thanks!

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