The Bildungsroman Project: an Undergraduate Digital Humanities Initiative

When the UNC-CH literature program granted me a Literature in the Genres class this semester, they gave me the challenging freedom of unlimited possibilities. What would I pick? I hemmed and I hawed, and then the answer struck me as if it were the only one with an arm. I would teach on the bildungsroman.

“Bildungsroman” means “novel of formation” in German, and what could be more relevant to undergraduates than the stories of how young people find their rightful places in the world?  Besides, our whole culture is obsessed with coming-of-age narratives, as even the briefest dip into movie listings will demonstrate. (Anyone hear of The Perks of Being a Wallflower this year? Or last year'sTwilight: Breaking Dawn? Maybe An Education from the year before?) Our class could start with Dickens's Great Expectations and read all the way up to Blankets, a spellbinding 2003 graphic novel by Craig Thompson. A bildungsroman course! It was on.

One week before the semester began, however, I was baffled. Where were the online resources to which I could point my students?  I was shocked that no sophisticated and aesthetically-pleasing website existed to both showcase existing bildungsromane and foster new ones. That frustration became a challenge, and that challenge became a plan. If the website I wanted didn’t exist, we would make one.

We did, and it's here, and I'm incredibly proud. So please, click on the logo below and scram.

Seriously, go!

Okay. My goodness. Why are you still around? Maybe you're a pedagogical thinker or a creative type who is interested in the process of collaboration. Maybe you care about the birthing, not just the baby. If so, here are some details for you.

Early in the term, I asked the class to generate submission guidelines for creative personal narratives, close readings of individual texts, and encyclopedic overviews of both the bildungsroman’s representative works and its cultural context. The students then signed up for topics and formulated selection committees to identify the most publishable writing. Selected authors then had to work with copyeditors to polish their articles. Once the pieces were revised, a team of content uploaders published them to the web. We also had an outreach committee who worked on promotion, planned our launch party, and helped me with the Instagram contests we ran in order to connect with depictions of coming of age in visual art.

At times our classroom felt like a pressroom, and I saw students working extra hard because they knew that everything they wrote had the potential to reach an audience limited only by the size of our ability to attract it. I worked considerably harder too.  I took the student submissions very seriously, but some how grading them became fun. Actually fun! That last bit was a new and welcome experience for one who loves to teach but hates to evaluate. Perhaps I can't speak for others, but I'm beginning to wonder if project courses aren't one of the very best ways to learn.

With The Bildungsroman Project we’ve striven to create a self-sustaining digital humanities initiative that will continue welcoming submissions from writers both in my future classes and from English speakers everywhere. My vision values excellence in both content and design, and my hope is that the website can become an undergraduate journal that features both scholarly and creative writing. Please check out our hard work, and consider encouraging any college students you know to submit their own!