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Sunday, May 10, 2015

IE UnTextbook Summer Diary: Sunday, May 10 - PDE Ramayana done!

I am really glad about this: the PDE Ramayana is done! The first pass anyway. All 80 pages! You can see the index here: Ramayana Online: Public Domain Edition.

I'm sharing this as a #Rhizo15 post because this post is also a paean to LINKINESS, which is something magical about the web, and very rhizomatic too, I think.



The idea with this project is to give my students an online equivalent to the paperback book that, in the past, has been their first introduction to the Ramayana, a lovely English-language adaptation of Kamban's Tamil Ramayana: The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic by R. K. Narayan (1972). In Weeks 2 and 3 of my Indian Epics class, students would read that book, which was accompanied by Reading Guides I had written; you can see those here: Narayan's Ramayana Reading Guides. I wrote up those reading guides to help the students make their way through the book, and also to include LINKS and IMAGES so that they could go beyond the book, learning more (even much more!) about whatever caught their interest as they did the reading. The book was very nice but it suffered that from being a printed book: no links... and no images. I want a gorgeous color image on every page!

Public Domain Ramayana Translations

Now, moving to an UnTextbook model for the class, where the students will have lots of choices about what to read, including free public domain options online, I needed a good, solid introduction to the Ramayana — ideally, a version of the Ramayana that would be as satisfying as Narayan's book, which, for most students in the class anyway, turned out to be their favorite of the four books they read each semester. I found LOTS of public domain versions of the Ramayana in English, over a dozen... but none of them was really up to the task of providing a user-friendly, two-week overview of the Ramayana. They were either too short or too long, and the language was very dated. They are useful, and some of them are even very useful, but not so much as a first-time encounter with the epic. Plus, they would present me with the same problem I had with Narayan's book: there need to be lots of LINKS for students to use to pursue their curiosity, and there need to be lots of IMAGES to help bring the story to life in a visual way, not just words on a page. Digitized books which consist of page images suffer from the same link-deficiency and image-deficiency of printed paper books.

A New Public Domain Edition

So, what I realized I could do was to create my OWN version of the Ramayana to have online, a "public domain edition" that would be an anthology of the best bits of text from the existing public domain versions, along with public domain images, and lots of links to Wikipedia. This would not only be a good alternative to Narayan — it would probably be a BETTER alternative, except for those students who really prefer to read a printed book. Choosing the contents for this new edition of the Ramayana would allow me to include all the incidents that I hoped would catch the students' attention, telling the story in a fast-paced but clearly segmented way to reduce confusion, with the links and images woven through the text.

Plus, added bonus, it would give me a chance to introduce the students to those many different editions of the Ramayana so that during the second half of the semester, when the students have six weeks of free-choice reading, they would have perhaps have found some favorite authors that they want to investigate further. The idea is that they get to know both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata like this in the first half of the semester, and then in the second half of the semester they choose to do more reading of their choice: it can be all Ramayana or all Mahabharata, or a mix of both, or other kinds of Indian storytelling from the same time period, like the Panchatantra or the Jatakas, along with stories of the gods and goddesses from the Puranas and other religious texts. Hopefully the learning foundation provided by the first half of the semester will allow them to make great reading choices when the second half of the semester rolls around.

Making the PDE Ramayana

In order to make this happen, I decided to go with four sets of 20 blog posts each, with the blog posts being anywhere from 300-800 words of public domain text, plus some brief comments from me. I then made up a list of the 80 incidents from the Ramayana I would want to include, and that turned out to be pretty easy (but it is going to be so hard for the Mahabharata, eeek: I have way too many favorite episodes in that epic).

As I picked the Ramayana episode to include, I was excited at how many episodes I was able to include that were not in Narayan at all! In particular, I included the part about Sita's exile and the birth of her sons at the end. I've also got the demons Viradha and Kabanda, who are not in Narayan, all kinds of good stuff.

Next, I went through and started filling in the pages with chunks of text lifted from the most likely candidates, starting with the texts that have been fully digitized (not just page images). So, I did Mackenzie first, which gave me really good coverage, and then I did some verse segments from Romesh Dutt. I then filled in the remaining blanks with Gould and Sister Nivedita, along with a couple of pieces of Hodgson and one from Oman. When it seemed that Gould or Nivedita were way better than Mackenzie, I swapped him out. I even found a bit of poetry from Ryder, and I also used some poetry from Griffith (although he is going to be hard-going for the students who don't like poetry, so I used him on just two pages). I also used two very literary passages from Richardson (and I need to ponder if I want to include more from her). Best of all, I was able to include some of Manmatha Nath Dutt's literal translation for a couple of pages. Again, like with Griffith, Dutt's English is slow going, but very much worth it. It feels great to give the students a sense, at least indirectly, of the epic style while also letting them know that the whole English translation is available online like that.

Then, I went through the 80 pages one by one, adding an image to each one, along with a kind of "Reading Guide" to smooth over any gaps between the page and to add any extra information that the students might need (with their comments, students will be able to help me do a better job with those notes in future iterations).

So, that is what I just finished today! All 80 pages are done: the public domain text on every page, the comments from me, plus an image. REALLY cool images.

And, since this is all so modular, it's super-easy for me to keep improving this: I can swap out the text for any episode if I decide another chunk of text would work better. I can swap out the image if/when I find a better image. And so on.

In Praise of Images and Linkiness

And here's what I love about all of this compared to a traditional printed book. This Public Domain Edition of the Ramayana is soooooooo connected to a whole world of "stuff" online that they students can explore if they will just click on the links.

So, there are tons of links to Wikipedia articles about all the people and places in the epic, like Parashurama here:


Then there are links to the public domain sources for the Ramayana that I used, so you can click and read all of Frederika Richardson Macdonald's book if you want (public domain! free!), just to take one example.


Plus there are links for the image sources too so that people can learn more about the images if they want. And there are so many amazing images, like this gorgeous depiction of Lava and Kusha's encounter with Rama during his ashwamedha:


As you can see in that screenshot, there are links in the sidebar to all the image tabs at my image library, so for any given character, there are usually several images to look at, and lots of images for the major characters.

LINKS.

Going in all directions. Paths to follow. Your choice.

So................... CHOOSE!

Click.

Learn.

I am very happy about this, and so excited to see what the students will think!!!!!!!

And........ when I get back from Texas, I will start on the Public Domain Edition of the Mahabharata. That will be more of a challenge (the epic is so much bigger!) but also more satisfying (I am a far bigger fan of the Mahabharata). And for that one, Ganguli's literal English translation is already digitized, just waiting to be copied and pasted. :-)

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