Field Report: Eighteenth-Century Literature Meets Twenty-First Century Tech


Rachel Schneider

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The weekend of March 21st, I was able to attend the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. While I always enjoy attending panels on subjects related to my academic research, another delight is seeing how other eighteenth-century scholars talk about teaching. Far from being stodgy or leather-elbow’d, the scholars on the SHARP panel “Wormius in the Land of Tweets: Archival Studies, Textual Editing, and the Wiki-trained Undergraduate” showed off projects and classroom pedagogies for teaching students about scholarly genres and book history practices.

Because SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing, many of the academics on the panel discussed what kinds of digital editing projects their students had accomplished. The digital edition is a great place to teach all kinds of scholarly labor: researching textual histories, deciding on a copy-text, making editorial and style decisions, writing footnotes and scholarly introductions, locating and incorporating contextual documents and academic research to provide background, as well as considering how to address and direct their work for a particular kind of audience.

On one hand, Dr. Stephen Gregg of Bath Spa University showed off online scholarly editions of Defoe’s The True-Born Englishman and A Hymn to the Pillory that his students created. What’s nice to see is that Gregg’s students themselves considered questions of accessibility: how can more people access high-quality editions? What kinds of audiences should the text and notes be prepared for? His students chose online delivery systems for their texts and even considered how the coding itself is a separate kind of text. They considered how to remix the eighteenth-century page online: one student opted to preserve the catch-words while the other used hyperlinks for the notation system. Each text includes a critical apparatus to explain its methodology as well.

On the other hand, Dr. Emily Friedman of Auburn University had her students create a proposal for a new critical edition of a text. They examined first editions of various period texts and discussed and examined critical editions like Broadview’s edition of Elizabeth Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers to think about what an edition could include. Her students then produced PDFs with sample statements of editorial style, critical introductions, and contemporary textual elements like book reviews. They also designed cover illustrations for their editions and wrote reflection pieces on how the cover represented the book. Her Prezi shows not only pictures of the completed projects but also the students from the class who successfully won a research award for their work.

Interactions with physical books weren’t limited to research archives. Dr. Evan Davis of Hampden-Sydney College discussed how he taught students book history by asking them to take blog posts they had written for the class, revise them, then actually produce a physical book of them. As his course covered Gutenberg to Google, he forced students to embody a variety of experiences from book history, whether reading a book in different formats (iPad, Kindle, and book) or in different situations (by candlelight). What interested me in this was not only the consideration for how format and design affect the reading experience but also how students played around with the low/high tech concerns: one student printed his book with QR codes inside, so the reader could move from physical object to mobile browsing.

Finally, Wayne State University’s Dr. Lisa Maruca teaches the eighteenth century through media events like the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or the début of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Maruca then connected her concerns with public events with the students’ own public personas, encouraging them to choose a blogging platform like WordPress or Tumblr and develop their professional identity on the blog. Maruca got even the digitally resistant students thus to consider questions about design, intellectual property, and publicity through their own created persona, linking the past with the present.

As an eighteenth-century scholar myself who is likewise interested in increasing my students’ digital literacies alongside my own, joining the historical study of communication technology with how to conduct it in the present, such work is deeply inspiring.  If you’d like to learn more about the kinds of ideas exchanged at the conference, feel free to delve into the Twitter archive created by Ben Pauley.


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